Setting Posteriorities

You’re probably familiar with the idea of setting priorities. You look at your list of goals or projects or tasks and sort them in order of most important to least important. Then you focus your attention on the most important ones before you tackle the less important ones. Nothing too surprising there….

But let’s say you have a new priority come into your life, and it’s one that requires a nontrivial time investment. Maybe you want to start an exercise program, and you want to devote a few hours a week to it. You don’t feel like you have any free time where you can just insert your exercise routine. The whole idea of free time is a bit silly anyway. You’re always using time for something, even if it’s purely for leisure activities or rest.

So the only way you can insert something new into your life is to delete something old. You’re already filling each 24-hour day with 24 hours of habitual actions, whether this be sleep or work or rest or even just being lazy. You can’t just stuff an extra hour in there and create a 25-hour day. (Well… I suppose you could if you have a very flexible schedule, but then you’ll lose about 2 weeks at the end of the year.)

A problem happens when you try to do this 25-hours-into-24-hours shove. That hour will have to be stolen from somewhere else. Most of the time people don’t choose where this hour will actually come from. They may assign it a time, but they won’t consciously think about what’s going to be displaced from that time slot. This can result in feeling stressed or overwhelmed for no apparent reason, which often leads to procrastination. Maybe the displaced activities were more important than you realized.

The idea of setting posteriorities means that you consciously and deliberately choose what to delete whenever you start doing something new. So if you want to add 30 minutes of exercise to each day, where will this 30 minutes come from? Will it be stolen from sleep time, family time, lazy time, fun time, thinking and reflecting time, etc.?

Ideally whenever you add a new priority to your life, you want to delete a posteriority. Just as you make a list of what’s most important to you in life, you can also make a list of what’s least important to you. Take note of what you do each day that just isn’t that important. Where can you steal time from unimportant activities to be reassigned to more important ones? Can you delete watching some TV to add some extra reading? Can you delete superfluous web surfing to add more thinking time?

Sometimes setting posteriorities is very challenging. Once you’ve achieved a nicely balanced life, and then you want to start a big new project, you may find it difficult to steal time from other activities because now everything seems important. I had this problem when I started writing my book. This is a big project, and I’m presently investing about 40 hours/week on it. That’s 40 hours I have to displace every week in order to complete this project — a huge amount of time. In the beginning I naively just tried to squeeze it into my already busy schedule without consciously deciding what 40 hours I would delete. I dropped maybe 10 hours consciously, so I was trying to squeeze 70 hours of activity into those 40 hours. Obviously that didn’t work too well. I had to consciously pick out another 30 hours to drop, and that required making some hard sacrifices. Some of it came from sleep, some from family time, but most of it came from other work activities. I had to start passing up a lot of business opportunities that I would normally have taken advantage of. I had to start saying no a lot more often. Now virtually every week I have to say no to at least two or three tempting business offers. In the short run most would be successful, but in the long run I’d never finish my book if I said yes too many times. And ultimately the book project is much more important than the sum total of all these smaller projects, as tempting as they seem.

It can take a bit of careful reflection to know what’s important to you and what isn’t. For example, suppose you’re currently working a full-time job and decide to start your own business. Many people will try to do this by starting the business in their… ahem… spare time while keeping their full-time job. And this certainly works for some people. Spare time doesn’t really exist though, so what’s being displaced? Often it’s family time, leisure time, or exercise time. So if you work on your new business an extra 2 hours a day, you’ve not only increased your total work time by 2 hours, but you’ve also reduced your recovery time by 2 hours. And this often throws life out of balance and can lead to physical and emotional overwhelm. I confess to being rather intimately familiar with this situation at times.

An alternative way of handling this situation is to steal that extra time for your new business from your existing work time. Depending on what options are available to you, you may be able to scale back your hours, switch to a part-time job, quit completely and work on your new business full-time, use accrued vacation time and sick days to take off one day each week, steal small blocks of time during your regular workday for your new business, etc. Obviously some of these options will displace some income, but for many people that is a better choice than displacing too much leisure time.