What part of your life always seems to be on the back burner? Is it a certain relationship? A hobby you’ve always wanted to enjoy? A spiritual pursuit?
Do you tell yourself that someday this part of your life will move to the front burner and become a priority? How will that actually happen?
Back burner items tend to remain on the back burner indefinitely. They rarely make it to the front burner on their own. The reason they’re on the back burner is because you put them there, probably because you deemed something else more important.
At one point you may have put your career first. Or your health. Or a particular relationship. But are those priorities still right for you today? Are your current priorities still correct?
If you ask this question in a cursory way, you’ll almost always answer yes. If you told yourself a year ago that your finances must be your #1 priority, they’ll have a tendency to stay there. Whether you’ve made measurable progress or not, you’ll have a tendency to stick to essentially the same priorities year after year.
A True Priority or a Distraction
If your current prioritization tends to be self-perpetuating, how do you know when it’s time for an adjustment? You probably won’t figure it out just by asking if anything needs to be adjusted.
Generally the way you’ll notice that an adjustment is needed is that you’ll notice a nagging feeling that something isn’t right with the way you’re currently living.
Another clue is that you won’t seem to be making much progress in your top priorities. If you look at your actual results in those areas, you’ll see evidence that you’re drifting or even declining.
Often this happens because we like to assume that we can improve some area of life by making it the #1 priority. For instance, if you feel that your finances are weak, you may decide to focus on making more money for a while. But then a few years pass, and your finances don’t seem to be that much better. Overall you feel more stressed too. The main reason you failed here is that making money wasn’t a true priority. It was actually a distraction from a deeper, more important part of your life.
When false priorities are mistaken for true priorities, some blocking is bound to occur. You’ll feel resistance when you try to move forward on priorities that seem to make logical sense but which don’t connect with your true desires. No matter how hard you push against that resistance or what techniques you try to use to get past it, it will still be present. That’s because your mistake was further upstream. Your priorities weren’t aligned with your true desires.
When you realize you’re in a blocking situation, give yourself some time to pause and reflect. Even if you didn’t explicitly write down your priorities, what do your thoughts tell you about what’s most important to you?
If it’s convenient for you, jot down a quick list of your top mental priorities. Maybe you’ll come up with something like this:
- Making more money
- Improving my overall health and fitness
- Spending time with my significant other
- Being more focused and productive at work
- Learning new skills
But if you were to actually look at your actions as an objective observer might do, you may see that you’ve been prioritizing your day very differently in practice:
- Communication (email, texting, phone calls)
- Social networking
- Consuming information (blogs, news, videos, etc)
- Doing urgent work
- Being entertained
These aren’t complete lists, but I think you get the idea — your mental prioritization and your real world actions are not in sync.
If you discover something like this, don’t panic. It’s quite common for people to have two lists that are clearly not aligned. Fortunately this is a fixable problem.
The False Belief You Must Release
The reason for this dichotomy is a common false belief. It’s the belief that prioritizing is a logical affair, that it’s something you can achieve with your logical mind.
In fact, an equally mistaken approach is the belief that this is something you can discern intuitively. That approach will also fail.
Your logical mind is the part that comes up with solutions like: If my finances are the weakest part of my life, then I should make that my top priority for a while. Giving my finances more attention will surely improve them, and then when things are going really well in that area, I can make something else a priority.
This sounds very believable. So it comes as a real blow to the logical mind when this seemingly sensible solution doesn’t actually work. This throws the logical mind for a loop because after all, it should work, right?
Actually it shouldn’t work. There’s an error in the logic here. The assumption that turning a lagging area of your life into your top conscious priority will cause that area to improve is a false assumption. Much of the time, it turns out not to be true.
Many times when you take a lagging area of your life and make it your top priority, that area will continue to stagnate. Sometimes it will even get worse.
And sometimes you can ignore an area of your life, and it will improve all by itself.
We could go really deep into this, but for now I just want to plant the seed in your mind that turning a lagging area of your life into your top priority may in fact be a mistake. Sometimes it’s the worst thing you can do. You’ll see why this happens a little later in this article.
Why the Logical Mind Cannot Prioritize
If you try to set priorities in a logical manner, failure is guaranteed. This is because logic cannot provide a context for prioritizing.
There’s a special class of brain injuries whereby people cannot feel any emotions, or they’re unaware of their emotional states. Interestingly, these people cannot function well at all. They might spend a whole day deciding where to go for lunch, evaluating all sorts of irrelevant details such as the lighting conditions in each restaurant or which table they might get. Such people may brush their teeth 20 times a day, thinking it was a reasonable thing to do. They don’t have a context for separating the relevant from the irrelevant.
