The harsh truth: most people are not clear on their priorities, and end up living life on autopilot.

They let things happen to them, and then complain that life is way too short and they never have time for anything.

And yes, life is short. But if you never take the time to decide what your priorities are, you’ll never use your time efficiently anyway.

If you don’t plan your life, others will do it for you. And before you can have a plan, you have to have priorities.

So how do you know if something is a priority for you? Here are a few questions you may want to ask yourself:

  • What’s important now? What needs to be done now?
  • What contributes to my happiness and wellbeing the most?
  • If I could only do X things, what would they be?
  • What would my life look like if there were no distractions?
  • If I only had half the time, what would I do?

Why are priorities important?

Assuming you have a healthy sleep schedule, you only have about fifteen hours each day. That’s not much.

And even if you think in terms of weeks, months, years — you’ll still come to the conclusion that your time is very limited. That’s one of the uncomfortable truths about life, I guess.

Now, someone who has no priorities at all will let other people decide how to fill that time.

They’ll give in to distractions, or they’ll focus on tasks that aren’t actually that important. Because there are always things that need to be done, that need to be fixed or improved.

So put simply, if you don’t have clear priorities, your mind will just randomly pick one of them.

If you do have priorities, you pick those that actually matter, that must be done now. So really, it’s all about time management (and energy management as well).

Here’s another way to look at it — you’ll always have to sacrifice things in your life.

We use the word sacrifice to refer to those who go all-in on a business, who leave everything behind, who give their all for a certain cause or goal.

But really, the concept of sacrifice applies to all of us. Whether we realize it or not. Most people don’t.

Think about it — if you were to come up with ideas of things to do, that you want to do (at work, or in life in general), it’d probably be an endless list, right?

So you’d have to select them carefully. You’d only pick, say, five percent of them. That, in a nutshell, is what priorities help with.

It goes beyond that, of course — priorities are also influenced by your values, your outlook in life, what you think is right or wrong. It’s not just a way to shorten your to-do list.

But if you imagine time as your most precious asset, you can also imagine priorities as the tool, or strategy, that helps you make the most of it.

Signs of lack of priorities

1. Procrastination

Perhaps you already know what your most important tasks are, but you never actually took the time to write those down, to officially add them to your priority list.

I’ve found that being clear on priorities helps a lot with procrastination, and that people who don’t prioritize struggle with procrastination the most.

2. Saying yes to everyone

You can’t let others decide what your free time looks like. There are a lot of things you can do, but don’t have to do. You don’t want to be selfish, but you must be selective when it comes to saying yes to others.

People who lack priorities will usually struggle with this. They haven’t decided what’s truly important to them, so they may as well do what everyone else wants them to do.

3. Indecisiveness

Today or tomorrow? A or B? Wait, there is C as well… but what about D and E? We’ve all been there. It’s the paradox of having too many choices. The more you have, the more indecisive you’ll be.

But if you’re clear on your values and priorities, you’ll find that it’s much easier to decide. This applies to big and small decisions (e.g. choosing a career path or an item at the grocery store).

4. Perfectionism

Perfectionism is a luxury you cannot afford. But when you lack priorities, it may seem totally normal to spend hours upon hours on a task, on a project, or whatever.

If you lack priorities, you may think you have to get everything right. When you do have priorities, you realize life’s too short to be a perfectionist, and you stop chasing perfection, and you take action instead.

5. Time wasting

During the last four years, the average American has spent about three hours each day watching TV. Keep in mind, this refers to TV time only — it doesn’t include smartphones or tablets.

Assuming that, in general, the kind of content that’s being watched doesn’t really contribute to anyone’s happiness, that’s a clear sign of a lack of priorities. If you don’t have priorities, you end up wasting hundreds of hours every year.

6. Poor health

If you imagine your ideal lifestyle, I’m not sure how poor health could be part of it. You need health to enjoy virtually everything in life. You don’t need to be an athlete, but still.

The sixth sign of someone who lacks priorities is poor physical and mental health. If you have goals, then your body is the vehicle to reach those goals, so you want it to be in shape.

7. Lack of goals

Have no goals in life? Lack of priorities may be one of the causes. If you never take the time to ask yourself what is important to you, then how are you going to set the right goals?

Lack of priorities leads to lack of direction, lack of purpose. It can’t be given to you. You must find it yourself. If you lack priorities, you’ll end up setting no goals at all, or worse, setting the wrong ones.

Tips to prioritize what’s important

  • Write it down. The more I write things down (when I journal, or in to-do lists), the more I understand we should never trust our memory. Or willpower, for that matter. Write down your priorities — it does help.
  • “Must” over “should”. Again: there are always things that need to be done, that need to be fixed or improved. But what are the most important ones? You can’t afford to do all of them at once. Identify those that must be done.
  • Worst first. Our natural reaction is to always avoid the most unpleasant, most boring tasks. The issue with that is that 1) tomorrow becomes never, and 2) your mind is still thinking about that task, and that’s a distraction. So just do it. Then you’ll be free to do everything else.
  • Imagine a perfect life. If you were to design your own life, what would it look like? That’s going to indicate what your priorities should be. Think of an ideal day/week and then find out what needs to be prioritized based on that.
  • Say no. Remember? One of the signs of a lack of priorities is if you say yes to everyone, if you let others decide what you’ll do and when. So before you say yes, think. Prioritize yourself to prioritize your life.