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Are Competing Priorities the Root of Your Frustrations?

June 1, 2019

If I had a magic pill that gave you the freedom to eat whatever you wanted with no consequences would you take it?

You could eat and not worry about gaining weight. There would be no side effects. It’d give you the freedom to literally do whatever you wanted with food.

You’d not only take it but you’d say gimme, gimme, gimme! Why? Well, because all of us wish for a hot bod with optimal health but also want donuts, pizza, and milkshakes.

Your tension of wanting opposite things at the same time that doesn’t align can be considered the competition of your priorities. Competition of your priorities creates a lot of stress and frustration for you.

When asked, “Do you want to be healthy?”, the typical answer is, “Yes!” So how come tons of people are the opposite of health?

We sleep less and work more. We opt for the poor choice of food versus the salad. We sit on the couch instead of going for a walk. We ignore the dishes in the sink instead of cleaning up before our spouse gets home.

We do this because we have competing priorities and we’re not equipped to understand the incremental consequences of the poor choices — the poor choices that come from choosing a less important priority.

The reason we’re not equipped is that at a certain point in history, we stopped having to worry daily about life or death situations. We knew, quite clearly, if we went out at night while the lion was roaming around, there was a good chance we’d be eaten. It was a simple equation. Stay sheltered or die.

Now, things that slowly but surely chip away at our well-being are incremental, which allows us to ignore the consequences of our choices.

We all know smoking is likely to be the cause of death if you continue smoking year over year — you’re at a significantly higher risk for cancer. But tons of people still smoke. Why? Because of the incremental impact that won’t be felt for years to come.

When you flirt with a co-worker, even though you and he are both married, the incremental impact of this won’t be felt immediately. But eventually, flirt will turn to lust and lust will turn to an affair and before you know it, you’re divorcing and it all started with some “innocent” flirting.

The incremental effect takes place because there’s not a monumental factor trumping you to choose the lesser of the priority. There’s not a significant, immediate consequence.

Similar to the examples of smoking and flirting, poor food choices have incremental consequences and unfortunately for us, a pill that would allow you to eat whatever we wanted doesn’t exist and our food does have consequences.

Food, depending on what you eat can make you feel fired up (caffeine), can make you feel sluggish or tired. It can make you feel happy or sad. It can make your belly hurt or feel settled. Food can do all sorts of things. And over time can wreak havoc on you or promote your health.

Unfortunately, We’re faced with the tension of priorities and consequences all the time, which impact our health greatly. This isn’t just with food. Our behaviors also impact our health. If we decide to binge watch Netflix for an entire Saturday, we might feel depressed Sunday because we didn’t move from the couch the day before. If we decide to ignore the squeaky brakes on our car, we might find ourselves rear-ending the car in front of us.

On the flip side though, if we choose to help a random stranger, we might feel happier throughout the day. If we take the time to listen to a friend and help them with their problems, we might get them through another day. If we put the dishes away before our spouse gets home, we might avoid an argument.

Whether it’s a good consequence or bad, we should bring the reality of it to our attention. This will help guide us in making good choices based on the priorities we’ve consciously chosen and realized as more important than lower priorities.

In short, we should catalog our priorities ahead of time so we are in a prime position to choose the more important one when faced with competing desires.

We have to choose to be conscientious of our decisions versus making limp unconscious decisions that don’t align with personal values. Bringing it up in our mind is critical to avoiding the frustration and tension that comes with competing desires, which more often than not lead to poor choices and misaligned priorities.

If we ignore bad consequences, they can lead to frustration with our selves. Ignoring the good ones keeps us from doing good things more frequently to make either ourselves or others feel good.

Also, ignoring consequences perpetuates the tension between behavior and results. We often want competing things, which will lead us to temporarily ignore the consequences and then feel badly after we’ve done something, we wished we’d not done.

This is the, “have your cake and eat it too” mentality. Two incompatible things can really create tension in your mind and leave you feeling exhausted. Trying to do two things at once can be a disaster. In fact, this phrase came from 1538, “a man cannot have his cake and eat his cake.”