Some companies claim to make data-driven decisions, but that’s a misnomer since there must always be an emotional context behind the usage of data. There’s no logical reason for why a company must grow or why it must sell more products or have more impact. It could just as easily shut down, and the people could go do something else instead. Even the choice to make data-driven decisions is an emotional one. The emotional brain provides the context for feeling that it’s good to grow a company; then the data can be logically analyzed to determine what avenues may support that growth better than others. But ultimately the whole decision chain begins with an emotional context, and even data-driven decisions are normally littered with emotional checkpoints.
If you were to try to prioritize your life on a purely mental/logical level, you’d find the task impossible. You cannot logically evaluate and sort the infinite possibilities available to you. In fact, if you try to go that route, you’ll surely experience bouts of analysis paralysis, where you get so caught up in analysis that you hardly get anything done.
Let the Heart Lead
The solution to this trap is simple: Let the heart lead. Use your emotions to prioritize.
This may sound like a cop-out, but there’s a more empowering way to look at it.
First, you’re going to do this anyway. If you try to use the logical prioritization approach, some part of you won’t cooperate. Your mental priorities may look great on paper, but you won’t actually follow them. When have you ever prioritized your life logically and even come close to sticking to your priorities?
The closest you’ll get will be to use drugs like coffee to try to throw your hormones out of balance and overstimulate the logical mind, but your emotions will still reassert themselves from time to time, and the signals will only be more scrambled. In the end your emotions will make you feel worse when you try to graft a logical prioritization onto your life by force. This approach will take you further away from genuine happiness, and it’s ultimately counter-productive.
Maybe someday there will be a better substitute for your emotional brain, but for now you’re stuck with it. Fortunately that isn’t such a bad thing. Your emotional brain is much older than your logical mind, being subjected to many more cycles of evolutions. Your emotional subsystem is a finely honed instrument, far beyond the capabilities of even our most advanced supercomputers.
The logical mind is good at certain things, but prioritizing the big picture isn’t one of its strengths. This is, however, a major strength of the emotional mind. These two aspects of mind complement each other beautifully, but in the Western world we often have the relationship backwards. We need to learn to prioritize with the heart and the emotions, not with the logical mind.
Physically speaking, your emotional brain is mostly in your head, but it’s also partly in your chest. Your heart actually has its own tiny brain consisting of about 40,000 neurites. It’s primitive compared to the brain in your head, but it’s also loud. The communication channel that sends signals from heart to brain is like a firehose, whereas the channel going from brain to heart carries much less bandwidth — more like a thin straw. Essentially the heart functions as a state controller for the brain. The heart can easily tune out the brain, but the brain cannot easily tune out the heart. When you feel strong emotions, those emotions will take over your thinking, determine the types of thoughts you can or can’t have in those moments. But you may find it very difficult to think your way out of strong feelings.
When you prioritize with the heart, it’s important to get a clear signal. I recommend that you consume no drugs like caffeine or alcohol for at least a week just to be safe. Otherwise your nervous system is likely to be out of whack, and the heart-mind communication won’t work as well. If you really want to amp it up, eat all raw for a week, or try fasting, juice fasting, or mono meals for a few days first.
You’ll want to achieve a state known as coherence, where the heart and brain synchronize their communication patterns. This is the difference between listening to music and listening to noise.
To achieve coherence, you need to focus on creating a certain emotional state. Once you’re in that state, your brain will sync to your heart. This can be physically measured with the proper equipment. Perhaps the most significant change is in your HRV (heart rate variability). When you’re out of coherence, your HRV bounces around chaotically. When you’re in coherence, your HRV looks like a smooth sine wave if you were to graph it over time. Your heart actually speeds up and then slows down in a very flowing pattern, almost like music.
Emotionally this state of coherence can be described as: unconditional love, compassion, appreciation, and gratitude. If you’re feeling these emotions, you’re there. If you’re not feeling these emotions, you’re not there. Feeling neutral or okay or fine is not coherence.
Coherence has many benefits. It feels good emotionally, but it’s also good for your health, your mental performance, your social life, and beyond.
While the heart is the loudest voice in heart-brain communication, the brain can still influence the heart. So you can create this coherence state by holding thoughts in your mind that are congruent with these feelings. You can recall positive memories or use visualization. Another method is to listen to music that evokes these emotions. I like the song One by U2.
Play around to find a method that works for you. You can do it all in your mind if you want, such as by visualizing a positive scene, but you can just as easily induce coherence through external means, such as by cuddling someone you care about.
The reason to put yourself into a state of coherence first is simple: incredible clarity. Once you’re in this state of coherence, you can trust that your heart-brain communication will be at peak efficiency. You can still attempt to prioritize outside of this state, but the results won’t be as reliable.
Now while you’re enjoying this warm, glowing heart-centeredness, ask yourself what’s most important to you in life. Create your prioritization list by focusing on your feelings. I expect you’ll find this pretty easy to do.
You’ll probably notice that the way your heart prioritizes is very different from the way your logical brain works. For instance, when you’re in coherence, it’s pretty obvious that making lots of money isn’t that important, and it may not make it onto your priority list at all.
