What happens when you have chosen what your top priorities are, and something comes up which is not one of your top priorities, but which is nonetheless very important to you?

What happens, for example, when someone from your extended family gets suddenly ill and you have to choose whether to leave your immediate family to go and be with your relative? What happens when a career-changing work project comes up, but it means sleepless nights for a season? What happens when a friend desperately needs your support but you are sick yourself? What happens when a friend comes to visit on the only night you’ve got free to see your partner? What happens when your best friend asks you to be in her wedding and doing so means letting your boss down?

A simple, linear response to such situations would suggest that the most important priority always wins, but life doesn’t usually work that way. If something really important happens in a lower-priority realm, we often negotiate resources away from our higher priorities to deal with it. The interesting thing is that people vary widely in terms of how much and how often they are willing to do that.

The Spectrum of Investment

Everything we prioritise demands an investment of some kind, but the question of how much investment any one priority requires is not a straightforward one. When we plan to prioritise something we usually aim for a level of investment that falls somewhere on the spectrum between our “ideal” and our “minimum.”

The “ideal” is the amount you would choose to invest if this priority were the only thing you had going on. The “minimum” is the amount that you know you cannot afford not to invest if you don’t want this area of your life to fall apart.

You may wish, for example, that you could see the person you’re dating daily (the “ideal”), and also know that you really can’t maintain the relationship if you don’t see them at least once a month (the “minimum”). Prioritising a relationship like that might look like planning to see each other twice a week – it’s an aim that falls somewhere on the spectrum between an unrealistic ideal and a bare minimum.

Negotiating Priorities

What I find fascinating is how differently people approach their investment ranges when priorities clash. Some people, it seems, really do prioritise in quite a linear way – they consistently invest most of their resources in their top priorities and only give what is leftover to lower priorities. It takes a pretty major shake-up in the lower priority realms to inspire a negotiation of their limited resources, and even then they may only be willing to re-divert a small proportion of their resources away from their top priorities. The relative importance of their priorities are these people’s biggest consideration, and so their top priorities get the best of whatever resources they have available.

Other people prioritise differently. They, too, know what their top priorities are, but they are much more comfortable with negotiating within their range of investment, as long as they feel they can afford it. If these people had a friend visiting on a date night, they may well give up a date night to see the friend, if they felt the friendship needed it more than the relationship. The relative importance of the current demands in relation to what they feel they can afford in that season are these people’s biggest consideration, and so they can accommodate a larger number of priorities in a way that is responsive to the needs of the priorities at the time.

A third approach, of course, is not to prioritise at all. This does not come highly recommended, common though it is!

So What?

As usual with differences between people, there are advantages and disadvantages to any approach. Those who negotiate little are prone to not investing when they could afford to, and those who negotiate more freely are prone to over-invest when they can’t afford to. Being overly rigid can hurt people, as sometimes people unnecessarily choose not to invest in areas of life that need investment because they are so narrowly focused on their top priorities. Being overly responsive can also hurt people, as sometimes people choose to invest too inconsistently in areas of life that really do need to be more protected from competing demands.

My challenge on this is two-fold. Firstly, let’s learn not to judge. Both styles of prioritising are prioritising, and people have all sorts of reasons for their chosen strategy. If we can understand that, we will be in a better position to communicate with each other when we make different choices in the face of clashing priorities. We are all negotiating competing demands even though we vary in terms of how willing we are to deviate from the aims we have for investing in our core priorities in order to accommodate the other things that we value.

Secondly, let’s work on ourselves. If you tend towards rigidity, it might be valuable to ask yourself whether you really can afford more than you’re giving – after all, investment is a range on a spectrum, not a fixed point you have to hit. If you tend towards flexibility, it might be valuable to ask yourself whether your top priorities would benefit from a little more protection – consistent investment over time makes a difference.

For me, simply recognising these two different prioritising strategies has helped me to reflect on both my own choices’ and other people’s and to consider more intentionally what the costs of being too rigid or too flexible with my priorities’ investment ranges are.

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Featured image by Pixabay user domeckopol.