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If you’re like most people, you feel pulled in a dozen directions by activities and pursuits that truly matter to you. You want to stay connected with parents and siblings, devote the time it takes to raise healthy children, and also make time for yourself. Then, of course, there are work obligations, the drawing class that feeds your creative side, and your involvement in your community or church . . . and the list just keeps on growing.

These types of pursuits add meaning to our lives, but when we try to cram all of them into our busy lives, we can end up feeling overwhelmed, exhausted and torn apart. We begin to feel like we are shortchanging all of them — and ourselves — in the process. Yet it’s challenging to find one priority we’re willing to abandon. Even when we recognize the symptoms of overcommitment, it’s easy to fall back into our “too busy” ways.

The key to choosing what to pursue and what to jettison, say experts, lies in clarifying our top values and practicing saying “no” or “later” to activities that don’t align with those beliefs. We can find more joy in activities to which we can truly devote ourselves, and, in turn, they will benefit from receiving our full attention.

Find Your Values

The first step in clarifying your top priorities is to identify the things that matter most to you, says John Busacker, president of The Inventure Group, a Minneapolis, Minn., company that helps individuals and business leaders set priorities and find purpose. Often, that happens during a crisis. “The vast majority of people don’t wake up at 7 a.m. and say, ‘Today’s the day I’m going to clarify my values,’” Busacker says. “Instead, it often happens in the form of an unexpected transition.” A crisis like the death of a parent or a serious illness can prompt us to reflect on the deeper questions that routinely get pushed aside: What is life’s meaning and purpose? What is most important to me?

Yet we don’t have to wait for a crisis to discern what’s most important in our lives. We can get closer to what matters most by paying attention to our feelings and habits. “What gives us energy, what causes us to be joyful — those are all data points on what matters to us. Unless we’re paying attention to these things, we miss them,” says Busacker, who recommends keeping a simple journal to help cultivate awareness of our own emotions. Writing about our feelings helps us better articulate them to ourselves — and seeing our top priorities on paper makes them feel more real and tangible, which gives us permission to carve out more time for them in our daily lives.

Developing a keener awareness of our feelings also helps us spot areas of our lives where a top priority might be feeling more like an obligation than a joy. For example, if physical fitness is one of your core values, but every trip to the gym has begun to feel agonizing, try to identify what may or may not have changed in your life. Have other priorities — a new baby or a sick parent — made your fitness pursuits feel less pressing (at least temporarily)? Has your daily routine given rise to boredom?

When you are able to identify underlying feelings (boredom) or changed circumstances (new baby) that don’t fit your priorities or significantly change them, you can realign your activities to match your circumstances. Maybe you can scale back the number of times you go to the gym each week (at least for a while) to carve out more time to spend with your child. Maybe a walk in the woods instead of an hour on the treadmill will help you rediscover your love of fitness.

Saying ‘No’ — or Saying ‘Later’

Another option, as hard as it may seem, is to simply say no to something, even if it’s a high priority. Laurie Phillips, a St. Paul, Minn., personal coach who specializes in coaching creative types, uses a tool she calls “vision cards” to help her clients define their top values. Each card represents something the person wants to manifest — more time with family, for example. Taken as a whole, this personal deck of cards provides a map of what really matters.

One of Phillips’s clients was so intrigued by the concept that it inspired her to get trained as a coach herself. Before she signed up, though, she flipped through her vision cards: “She asked, ‘Does this plan really match my cards?’” recalls Phillips, “and it really did not reflect the things she had put in her cards. So she said, ‘No, I’m not going to do this now.’” Instead, she plans to do the training later on, when she’s better able to focus on new priorities.

It’s one thing to determine what matters most to you, but it’s quite another to learn to say no to the things that don’t rate as highly on your list at that moment. Learning the skill “is critical””

It’s one thing to determine what matters most to you, but it’s quite another to learn to say no to the things that don’t rate as highly on your list at that moment. Learning the skill “is critical,” says William Ury, PhD, director of Harvard Law School’s Global Negotiation Project, and author of The Power of a Positive No. “To be true to yourself and say yes to yourself, you have to say no to a lot of things in life, especially in today’s busy times. You really can’t say yes to anything unless you first say no.” Without ever saying no, we commit to too many things — and never really give quality time to any of them.

But saying no is quite often easier said than done. There’s a powerful force that stands between you and a positive no: guilt. When you say no or not right now — especially to something that matters to you — you’re likely to feel a twinge of guilt. But guilt “comes from the outside,” explains Hugh Prather, author of The Little Book of Letting Go. “Guilt is based on what other people think of me, and if I manage my life by what I think others think, I might never measure up.”

The antidote to guilt, says Prather, involves connecting to our inner values — and staying connected — so that we make decisions not based on what others might be thinking, but from our true sense of what’s right and wrong for us at any given time. Again, journaling about priorities and feelings can help us stay connected to inner values.

Follow Through

Clarifying our feelings and articulating our values is an important step, but following through on this principled pursuit of priorities is equally vital. It’s challenging, says Prather, because it requires us to commit in full to our top priorities. We can know in our heads what we need to do, but sometimes our bodies don’t follow.

Prather takes a few minutes every morning to close his eyes and meditate on his values and priorities. During the day, if he notices he’s getting caught up in an office drama or traffic stress, he takes another minute to center himself and reconnect to his larger beliefs. “It doesn’t take much to connect with our deeper selves,” he says, “but when you pause and ask, ‘What’s my purpose? Why am I on this planet? What kind of person do I want to be?’ — you can feel that shift.”

Chances are you’ll still overcommit from time to time, and you’ll sometimes still operate out of guilt, says Busacker. So be gentle with yourself as you practice becoming more aware of your feelings and moving closer to your top priorities “It’s a process of making and correcting errors,” he says. “It’s never perfect, and if it is perfect, it’s never for long. The key is to make it a practice, just like working out.”

Getting to Less

Focusing on your personal priorities involves first getting clear on what really matters, and then learning to say no to things that don’t. Getting to those core values requires some probing questions. Here is a handful to get you started:

  • What feels like play? If you feel like you have your nose to the grindstone for weeks at a time, chances are you’re not answering your inner purpose. When work feels like play — energizing, not draining; absorbing, not dulling — then you can be pretty sure you’re on the right path.
  • What are my “shoulds”? A lot of things we think we must do are actually things we feel we should do. Will life end if you stare at the clouds with your kids for an hour instead of sorting that extra load of laundry? And whose voice is telling you that you have to do it right now?
  • How do I want people to remember me?When every moment is crammed with “obligations,” it can be easy to lose sight of the big picture. Take a few moments to put your life story in perspective. At the end of the day, think about what you would want your family, friends and community to say about you after you’re gone.

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