Many people confuse activity with productivity. They may be busy, but they're not making measurable progress. Days turn into weeks, weeks turn into months, months turn into years, and years turn into a lifetime. If you sat them down and said, "Tell me what success is for you," they wouldn't be able to answer—or they might say something like, "I want to be happy." My dog wants to be happy, too, but what the heck does that really mean? Your task is to define what "happy" means to you, and you need to be specific.
Say you're offered a great job. If it doesn't give you what you're looking for in a career, then it's not the right move for you, no matter how good it looks on a résumé. Or think about a relationship: If everything seems 100 percent perfect but isn't going to fulfill your deepest needs, then it's a waste of time. When I began dating my wife, Robin, her priorities were very well defined: She knew, without a shadow of a doubt, that she was put on this earth to be a mother—and she made sure I knew it, too. I still remember the time she told me, "That's who I want to be and what I want to do." I could have been the most dashing guy in the world, but if I hadn't wanted to have children, she was not going to spend another minute by my side. Robin is a woman who knows what she wants, and obviously I'm proud of her. (I'm also very much the beneficiary of her clear-cut goals, because we've got two sons and two grandchildren whom I adore.)
The First Step to Living Your Best Life
I think this is an important exercise even if your life is going along just great—and it becomes more necessary when things are tough. Having an end in sight can pull you through the most challenging times. It reminds me of General George S. Patton's speech to the Third Army in 1944, when he was reported to have said: "There is one great thing that you men will be able to say when this war is over and you are home once again. You may be thankful that 20 years from now, when you are sitting by the fireside with your grandson on your knee and he asks you what you did in the great World War II, you won't have to cough, shift him to the other knee, and say, 'Well, your granddaddy shoveled shit in Louisiana.' No, sir, you can look him straight in the eye and say, 'Son, your granddaddy rode with the great Third Army...." You may not be fighting a battle, but at every step of your life's journey, you will have decisions to make. How can you make the right ones if you haven't prioritized your goals?
The most you will ever get is what you ask for—so be bold enough to reach for what's truly important to you. You deserve more, and you can have more, but first you have to name it to claim it.
Dr. Phillip C. McGraw's daily talk show is in its 12th season. He has written seven best-selling books; his latest is Life Code: The New Rules for Winning in the Real World (Bird Street).