Having It All: Setting Priorities in a Busy Life

    The late Dr. Stephen R. Covey, famed author of the international bestseller The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, once illustrated his approach to success in front of a packed convention hall. He called up a volunteer, who was asked to attempt to fit various rocks into a clear plastic bucket. The rocks differed in size, ranging from larger rocks down to pieces of gravel, and each was affixed with a different label, such as family, work, spirituality, exercise. The volunteer surveyed the group of rocks on the table and instinctively picked up the smallest stones first and placed them in the bucket, and then picked up increasing larger rocks. As he advanced, the volunteer experienced increasing difficulty finding room in the bucket for the remaining rocks. Ultimately, despite all effort, there was simply not enough room in the bucket for all the rocks to fit.

    After the volunteer gave up, Covey produced a new, empty bucket and suggested that the volunteer start again, this time placing the larger rocks in first. Following instructions, the volunteer began placing the larger rocks into the bucket. After all the big rocks had been placed, the volunteer then added the smaller rocks and finally the gravel. They all fit into the bucket. The crowd applauded.

    Covey then commented on the lesson they had just learned. Life is complex, he explained, filled with a plethora of goals, needs and interests. One might think that success is limited to those who either limit their aspirations (don’t have so many rocks) or simply find more time in the day (get a bigger bucket). There is, however, a third route to success, and that is to prioritize wisely. The big rocks represented one’s most important goals and values, and the lesson was simple: Those need to go in first – they need to be prioritized. Once they are in, there will be room around them for everything else.

    Prioritizing as Integral to Success

    The key to a successful life is not merely identifying and pursuing goals, but also learning how to prioritize appropriately. Goals, time allocations and focus must each be addressed in accordance with this prioritization.

    The first step, of course, is to identify the goals and values one seeks to incorporate into one’s life – which rocks need to go into the bucket. The crucial next step is to determine the relative “sizes of the rocks,” identifying which are the “big ones” – in other words, one’s primary goals and values – and make sure they go in the bucket first. Unfortunately, it is all too common that we instinctively try to take care of the “small rocks” first, eventually discovering that the big ones got left out.

    Goals, desires, interests, expectations are all part of a normal, healthy life. It’s great to be ambitious and strive to “have it all.” But while American culture and opportunity make great achievements attainable, the spectrum of daily pressures confronting each individual is truly massive, especially against the backdrop of an incessant bombardment of messages, texts, emails and calls.

    It is no wonder that we feel as if we are jamming rocks into an already filled bucket. It is almost inevitable that we will become extremely frustrated and, in many instances, unfulfilled.

    So how is one to do it all? How does one achieve success while simultaneously retaining a semblance of peace of mind? How are we to fit so many big rocks into our limited-capacity buckets?

    Setting Priorities by Refining Goals

    It is an all-too-common malady that people tend to adopt de facto goals that do not reflect their true, personal aspirations. Such a disconnect will almost inevitably result in frustration, even if the goals are spectacularly achieved. In addition, even when someone sets healthy goals that honestly reflect his values, he may very well evaluate his success against yardsticks that do not reflect those underlying values. It is, therefore, critical that each person review the connection between their deeper aspirations and the goals they have set for themselves, as well as the manner by which they measure success.

    The first step is to reexamine one’s current goals in life and review how they were selected in the first place. For example, did these goals originate within a context created by parents, teachers, community or friends, and if so, do they reflect one’s own personal values and aspirations? It is both healthy and appropriate for a child, as well as a developing adult, to be eager to meet the approval of those he loves and respects. But as an adult, one must consider whether the activities guided by seeking such approval remain consistent with one’s own values and priorities. For the mature individual, a failure to integrate personal values and priorities as the primary driver of his goals will almost inevitably lead to feelings of inadequacy and frustration.

    Although there is no magic formula for selecting appropriate goals, below is a suggested four-step process:

    1. Articulation

    Life choices must be guided by goals. The first and perhaps most challenging exercise is identifying the goals one has already chosen – consciously or not – and that are already guiding one’s life. Many people make life choices instinctively or without thorough consideration as to what influenced their choices. This attempt to articulate their goals may be the first time that some explore how these goals came to be.

