3 Ways to Use Priorities to Defuse Your Stress

05/21/2015 11:23 am ET | Updated May 21, 2016
Shutterstock / Kiefer pix

By Jan Bruce

There's no question that being overextended is the new norm. Your work/life stress is likely exacerbated by the fact that it takes more work than ever to stay afloat--and with fewer long-term guarantees that the ship will keep sailing in calm waters. I'd wager you feel like you have barely an unscheduled moment left -- and when you look at all the tasks on your to-do list, you find yourself swinging in the direction of full-on panic.

But the fact is, when everything seems urgent, nothing really is. Most things don't require an instant response, and by doing things too fast or trying to do too much at once, you reduce your presence, your capacity for joy and your effectiveness.

What you need to ease up on the panicked urgency is brain tonic. No, I don't mean whiskey -- I mean priorities. Determining what's truly on top of your list is how you recognize your limits and accept realistic expectations. Not only that, you also are better connected to the important reasons behind all that you're doing, which is a powerful vaccination against chronic stress. Here are three ways to get started.

Pick your top priorities for right now.
What are the five things you really want in your life, starting now? What do you want your work life to look like? What do you want your relationship with your children to be like? The key here is to stop acting in ways that are not advancing what you want, or are actively contradicting it. Is where you're currently putting your energy fueling your biggest priorities?

Identify your knee-jerk thought patterns.
It can be a daily struggle to differentiate between "urgent" and "priority," especially when your thinking makes the leap for you. An email request from a supervisor comes in on a busy day and before you know it, your heart is racing, your chin acne is breaking out, and your colleague's loud phone call to his dentist is driving you crazy. Something happened between the email and your amped up state -- and it was probably the thoughts in your own head. How you respond to the events in your day can either help you accurately prioritize demands or send you into a tailspin. When you start to feel overwhelmed, take an inventory of your thoughts. What's true? What most definitely is not?

Give yourself permission to swing out of balance. This one will get the needle to move on your stress radar instantly. The thing is, swinging out of balance, or giving more time and energy to one part of your life over another, is often a necessary part of a balanced life. Give yourself a break and stop seeking balance at all costs! Even when you have your top priorities set, there will be days when they collide and one overshadows another--and that's okay.

For instance, if one priority is "showing up for my family" and another is "land a promotion this year," you can easily see how stress might erupt at 6 p.m. when you're expected home for dinner and you still have a critical deadline to meet. Sometimes, showing up for your family means doing what's required to provide for them, so you swing toward the work priority for a time. As long as you're moving in the overall right direction, you're golden.

The urgent stuff can't always be helped, but if you don't need to treat everything like an emergency. Instead, become the ER doctor of your responsibilities and prioritize what's important, what's really urgent, and what just needs a bandage and a lollipop in the waiting room. That way, you can live in closer alignment with what is most meaningful to you, and maybe enjoy your days along the way.