Do your choices reflect your priorities?

Do your choices reflect your priorities?

“Don’t tell me where your priorities are. Show me where you spend your money and I’ll tell you what they are.”

– James W. Frick

On face value, that quote about priorities from James W. Frick is right. After all, actions speak louder than words; your choices reflect your priorities. It’s easy enough to say you want to save money or buy a house, but your monthly bank balance will tell you where your priorities really lie.

Or will they? Do people actually spend their money or time in ways that reflect their priorities in life? Do you go after what is important in life?

I know I don’t.



For a very long time, I’ve needed to research our investment options and start a share portfolio. I know that index or exchange traded funds (EFTs) are the most popularly advised way to get into the market, but I wanted to look into ethical investing before committing our savings to the ASX 300.

The problem was I was always too busy. Of course, fear played a big part in my busyness – the thought of losing our savings because of my bad investment decision was pretty crippling and humans hate to lose more than they like to win.

Still, I’ve had no excuse. I’m writing a personal finance blog after all! I know how important it is to start investing as soon as possible and I know very well how much we’re losing keeping our money in cash.

My priority was to start a share portfolio, yet I was prioritising everything else. Sound familiar?

Why Your Choices Don’t Reflect Your Priorities: Cognitive Tunnelling

In “Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much”, Princeton University psychology and public affairs professor Eldar Shafir and Harvard University economist Sendhil Mullainathan describe the concept of cognitive or mental tunnelling. What is it? It’s when you’re completely focused on managing the current problem or deadline in a situation of scarcity, to the exclusion of everything else that’s not related.

Simply put, your focus is on what’s in the mental tunnel and everything else – important or not, reflecting your priorities or not – is outside of the cognitive tunnel. Shafir and Mullainathan explain that this is the reason our actions don’t always reflect our priorities. And the cause is scarcity, whether that’s time or money.

When you’re on the treadmill of everyday life, just keeping up with all your responsibilities means that important issues like making a will, researching shares, calling the bank to get a better interest rate are on the backburner waiting until you have a free moment.

Needless to say, mental tunnelling comes at a big cost.

In fact, it’s why Paula Pant suggests we should stop making goals all together because they cause us to miss the bigger picture.

Neglected Financial Must Do’s

I’ve been in a tunnel recently that’s called blogging. It takes up a huge amount of my time. There’s always something more to be done even if I’ve just spent 6 hours straight on it and it’s completely addictive so it never feels like work.

On the outside of the tunnel there’s:

  • Starting a share portfolio
  • Researching investment property optionsDo your money choices reflect your priorities in life
  • Opening a kid’s bank account for the little one
  • Spending family time with my husband and the little one

Not taking action on the first 3 is costing me big time financially and yet, I’ve been willing to accept this for the trade off that this blog might one day provide a return on investment.

So, trading away virtually guaranteed income for possible future income. It doesn’t make any sense. I’m totally missing the big picture.

Stepping Out of the Mental Tunnel

The way to get out of the tunnel is to cut yourself some slack. Stop packing your life too tightly and not leaving any slack. Plan moments in your week – a half an hour here and there – that are intentionally left open.

With that in mind, I’m ending this post right here to give myself some slack and research ethical investing in Australia. I’ll leave you to tackle whatever task you’ve been meaning to do, but haven’t gotten around to.

Do you have a system to making sure important but not essential tasks get done?

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10 thoughts on “Do your choices reflect your priorities?”

  • The cognitive tunnel is suchh a hard one for me to get past. I probably have a list of about 25 To-Dos-When-I-Have-Free-Time in my OneNote page, but the list has just been building for weeks. Thanks for the reminder, it’s so easy to forget when there seem to be a million and one things you “have” to do.

    Side note – I really like how the blog is progressing! It’s been fun to see it get better and better with time. Keep it up!

    • Aww…thanks Matt, I really appreciate it 🙂 I love writing to do lists because it feels like progress, but the tasks have such a habit of building up. I often go through phases of trying to make no new commitments just to clear the list, but life gets in the way so it’s pretty challenging.

  • This sounds all too familiar to me as well. At ProBlogger I learnt about the 15 minute challenge that Darren Rowse used to write an ebook over a 4 month period. Spend the first 15 minutes a day on your most important task. I am yet to implement it, but I think it might be a good way to stay on track,

    • That sounds like a great idea Cath. It’s always possible to find a spare 15 minutes and it’s amazing how those small chunks of time, when put to good use, really add up.

  • I absolutely agree. Often people say they really want something but then their actions speak so much louder than their words. When I find myself falling into this trap I make a commitment to just get started. If I start working on a project and I really want to complete it, it will happen. Getting started can be the hardest part. If I find myself lagging I question whether it is really something I want or something I feel I should do for other reasons, sometimes it falls off the list.

    • Yes, getting started is really hard, especially on meaningful projects because then the risk feels that much higher. Conversely, tossing something off the list that you that you wanted, but never get around to doing can also be really hard. But it’s so liberating when you free yourself from those should’s..

  • I hear you. There are a lot of things I should be doing myself that I often advise other people to do. This week I forced myself to take action on cancelling a delivered subscription to the AFR – I found I wasn’t actually reading it on a Saturday as I had planned to so will stick with the online version only. I also finally got around to negotiating a better deal on my electricity account.

    If we did everything we should do there would be little time left for fun, but those little tweaks can make a huge difference down the line.

    • That’s the trouble isn’t it Serina – we work too much! It was recently reported that ‘work’ consists of any activities that you could get paid for, even if you don’t like child care. By that definition, I have about an hour a day when I’m not ‘working’ and so the last thing I want to do is all those tasks that are important but not that much fun.

  • Wow! Never heard of the cognitive tunneling before. It certainly resonates. I can see how dealing with scarcity can blind you to more important things. Have you read Scott Adam’s book How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big.? He, like Paula, frowns on goals too. In fact, his says goals are for “losers.” Anyway, he’s a big proponent of systems–something along the lines of the 15-minute challenge that what commenter Cath mentioned. Thanks for a very informative and provocative post, Eliza. It really made me think. Bravo.

    • Thanks Mr Groovy! I haven’t heard of the book, sounds great though and I’ll definitely check it out. Who would have thought that goals could be for “losers”? I do have a soft spot for books that challenge my thinking 🙂

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