by Jimmy Warden
The lives we tend to live are usually based on our priorities, right? Yes, they are. The conundrum though is that we don’t always “live” the priorities we “say” we have. A lot of this has to do with how we’ve been socialized in our life and the values that have been instilled upon us by our parents and society at large. Another big reason for not “living out” our priorities is based on our personality type, specifically in regards to the Big Five model. Our personality is a big part of why certain aspects of our lives hold more value than others. In order to create more alignment with our actually priorities and how we live them out, it is crucial that we understand what it means to prioritize, how our socialization, value structure, and personality influence our priorities, and what we can do to start making some observable changes.
What is prioritization?
Prioritization is giving something in your life more value than others based on its perceived importance. This level of importance has a direct correlation with how often and how long you engage in certain actions. One example is the sought after “family is my number one priority”. If an individual truly tries to live this out in their life, they are likely to drop any other priorities if there is a family gathering that pops up or if a family member is sick and needs caretaking.
Variation of perceived importance also has a direct connection to an individual’s personal, emotional, and spiritual needs. These needs can be attributed to how someone has been socialized, what their personality type is, and what their value structure is. If we go back to that example of the person who will do anything for their family at the drop of a hat, they’ve been taught by their family and society that family is of the utmost importance, so their personality traits more than likely reflect that, and family holds the highest position in their value structure. These factors of socialization, personality type, and value structure contribute heavily to behavior, specifically in regards to prioritization, because what is of utmost importance is influenced by how one has been raised, what type of person they are, and what they find valuable to their life.
How socialization, value structures, and personality influence priorities
Before personality and values develop, we need to be socialized. Socialization occurs during the first several years of our life exclusive with our parents and the people that they allow us to interact with. Once we enter school, we receive a heavy influence from the teachers that we have and the peer groups that surround us. I know I’m oversimplifying socialization, but in a nut shell, it is the process in which we are raised by our caretakers (family and teachers), engage with social groups, and allow those influences to help us navigate how to appropriately behave in the world.
In these developmental years, a lot of our learning about how to behave occurs a lot through play and conversation (given we are able to have and sustain conversation). During these interactions we’re taught what is right and what is wrong, usually through praise for positive behavior (taking appropriate risks, using our own strength to lift ourselves up, sharing) and redirection for behavior that those taking care of us want us to change (taking too large of a risk, engaging in unapproved social behaviors like name calling or threatening, physical aggression). This helps us repeat the behaviors that those around us want to see as part of our character. Their approval or disapproval, however, is often a direct reflection of their value structure.
A value structure can be thought of as one’s priorities because in order for something to be of utmost important it must also carry value, therefore, priorities and values have a tremendous amount of correlation, whether we are aware of it or not. Our values are mostly developed through the socialization process because our first thoughts, beliefs, and behaviors come from those we spend most of our time with. For example, if our parents value taking risks, we’ll have more opportunities to take risks while we are under their care, and if our success rate in risk-taking is high, and we have more positive outcomes than negative outcomes from taking risks, we’ll be more likely to repeat that behavior in the future, and it will hold a lot of value in our lives because it helped aid in our personal development. On the contrary, if they don’t value taking risks, we’ll be less likely to take risks while we’re growing up, and it will have an effect on our value structure. Perhaps, we were more of a defiant type, and didn’t always listen to what our parents and caretakers told us, and we took risks anyway. That is a direct connection to personality type.
Personality can be thought of the as the combination how your moods and emotions manifest into behaviors. There is a model out there called “The Big Five Model” that psychologists developed to measure five specific personality traits. The traits are openness (ability to try new activities, open to multiple perspectives, can be creative), conscientiousness (ability to fulfill one’s responsibilities in life and do what is right), extraversion (ability to be social and around groups of people, thought of as gregarious), agreeableness (ability to come to terms with oneself and others, thought of as friendly), and neuroticism (susceptibility to experiencing negative emotions). These traits are measured on a continuum, so that if we score “low” in neuroticism it means that we’re more calm and tranquil and less susceptible to negative emotion. If we’re low in extraversion, it means that we’re more introverted and likely to seek solitude.
