Ideally, our hour-to-hour decisions should serve our highest values. But how can we encourage this simultaneously strategic and tactical behavior in ourselves? My solution is to organize the way we think about projects and tasks to be in alignment with the way we prioritize our goals and the values they represent.
Take some big-picture contemplative time away from distractions to think about who you are and want to be. What fundamental beliefs drive how you relate to the world? What roles do you play?
You can start by identifying the big areas in your life (e.g., family or other relationships, work, creative expression, social responsibility), but push down to greater detail and articulate to yourself the roles in which you manifest these. In the book, I refer to these roles as "shiny buckets" and I believe you really can't be effective over time if you're trying to carry more than five or six of them at once. Its fine to periodically swap out those buckets and emphasize different roles (with their different goals and projects), but focusing on a few at a time is what creates success and avoids overload.
Within those buckets are your goals, and the projects that you use to achieve them. Again, you can only handle so many at once and focusing on fewer makes for faster and less painful accomplishment. If one of your buckets is very full (many simultaneous goals and projects) or very heavy (involving tasks that require exceptionally high amounts of time or emotional energy), you should lighten your load of other buckets to compensate.
Identify your buckets.
Now imagine yourself faced with a personal or family crisis. What's the first bucket you'd set down? What next? What could wait when a real emergency came up? This exercise serves two purposes: 1) To remind yourself that you are allowed to set a bucket down when you need to and pick it up again when you're ready; 2) To reveal to yourself the priority order of your roles and therefore of the goals and projects they contain.
Reflect that priority order in whatever system you use to track your goals, projects, and tasks. Review it regularly—quarterly is good, I find—to confirm that these are still your current buckets and that they are still in the right priority order.
By reflecting your buckets as the core organizing principle in whatever system you use to track your tasks (e.g., as folders in OmniFocus or as flagged sections in a paper notebook), they are automatically prioritized. When you review your projects on a weekly basis, you will be approaching them in the order that echoes your higher vision for yourself.
Executive Christie Hefner said, "Be sure you’re true to what you believe… I would argue that the way to do that is to spend less time thinking about what you’re doing and more time thinking about what you represent."*
Writer and Kirtsy founder Laura Mayes, in her session "Be Your Own Boss: Create a Life You Love" with Maggie Mason at SXSW Interactive conference in 2010, put it even more succinctly, "Be really solid on what your intention is."
By making time for the big picture thinking that enables structuring your to-do system around your fundamental priorities, you give yourself the daily freedom to spend more time doing and less time figuring out what you should do next.