Once the cake is eaten, it is gone, so this idiom is used to show that someone cannot have two incompatible things.

Trying to be healthy and go out with your friends for happy hour — drinking and being merry but hoping to also feel good the next day or generally be healthy.

Trying to be married but acting single.

Trying to be single but acting married.

Having a job but hoping to lie on a beach somewhere and act jobless.

Finishing an entire series on Netflix but wanting sleep for work the next day.

Wanting to start a business but choosing to spend nights and weekends with friends.

Wanting to buy a new pair of fancy shoes but wanting to save for a down payment on a house.

This constant competition of priorities is tiring. We want one thing but do the opposite and then wonder why we can’t accomplish our goals. We’re fooling ourselves if we pretend this isn’t the case. And if you avoid this, you’re likely to find yourself frustrated because you can’t quite understand why you want something so badly but can’t seem to quite get your hands on it — and even when you do, you lose it.

If this is you, you’re not acknowledging there’s a constant competition of priorities that give you the results you don’t like. You’ve got to know you have to make a choice on one or the other and then, again, face the consequences.

The good news is you can manage this.

1) Start by facing the facts: I would say if you’re a person that often asks, “Why did I do that?” You might want to think about the fact that naturally trying to be good is a challenge for all of us — in varying degrees of course. And we need to make a conscious effort to fight against our human nature. Pretending that we’re just always good without thought, effort, identifying values, and choosing before we act is a bit of a la la land approach. Get clear on the fact that we’re not innately good and we need to have a thoughtful consciousness in order to reduce the competing priorities. To think we as humans are good naturally and we always do good things without effort is like living in a universe of unicorns with a pink haze of sparkle. We have to understand ahead of time what our priorities are and choose ahead of time which one is more important than the other. A great example I hear a lot is — “why can’t I just go to the gym and workout?” Because you have a competing priority of avoiding discomfort. People buy into the fact that we’re always going to “feel” like doing something. This isn’t the case. First of all, we’re human and again, going to the gym isn’t a natural desire. It doesn’t just show up. According to our brain, gyms don’t exist. Why would they? Get yourself away from thinking you’re going to be super pumped all the time about the gym and exercise. If you can understand this, you won’t rely on some sort of superhuman natural desire. You’ll instead build in habits, a process, conscious thoughts, and a plan in order to succeed.

2) Proactively consider your priorities: A thought exercise or maybe a writing one — whichever you prefer, would be to consider what are your priorities. Do the major ones first. A good bucket to start with is how you spend your free time. For example, is golfing with your buddies a priority over spending time with your family? Which comes first? Be honest! Then, if golfing is, ensure you make time for it so you’re happy but carve out time with the fam too. Rather than having a moment where it comes down to one or the other. Because if golf wins and the fam isn’t happy — you’ll feel terrible golfing anyways then come home to a pissed off family. Nobody wins. If it’s a priority, make it as such and be honest that it’s what settles you down, gets you fresh air, gives you time to reflect. Prioritizing it also makes it so you announce when it’s happening so everyone knows what to expect. Versus a moment where you’re trying to hide it or announce it last minute hoping nobody gets mad. Put it on the calendar, make it the priority it is. Don’t shy away from it!

3) Know it’s coming: you’ve got to know and realize you’ll be faced with competing priorities all the time. Or, better yet, competing desires. Not expecting them will put you on the back of your heels and likely something less desirable will win — this is that moment where you facepalm yourself the next day and ask, why did I do that? There’s a real good chance if you don’t anticipate this, you’ll make a regrettable decision. Anticipation is key.