You may come up with a list that looks something like this:
- Feeling connected
- Helping people
- Serving the greater good
- Being kind
- Sharing my gifts and talents with the world
Please do try this for yourself. Don’t just read this article and skip this exercise.
You’ll probably notice that heart-centered prioritizing is actually faster and easier than logical prioritizing.
The heart-centered approach is also more consistent. When you use the logical approach, you’ll get different answers each time. Every month you apply hard logic to set your priorities, your answers will keep shifting, sometimes radically. But with the heart-based approach, you’ll find that your answers remain remarkably consistent. You may use different words to describe your priorities and shift the ordering around a little, but you’ll be struck by a feeling of coming home to a delightful sense of clarity each time you do this. It may feel like remembering rather than prioritizing. The answers flow with little effort.
When you’re in coherence, your logical brain will function better too, and it will work harmoniously with your emotions to help you create what you desire.
We can also see why it doesn’t work to prioritize based on logic alone. Even prioritizing based on intuition doesn’t work. The reason is that these approaches ignore the importance of coherence. Each time you try to apply your logic or intuition to a problem, you’ll be in a slightly different emotional state. That emotional state will dictate what sorts of solutions you come up with. And if the emotional states don’t match from one month to the next, your solutions will be discordant, and you’ll find it hard to create plans that stick. It’s like listening to music where each track keeps drifting off key — it may still look like music on paper… but not when you listen to it.
We can also see why turning a lagging area of your life into your top priority will often backfire. If focusing more attention on that lagging area makes it harder to achieve coherence, your results will suffer. So if you feel a sense of financial lack and then try to push yourself to make more money, you’ll probably be more likely to induce feelings of stress and overwhelm instead of appreciation and gratitude. And so your emotional brain will lead you to procrastinate. It’s actually trying to get you away from those negative feelings and nudge you in the direction of coherence. This is why you may find yourself addicted to email or social media, which may help you feel better than stressing yourself out with work you don’t enjoy. A better solution is to enter the coherence state deliberately and then decide what to do from there.
When you’re ready to take action on your priorities, start by returning to coherence again. Use your favorite method to create feelings of unconditional love, compassion, appreciation, and gratitude. This way you’ll be syncing to the same state you used to create your priorities, so you won’t have the feeling of second-guessing yourself.
In this state, the right actions will tend to emerge fairly easily. For me it was the desire to write and publish a new article on this beautiful Saturday morning while sipping a banana-coconut smoothie. My desire is to help you gain more clarity and experience more flow and happiness in your life.
Returning to this state of coherence when you set priorities and when you act on them is better than trying to prioritize while you’re in one state and then taking actions in discordant states. Don’t expect good results if you prioritize from a state of desperation and then try to take action from a feeling of stress. Sync your emotions to the coherence state before you prioritize and before you take action. With practice you can do this in a matter of seconds. This is a high leverage practice that makes a world of difference.
A Global Perspective
Imagine how the planet would change if more people began each day by syncing to coherence first. Imagine if governments and corporate boardrooms took a couple minutes to sync to unconditional love before they made key decisions. How many problems could we avoid with this one simple practice?
Wouldn’t this be more impactful and consistent than having each person show up with discordant feelings such as fear, greed, overwhelm, etc?
You can try this with your family and friends as well. The next time you have a disagreement with someone close to you, pause for a moment and see if you can get yourself and the other person to sync to coherence first. Then see what becomes of your disagreement.
Syncing between multiple people is like playing in an orchestra. Each individual may have a different instrument and may play different notes at different times, but their output can flow together harmoniously. When multiple people sync with coherence, they create beautiful music. When they’re out of sync, they create some form of noise.
Consider a 30-Day Coherence Trial
If you want to make syncing to coherence a habit, consider kicking off a 30-day trial. It’s really not that difficult to do, and the potential benefits are huge.
To start the trial, take a few minutes to sync to coherence, and then jot down a list of your top priorities in life. It doesn’t have to be a long list, and the exact ordering isn’t that important. Just write down whatever comes to you.
When you’re ready to begin the action part of each day, pause again for a moment and sync to coherence. Then get started by taking the next action you feel inspired to take.
This step only takes a few minutes at most. It can be as simple as playing a song that makes you feel appreciative and loving. Then proceed from that state as you move forward. Try to hold onto it as long as you can.
When you notice that you’ve lost touch with the coherence state and you’re drifting into discordant feelings and losing clarity, take another time-out to re-sync to coherence. Again, this doesn’t take long at all. Recall a happy memory. Play some inspiring music. Or send a quick text message to someone you love: I’m really grateful you’re in my life. I deeply love and appreciate you. <3
Since I completed my 30-day music trial this week, I’m kicking off this new 30-day trial today. My commitment is to sync to coherence at least twice per day. I started this morning by syncing to that state and feeling inspired to write and share this article with you. I hope you find it helpful. Have a beautiful day!
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