Lifestyle,  Mental Health

Prioritising: the secret to finding happiness?

Lisa Fraser offers helpful hints on how to use time better.

I realised lockdown was far behind me when I looked at my diary and saw I was triple-booked for most evenings last week. I need to think carefully before replying to invitations from now on, to avoid having regrets about missed opportunities or letting other people down. 

Also, due to life circumstances, I have suddenly had more hours of spare time each week recently. Though I have enjoyed this new freedom, I started thinking about how I should use this time constructively. Having a solid decision-making system seemed like the first priority! 

The positive thing about modern life, with its big cities and omnipresent web, is that we can be plugged into virtually every class, expert network and training course we could ever imagine. 

The flip side of the coin, however, is that making decisions becomes harder and information overload can lead to brain freeze and inaction. Have you ever had that experience of not knowing where to start with a long to-do list, and ending up on Netflix all afternoon long? 

One of the top tips to deal with choice anxiety is to sort out what is ‘good’, but distinguish it from what is ‘excellent’, and to focus on the latter.

Life is exciting by nature, so there will be thousands of ‘good’ and ‘very good’ options, and there is nothing wrong in choosing them. Yet, saying yes to ‘good’ opportunities means that, de facto, we may be saying no to the ‘excellent’ ones, because we won’t have time for them all. 

There is a risk that, over time, we end up feeling stuck. It might be that promotion I missed; or the painful realisation that I’m not where I hoped to be at this point in life. These are times when we realise that a bit more dedication to the causes which truly matter to us, or a more efficient priority-making system, would have made our existence more fulfilling. 

So how can we learn to differentiate between ‘the good’ and ‘the excellent’? A ‘good’ choice is easy; we can just go with the flow, and it works fine. An ‘excellent’ choice is one that helps us become a better version of ourselves, and leads us where we really want to be in life. 

Sometimes, focusing on the ‘excellent’ will require renouncing good things. That’s hard. We’ll have to turn down nice invites so that we can better achieve higher goals. For instance, I would equally want to attend a yoga class and a salsa class; but my budget is limited, and I have to choose. 

yoga classes to prioritise time best

Being less woody would be good, but I also know that being more dedicated to salsa will open the door to competitions, travelling, and meeting new people. As much as I’d like to go for the nice option, I’ll go for the demanding one.

Hopefully, being more selective about our priorities should lead us to more exciting roads later on. 

Then, why is it that, sometimes, we repeatedly choose average options over top-quality ones? Or, to use an example: why do I spend my afternoon binge-watching TV, when I know I have exams in a few days?

One answer could be self-esteem. Indeed, our decision-making system is underpinned by a core question: how much do I trust in myself? We will be more inclined to make small sacrifices –  turning off that TV – when we trust that a brighter future is possible, and that we deserve it. If we doubt it, the brain will logically give priority to the comfort zone. 

Ultimately, the ability to fix the right priorities is the ability to love ourselves.

Another reason why we repeatedly prioritise average choices over excellent ones might be because of how we perceive life-changing decisions. Literature and film have often depicted characters turning their lives upside down by a single, no-return, choice – as we see in Into the Wild or Dr Faustus

It is tempting to think that we would just need to make one hard choice, then rest until we reach the next crossroad. The truth is that life doesn’t work like that. More often than not, the direction our life takes flows from a series of small, repeated actions. Renewed, consistent efforts will also determine our readiness to face major choices. 

For example, choosing our degree looks like a once-in-a-lifetime decision. Actually, the number of degrees available has already been narrowed down by the hundreds of small choices we made over previous years – such as when we decided to attend science fairs rather than staying at home to learn a new language. 

In that respect, making our way through life is not so much a crossroad, as a canoe ride: we’re pushed by the flow of the river, and the flow is the sum of our past decisions. 

How do we actively influence that process? My canoe teacher once told me that if I wanted to paddle straight, I should not so much think about the stroke but rather about my target further down the river: knowing where I wanted to go would instinctively enable me to make the right stroke. 

To apply this advice to our personal life, we’d have to ask ourselves: who do I want to become? What is the best version of myself, which I can realistically achieve? 

Answering such questions requires digging deep within our heart, and this takes time. Stepping back from the business of life helps us observe what is going on inside, the knots and the patterns. That’s why the regular practice of meditation or prayer can help set the right priorities. 

To make the best use of that self-awareness, Professor Alex Edmans recommends writing down a personal mission statement, describing what we want to achieve, our dreams and expectations, for the next six months, five years, and decade. It should be as concrete and actionable as possible. 

goal setting to prioritise time

This ‘statement’ also helps us keep track of our progress, and enables us to hold ourselves accountable. Comparing where we were six months ago to where we are now helps identify areas of growth or stagnation which might require corrective action. 

Sometimes, we’ll also observe that our priorities need to be updated. This won’t necessarily mean that we’re giving up on dreams; it means we’re readjusting our trajectory to help us reach our new destination, as any good sat nav would do.

Happiness requires a bit of planning, and the willingness to follow one road consistently.

Far from being daunting, this realisation can be empowering: it means we have a real influence on how we choose to live our life. When we know we’re in charge of our own growth, we can plan our next steps and set our own pace, to some extent at least. This realisation should lead us to live a life that is more intentional and conscious. 

A simple exercise to see if we’re actively supporting our long-term well-being is to ask ourselves at the end of each week: where did I invest my time this week? Was it fruitful? Were there activities that will lead me nowhere? What do I need to spend more time doing? 

These questions should not be guilt-triggering, as there is no right or wrong answer. The main point is just to be honest with ourselves: who do I want to be, and am I actively taking action to become this person?

Feeling positive after this piece? Click here to read about the ‘little joys’ challenge and receive eight simple tips for making life brighter and better.

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Lisa Fraser is a writer for Adamah Media. She has worked as a political Special Adviser, in lobbying and as a consultant, before joining the Civil Service. She loves having long walks, visual arts, and reading books about history and politics.

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