Self Caring

What Comes First When EVERYTHING's a Priority?

Last updated: Apr 21, 2010

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I'm in one of those patches any caregiver knows well: Too many competing demands on my time and attention all at once. I feel like I'm not serving anyone really well, even with my usual "support system" of helping hands, listening ears, and red wine. In my case, the week's overload involved a needy child, an urgent deadline, a crashed laptop, a divorce settlement, the possibility of a moved-up house closing date and searching for a new home -- layered like not-so-sweet baklava all in one week -- followed by the topper, a beloved mother-in-law dying at 94. (Not a surprise, yet a sting.)

Tilt! Tilt!

A friend going through a similar week nailed it: "How do we prioritize when all the priorities seem equally important?"

One process:

1. First, sort. Which thing(s) MUST be taken care of immediately, this day, or this week? Usually when you stop and really examine each competing priority, some are more "code red" than others on that particular day.

2. Put off. Important things that fall lower on the most-urgent list -- even if they're incredibly important -- must get postponed. So a small example in my case, no bills are being paid early this week, any non-urgent medical appointments postponed, "hanging out" time with family trimmed.

3. Fight the fires. Forget trying to multi-task 24/7. Devote some concentrated time to what you've sorted out as most-urgent that day. You drop everything for a health crisis. Or maybe you help your parent or spouse untangle a mounting insurance issue. Or you finish your work report. Simply putting your mental energy to just one thing at a time makes you more attentive and therefore productive. The downside: Other stuff stacks up. See the next point.

4. Cut yourself lots of slack. Even if you tackle it all fire-by-fire, you'll still feel nagged by not living up to everything as well as you'd like. But hey, in a perfect storm of crises, just getting through is admirable.

5. But also realize this: You're not a professional firefighter. By that I mean that while caregivers battle many blazes constantly, between eldercare and other competing needs (family, self, job), a week like mine -- where each urgent matter is in its own white-hot, super-needy mode at the same time -- should be relatively unusual. Those weeks stink, but they happen. They're quirks. If multi-system chronic-crisis is your everyday life, every week, however, that's a red warning flare. Without more help and fewer burdens, you'll soon crash and burn. (As in [burnout] (

"We live in ages and stages," my late mother-in-law was fond of saying. And for those in the caregiving-sandwich stage, it's a challenge not to turn into pulled pork on burned(out) toast.

How do you decide which competing priority to focus on first? I really want to know. Especially this week....