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  • Setting Priorities to Reduce Stress

    Note: This is the first in a series of intermittent posts I’m going to be doing about setting priorities and making the necessary changes to your life so you’ll have less stress, less pain, and greater quality of life. Today is just an overview, to get you thinking. There will be more posts to come with specific strategies you can use to set those priorities and make those changes.

    Stress is a constant in life, even though our stressors have changed quite a bit over the course of human history.


    It used to be that our priorities and stressors were perfectly aligned. Our priority was twofold: 1) provide food and shelter for our family, and 2) not be killed by either our prospective dinner or another animal who’s looking at either us or our dinner as an excellent source of its own supper. Our biggest stressor was our dinner (or other predator who also wanted our dinner) trying to kill us. Each time we ate, we had successfully overcome a stressor. Aaannndddd… the stress was short lived – from the time the fight for our life and dinner began until we had successfully triumphed and began the process of carrying dinner home.


    Now, we’re bombarded with a long list of stressors that seem to have no end, and they often seem to be at odds with our priorities. We want to spend more time with our family but have an employer who expects us to keep up with email on evenings and weekends. We want some time to ourselves but we work full time, serve on numerous committees, and have taken on obligations that keep us out of the house for many evenings and weekends, yet we still have to find time for all the routine chores at home.

    Some people feel like they’re in a no-win situation with no choices, but that’s not true. We always have choices, even if we don’t always like what those choices are. For instance, it’s hugely stressful to change jobs, even if the one you have is stressing you into an early grave. But you do have a choice. You can stay with the devil (job) you know and hate, or you can find a different devil which might actually turn out to be an angel. So what do you do?

    The simple answer is: Figure out your priorities. Because without them, you have no way to know what to cull, what to change, and what to keep in order to bring your life in line with your goals.

    I was recently talking to a chronic pain client about stress, and the topic quickly turned to priorities. She said that since she had prioritized her health, she was having a much easier time saying no to things that she didn’t really want to do, would interfere with her ability to get enough sleep, or would require more from her body than she could give without creating additional pain. This didn’t mean that she didn’t do anything; doing too little is as bad as doing too much. It just meant that she spent some time figuring out her physical limitations and not pushing them. She also figured out what made her feel better and did more of that.

    Your health is absolutely the very first thing you should prioritize, because without it, you can’t do anything… you can’t enjoy time with your family and friends, take part in your favorite activities, or even enjoy some leisure time. Remember, physical health is not the only type of health. There’s also mental, emotional, and spiritual health to be considered.

    If you don’t have major physical health problems, it’s time to start looking at the other 3. If you don’t like the terms spiritual health, mental health, or emotional health, perhaps you’d prefer the term quality of life.

    What priorities do you need to set to decrease your stress, limit your pain, and increase your quality of life? The wrong priority, too many priorities, or a priority that’s too vague will only add to your stress, so think about this carefully.

    Here are a few priorities that are always worthwhile:

    • Have a job or career that offers me x, y, and z (flex time, telecommuting opportunities, etc.)
    • Have help with x, y, and z chores
    • Totally delegate x chore(s) at home or work
    • Have x number of days per week where your pain is below a certain point on the pain scale
    • Have x number of days per week that don’t result in a stress headache (or other stress symptom)
    • Get at least x number of hours of [favorite type of exercise/physical activity] per week
    • Get at least x number of hours of sleep per night
    • Have at least x number of hours a week for alone time to recharge
    • Anything else you feel is a priority

    There are lots of reasons you want to know your priorities… among them is that knowing your priorities makes it easier to:

    • Decline invitations that you don’t really want to accept anyway
    • Resign from boards and committees that you don’t find fulfilling or that you simply don’t have the time and/or energy for
    • Know which questions to ask when interviewing for a job or promotion
    • Choose which job or promotion to accept
    • Decline dessert or sweets
    • Ask others to pull their own weight (or at least more of it than they currently do)
    • Choose whether to spend your money on a Starbucks chai or save it so you have more to spend at the next summer festival or concert you’re planning on attending

    Well, maybe that last one’s just me. But maybe not. I’m sure I’m not the only one who has a priority to increase the number of fun activities that they participate in. That’s the beauty of priorities. They’re personal. No one else is going to have exactly the same priorities as you, and you can set whatever you want as a priority.

    I’m going to give you a few weeks to figure out what you really want to prioritize before I post the first strategy. In the meantime, why not share this with your friends and make it a group project for everyone to find ways to lessen their stress, reduce their pain, and/or increase their quality of life.