Updated: Jul 20, 2019
I wrote about this a while ago in an olllddd blog post, but seeing as it’s pretty important and it’s been on my mind a lot lately in relation to my own life, it’s time for it to resurface.
Here’s a cold, hard truth about life:
Your thoughts don’t matter. Your intentions don’t matter. The things that you want to do don’t matter.
All that matters is what you do. Your thoughts and intentions may impact what you do, so in that sense, they matter to you. But as far as real-world impact, how you are perceived by other people, and who you are as a person, what you think doesn’t matter. Other people can’t tell what you’re thinking.
Your thoughts only make a difference in the world if they impact your words and actions.
Now, where I’m going with this is that it doesn’t matter one tiny bit what you think your priorities are.
Your priorities are the things that you put the most time and effort into.
According to Google, priority means “the fact or condition of being regarded or treated as more important.” Now, if you claim that you value reading more than you value watching YouTube, but you spend way more time watching YouTube than you do reading, then YouTube is your priority because you are treating it as more important by spending more time on it.
Following that line of reasoning, any time you say, “I don’t have time,” what you’re really saying is, “that’s not a priority right now.”
From now on, any time the words, “I don’t have time for X” leave your mouth, I want you to rephrase that as, “X is not a priority right now.”
You’ll force yourself to be more honest about your actions and excuses.
Sooo... now what?
Align Your Actions With Your Priorities
You’re going to feel a little silly saying, “eating healthy isn’t a priority right now,” but that is exactly what you’re saying any time you say that you don’t have time to eat healthy right now.
Saying “working out isn’t a priority right now,” forces you to confront your excuses. Because, chances are, taking care of your body is a priority. (Granted, there are times in life where fitness, healthy eating, and other things that we generally see as important have to take a back burner for a bit, like during particularly busy times at work or school, or when caring for a baby. But if you’ve been saying “I don’t have time,” for the last five years, then this article is about you.)
How do I align my actions and priorities?
Well, first you have to know what your priorities really are.
Take some time—a day or two, even—to really think about your priorities. Write them down. Think long-term, think short-term, maybe even do a life audit. Where do you want to go? Who do you want to be? If you were to envision your ideal self, how would that self spend their time day-to-day?
What I don’t want you to worry about right now is the kinds of actions that it’s going to require to get to those places. We’ll deal with that later. First, focus on who you want to be. Think of your future self as your best friend. What kind of life do you want them to live?
When you have your priorities figured out and written down, order them from most to least important. You likely don't have time to focus on all of them right now, so it’s important to know which ones matter most.
Once you know what your priorities are, start aligning your actions to your priorities. But rather than using willpower to push your way through that all of the time (which is exhausting) there are some steps you can take to facilitate these changes.
Don’t try to overhaul your entire life overnight.
The changes that you make to your life should feel easy. Start smaller than you think you need to start. You may be feeling pumped up and full of motivation now (or maybe not), but that feeling won’t last forever. Even if you can make big changes for a week or two, you’ll have better luck sticking to your new lifestyle if it happens incrementally.
Your current habits and lifestyle weren’t built in a day. They’ll take more than a day to change. Look for the smallest changes that you can start making today. Add in a ten minute walk around your neighborhood after dinner every day. Once you can keep that up for a week or two, add in another small habit.
Make incremental changes to your life at a slow enough pace that it feels easy to maintain those changes. Day by day, step by step, you’ll build a new lifestyle that aligns with your priorities, and it will be sustainable.
Make your new lifestyle changes as easy as possible.
Working out doesn’t have to be a grueling two hour weightlifting session that starts at 5 a.m. Working out can be a walk each evening, and a quick few minutes of yoga before bed. It doesn’t have to feel painful and exhausting to be effective. Workouts that are easy and enjoyable are still valid and still do your body good.
You are allowed to enjoy your workout. In fact, I strongly encourage you to find a workout that you like, because then you’re more likely to stick to it.
In fact, if you’re coming from a fairly sedentary lifestyle, starting with gentle exercise will help prevent injuries and help you build up the strength and stamina for harder stuff—should you choose to go that route. You don’t have to.
If you’re trying to read more, choose books that appeal to you. You don’t have to read Shakespeare and Mark Twain just because someone says you should. Find books that suck you in and it will be much easier to read regularly.
To make it easier to eat healthily, try out meal prepping. Having nutritious, balanced meals prepared ahead of time means you don’t have to worry about what to eat when you come home from work exhausted. If you have some fruit prepped for a snack, you’ll have a much easier time choosing it over chips.
Making your habits convenient is one of the best things you can do when trying to build new habits that stick. Whatever change you’re making, find a way to fit it easily into your existing routine in a way that you enjoy.
Be honest about your time.
What’s the last thing that you wished you had time for? For very many people, it’s working out. For plenty of others, it’s cooking healthy meals.
