Priorities – Life in a Pie Chart

What’s the first thing you do when you get to the office each day? If you’re like most people, it’s head to the coffee machine. But once you’re fully caffeinated, what do you do?

I make a list of what I need to do that day (or that week) and set my priorities. This list keeps me on task and brings me a tiny sense of accomplishment every time I get to mark something off of it.

The hardest part of this list is putting it in priority order. Over the past 15 years, I’ve found that setting priorities is difficult for most people. I see it in employees, in clients, even in my kids. Sometimes it’s just hard to figure out what’s important.

I went to a conference once that offered some clarity on how to prioritize. It was a session on time management. I almost skipped it, but it turned out to be the best session of the conference. The facilitator told us to make a list of what was important to us in our lives. She called it a Life Priority List. Once our lists were made, she told us to draw a pie chart of our typical 24 hour day.

Out of 24 hours, I had 7-8 hours of sleep, half an hour of prayer and meditation, 1 hour of exercise, 2 hours for meals, 1 hour of getting dressed for work in the mornings, 1 hour of transporting kids to school/practice/etc., 2-3 hours for hanging with my family in the evening, and 8-10 hours of work.

It was an eye-opening chart. (I hadn’t fully realized how dull my life was.)

Then she told us to look at our Life Priority Lists and see how many of those things were on our pie charts.

My list had my Christian faith, family, career, writing, art, yoga and travel among other things. My pie chart – like those of my fellow attendees – held disappointingly few of these things.

The leader told us not to be upset by our daily pie charts, but to learn from them. The key, she said, was to plot out your pie chart, not just for your day, but for your life. As it is, our lives hold exactly what’s on our pie charts. However, if we are lucky enough to live a long, full life, our pie charts will change to accommodate our priorities.

Her point was, there are different seasons of life – and our priorities must change with them.

When we first start our careers – and we don’t have kids yet – work is our top priority. We are able to spend more hours at the office, building our skills and broadening our knowledge to make us good at what we do.

When we have children, our pie chart shifts as they become our priority. Children require a lot of time – you have to bathe them, feed them, read to them, take them to practices and answer endless questions that usually start with “Why?”. They take precedence over our sport, travel and/or artistic desires. And we only have 18 years to raise and care for them appropriately. (Or, in some cases, 25.)

Once our kids get their driver’s licenses, our pie chart changes again. The kids want to spend all their time with their friends. And we’re free to fill more of our days on our own interests – writing, art, travel, fill-in-the-blank.

When they finish college and move off on their own, even more of our time can be dedicated to writing that novel, hiking the Appalachian Trail or painting that masterpiece.

You don’t have to have kids for your pie chart to shift. Your goal might be to visit your aging grandparents in Albania, to “be all you can be” in the Army or to visit all 7 continents before you’re 50. The important thing is to schedule your priorities across the appropriate seasons of your life.

I’ve found that looking at my life and career in seasons takes the pressure off. After all, we can’t do everything we want to do in life at once, but we can accomplish our goals slowly over time. . . if we prioritize.

When you look at your life in pie charts, prioritization gets easier.

It’s all in how you cut it.