As I get older, I’m becoming a lot more protective of my time.

I’ve talked about my struggles with being a “yes” man before: If anybody threw plans my way, no matter what they were, I was usually down. That led to an exciting and spontaneous life, but it also caused me to take longer than normal to complete some personal and financial goals I set for myself.

The only thing that will make your dreams come true is effective action. And to take effective action, you need time to plan, prepare, and well, actually do the thing you need to do. Without any sense of priorities, you could end up spinning your wheels for a long time—or forever.

Here are the questions I ask to determine if something is worth investing time in.

Does It Ladder Back Up To My High-Level Goals?

I’m a big fan of Warren Buffet’s top-five rule. Make a list of all the things you want to do in life and select your top five. Focus all your time on things that will help you achieve those five, and forget about all the rest until you complete them.

My top five looks something like this:

  1. Become financially “free” (no debt, decent income)
  2. Become an expert in my profession
  3. Write a novel
  4. Travel as much as possible
  5. Stay close to the people that matter: family, friends, etc.

I try to minimize investments of my time in activities that don’t support the above five as much as possible. For example, I recently got a fancy mirrorless camera as a Christmas present. I love it, and I thought about signing up for some photography classes to get better at using it.

But I didn’t. “Becoming a great photographer” isn’t on my list. While learning a new skill seemed like a good thing, I’d actually be doing myself a disservice by taking my time away from the things that matter.

Make Sure You’re Balanced

Do I occasionally do things that don’t map to my big five priorities? Yes, of course. I’m a human being with a whole lotta flaws who occasionally needs to eat a pint of ice cream while binging Charmed on Netflix.

And that’s OK. Because this is a marathon, not a sprint. Throwing yourself at your five priorities relentlessly, trying to complete them as fast as possible, will make you exhausted, miserable, and demotivated. Take breaks so that you can win the long game!

Sometimes, your priorities will conflict. You’ll notice on my list, for example, that “become financially free” and “travel as much as possible” seem at odds: You typically need money to travel!

Balance is always key when your priorities conflict. I try and set a personal travel budget for myself every quarter so that I don’t overdo it. Sometimes that results in one big, amazing trip or a few smaller ones. Either way, I’m making progress (albeit slower progress) toward both goals and staying content through it all.

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