A very helpful way to thinking about stress is that it often results from our failure to live up to our own standards and goals. Psychotherapists hear over and over again from patients that they are never satisfied with themselves. Often the patient is excessively perfectionistic; sometimes the patient’s goals are so far out of reach that he feels too demoralized to even take the first step.

Having goals that are unrealistically high can certainly contribute to stress. But many of us don’t even know what our goals are. Some people think they know exactly what principles are important to them, and what their objectives are in life. Others are mystified by this subject, believing that they never think about their values and goals. Both can be very wrong. We do live our lives by certain values and principles, and we do have a sense of what we would like to accomplish for ourselves, but these are largely unconscious. It takes some thought to make ourselves aware of our core values and principles.

Most of us have done values clarification exercises. Here’s one I like: Imagine I drive up to your house in a big trailer truck and unload a steel I-beam 120 feet long, about a foot wide, in your street. All the neighbors come out to look. I put you at one end, me at the other, and I take out a hundred dollar bill. I ask you to walk across the I-beam without stepping off, in under two minutes; if you do, I’ll give you the hundred dollars.

Now let’s load the I-beam back on the truck and drive to lower Manhattan. I’ll hoist the beam up to the top of the World Trade Center. We anchor one end of the beam on each tower. If you’ve been up there, you know it’s very windy, and it’s usually misty. The beam is damp, and jiggles a little in the wind. Now will you walk across for a hundred dollars? How about $10,000? How about a million?

Now let’s suppose I’m a different sort of character. I’m on one tower, you’re on the other, and I have your two year old child. If you’re not here in two minutes, I’ll drop her. Will you try it? Most people will cross the beam for $100 if their life isn’t in danger, but won’t do it for a million when it’s really dangerous; on the other hand, most are willing to risk it for the sake of their child.

This is an exercise in prioritizing values. If you’re making a deliberate effort to get your life in harmony, this is the place to start. What will you cross the I-beam for?

If the most important thing in life to you is your family, why don’t you spend more time with them? The answer is that your activities aren’t in synch with your priorities. “Things are in the saddle, and ride mankind,” said Emerson. But we feel best about ourselves when we feel that our everyday activities are a step toward our long-range goals. If we want to do what’s truly important to us, we have to make a conscious and deliberate effort to prioritize.

I’ll give you a simple method to organize yourself so that you are spending more time doing what is really important to you and less time getting lost in the clutter of life and not being able to attend to what’s really important. I have a simple four step process to help us get our actions in line with our priorities:

  1. Make your action plans realistic and concrete. Make them require some effort, but don’t make them impossible. Be somewhat flexible, and give yourself leeway for your own state of mind. Just don’t give up. Goals are simply statements of how we want things to be. To be helpful, goals should be specific, concrete, and measurable. I want to have more fun–what’s in the way right now? Mostly, right now it’s the nagging back pain that saps my energy. To deal with that, I’d better exercise, diet, and invest in some medical care, even though I’d rather not. To gain a long-term advantage, I have to put myself through some short-term pain.
  2. Make your action plans realistic and concrete. Make them require some effort, but don’t make them impossible. Be somewhat flexible, and give yourself leeway for your own state of mind. Just don’t give up. Do some of our goals conflict with others? If my most important goal is to run a lean, efficient charitable organization, but I also want to have a big house and vacation in Europe every year, I’m setting myself up for depression. In the long run, we doom ourselves if our goals are in conflict. We are grown-ups and we have to face the fact that we can’t have it all. And it’s necessary to really give up. If you decide that a big house is not a primary goal for you, make a public commitment to giving up that dream. Talk it over with your spouse and friends. Have a ritual: light a fire in the backyard and burn up all the magazines you’ve been saving with beautiful pictures of mansions.
  3. Partialize. Then start making action plans about the goals you really do want to accomplish. What are your professional goals for this year? Where would you like to be in five years? At retirement? Do your goals for this year take you closer to your long-range goals? If they don’t, they should. Maybe you have to focus a lot for the present on simple survival strategies. But you will feel better if you can add to your daily activities something that will help you get to your long-term goals. When we feel that our everyday activities are in agreement with our basic values and take us a step further toward who and where we want to be, we add to our self-esteem and we have a little more evidence that we can have an impact on our fate.Make your action plans realistic and concrete. Make them require some effort, but don’t make them impossible. Be somewhat flexible, and give yourself leeway for your own state of mind. Just don’t give up.
  4. Review. Finally, review your goals, and your progress toward them, regularly. Make sure that you have given yourself permission to change your goals. For goals that remain important, look at your action plans. Are there things you should be doing differently? Build some time into your routine when you can review your progress–at New Year’s, on your annual vacation, monthly when you pay the bills, on a regular date with your spouse. Give yourself credit for doing what you’ve done, make new plans for doing what could be done better, and let the rest go.