Lesson of the Week

Prioritizing: I put first things first

What does a box of Cheerios, toilet paper, and a tube of toothpaste have in common?  Children want these items more than toys.  What a lesson in prioritizing and it comes out of the mouth of babes.

This picture was taken in Erie, Pennsylvania at a shelter for poor families.  The photographer was led up to a large room with everything from toys to furniture.  She was asked, “What do you think children pick when they can have anything the room?”  The photographer thought the answer would be a toy.  “No, it is a box of Cheerios, toilet paper, and a tube of tooth paste.”  Even the youngest children made this choice because their very life depended on their priorities – food and personal hygiene.

These children mimic the belief of a man who lived in the eighteenth century, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe who said, “Things which matter most must never be at the mercy of things which matter least.”   Where you get into trouble is getting caught in the muck and mire of trying to live someone else’s priorities.  This happens innocuously when you follow a trail led by the best intentions of parents, caretakers, teachers, clergy, and other people in power and control.  After all, you are a child and need to be protected and guided in the following priority lessons:
a) You should:  You should become a doctor and not a social worker because you can’t make a lot of money doing social work.
b) You ought to:  You ought to keep your mouth shut and not rock the boat.
c) You must:  You must keep up with the latest or what will others think?
d) You have to:  You have to eat that or you’ll upset someone else.
e) You need to:  You need to be like everybody else and stop trying to be different.

However, once you’re grown up, where does the impetus come to prioritize after the should, ought, must, have to, and need to conditions of childhood?

One way is to prioritize based on wants.  The adult can develop an idea of, “ What I want:  what I want to do, what I want to accomplish, what I want my mission to be”.  But this is very hard to do considering some cultural norms define “wanting” to be verboten, wrong, or even downright evil and selfish.  Every successful mission starts with wanting to do something that fits with who you are and how the world needs you as you are.  The best list of priorities grows from this idea: wanting to be who you are and then giving this part of yourself to the  world that needs who you are.

If you never develop priorities based on who you are and what you want, you might unwittingly be left in limbo or wandering around unable to prioritize or prioritizing things that are meaningless to who you are or what you want.  This wrong turn leaves you feeling misunderstood, depressed, dis-appointed (not appointed by your mission), bored (wanting to be somewhere else), and almost to the point of not wanting to be around any more – even to the point of wanting to commit suicide.  Why would you want to be alive?  You might have plenty to do, but its not what you want and it has no meaning for you.

Here is an example of the ultimate “wanting” and the priorities to make this mission happen.  This story has been called, the “Miracle on the Hudson”.   US Airways flight 1549 took off from LaGuardia Airport in New York City, on January 15, 2009.  A few minutes later, there was a complete loss of thrust from both the engines and the plane was disabled striking a flock of geese.  The pilot in command, Captain Chesley B. Sullenberger was a safety expert and glider pilot.  Within six minutes he and his crew were able to glide the plane down onto the Hudson River and save all one hundred and fifty passengers on board.  The airplane crew wanted the mission of saving the souls aboard, prioritized, and completed their mission.

Now think about your mission.  What do you want to do?  Can you forgo the should, ought, must, have to, and need to ideas and think, “What do I want for my mission?”  Then, simply prioritize the steps to accomplish this ultimate want.  Let there be no confusion, embarrassment, shame, disgust, disappointment, boredom, hesitation, fear, or any other impediment come into your “wanting” to do something important and good.  You can make a difference.  A successful mission can continue right now.


The key is not to prioritize what's on your schedule, but to schedule your priorities.

- Stephen Covey, American educator and author


Activity:  If you could wave a magic wand…..

Materials:  Paper and pen or pencil

Time:  Ten minutes to write and ten minutes for each group member to discuss their answers.


1.  If you could wave a magic wand and have the mission you want, what would it be?  If you already have the mission you want, ask this question, “If you could wave a magic wand and make something happen in your mission, what would it be?”  Write down your answer at the top of a piece of paper.

2. Under your answer, list what would have to happen in order to make this mission “want” come true.

3. Next prioritize this list and write an action plan for making each item come true.  Prioritize by listing each “want” and putting a date and plan for accomplishing it.

4. Discuss your answers with your group.  If you are not in a group, find a friend or family member to discuss your answers and see if they can be of help to making this “want” come true.


I am prioritizing, so I can …… We’d like to hear your story about being putting first things first. Write your story below.