Setting your priorities is essential for good mental health

‘Get your priorities in order.’

We’ve all heard it before, and it’s good advice. But it’s not just a one-time thing. Sometimes, especially after a crisis or difficulty, we have to recommit to, and maybe even restructure, our priorities. It doesn’t happen automatically, and often takes time and conscious effort.

I got to thinking about this because a friend of mine—an active, energetic man in his 80s—was recently involved in a car collision. He was slightly injured and more than a little shaken, and his car was totally demolished. Suddenly without transportation, he lost much of his independence. Family and friends helped out with groceries and doctor’s appointments, but he deeply missed his daily routine and driving on his own.

After a few weeks of isolation and boredom, he recognized that he had to recommit to his priorities. He had to ask himself if it was still important for him to live his life as he had previously, and, if so, then what was he going to do about it. By the time he got over the initial trauma, he had made the crucial decision to not withdraw from the world, to confront the situation, deal with finding a new car, and bring his favorite pleasures and pastimes back into his daily life.

There are issues uniquely associated with aging, such as deciding at what point you’re not able to do all of the things you used to take for granted. But the issue of ‘recalibrating’ your priorities after a crisis or transition applies to all of us, no matter what our age or circumstances. ‘Crisis’ sounds like a negative event, but it doesn’t have to be. I have written in this column before about how people choose to retire and live an easier life, and then experience an emotional crisis because they don’t know what to do with their days. In a similar vein, students graduate from high school or college—clearly, a happy event—and yet, soon after the graduation, sometimes experience a crisis of confidence about where to go from here.

A lot of the problem stems from having too vague an idea of what to do with your life. This naturally results in not always knowing what to do with your days. The elderly man in my example knows that he wants to live his life in as leisurely and independent a way as possible. He wants to avoid a nursing home, and he wants to drive for as long as he can. Because he is basically healthy and alert, the issue of knowing what to do with his life is simple common sense. But, when it comes down to the everyday decisions of how to spend his waking hours, especially after his recent trauma, practical choices must be made. Should he live as a shut in, skulking around with the blinds closed, feeling sorry for himself as people deliver his groceries? Or should he demand more, reestablish his cherished priorities, and drive back out into the world—a bit more cautiously perhaps, but drive nonetheless? The overall goal for his life, to remain as independent and as healthy as possible, was unchanged by the temporary upheaval of the accident. But, by refocusing his priorities, he figured out how he wanted to spend his day-to-day existence. All that was left was to make it happen.

A similar thing can take place when young people graduate. A person graduating from college has quite literally spent his or her entire life in school. It provided structure and routine. It determined how days were spent. Suddenly (as the graduate hears over and over again), ‘You have your whole life ahead of you!’ But, lacking that structure and routine, tomorrow, next month and next year can become difficult to face.

My point? Making decisions requires that you first know what your priorities are. Regular readers of this column know that I urge people to ‘introspect’ by having a serious conversation with themselves about what they want and what makes them happy. This introspection is vital to shaping our priorities.

Will you immediately get what you want? Maybe not. Possibly our graduate will have to do something for a while that he doesn’t quite want to do, in order to get closer to his true objective. But if the priorities remain firm and constant, life will flow steadily in the right direction. From a psychological point of view, any alternative will almost certainly result in anxiety and stress.

My experience counseling people over the years has proven again and again that individuals who know what they want are happier than those who don’t. Nobody knows you better than you do, and nobody can (or should) make life decisions for you. The saying ‘Freedom requires responsibility’ might be even better stated: ‘Having choices means being responsible for knowing what you want.’ We’re all responsible to ourselves for evaluating what we want and how we intend to go about getting it. The self-confidence it brings is well worth the effort it takes.