When it feels like the world is falling down around you and lots of requests are coming your way, of course you’d feel bewildered about how to prioritize.

And yet, to be effective and sustain our energy, we must often say no to things we’d love to say yes to.

The following are seventeen steps to help you prioritize and stop feeling so overwhelmed.

Although I wrote these steps in a linear fashion, the fact is, they’re not necessarily linear. You might jump between steps or even do two at the same time.

From coaching hundreds of clients to prioritize effectively, I have found that all of these steps are important. That said, I invite you to approach them as an experiment. Read through them with curiosity, and ask how they might apply them to your life.

1.  Pause.

Although you might think that prioritization is about fancy systems, the truth is that choosing your priorities is about discernment. Discernment begins with pausing.

As Viktor Frankl—Austrian neurologist and Holocaust survivor—said: Between the stimulus and the response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.

The pause is the moment of choice.

2.  Listen to your body.

To choose your priorities wisely, you must first understand what you need.

Your body’s sensations and emotions are like spokespeople for your needs. To discern what you need, you must pause and ask: What do I feel?

3.  Ask yourself what you need.

If you’re like most of my clients, you may have learned to ignore what you need and want early on. To discern your priorities, you must first be completely honest with yourself about what you need and desire, even when your needs appear to be unattainable or conflict with each other.

So ask yourself:

  • What do I need?
  • What do I really want?

And listen closely.

4.  Ask others what they need.

Too often, those of us working for social change get caught in a flurry of constant action without pausing to reflect on what is really needed.

But as Mark Friedman writes, trying hard is not good enough.

To get clear and feel confident about our priorities, we must practice collective inflection—pausing to ask what our communities really need and how we will prioritize to meet those needs.

Yes, listening takes time. And we must listen closely to understand our communities’ priorities.

5.  Consistently write down all unfinished tasks.

As David Allen writes: Your mind is for having ideas, not holding them.

If you try to hold your to-dos in your brain, you will feel overwhelmed and have a hard time knowing which to tend to first.

When you consistently gather your to-dos in one categorized system, you calm your nervous system and have an easier time choosing.

6.  Overestimate how long each task will take.

Even if you’re currently horrible at estimating how much time you need for certain tasks, you can develop this skill by consistently investigating how long tasks take.

7.  Identify your minimum requirements for self-care.

Your minimum requirements for self-care are the baseline practices you need to engage in to have enough energy and not get depleted.

Write down what type of and how much…

  • Sleep
  • Exercise
  • Food
  • Water
  • Air
  • Solitude / together time
  • Other physical/emotional/mental/spiritual practices

…you need.

8.  Create—and consistently use—a detailed calendar.

This is what my schedule looks like next week:

Google Calendar Schedule

Make sure to include:

  • Meetings
  • Appointments
  • Minimum requirements for self-care
  • Repeating tasks (planning, parenting, emails, etc.)
  • Other ways you spend your time

It may look rigid to fill every space in your calendar, but when we finally answer the question of when we’re doing things, we free up mental space to get creative about what we’re doing.

9.  Compare how much time the tasks on your to-do list require to the time you have.

Time is the ultimate polarity.

On one hand, time is expansive in a way that my colonized mind can barely fathom. On the other hand, there are 24 hours in the day and 7 days in the week.

Where many people get disappointed and overwhelmed is that they try to accomplish more than realistically fits in one day.

You are human, and you can only do so much.

10.  Decide which tasks you will tend to this month. Move all other tasks to a later list.

I recommend keeping your list in Excel or Google Docs, as they’re simple and easy to iterate with.

Put all tasks that you intend to finish this month in the first tab, and create a separate tab for your Later List.

11.  Ask yourself: What needs to happen on this next horizon for me to feel satisfied?

Your next horizon might be a specific time marker (like the end of a big project, a specific date), or it might just be as far as you’re able to imagine realistically.

Rather than pressuring yourself to know all the details, write down every puzzle piece you know you want to be part of your life.

12.  Ask yourself: What is my first step toward my next horizon?

The step you identify is a top priority.

13.  Identify anything on your to-do list that does not align with your next horizon. Move that to your later list.

Of course, you want to do it all, and of course, it hurts your heart that you can’t.

And, you are human. To stop feeling so overwhelmed, you must stop ignoring your human-sized capacity.

14.  Have a conversation with your Voice of Doubt (as necessary).

Once you identify what you need to say no to (for now), it is likely that your inner Voice of Doubt will question your choice, saying Yeah but… and What if…?

Rather than running roughshod past your Voice of Doubt or succumbing to its fears, embody the compassionate witness and listen.

Ask your Voice of Doubt: What do you need?

Do you need to feel like you belong and fear that if you say no, someone will turn their back on you?

Do you need the world to be a just place and fear that if you say no, you’re not doing your best to fulfill your responsibilities?

Listen with compassion.

When you listen to what your Voice of Doubt needs, sometimes, you’ll discover steps you need to take (gathering information, having conversations, etc.) before choosing to prioritize one thing over another.

Other times, careful listening soothes your Voice of Doubt, or you realize that you’re ready to proceed, even though you’re scared.

15.  Recognize that you’re at a gate.

A gate is a moment of great decision or completion, where you must let go of something that’s hard to let go of to become the person you’re called to become now.

Every decision—every time life forces you to choose between prioritizing this thing or that thing—you’re standing at a gate.

Either way you proceed, there is a cost to pay.

Until you’re in the practice of discerning what to let go of when you’re standing at a gate, choosing priorities is hard. Even when you’re good at it, saying no can hurt your heart.

16.  Make a conscious choice.

Move the tasks you’re saying no to (for now) to your later list, let others know that you don’t have the capacity right now or that you need help (more about this in another post), or otherwise cross the tasks off your list.

17.  Celebrate yourself.

Discerning what to say no to isn’t easy. Each baby step is a win.

18.  Repeat.

If you’re someone with a fierce commitment to social change who receives a lot of requests, you’ll need to repeat this process often.

At first, you might fumble and feel scared. And, if you keep putting one foot in front of the other, you will—in a not-so-distant future—begin to take pride in your strong prioritization muscles.

So, what do you think?

I welcome you to share any insights or questions in the comments to my blog post here.

I’d love to hear from you!

Much love,

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