    But it goes one step further. For a thought to be actionable, it needs to be articulated. A person averages between 12,000 and 60,000 thoughts a day, most of which are automatic or irrelevant. For a thought to justify an allocation of time and effort, it must first be articulated. It needs to be considered, spoken and written down. Only then can it be properly evaluated and deemed worthy of an action.

    I once had the opportunity to spend an afternoon with a great sage. A man who accomplished so much in his life and yet seemed to be always at peace. Among my many questions, I asked him how he was able to seemingly “do it all.” He looked at me with his loving but piercing eyes and with a booming voice said one word… Cheshbon.

    Cheshbon is a one-word reference to a ancient Jewish practice called cheshbon hanefesh (spiritual accounting). It means taking an ongoing accounting of your life. This practice recognizes the importance of articulating one’s goals and priorities before taking action. It celebrates the practice of thinking before (and after) action, in order to ensure that the action is both meaningful and productive.

    Creating a habit to do a daily accounting is critical to the application of Covey’s “rocks in the bucket” exercise. It creates a structure within which goals can be prioritized. It shows a person that by taking the time necessary to articulate and account for deliberate thought and ensuing action, he can accomplish, grow and ultimately succeed.

    Most people, at least deep down, have a good sense of what objectives they should and should not pursue. By failing to articulate their goals, however, they lack the perspective necessary to allocate their time and effort properly. Moreover, if the goals are not clearly and deliberately articulated in advance, neither objectives nor actions will be deeply grounded, possibly resulting in ill-advised changes in direction or focus as a response to some new inspiration or idea.

    1. Identify the Motives Behind the Goals

    Once goals are determined, the next step is actually to question one’s own motivations in selecting these specific goals. One must ask, “What made me choose these particular goals and leave out others?”

    The exercise of connecting goals with their true motivations is not intended as a judgmental process, nor does it necessarily reflect how proper any actual motivations may be. The exercise is necessary because curiously, success in achieving goals is dependent on the underlying motivations in pursuing those goals in the first place. There is nothing wrong with being ambitious, for example, in a particular sphere of pursuit. But one’s measurement of success, and thus resulting self-image and degree of satisfaction that will ensue, is influenced by the nature of the ambition and the true values that inform that goal.

    For one thing, goals frequently are set in response to one’s environment. Occasionally, we simply want what others have, just to be like everyone else. At other times, as noted earlier, we seek to impress or earn the approval of, others. Or perhaps we take certain values for granted, when they might not be as simple as we think. There is no shortage of subconscious factors that profoundly influence the goals we choose.

    Why is it so critical to recognize the importance of knowing why we want to be rich (or learned, or have many friends, or be kind, or play an instrument well)?

    Mihali Chicksenmehi, in his groundbreaking work, Flow, introduces an interesting concept regarding life satisfaction. He suggests a distinction between two different types of life experiences: autotelic and exotelic.

    Autotelic comes from the Latin words auto, meaning self, and telos, meaning goal. The experience itself is the goal. An autotelic personality derives satisfaction from himself, and from the very activities in which he or she is involved. The activities are goals in and of themselves, not merely a path to a different goal. An autotelic experience is intrinsically rewarding; life and time spent are justified in the present, rather than being held hostage to a future gain. The voyage is for the scenery and companionship, not to reach a destination.

    An exotelic experience, by contrast, is an activity undertaken not for its own sake but exclusively to achieve a separate result. The ultimate objective may be mundane or profound, such as to afford a sports car or feed the starving, but in any event, an exotelic experience has no inherent value in and of itself.

    Chicksenmehi observes that when engaged in an exotelic experience, one almost necessarily has the feeling that the time being spent is hollow. After all, there is no meaning in the activity itself, only in its effects.

    Much of peoples’ frustration and emptiness results from their engaging in their daily activities as exotelic experiences. Jobs are viewed as mere conduits to an income, errands or car pool are undertaken in satisfaction of duties. It is thus no wonder that these activities fail to generate joy, or even some peace of mind.

    Without a natural flow between one’s goals and the motives that drive them, the pursuit of those goals necessarily becomes an exotelic experience. Such a person is constantly running, never satisfied, never present in the moment and never able to fully embrace his experiences, since the activity is merely for the resultant benefit. In truth, the person doesn’t really want to engage in the activity at all, but only wants the activity to have been done.

