More than almost anything else, grad school is a game of priorities. As a grad student you will undoubtedly come into contact with many people that have extremely dysfunctional priority sets. Arranging priorities in a way that is not advantageous will leave you out to sea without a life raft. Organize your priorities or someone else will organize them for you.


If you’ve never actually done this on paper, and recently, say within the last 6 months, I can vouch for its effectiveness as an exercise. I keep a small post it note next to my workstation at all times that has the order of my priorities on it. Spending time to thoughtfully decide what your priorities are, and their ordering will free you up to make more tactically advantageous decisions in the moment that line up with how you prefer to structure your life. The person who does not do this (I know because I was one of them) must at best reevaluate their priorities quickly in the moment, and often as conflicts inevitably arise – this is a suboptimal strategy to say the least.

How To

Priority journalling

I’m going to walk you through a method for how to do this, takes about 10 minutes. Clear all distractions, phone on do not disturb, find a quiet place, make sure you won’t be interrupted.

Grab a sheet of paper, or open up a text editor and let’s get a list going. Group your life into priorities. Don’t worry about order yet, this is just a rough list for now. Brainstorm liberally – it’s easier to eliminate later than to be conservative with your ideas here in the first place – no restrictions – be foolish. Write down anything and everything that’s important to you in the form of categories. 

Here’s a list of mine (unordered) to jumpstart your process:

spiritual practice, companionship, freedom, dog, partner, friends, colleagues, work, purpose, art, creativity, God, physical fitness, knowledge, work, wisdom, meditation, family, time in nature, intellectual discussion, reading books

Great – hopefully you have a decent sized list together after brainstorming for a while, now we need to simplify and make categories. Simply group items that are similar together to make more broad categories. Feel free to list things multiple times, they may span a few. Don’t list social media.

Again, using my brainstormed ideas here are how I grouped them, in no particular order – each category grouping is on one bullet point each:

•  Spiritual practice, God, meditation, wisdom, time in nature, reading books

•  Partner, intellectual discussion, companionship

•  Physical fitness, time in nature

•  Work, reading books, knowledge

•  Purpose, art, creativity

•  Creativity, freedom, art, reading books

•  Friends, intellectual discussion, knowledge

•  Dog, intellectual discussion (a bit one sided though…)

•  Family

Now you have some categories put together, further refine this list by circling a word or phrase that sums up that category nicely for you. It doesn’t have to be perfect, or “the best thing” in that category, just a symbol that represents all of the other things in the group, it’s just to jog your own memory, shorthand, simplification. 

Here’s my list of “summary words” for each category:

•  Spiritual Practice

•  Partner

•  Physical Fitness

•  Work

•  Purpose Calling

•  Creativity

•  Friends

•  Dog

•  Family

Can you simplify further? For me, Creativity and Physical Fitness can both be filed under “Self” as I find them equally important, and components of each other. 

Rank your list. This is the most difficult part. Maybe you’ll need to set down your list-as-is, and go about your life for a few days to see where you’re pushed and pulled, where you resist – listen in intently, and you can see how your emotions respond to the current structure you are living out. If you’re repressed, you might ask someone who you love, a partner, family member, or close friend what they perceive in you. This can shed some light on what a proper ordering might look like for you – don’t simply take them at their word, and be careful of their own motivations, but people seem genuinely interested to help at this, and are often quite insightful.

Some Considerations

I had written this a draft of this post initially with my ordering included in this section, but I didn’t want to get too personal. Instead, I’m going to tell you a few more-public things about my ordering, and the considerations that went into it.

I put spiritual practice above everything.

The underlying reason for being, in my worldview. YMMV and I’m not pushing anything. I’ve found direct benefits for virtually every facet of my life by putting my spiritual practice first. I meditate every day whether I’m sick, stressed, happy, sad, or sleepy, without fail. I have a number of other spiritual practices, but they exceed the scope of this blog post, and are probably a bit contentious among my readership, so I won’t detail them in this post. 

I put my self second-highest.

This is not an act of narcissism. I’m painfully ordinary. I suffer from bouts of physical and mental illness like everybody else. I loose my temper. I get obsessed with projects. I don’t care for myself well enough when I’m sick which prolongs colds, etc. I sometimes motivate myself with a bullwhip instead of compassion. If I’m not functioning at my best, I can’t offer the best of myself in service of other people and causes. 

I put my work dead last.

Sound familiar?

I love interacting with high-achieving folks in all fields. This means I come into contact with a higher-than-ordinary number of workaholics. Work generates income. If you’re damn lucky, as I have been, you can integrate your calling into your work as well. This makes it a bit higher priority, but I’m damn sure not going to give up my own well being, or my relationships and responsibilities to others who are important for it. Every single individual I have known that has sacrificed it all at the altar of career has regretted it, if not at mid-life, then in their twilight years, when it’s far too late to make a profound change. This isn’t to say that I’m going to shrug off work and abdicate responsibility. I work diligently. I like to strive for the best in everything I do. There are likely few supervisors or colleagues that would assume work is low on my priority list – when I am scheduled to work, I work, but when I am on personal time, I am not working, no exceptions. 

So how to balance work against other priorities in this ranking? Set strong boundaries, and enforce them. This has been the single most difficult task I’ve encountered during grad school – not the research, not the writing, not the creative work, but rather enforcing healthy boundaries. In any work environment you will encounter countless supervisors/bosses/coworkers/etc. that want you to work extra hours, overcommit, or otherwise minimize your other priorities. It is a constant battle to handle these interferences with dignity, to realize that you are enough without working 80 hour weeks, you are enough without forgoing vacations, you are not defined by your work. 

Your ordering may differ, and that’s fine. All I can share with you is what has worked out for me and the realizations I’ve had. If you have any good insights, or want to post your own priority rankings, please do so in the comments!

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