Soon after the end of her time as Australian Prime Minister, Julia Gillard spoke at a women’s leadership forum. She shared with attendees how she managed her time during her tenure as leader and the importance of knowing what you are setting out to achieve. Gillard reflected on how the pace of the job created minimal opportunities to ponder the broader questions of how and why we set priorities and organise our days. She explained that the “quiet time, the unplugged time” was a critical part of her routine as it enabled her to understand how she could make room for what she valued in her life, “rather than just attending to the urgent”.
You don’t have to be a world leader to feel stretched for time. The world has changed significantly in the past 20 years and our capacity to be constantly connected extends to work, home and leisure time. As a result, we can feel as if we are in a pressure cooker with an invisible stopwatch ticking away. The way we make decisions about the different aspects of our day is an important part of our self-care repertoire. So how can we attend to the important over the urgent in these three key domains of life?
A quick glance at a phone, a check of social media, a scan of emails to see what’s arrived since last logging on, a reshuffling of the day’s to-do list. In our digital world, this is a common morning routine. For many, the momentum continues at work where we are often faced with more emails, more messages, more meetings, and more demands for our response. This creates a sense of ‘doing’ all day long.
UK business psychologist Tony Crabbe, author of Busy: How to Thrive in a World of Too Much, believes these routines are an attempt to create a sense of control. Yet acting in such a way can often have the reverse effect, leading to a feeling of helplessness as we get lost among the myriad tasks that require our attention.
This ongoing and rapid cycle of responding to workplace stimuli can have a significant emotional impact. Entrepreneur Lynette Parkinson can relate to the technology-driven morning routine, but found the “lure of the urgent” was not always steering her towards the things she deemed most important. “I’d get up early in order to work, spend ages ‘checking in’ on everything and wonder why I spent the rest of the day feeling frustrated and behind,” Parkinson explains.
Now each time she catches herself falling into the vortex of her inbox, she stops, takes time to reassess her actions and works out how to – as Crabbe suggests – unchoose” busy. For Parkinson, being responsive rather than reactive has been crucial to uncovering and understanding what is most important in her work.
Much of the noise surrounding self-care urges people to explore their own behaviour, yet most lives are not spent in isolation. The way people connect and engage with each other requires mutual decisions about what is important. Brisbane-based relationship expert Debbi Carberry agrees. In her busy counselling clinic she finds some couples have unspoken rules regarding priorities while others need to explore their priorities together as the relationship matures. “Early in relationships [priorities] can be a point of contention, but often as couples mature they tend to be able to work these things out without too many difficulties,” Carberry explains.
So how can you and your partner hold on as the urgent and important impulses reveal themselves? Priorities, and how they are set, can be influenced by a number of factors such as relationship history and personal values. Attachment style, meaning the type of person some one has grown to become and the way they relate to other people, can also impact how someone negotiates priorities. “An anxious attachment style often needs a sense of [returning] back to normality. The person will push to reconnect or repair when things are not going well,” Carberry explains. “Many anxiously attached people will partner with an avoidant partner and this can feel like a constant roller-coaster ride when they are trying to set priorities as each has significantly different priorities and tolerances for connection.”
Carberry encourages communication, explaining that couples need to navigate the decisions surrounding urgent versus important together. “It’s helpful if couples understand what their learned way of connecting is, then they can understand what is driving their sense of urgency.” Both partners need to feel they are seen, heard and valued, and share a space where they understand what drives their respective reactions through pausing for a moment to identify what is important.
To understand the importance of priority setting at work and within relationships it is necessary to first identify personal priorities. Psychotherapist and executive coach Russ Harris, author of The Happiness Trap, implores individuals to live by their values as a way of understanding why they set goals. With jampacked lives and countless commitments to consider, people often fail to prioritise self-care, which means their values, or the standards of behaviour we expect from others, are not always given precedence. People rarely question whether they are living in a way that reflects what they value purely because they do not set aside the time to do this.
Harris focuses on values-based living and mindfulness – on being present in what you are doing and what you are feeling. He believes it can help people identify what is important. Taking time to ask yourself what you stand for can help, as well as asking how you want to behave and what personal qualities you want to embody.
Unplugging and nurturing a strong sense of self, as Gillard suggested in her leadership reflections, can provide the space for people to manage their priorities. In turn, they can intentionally focus on areas of importance rather than only giving attention to what is – or seems – urgent.