    When one’s goals naturally reflect the motivations behind them, the true, intrinsic value of each activity can be explored, allowing the activity itself to become meaningful. This level of introspection can convert actions from exotelic to autotelic, increasing the level of engagement and ultimately the degree of success likely to be realized.

    Even more importantly, identifying one’s motivation provides the opportunity to reject it as unnecessary and even unwanted. For example, one may have chosen financial success as a goal, without ever really knowing why. Taking the time to reconsider this question may reveal that his motivation was really to satisfy the expectations of others, and that his own preference would be to give up on some of his financial goals and replace them with other goals, which, for example, he may have rejected as a young man but that have become meaningful to him over time.

    In other words, synthesis between goals and motivations enables one to identify the “big rocks” in one’s life, and thereby choose wisely which to place first in the bucket, which to place later and which to reject outright.

    1. Prioritize the Effort, not the Result

    One of the surefire ways to distinguish between an autotelic and an exotelic goal is to determine whether the interest is solely in the outcome, or if it is also in the activity itself.

    Upon recognizing the distinction between the value of an activity itself and its outcome, one can begin to appreciate that success can also be viewed through the prism of the activity or its outcome. True and meaningful success is achieved when accomplishment is realized through the activity itself. Success does not happen at the destination, it happens along the way. Often, people desire to achieve the success realized by others. Alas, they view the other person’s results as the success, rather than the choices they made to get there. They don’t want to engage in the activities that made the difference – they just want the end result.

    By failing to appreciate the investment that was necessary to achieve success, they cripple their own ability to duplicate the results.

    If success is evaluated on results alone, a misleading picture is painted. One fails to develop the appreciation that the central focus of life must be the efforts to get to the result, and thus, that for life to have meaning, those efforts themselves must have meaning.

    Therefore, when prioritizing goals, we must not focus on the outcomes. After all, the outcome is merely a result of the important part – the effort.

    Moreover, we have no real way of predicting any outcome (or even assuming a necessary connection between an activity and its apparent result). Greatness is in the journey, not the destination.

    By so viewing life, joy and meaning are attainable. When we start to appreciate and enjoy the journey, we will find the inner strength to be more successful. We will look at the myriad responsibilities we juggle each day with a sense of pride, rather than frustration, appreciating that it is during the struggle itself that greatness is born.

    1. Success is not comparative

    The final piece of piece of the puzzle is learning to measure your success against your own aspirations and capacity, rather than against the success of others. Judging oneself in contrast to others is one of the leading causes of dissatisfaction in life.

    As children, we are socialized to view success in a comparative fashion – in sports, spelling bees, and even grades. We gauge our success by whether we are doing better than our peer group.

    Such a mentality is intrinsically destructive. Success must be understood as being internal and personal. It is based on one’s ability to grow within on one’s own life and conditions, to meet one’s potential.

    The final commandment of the Ten Commandments is “Thou Shalt Not Covet.” Its placement there seems odd, since it appears to follow a list of far more egregious sins, such as murder, adultery, kidnapping and false testimony. These transgressions can literally destroy someone’s life. Merely looking over the fence to your neighbor’s new car seems quite innocuous in comparison.

    The lesson is actually quite profound. Focusing on another’s possessions can also have a tragic effect. It can destroy a life – but this time it’s your own. When desiring the possessions or accomplishments of others, one’s own goals and priorities become obscured. Families can be ruined and lives and relationships destroyed when one’s own life is viewed through the prism of someone else’s.

    Great people don’t look out the window to see what their neighbor has acquired. Great people look at the world to see what is needed, and then undertake to make a difference. Great people try to create a better version of themselves every day.

    So stop looking. Stop comparing. Stop driving yourself and your family crazy that you haven’t been able to win the race, even when the race is wrapped in the image of achieving personal greatness.


    Take the time to identify your goals and understand where they come from. Then ensure that you engage in your daily activities as autotelic experiences. Allocate the appropriate amount of time to each activity and demand excellence of yourself. With this formula, excitement will be felt for the journey, rather than pressure and anxiety in pursuing the destination.


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