4) As mentioned above, and to be more specific, schedule your priorities so they’re not messed with. One of the things I’ve witnessed with people who have a priority in life but don’t schedule it and then a competing priority pops up — they’re left to make a decision on the spot. And a lot of times that decision is regretted. Ramit Sethi is famous for his saying, “Show me a man’s calendar and his spending, and I’ll show you his priorities”. He explains this fully here. Basically, he’s saying if you don’t calendar your priorities then you’ll not do the things you claim you want to do. What you end up with is decisions resulting in undesirable outcomes, which is the ultimate frustration — a lose/lose situation isn’t desirable. The best thing you can do is put it on the calendar. Another great example of this situation is someone else putting time on your calendar if your priority hasn’t already made its way to your calendar. It’ll be open space free for anyone to grab. Here’s a great example. Let’s say you’re a person who has the luxury of working out on your lunch break. You consider this your time to decompress and come back to your desk refreshed. If a colleague puts time on your calendar for a teleconference, chances are really good you’re going to be pissed. And then you’ll take the call, act pissy, and not only will you be mad you didn’t get to work out, but you’ll also ruin that person’s day because they’ll think they did something wrong. And you’ll continue your day mad because you didn’t get to work out at lunch. You might even go home and act ugly toward your family. Make it a priority by putting it on your calendar and block the time — save the rest of us the stress.

5) Examine your values and refer back to them on a regular basis. You should revisit them often to be sure they’re aligned with your current lifestyle. If you have no idea how to look at your values and ensure they align with your priorities, Scott Jeffrey is a great resource for this. He has a list of 200 values to choose from and how to rank them. This is an exercise I would recommend you write out. “Keeping in your head” isn’t as impactful. Plus, in a moment where you have a competing priority, you’ll forget momentarily and again, make a regrettable decision. It’s easier to write them out, solidify them, then refer back to them. A great example is valuing marriage, promises, and your partner’s feelings. If that is your top value, when faced with a choice to break this value, you’ll choose what won’t go against your values and potentially ruin your marriage. I know that’s a bit heavy but with 50% of marriages ending, I’m sure it’s not too far off from reality. Another value is health. If this is the top five priorities, it makes it harder to say yes to a cheap Walmart cupcake at work when everyone else is participating in the sugar fest. If you remind yourself health is a priority, you’ll nine out of ten times choose not to have a cupcake being mindful of your health value.

I think about competing values a lot as it relates to health and wellness because tons of people have strong feelings around being healthy, yet their actions don’t reflect this. People don’t want to feel depressed. They want to eat well and feel better. They want control around food so they don’t gain weight and feel terrible about themselves. They want to go for a walk and feel refreshed but what do they do instead? None of these things. In fact, some people do the direct opposite! Why? Because of competing priorities. One will almost always win, they won’t and can’t co-exist.

Some might say just because someone chooses to sit on the couch and watch Netflix instead of going for a walk isn’t a competition of priorities, but I would argue it is. The priority winning at that moment could be any number of things. A priority to shut the brain off and not think about life for one to however many hours you binge-watch TV. The priority could be self-protection instead of opening up to friends, family or a therapist. Therefore, depression isn’t the priority but more so the result, but it comes from prioritizing the terrible feeling of vulnerability over healing.

Or eating like a jerk when you would like to be healthy. At the moment, a priority might be to have fun with a friend, participate in a birthday party, or just simply have Ben and Jerry make ya feel better because you don’t want to be sad anymore.

For all these reasons, you have to decide. You have to make choices about what your priorities are. You have to be real with this too — just like my golf example. Don’t pretend you’d rather be by yourself than spend time with others. Just own it, make it a respectable priority.

And by the way, if you do decide to go with the lesser of the priority. Like, going out with your friends and getting sloshed versus being healthy — you can decide consciously and know the next day that that’s what you decided. And not be mad at yourself. If you say, ya know what, tonight I’m going out because I want to have a good time with my friends and I’m going to put this priority to the side for this evening. Bringing it to your attention and being conscious of it makes you feel more in control of it versus feeling like some other priority won out without your permission.

Ultimately, the key is to identify your priorities (values, desires) ahead of time. It’s much easier than fighting against our natural behaviors of possibly choosing something that feels good at the moment but long run, it hurts you and our loved ones. Blindly letting your emotions, feelings, temptations drive you with no admittance to the fact we often have competing priorities is the root of a lot of unhappiness and frustrations with behavior.

Be proactive. Examine your values. List your priorities.

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