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The Illusion of “Priorities”

When everything is important, nothing is

There never seem to be enough hours in the day, am I right? I found myself doing this recently I’ll write up a list of tasks for the day in no particular order (problem #1) and attempt to work through them all with equal importance. I began to look at my workday as a bunch of critically important tasks, juggling and bouncing between one and the other attempting to give each equal attention.

In a recent email newsletter that I receive called “The Hustle”, they published a long-form post about burnout. In it, they talk about the word/concept of “Priorit-ies” or in my case trying to juggle a ton of different tasks thinking each to be equally important, and how this is a relatively new term. If we’ve talked recently, then you know I am currently fascinated with words.

Side note: I highly recommend subscribing to “The Hustle” as it’s a great resource for information and one of the only emails that I read almost daily.

A search through the world literature on Google N-Gram shows that the term “priorities” was practically nonexistent before the factory boom following World War II.

Before that, only the singular version of the word — priority — was widely used. Almost never before had human beings attempted to take on too many things as most important or critical.

A sobering realization for myself after looking back at the last few years is that the idea of multiple priorities is an illusion: Two things can be important, but they can’t both be the most important. When I have had the most success it’s been in committing to doing 1 thing, at a time, really really well.

When people say they have multiple priorities, what they’re really saying is that they have a hard time prioritizing. They are unwilling to make difficult, potentially uncomfortable decisions about what should take precedence over everything else.

I see this all the time in terms of health and fitness. That’s why now when someone comes in for the first time to talk with me about joining Fortitude I will ask them about their goals and then ask if it’s a priority for them to achieve those goals. If yes, I can lay out a plan to help. If no, we need to have a longer conversation to determine are the goals listed deep enough and/or are we the right place to help.

The truth is that juggling too many balls increases the risk of tiring out or dropping them all. The way to combat that is learning to take time to figure out which proverbial balls are actually important — and which need to be dropped.

Here are some tips to help. First, make your list of priorities then answer:

  1. Is this task still important, or has the situation changed? Often we commit to tasks that seem important at the time but become less important as situations evolve.
  1. Am I really the only person who can do this? Many top performers think that doing something on their own is easier than teaching or hiring someone else to do it. Trust your tribe and outsource when necessary.
  1. Is this the most important thing right now? Or am I using it to avoid something else? Deep down, you know when you’re doing this.
  1. If this was the only thing I completed today, would I be satisfied with my day? Part of success is focusing on work that will give us a sense of accomplishment.

You can do this with the BIG things like fitness or family time and with the little things like work tasks, chores, and daily to-dos. Have separate planning or reflection sessions for each. Remember, two things can be important, but they can’t both be the most important.

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