The Importance of Importance: Using design thinking to prioritize your personal goals


August 30, 2019

By Lala Rillera

“How can I fix my life?” It’s a question we’ve all asked ourselves at certain points and one I recently tried to answer for myself. My career seemed to be taking off, but my personal life was reading like the book Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day. I knew something needed to change. After some dark days, I wondered what I could pull from my designer-life tool belt and transfer to my personal-life fanny pack to get myself back on the right track—MY track.

Turns out, the answer was design thinking—the solution-focused skeleton key for “wicked problems” of all shapes and sizes, be they digital or analog.

I set out to collect and visualize all of the various ways in which I wanted to change my life. From there, I would work backwards, from the end goal to each actionable step for achievement.

To brainstorm and capture the large quantity of various data types, I used a design-thinking tool called affinity mapping. This process was developed in the 1950s by Prof. Jiro Kawakita to help prioritize actions and improve decision making when resources are limited.

The exercise indeed bubbled up a beautiful map of the various types of goals that I was interested in accomplishing—and it turns out that I’m interested in a LOT of things. (I might be interested in too many things.) So the problem then became: how can I better prioritize all of these interests?

I needed to backtrack and reevaluate my priorities based on importance. But how does one determine the importance of importance?

To Quantify the Qualitative Data

Everyone has their own ideas about what is and should be important. There is no rule that states, “Your action must be 80 percent important based on the standard level of importance in order for it to make your life worth living.” No. Importance is in the heart and mind of the beholder.

What can be done, however, is to create a standard method by which each of us determine our own importance metrics. We do this by creating an “importance map”—in other words, take the same exercise that was done for the goal mapping and repurpose it for importance.

To brainstorm and capture what you feel is important, think about what motivates you. Here’s how. All you’ll need to perform this exercise is a Sharpie and two different colored pads of sticky notes.

Step 1: Ask yourself, “What motivates me?” If you’re already stumped by this question, break it down into smaller, snackable bites:

  • What interests me?
  • What makes me happy?
  • What is meaningful to me?
  • What kind of people matter to me?
  • What kind of actions matter to me?
  • What kind of places matter to me?

Write down as many answers as come to mind, one answer per sticky note.

Step 2: Sort all your stickies into similar groups. For example:

  • Music
  • Creativity
  • Teaching
  • Self-investment
  • Relationships
  • Finances
  • Health
  • Career

Step 3: Using your second sticky note color, give a category name to each of your groups.

Step 4: Sort your category names from least to most motivating.

Now you have your importance map.

Returning to the goals exercise with the assistance of this new instrument of measurement, you now have a way to prioritize actions based on importance. Intentional actions can become more meaningful when based on one’s own standards. In other words, your actions have integrity with yourself. When you don’t focus on what’s important to you, you’ll likely end up focused on what’s important to someone else.

A New Lens

I’ve been goal-mapping for years now. I have a fairly large amount of data from year to year that I can compare and analyze to see my own types of personal performance metrics. I recently discovered that the high-level goals I had set for the next three years are 68 percent complete.

But I also realized that these metrics were being measured by importance when importance was defined as success, not importance in the sense of “meaningfulness.” Those are two very different lenses.

If I measure my progress by career success, yes, I do get a certain structure for goal prioritization, along with a number to mark my percentage of achievement. But what would happen if I recalibrated to measure my progress based on personal happiness? In other words, I want to change from “importance = success” to “importance = happiness and meaningfulness.”

With this in mind, I decided to do a v02 of my priorities through this new lens. The biggest surprise was that my previous top priority—determined through the lens of success—now landed dead last when prioritizing through the lens of meaningfulness.

Though it was a “eureka” moment, it was also something of an “of course” moment. The success lens had clouded my judgment about what was really personally important to me—hence my crisis of purpose.

If you’re finding that the decisions you’re making are leading to disappointment, it’s likely because they’re based on short-term successes. While importance can be subjective and therefore somewhat unquantifiable, viewing it through the lens of design thinking can actually help you quantify the unquantifiable. Planning and acting for long-term achievement and personal fulfillment may not show immediate results, but the eventual payoff is more than worth the investment.

Laura "Lala" Rillera is a Design Consultant.

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