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3 steps to deciding what’s important: Priorities, Perspective, and Probabilities

by Meagan Francis on March 22, 2012

setting priorities

“Do less!” is a popular chorus these days – but it’s easier said than done. Perhaps the hardest part is choosing what to do…and what to let go of.  And then not feeling guilty or less-than when the stuff that doesn’t make our “most important” list seems so important to everyone around us.

With the early arrival of spring – okay, summer! – weather, my imagination has been full of big plans this week – and it’s not always easy to decide which of those plans to act on now, and which to put off until later (or shelve permanently). I wrote this post last year and thought I’d republish it today in case some of you are feeling that way, too.

Part of aiming low and going slow – one of my 10 principles to happier motherhood – is knowing where to invest your (precious) time and (limited) energy. We can’t do everything well. In fact, we can’t do everything, period–at least not all at the same time. In The Happiest Mom I laid out the “Three P’s” that can help you figure out what you want to do right now–and what you can let go of, even if temporarily:


Maybe you admire the mom who frolics in fields of flowers with her children. Maybe you admire the mom who takes beautiful photos of her children frolicking in fields of flowers. Maybe you admire the mom who works hard all day so that she can afford to live in a neighborhood with plenty of fields of flowers for her children to frolic in. But as much as we might like to do all of those things, the bitter truth is that it’s pretty much impossible to work, frolic, and take photos at the same time. (I’d like to see you try.)

My point? Those are all admirable things, but that doesn’t mean you have to–or can, for that matter–do them all. Or at least, not all at the same time. So what are your top priorities? Remember, you aren’t locked in forever. Maybe right now, the personal satisfaction–or paycheck–that comes with having a career outweighs flower frolicking. Maybe, as much as you’d love to have professional-quality photos of your kids to show off later, right now the thought of lugging a camera to the park just makes you tired. Go with what’s really important to you in this season of your life. You can always change your mind later, or add on more goals if you are feeling particularly energetic.


  • What’s the worst that could happen if…you can’t find that library book before preschool tomorrow?
  • In ten years, will anyone still remember that… you forgot to add the fabric softener?
  • Is there a possible upside to… the fact that you neglected to run the dishwasher last night (like, gasp, your kid might have to wash a dish by hand?)

As humans, we’re guaranteed to make lots of mistakes–and very few of them are tragedies. It’s pretty rare that our missteps and screw-ups are worth the mental energy we pour into them. Ask yourself the above questions in italics whenever you’re fretting about something late at night. Perspective is a wonderful thing.

Probabilities (instead of possibilities)

It’s great to aim high. It’s great to aim higher than high. But when making your to-do list, I recommend focusing on a few things you know you can accomplish with a reasonable amount of effort, especially when you’re feeling tired or overwhelmed by life. That doesn’t mean you never reach for the stars, but build a ladder that can get you there instead of trying to launch yourself with a makeshift catapult a la Wile E. Coyote. Got a big dream? Break it into steps. Now break those small steps into even smaller steps: ones you know you can pull off (you’ll know the steps are small enough when you don’t feel like hyperventilating just writing them down.) Move through them at a reasonable pace, checking off one action and moving on to the next. Going slow and steady you’re much more likely to get there than if you try to do too much at once, get overwhelmed, and fizzle out.

Do you ever find yourself trying to be too many different people at once, worrying about things that don’t really matter, or making “wish lists” instead of reasonable to-do lists?

Want more ideas
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{ 25 comments… read them below or add one }

Louisa March 30, 2011 at 6:11 pm

I love this post! I’ve just written about reclaiming my life from the dreaded “busy” (hate that word). My new motto is “just because I could do that doesn’t mean I should” – stolen from A Small Notebook. My post is here: if you are interested.


Bridget March 31, 2011 at 6:45 pm

I so needed this! I am 35 weeks pregnant with number two, and am feeling crazy with all the things that “have” to get done. Now, I can breathe :)


JoGillian March 31, 2011 at 6:53 pm

What a find! What a gem of an article. I’ve been feeling overwhelmed lately…I want to do so many things – look for a job, do chores, play w/ my baby, be a teaching mom all at once! This is such an affirmation for me who can’t do it all. :)


Zilanay March 31, 2011 at 8:44 pm

I enjoyed every sentences of this post and I felt represented by some of them. I will try to keep in mind the 3 P’s in order to make my life easier & to be the happiest mom ever!


vicki April 6, 2011 at 11:52 am

Thank you. I needed this! There are do many things I want to do at home and in the community. Most of all I want to be with my three month old baby and o have to learn how to say no to everyone else. Even myself.


Yvonne Yeo April 6, 2011 at 8:10 pm

What a heartfelt article! You totally hit my nails. I guess most Moms want to be the best in any roles we undertake but sometimes, it is just so tough to do it all. Thanks for putting our woes in perspective and what a great read. You’ve a new follower here.


Amber April 6, 2011 at 11:00 pm

I worry about things that don’t really matter CONSTANTLY. It’s just one of the joys of perfectionism. I did some therapy 10 years ago (has it really been that long?) that helped a lot, but I think it’s one of those things that will always be somewhere in the back of my mind. I’ve made my peace with it, because otherwise I spend even more time worrying about how I’m worrying about things that don’t matter, and that’s even worse, honestly.