Personality can affect the way that our values are developed because when we are high or low in a particular trait, that creates a level of importance in different behaviors we may or may not engage in. For example, if we score high levels of the traits openness, extraversion, and agreeableness, we likely have high values of friendship and family because we’re a sociable person who likes ideas and having conversations. Because we’re agreeable, we also do not seek out confrontation. So, if there was ever a time a conflict came up, we side with the majority. This can be very challenging when these situations interfere with our priorities.
Imagine we’re trying to prioritize furthering our education by enrolling in a course of study. There is a big test coming up in the near future, but our friends are really twisting our arm to go out with them and put the studying off. Because of our high levels of extraversion, openness, and agreeableness, we’re more likely to succumb to that influence because of how our personality is shaped and how we’ve structured values that align with our personality. This is what makes living out our priorities so challenging. There is often a lot of confusion with what we say and what we do, meaning we often say that we’ll do one thing, but often do another. Even though we’re trying to make the leap that our own education is more important than a night out with friends, the night out with friends speaks more to our current mode of being. This is also how personality affects how our priorities are played out in our lives.
If we’re high in openness, we’re more likely to try new things and take in new perspectives and ideas, so our priorities may not always be set in stone because of this, unless we’re also high in conscientiousness. If we’re also high in conscientiousness, we’re very likely to have a lot of “checklists” or “to-do lists”, so that we know we’re on the right path of living. This fulfillment helps keep our positive emotions flowing, which can be challenging if we’re high in neuroticism. If we’re high in neuroticism, we’re more likely to experience negative emotion, so that also means we’re very aware of our own inadequacies. This feeling is intensified when we aren’t fulfilling our priorities. When this occurs, we either face it and rise to the occasion, or decide to flee into escapism. Whatever our traits are, they have a heavy influence on how we live out our priorities, which is why we need to think of how we can change that.
How can I try to live out my priorities more consistently?
In order to make a change about how we live out our priorities, we need to think long and hard about what we really want them to be, and write them in a list. For example, maybe it’s…
2.) My health
3.) My job
4.) My education
5.) My friends
6.) My hobbies that bring me joy
The next thing to do, is to analyze this list with a critical eye, and think about how we’ve been living out our priorities. Maybe upon analyzation we realize we’ve been living like this…
1.) My job
3.) My hobbies that bring me joy
4.) My health
5.) My education
These lists are just a couple of quick examples, but it should give us a good jumping off point for the real work that is to come next.
After making these two lists, we need to think about what is interfering. What is it in our life that is interfering with living out our priorities the way we want to. Is it the expectations of our work? Is it the stress from work that is putting hobbies over health? This is a valuable meditation because it will help us set up a plan for what is to come next, so we can make some positive changes, and live the life we intend to live.
Next, think of the changes that will need to be made. If we go back to that previous example, in order to keep our education above our friends on our priorities list, we will need to say “no” next time we are put into a similar situation, and when our friends ask why, we need to be honest with them and tell them why. Perhaps we could also meet up with them later. Either choice will help make that decision easier each time it comes up. It will also help us stay aligned in our priorities and live the life we’re intending to live.
Lastly, we need to consistently evaluate and re-evaluate, so we can live as aligned to our priorities as we can. This will help us make tweaks throughout the process of prioritization to ensure we are really doing our best to be the person we are striving to be.
Why is it important to live out our priorities?
One reason why it is important to live our our priorities is that it lessens our decision fatigue. Each time we make a decision, it takes energy, and if we are constantly using energy to make everyday decisions, we will tire quicker. When we act in accordance to our priorities, we will know what to do and when to do it because we’ll be guided by our priorities when we make our daily, weekly, or monthly schedules. Another reason is that we’ll experience less negative emotion and more positive emotion because we’ll be working towards something meaningful by correcting our path of life.
In sum, figure out what your priorities are, figure out why you aren’t living those out (think How have I been raised? What are my values? What is my personality like?), and make a plan to live them out.