How to Make Choices When Everything Is a Top Priority

In my last article, Finding Time When You’re Too Busy to Breathe, we explored how to define our personal goals in a flexible and sustainable way; how to integrate the activities to achieve those goals into an already busy schedule; and the values conflict that can arise when we’re having to make choices between incompatible activities that represent equally important priorities in our lives. This article will look at some options for what to do in this situation, which is an all-too-familiar one for busy caregivers.

Admitting the need to make choices

When it comes down to it, there’s no escaping the fact that we are bound by the number of hours in a day and the energy and attention we have to give. That can be difficult to admit, especially for anyone who is accustomed to being a high-functioning multi-tasker. Anyone with this identity knows what a slap in the face it can be to our ego when we bump up against our own limitations.

Admitting that we can’t do it all – that we can’t squeeze a single additional thing into our day, at least not with anything resembling enthusiasm – can feel like “failure.” While this experience and interpretation opens the door to a whole other coaching conversation (one we’ll leave aside for now), it’s useful to recognize it out loud and to understand that it is arising from our ego – the self-image or identity we have constructed for ourselves based on our beliefs and judgments about our personality, talents, and abilities, and from which we derive our sense of self-esteem or self-importance.

When our self-identity is tied into doing everything and doing it well, the first step toward making hard choices among competing priorities is recognizing that we do actually have to make choices in the first place.

As long as our ego is fighting it, holding onto the concept of ourselves as able to do it all and judging ourselves negatively when we find we can’t – or consider choosing not to – we’ll keep letting certain things slide (usually our own projects and self-care) without ever consciously confronting the fact that we are, in fact, choosing. Not to choose is to choose, as the saying goes.

Stop letting ego limit your options

Thinking that we as an individual have to “do it all” is one of the most limiting things we can do to ourselves. Whether it comes as a result of other people dumping action items and expectations on us or our own ego refusing to let anyone else’s efforts be good enough, it restricts our options and creativity.

For example, delegating and outsourcing: If we open up the possibility that we will not be letting down our family by bringing home take-out or letting someone else cook dinner once or twice a week, we suddenly have a chunk of time available to give to another priority. Same thing at work: sharing or turning over responsibility for a project or activity requires trust, relinquishing control, appropriate training, and clear communication about expectations – and means you might finally be able to leave on time each day.

Not only might this not be a bad thing, it may just be a gift: “When we feel overly responsible for another person’s life experiences, we deprive them of one of the most important features of an independent, healthy and mature life – the ability to make our own life choices and accept the consequences of our decisions.”

Once you accept that there is a limit to your time and energy and begin to shift some of the responsibility for getting things done onto others, you may be surprised to find that things get done without your involvement. What might it feel like not to be so necessary?

This is another place ego can hide and is well worth exploring. How wedded are you to being the person everyone relies on?

Shift your paradigm to make choices from a new perspective

We often have trouble seeing past our own expectations of ourselves and our role in the lives of others.  This can keep us from doing other things – such as focusing on our own projects and self-care – because we see ourselves as the only option for getting something done. To get past this self-limiting belief, it can be useful to realize that we are rarely the only option, but more likely are simply the most expedient option. To prove this to yourself, remove yourself from the situation entirely: What would the person do and/or how would the task be accomplished if you suddenly weren’t there at all?

Another paradigm shift that can be helpful when you have to make choices is moving from a micro perspective to a macro view. For example, what would happen if instead of making one-off daily decisions about conflicting priorities, you made some larger systemic decisions about your life, such as limiting your work hours to 40 or 45 a week – like Elizabeth Saunders did – or unplugging altogether on the weekends? What would that free you up to do?

Granted, systemic decisions like these are not always easy if no one else around you is doing likewise. But recognizing that situation is another good source of information. It raises tough questions like “Is this truly the right environment for me?” and “What would need to change to make it work for me?”

One of the ways situations and relationships may need to shift is in the setting of boundaries. We’ll explore that topic in my next article, Setting Healthy Boundaries.