How to set priorities in life

how to set priorities in life

One of the most memorable presentations of my career came from the charismatic Jim Lafferty, a legend around the halls of Procter & Gamble. He started out in life as a personal trainer, only to work his way up to being a General Manager at P&G, CEO of Coca-Cola and CEO at British American Tobacco. (He did a less effective talk at an offsite several years later in which he gave something like the 378 lessons he’d learned in his life – but maybe that was just my perception after the late party the night before…) This particular talk was about work-life balance (which, as we all know, doesn’t actually exist) and the five “big rocks”.

Now the idea of the big rocks has been used again and again by people like Stephen Covey (of the 7 Habits) and Leo Babauta (of Zen Habits; it’s all about the habits!). In case you’ve been living under a rock (hoho), you can Google it or take a look at this odd little video to get the general gist. Essentially, the exercise boils down to understanding that you have to put the big rocks, the most important and meaningful priorities in your life, ahead of all the other little tasks and distractions.

Jim Lafferty’s version, as I remember it, had to do with rebalancing his life once he had a young family. I forget what the original five rocks were but one was golf and to his credit he soon realised that with a demanding job and a wife and small children at home maybe it wasn’t so reasonable to spend his only free time outside of his long working hours playing golf with his friends. So out went golf, in came spending quality time with his family.

I’ve been thinking about this recently, wondering if I’m really spending my time and energy on my true priorities or if I’ve “ended up” focusing elsewhere. The truth is that we have a limited number of hours in each day, a limited number of days in our lives, and we can never do everything, be everything. We need to prioritise – and we can either do this by default, letting life sweep us along with all that it throws at us, or we can take things into our own hands and make deliberate choices. I don’t know about you but I don’t to want to wake up one morning and look back on my life and regret spending my time on the “wrong” things. It’s the rocking chair test again!

Now the Jim Lafferty example today seems overly simplistic and clichéd to me – oh, no, poor Jim had to give up his favourite hobby in order to take care of his children. In any case, I don’t think you need to be so specific with your rocks that you call one “golf”, one “wife and children”, and so on. I actually did the 7 Habits of Effective People course some years ago, and in defining my big priorities I found that none of them mentioned my job. OOPS! Does that mean that work doesn’t have a role in my life? Of course not! But it’s not simply a matter of “marketing career at P&G” – or, for that matter, “writing” or “entrepreneurialism”.

Just as I’ve found that having a theme for the New Year is better than having a to-do list with specific resolutions, I think the “big rocks” are most effective if they provide a framework without being too prescriptive. There can be other, more flexible, ways in which to structure your rocks instead of labelling them with specific projects and roles. In their book on unlocking high performance, health and happiness, Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz talk about a balance between four energies: physical, emotional, mental and spiritual – why not let each of these be a rock, and cluster your activities in life according to the type of energy they bring you? Arianna Huffington has her four pillars: well-being, wonder, wisdom and giving. And I’m going to the Alive in Berlin conference next month, and they define six different areas of a happy life: work & money; relationships & sex; community & spirituality; health, food & fitness; adventure & aspiration – I think these six areas can work too.

In my case, I already did the exercise of defining my personal values not that long ago. Of these, I think I can extract five big rocks:


Something I’ve learned relatively recently about myself is how much I value freedom. Freedom to be myself and say what I feel, do what I think is right, make my own decisions; to work from home or from a café and not be tied to strict office hours; to earn enough money to travel, to live the life I want to lead. They will never take… our FREEDOM!


I like to be challenged, to get out of my comfort zone, to learn new things. That’s what will drive me to take on new projects, whether for work or in my private life. So rather than saying that I want to work in digital marketing or on luxury brands, manage my own business or become a full-time writer, I prefer to be open to learning opportunities where I can grow, both personally and professionally.


Yes, I like to write; but I’m also getting more into photography, I enjoy making jewellery, I’ve sewn a couple of tops and half a dress (I’m scared of sewing it together as it might not fit!), I even knit a scarf every ten years or so… It’s not about a particular activity; it’s about some form of creative expression and, ultimately, getting the satisfaction of actually creating something.


This year I’m putting a bigger focus than ever before on being physically active, and as a result I’m also taking more care with what I’m eating, how much sleep I’m getting, and so on. Feeling and looking good and having the energy to do what I want to do is pretty fundamental to living my life.


A cornerstone of my life will always be my role as a daughter, a sister, an aunt, a niece, a friend; in the future maybe also a mother. I never want to find myself going back on personal commitments or missing time together because of a last-minute work meeting or a PowerPoint presentation.

Bonus Rock Six: FUN

I had “humour” as one of my personal values, and without a doubt a sense of humour and not taking ourselves too seriously is key for me. Life is short, it’s the journey not the destination, bla bla bla… and if we’re not having fun along the way, what’s the point?!

Now I’m not even sure these are the “right” big rocks for me, and in any case they’re bound to change over the years. The key, I think, is to make sure that you’re taking the time to think about it, to make deliberate choices, and then to re-evaluate from time to time, to be certain that you’re focusing your time and energy on what matters to you.

What do you think? Are my rocks too vague? What would your big rocks be? Let me know in the comments section below!


2 Responses

  1. Hi Anna, while we have not met, we have had a previous life at a common place… 😉 I have been enjoying your blogs lately and like your choice of rocks, including the description of creativity. I do not consider myself creative, but I realise it is purely in the sense of the traditional description, as indeed I enjoy a creative life as you describe it, I love the satisfaction of creating whatever that may be. And then freedom… as a mom, I long for a freedom to do things without constraints: and decided that I will limit the constraints that children theoretically give by involving them in some of activities that I long to do, and finding ways to take time for me!

    Thanks for sharing your rocks!

    1. Hi Corona, that’s great to hear! I absolutely think that creativity is more than artistic ability (certainly my drawing skills are at the same level as they were when I was eight….). And I’m so glad to hear that you’re finding ways to include your children too. I meet lots of couples with young children while I’m on my travels, it’s really a question of finding your comfort zone in terms of the level of risk and type of trip or activity you do. Thanks for reading and good luck with your rocks!

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