As 2013 gets ready to spring upon us, it is natural (and good) to think about priorities (some call them New Year’s Resolutions.) Our resolutions should be about our priorities!

Conceptually, priorities are simple, even obvious. We should know what is important to us, and we should spend our time and our thoughts on the high priorities rather than the low ones.

But in reality, in the day-to-day, it is not so simple. There is often little correlation between how important things are to us and how much thought or effort we give to them. We constantly find ourselves wishing we had time for the really important things, wishing there were more hours in the day, wishing life were less complex and wishing we were better at juggling all the things we need to do. Priority balance is intended to help you stop wishing and start changing.

Simplification and Perspective-Three Questions
Why do we let ourselves want so much but get so busy and burdened? When will we learn that the trade of time and freedom for things, money or excess involvement is a bad deal? And when will our society outgrow the rather juvenile notion that big and complex is better than small and simple? We admire the Gandhis of the world, who get rid of everything but their eyeglasses, scripture and loincloth so that they can focus on what is important. We admire them, but we don’t emulate them.

To know whether something is worth doing well, ask the three questions, “Will it matter in five years? Do I need it? Can I simplify it?” With the habit of these questions will come some new skills-the skill of discretionary neglect, the skill of selective prioritization, the skill of deciding what not to do, the skill of discerning which things are worth doing well, which things are just barely worth doing, and which things are not worth doing at all. “Adding on,” too often complicates our lives and contributes to the loss of self. “Casting off” simplifies our lives and helps us find ourselves.

Concentrate on What is Important
A story to illustrate:

We took all of our children to Mexico one summer and spent six weeks in Ajijic, a little mountaintop fishing village high above Guadalajara. We were in the midst of writing a book and needed background material and solitude, but the primary reason for our trip was to give the children perspective on the privileged lives they lead.

Because we had no car while we were there, we arranged for horseback transportation. It cost approximately $12 to rent eight horses for two hours. Each time we rode along the beach, we saw the village women pounding their washing on the rocks, and when we clip-clopped through the village streets, we saw families with ten children in one room. With eyes wide, our children gazed into the eyes of the native children, whose eyes showed reciprocal amazement.

One little 9 year-old Mexican girl visited our condo every day. Too shy to venture in at first, she became braver each day as she watched the children play in the small front yard swimming pool. Neatly dressed in the same blue dress and no shoes, she was always smiling and happy and came day after day to interact with our children (who were not the least bit inhibited by the language barrier). But she turned down all our invitations to go swimming with us. On the last Wednesday before we left, she finally consented to swim. We were all amazed when she jumped into the pool in her blue dress. At that moment we realized that she had no swimming suit or shoes-nothing besides the clothes she wore.

Our leftover food went to her family on the day we left. When we delivered it, we found a happy family in a home with only three walls, and a muddy front yard, occupied by a cow, a pig, and two chickens. On the plane ride home, when we asked our own 9 year-old what she had learned from our time in Mexico, she said, “That you don’t need shoes to be happy.”

Unlike the problems of the people in Ajijic, Mexico, the problems of “fast track” Americans do not stem from scarcity or lack of options or challenges. Instead our challenge is whether we can sort out and balance the most important and meaningful things from among all the needs and demands that surround us.

Three Areas of Priority-A Suggested Resolution
The easiest number of areas to balance is three. It’s relatively easy to juggle three balls, whereas four are many times more difficult. The mind can stay consistently conscious of three areas. With four or more, some are always overlooked or forgotten. A triangle has no opposite corners or side, each is connected to all. A three-legged stool is stable on any rough terrain.

Life balance is best pursued when we create three areas of priority. They are FAMILY, WORK, and SELF. The deepest and truest priorities of life all fit somewhere within these three categories. (“Self” includes service and interests-we each define our own selves.)

The first step in obtaining life balance is to spend five minutes each day, before you write down any other plans or think about your schedule, deciding on the single most important thing you can do that day for your family, for your work and for yourself. List these three choose-to-dos before listing any have-to-dos.

Even if you do nothing each day except the three key priority items, in a year you will have accomplished more than 300 specific, clearly thought out things for your family, for self, and for work.