Both of those things can be done in 20 minutes. You know what else takes 20 minutes? An episode of The Office on Netflix. Or, depending on where you live, getting dinner delivered can take 20 minutes. In the time it takes you to do one of those things, you could've done a quick workout or made your own healthy dinner.
Working out, eating healthy, keeping your home clean, meditating, and most of all of those other healthy-lifestyle habits don’t take all that long, especially if you’re starting small like I recommended and only taking on one thing at a time. Swap one of your daily Netflix episodes for a 20 minute workout—or watch Netflix on the treadmill.
There are so many workouts out there that take less than 10 minutes, and they will make a difference. Rather than taking a 20 minute shower, do a 10 minute workout, and take a 10 minute shower.
You’ve got way more time than you think you do, but you have to be honest about it. Work past your excuses and mental blocks, and start getting uncomfortable. As someone said to me recently, excuses don’t stand up to a well-formed plan.
Now, if you’re prone to zonking out on the couch after work and scrolling on your phone for three hours without even realizing it, then the first step here is going to be noticing that you’re doing that. You can’t stop yourself from flopping onto the couch if you don’t put any thought into flopping onto the couch in the first place.
Building the skill of mindfulness is the long-term solution to this. As you build mindfulness, you’ll spend more and more time consciously aware of your actions and the world around you. It’s incredibly valuable to remain present in this moment, rather than letting your mind drift off to other places for hours. You’ll have an easier time modifying your actions once you’re aware of them.
In the meantime, as you’re building mindfulness, you can try tracking your time. You can go all out like I did and track every single minute, or you can do a little experiment to track your activities.
First, make a list of things that you do often. It doesn’t have to include every single thing that you do every day, but it should cover most of them. Include on that list things that you’d like to be doing regularly, even if you don’t currently do them. Aim for 20 to 30 items. The list should be fairly comprehensive but not so long that you can’t remember what’s on it.
Arrange the full list in order of priority with the highest priority items at the top of the list and the lowest at the bottom. Even if scrolling through Instagram is your lowest priority, keep it on the list and put it last.
Then, any time you do any of the things on the list, add a tally beside it. You went for a walk? Add a tally beside “exercise.” You cooked your own dinner? Add a tally beside “ate healthy.” Watched YouTube? Tally it.
Do this for a day or three. After that, evaluate the list. There’s a decent chance that you are actually working toward some of the things that you value and not giving yourself credit for it. I know that I’m guilty of this. I tend to write off all of the hard work I put into things and dwell on the moments that didn’t go so well. That’s part of why I’m keeping track of my monthly accomplishments.
No matter the outcome, you now have a better idea of where your time is going. Not only can you use that information to start making incremental changes as you move forward, but this experiment will help you build mindfulness. You can’t mark off an activity that you're doing if you don’t realize you’re doing it, so you inherently have to be mindful to complete the experiment. Having this goal in mind will incentivize you to maintain awareness.
Another little perk to this experiment is that I know I made better choices when I was monitoring and tracking my actions, so the experiment on its own may help you align your actions with your priorities.
Plan it out.
You didn’t think you were going to get through this article without me mentioning calendar blocking, did you?
In all likelihood, you really don’t have time to work on every single one of your priorities right now. I know I don’t. But you do have time to work on the top few.
Choose your top 3 to 5 priorities, determine what small first steps you can take toward each of them, and calendar block it out! You’re much more likely to meal prep if you block out a time on Sunday afternoon to go shopping and do the meal prep. We all know how things turn out when we say, “I’ll just do it sometime this weekend.” Spoiler: they don’t happen.
Speaking of Sundays, your Sunday reset is a great time to do this planning each week! You can also use that reset to do some of the new habits that you’re taking on. I find my Sunday reset especially helpful when it comes to keeping my apartment clean and doing those annoying little tasks like checking the mail.
For those habits that are too small to bother blocking out time for, I recommend something like Habitica. Habitica helps me keep track of those smaller things that I need to do each day, like my Duolingo and Memrise lessons and filling in my bullet journal. Plus, checking off those checkboxes is satisfying.
I want to wrap this up with a little note about maintaining balance.
You can’t spend 100% of your time on your priorities, and I realize that. Sometimes it’s necessary to do things that we don’t feel are important. It’s also likely that a lot of your priorities take a decent amount of energy. Trying to spend too much time on them will lead you to burn out.
Taking time regularly to rest and recover will help you to have the focus and energy that you need to go after what you want. I know that I put down YouTube and scrolling on your phone earlier, but a little bit of downtime every day is important. I’m not advocating for working yourself to the bone.
The thing is, there’s a huge difference between mindlessly binging 6 episodes of The Office at midnight, and taking an intentional hour to watch something that you’ve been meaning to watch. You are free to spend your time however you’d like to spend it, but make sure that your actions are intentional—that’s how you align them with your priorities.