Several years ago career advisor Laura Yamin, MA, noticed that she was experiencing way too many burnouts. She realized that she needed to stop focusing on urgent requests, which masqueraded as important things. Instead, she refocused on exploring the type of life she’d like to live.

This helped her figure out what’s truly important to her. From there she was able to distinguish her priorities — the tasks, experiences and actions that fulfill her personal values.

Many of us feel like we’re being pulled by pressing things, while our real priorities get neglected.

“In my work, I find that many people are ‘reactors,’” said therapist Melody Wilding, LMSW. “That is, they live their life responding to the priorities other people set for them, rather than priorities they have defined as important to themselves.” Many spend most of their days answering email, calls, invitations and demands from other people, whether it’s their boss or their family, she said.

Not surprisingly, this leads to dissatisfaction and disillusionment, Wilding said. Because if you value family, but you’re working 70 hours every week, you’ll likely feel a lot of internal stress and conflict, she said.

However, “priorities give you the opportunity to exercise personal choice and live out your values on a daily basis.”

Below, Wilding and Yamin shared their suggestions for discovering and living your priorities.

1. Name your values.

Often instead of exploring our own values, we default to the values of our family or culture, Wilding said. Take the time to consider what’s important to you, what you stand for and what you believe in, she said.

Avoid focusing on external rewards, such as “money, status or others’ approval.” Avoid “basing [your] priorities on what [you] believe [you] ‘should’ do.”

2. Do the “maintain, improve, change” test.

Wilding suggested reflecting on the past 6 months. “Write down what you want to maintain, improve or change across the various domains of your well-being: relationships, health, finances, work, spirituality and personal life.”

Then go through what you’ve written, and create specific actions. Wilding shared these examples: Because finding a new job is a priority, you decide to schedule a coffee date each week with colleagues and mentors to network. Because spending quality time with your partner is a priority, you decide to spend 30 minutes together after work — no distractions.

3. Test-drive different styles.

To live based on your priorities, test out different ways of working with goals or maintaining habits, Wilding said. Try something new for 30 to 90 days, such as learning a new language or training for a race, she said. Or start small — “what B.J. Fogg calls ‘tiny habits.’” For instance, your goal is to build a reading habit. You start by reading a single page or even a single paragraph each night, she said.

4. Use the “Rule of 3s.”

Our priorities tend to fall apart when we overestimate how much we can do in a day, Wilding said. That’s why she suggested limiting yourself to three things that match your priorities. “Anything you accomplish above that is gravy!”

5. Take stock of your job.

At work priorities are placed upon you, Yamin said. She suggested answering these questions so you can set priorities that meet both your personal values and the company’s vision and goal.

  • Why are you there?
  • What are your strengths and responsibilities?
  • What are their expectations of you?
  • What are your expectations of this position?

Yamin also finds it helpful to have your job description and a list of goals (which are usually set during the performance review) close by. This helps you discern if a task meets your goals or duties, she said. If it doesn’t, consider if you’re the right person for that task.

Sometimes, new priorities come up in the middle of the year, she said. When this happens, talk to your supervisor about which tasks must be done first and which can wait, she said.

6. Cut out the urgent for what’s important.

Wilding cited President Eisenhower’s famous quote: “I have two kinds of problems: the urgent and the important. The urgent are not important, and the important are never urgent.”

Urgent tasks are often related to someone else’s goals, she said. Important tasks “are in service of your values and longer term mission.” Urgent but unimportant tasks might be a last-minute invite to a networking event or checking social media, she said.

Wilding stressed the importance of ruthlessly cutting or eliminating urgent but unimportant tasks or delegating them. She shared these examples: You’re working on an important project, so you hire help for laundry or grocery shopping. You say no to networking events to focus on a meaningful side project. You check your inbox three times a day instead of every 10 minutes.

“The goal is to become more intentional and protective of your time, rather than reactive and deleting important mental energy and focus you need to work on the ‘important’ things.”

7. Contemplate before committing.

Before Yamin says yes to a project, she asks herself: “Do I want to do this? How does it meet the intentions I am working on? Do I have the time and energy it requires to do this project? What would I need to give up if I don’t have the time and energy it requires?”

“Taking time for self-inquiry allows me to make an informed decision. I am able to then take ownership of my part and do the best I can.”

8. Create a “to-don’t” list.

According to Wilding, this list contains “the things you vow to say no to in order to meet your priorities.”

9. Separate priorities by season.

Yamin’s priorities change based on her seasons, which may last several weeks to several months. During each season she focuses on a different area in her life, such as career, relationships, play or mastery of new skills. For instance, in November and December, she shifts from working to being present in her relationships. “It eases the inner dialogue to do it all.”

During other seasons she works hard with little to no rest or play. “If I shift the focus that this is temporary, I can then take the actions needed that support this priority. When it’s rest time I make sure I use it, too.”

It can be hard to stop living on autopilot and say no. But it also means having power over your life — a power available to all of us.

Checklist photo available from Shutterstock