Seven questions for clarifying our top priorities

Last Tuesday, my husband found me in the kitchen right before dinner–completely at my wit’s end. My children have been on summer break for the past couple of months, and before they go back to school, I’m trying to de-clutter the house, help each child get new school supplies and clothes for the fall, stock our pantry with healthy snacks, learn to cook more nutritious meals, go on as many day trips as possible, finish up some projects for Power of Moms, and spend as much time as I can teaching, talking with, and enjoying my young family.

On that particular day, my best-laid plans were foiled by a series of unexpected details.  I had to handle an urgent insurance issue, deal with a difficult phone call from a close family member, help a child through an anxiety-filled morning . . . you get the picture.

And while I was cooking dinner, my husband asked me a question–that wasn’t meant to be taken the wrong way–and I simply broke down over the pita pockets.

“I’m so tired!  I can’t do this anymore! I need a break!”

And that little (well, maybe kind of big) breakdown led to a long discussion between me and Eric about priorities.

I was overdoing it (again), and I needed to step back.

The seven questions that helped me to clarify my priorities are listed below–along with a sampling of my answers.  I’ve also included a printable PDF at the bottom of the page, in case you’d like to go through the same process.

Your answers are going to be totally different than mine because your life is unique, but I’ve noticed that asking questions like these helps shape our choices in a powerful way.

Question #1: What are my top five priorities? (Defining “priorities” as the people and/or things that merit my best attention.)

It’s tricky to pick just five, but here’s what I wrote down:

  • God – Hearing Him, serving Him, doing what He asks of me
  • My husband and myself – I put the two of us together here because we consider ourselves to be “one.” He takes care of me, I take care of Him, and we do our best to take care of ourselves (sleep, nutrition, exercise, spiritual care, etc.).
  • My children – Loving them, teaching them, and supporting them (with quality and quantity time) to become happy, productive, wonderful people
  • Extended family and friends – Prioritizing people and relationships (and trying to look outside myself more than I currently do)
  • Power of Moms/writing/speaking – Working hard on the ideas and projects that are so central to who I am

Question #2: What distracts me from living according to those priorities?

It seems there are hundreds of things I end up doing, consciously or subconsciously, that squeeze my priorities out of my life: procrastinating deadlines, obsessing over the house, and staying up too late are just a few.

But one tendency I hadn’t noticed until my “meltdown” is that I sometimes throw myself fully intoone of my priorities and totally neglect the others.

For the past few weeks, I have been giving my children everything I have to give–spending lots of time talking with my girls as they transform into young women, showing Spencer how to write his name,

and helping Ethan with his penmanship.

We’ve been plugging ahead on scout requirements,

painting fingernails and toenails under the shade of the tree in our front yard,

riding bikes to the park, and participating in the library’s Summer Reading Program.

I helped my three oldest to run a little day camp,

and I’ve done my best to keep the television off (which has resulted in a lot more Lego creations all over my kitchen table).

These are all good things, and I absolutely love developing close relationships with my children, but as I’ve looked back on the summer, I realize that a little more time spent on my other priorities–like maybe a few hours alone at the library or a night away with my husband–would have left me feeling refreshed and balanced (something I’m lacking at the moment).

Question #3: What beliefs do I need to change so I can stay focused on what matters most?

When I watch other people excel (in everything from the Olympics to politics to experiences within their own families), I convince myself that I have to do everything I’m ever going to doright now.  But I believe my husband when he says, “One of the greatest ways to frustrate yourself is to try to take on the whole world at once.” So for starters, I need to believe that there will be time for everything–at some point.

Question #4: What actions do I need to stop doing, start doing, or continue doing?

I need to stop feeling guilty about taking time to balance myself out.

I need to start being realistic about what can actually be accomplished in one day–and plan ahead as much as possible.

I need to continue being a devoted mother.  These are beautiful times, and I don’t want to wish them away.

Question #5: What goals, activities, or plans simply have to wait for now?

This is one of my favorite questions because it reminds me that putting something “on hold” doesn’t mean I’m eliminating it from my life. For example, I’d love to travel the world, write books, and volunteer at orphanages. But those activities aren’t as essential as the investment I’m making in my children right now.

I’ve recently read a series of articles about moms who are turning to lives of alcohol, drug abuse, and infidelity because they can’t stand the “tedious” lifestyle of raising children. I understand the frustrations that led to these decisions, but I know I would regret it (severely, painfully regret it) if I were to abandon my responsibility to create a solid, happy family for the temporary satisfaction of a self-centered life.

It’s certainly not easy, but if I want a strong family, it’s going to require some sacrifices.

Question #6: What small decisions/actions can help me to prepare for future success?

There are a lot of “all or nothing” statements out there–such as “Go big or go home,”  but just because deliberate mothers are choosing to direct a substantial amount of energy toward their homes doesn’t mean “going big” has ceased to be an option.  I can read good books every day, photograph and write about my experiences, and develop the skills and knowledge I’ll need to accomplish the “bigger” things I want to do in the future.  I can also take baby steps toward those bigger projects right now.  It’s not about where you are on the path–it’s about the direction in which you’re headed, right?

Question #7: How will I define and measure success within each of my priorities?

There’s a phenomenal book out right now called, How Will You Measure Your Life?

It’s one of those must-reads for every parent.

One of the hardest things about motherhood is that there isn’t an easy way to measure progress, at least in a quantitative way. But I’m setting myself up for discouragement if I don’t take the time to define and measure what it is I’m doing every day.

For me, success as a mother means I’ve done my best to teach, love, and nurture my children (without getting totally off balance).  It means that we have rock-solid relationships, that I’ve provided them with both structure and spontaneity, and that I’ve modeled what I want them to learn.  Success means there is happiness in our home–lots of smiles, music, laughter, and apologies–and also a focus on hard work, service, and the pursuit of our larger purposes.

The way I measure my success is by how the home feels at the end of the day when I’m tucking each child into bed.  Can I look each child in the eyes, kiss him or her goodnight, and really mean it when I say, “I love you”? Do my children feel safe, happy, and understood when they close their eyes? Have we grown closer together and closer to God?

Our lives have so many ups and downs during the day.  This morning we’ve already had a major tantrum and a squabble, and I haven’t been as kind as I could have been (I’m going to go downstairs now and say I’m sorry).  But if I can take a step back, identify my priorities, and see myself succeeding in this wonderful, challenging family process, I anticipate that this lifetime will be very, very sweet.

QUESTION: What helps you to clarify your top priorities?

Print this PDF and spend 15-20 minutes asking yourself the seven questions from above.  Then commit to making your plans happen.

Click here do download your PDF, “Seven Questions for Clarifying Our Top Priorities.”

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