Holly from 300 Pounds Down March 22, 2012 at 10:12 am

I got so tired of feeling like a not good enough mom b/c I couldn’t do what so many were doing . I finally decided that I will do the best I can. It may not be the best they can because many are better than me. But if I’m doing MY best then it’s ok. I have learned to let things roll off my back because otherwise you’ll get depressed and end up doing less. Which only makes you feel worse!


Meagan Francis March 23, 2012 at 3:20 pm

It’s not that they are BETTER than you, Holly! Their circumstances could be different (health, financial, support from family, etc), their kids might be in a different phase than yours, they may just have a really great game face! You’re so right that the best YOU can do is good enough, and it doesn’t mean anyone else is better.


Jennifer March 22, 2012 at 10:47 am

Oh I really needed to read this today! My husband and I are smack in the middle of painting two rooms in our home and it is taking much longer than we had planned. We keep wondering how everyone else manages to do these things effortlessly–we are covered in paint, our kids want our attention back…I’ve come to realize my husband and I are NOT painters and if I need rooms painted we are saving up to have someone else do it. Our time and sanity is too precious…


oilandgarlic March 22, 2012 at 1:16 pm

I know this, but I need constant reminders! That’s one of the reasons I like reading your blog.


Stacy March 22, 2012 at 4:39 pm

I love this post. It made me think I get so caught up in the small stuff, I love that you remind us will this matter in 10 years? Will the world stop turning if you don’t bring the book tomorrow? We put such pressure on ourselves, me especially. My to do list is crazy and yet I can’t just let go and relax. Thanks for sharing, it made me stop and think


Charmaine March 22, 2012 at 10:14 pm

I wont give up driving all over town on saturday morning to yard sales. in the long run, it pays off anyway. i have made my living for 35 years going to yard sales and, even though there are fewer now you still can find something you can use, and, if you cant use it, you can sell it yourself. my hubby does appreciate all the money we have saved over almost 50 years by going to yard sales.


grace March 22, 2012 at 10:56 pm

This was so helpful I just tweeted it!

I think it’s really helpful to be reminded to thoughtfully think through our choices as often as possible.

Good word.


The Orange Rhino March 23, 2012 at 2:20 pm

Again, another timely post from you! Thank you! Just this morning I was losing patience with my boys as we were rushing to pre-school. I was going to yell (and give up my 44 day streak of not yelling per my challenge) and I said “So what? We’re going to be late to school. It’s not the end of the world.” Perspective is one of the greatest gifts. Thank you for reminding me…and teaching me about the other two P’s. I know they will help me reach my personal goal of going 365 days without yelling! Does Amazon deliver within an hour? I want to read your entire book now :)


Christine March 25, 2012 at 11:19 am

I just chanced upon this post today and just about cried when I read it. I really needed this. I have a one year old and I am just overwhelmed with the things I want to get done. I needed to be reminded to start with the things that NEED to get done.


Meagan Francis March 25, 2012 at 4:18 pm

I’m so glad the post helped you, Christine!


Sharon March 25, 2012 at 2:33 pm

I’m visiting your site for the first time today after seeing Tsh at Simple Mom link to your post.

I hardly ever make to-do lists anymore because I usually never get more than one or two things done – in a weeks time! I have a terrible habit of spending time doing things that I feel obligated to do, but aren’t necessary and really, are often just time wasters.

I loved your question “Is there an upside….” I had needed to do my toddlers laundry for the past couple of days, but kept putting it off. This morning I discovered that her diaper had leaked and her bedding needed to be washed. I have extra sheets, but two of her favorite and must have items in the crib had gotten wet. Since I hadn’t done her laundry before today, I had a full load to go in and it was done before nap time. Phew!


Meagan Francis March 25, 2012 at 4:19 pm

Now that’s an upside! Thanks for stopping by!


Breanne March 25, 2012 at 5:10 pm

Wow, this was timely! I really appreciated your focus on prorities, I’ve been trying to be all three or feeling like I should and then missing out on just enjoying this season. Thank-you!


Faigie March 25, 2012 at 6:00 pm

I have personally found that I need to make one master list of the things I want to accomplish in the different areas of my life. Then nightly I need to break down what are the things that I realistically feel I can accomplish the next day. I get to really know what my real capabilities are this way. (I also cheat a little, when I do something that wasn’t on the list, I add it to the list)


Winnie Yu March 25, 2012 at 8:12 pm

I love your message here — especially the section on perspective. Really, how much does what we worry about really matter in the end?


Julia March 25, 2012 at 11:37 pm

Oh yeah. I’m usually unrealistic about what I hope to do. With four children, I see a need to be more ruthlessly realistic. Not there yet, but making progress.

Thanks for your wise words here.


Sleeping Mom March 26, 2012 at 1:49 pm

Priorities are a must for me as I filter out what to do with my limited time and energy. I’ve long accepted that I can’t do everything; something’s gotta give. So I choose the ones that are high on my list at the moment. Some days that to-do is high, other days, not so much. But I know which ones I want to expend my energy on so that I don’t feel like I have to do everything.


Life [Comma] Etc April 10, 2012 at 1:43 pm

Great post! It’s so important to decide what will matter, instead of spending all of your time battling “what comes up”. Something will ALWAYS come up! But when you have your priorities in line, you can decide what to do about it!



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