The Truth about Priorities (and Why You Don’t Need Them)

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I’ve spent a lot of time in my life playing with light. I grew up in the theater, and about the same time I learned how to read, I was starting to learn how to position and style lights to illuminate a stage and bring life to a performance. I wasn’t quite strong enough to lift one up back then, but boy did I have fun with the colors.

One thing I’ve always loved about lighting is how a single source of light can achieve so many different effects. With the right tools, it can be dim or bright, cast a warm glow or a cool gleam, hold a hard edge or a soft glow. It can throw a broad splash of light, or a concentrated beam.

The same is true for you. You are but a single source of light in this world, and yet there’s so much you can accomplish. All it takes is the right tools, and a little bit of planning.

person on dark stage standing in spotlight

There are two essential factors that determine how impactful you, just as any other light, will be: 

Direction and Focus

All other factors being perfect, a light is still useless if it is pointing the wrong way. For your hard work and strategy to mean something, you need to set them in the right direction.

Light can spread wide, and catch a little bit of everything, or it can be tightly focused and shine with great intensity on a single subject. When it comes to crushing your goals, you need to focus your power with that same sort of intensity.

Think about your biggest goals and dreams. In other words, the stuff that changes your trajectory in life, and grows who you are as a person.

You tell me: Would you rather hit those goals with the finely focused intensity of a laser beam, or with the soft splash of light that a floor lamp tosses around a living room? Some things, like doing your laundry or filing your taxes, only need that small amount of energy. But the big stuff needs everything you can give it.

There is a path to everything you want in life, and you are capable of walking that path. All you need to do is set off in the right direction, and then focus with laser-like intensity on where you are going.

To establish that level of direction and focus, we’re going to have to start by getting rid of your priorities.

Your Priorities Are Stealing Your Light

Your list of priorities is one of the greatest obstacles to achieving your goals and living your dreams.

What’s wrong with priorities? Well, it turns out, the problem starts with the word “priorities” itself.

Greg McKeown, in his eye-opening book, Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, reveals an interesting wrinkle in the evolution of the word:

“The word priority came into the English language in the 1400s. It was singular [and] meant the very first or prior thing. It stayed singular for the next five hundred years. Only in the 1900s did we pluralize the term and start talking about priorities. Illogically, we reasoned that by changing the word we could bend reality. Somehow we would now be able to have multiple ‘first’ things.”

Greg McKeown, Essentialism

Priority was only ever meant to be a singular term. Pluralizing it fundamentally changes the meaning. 

You can only truly have one priority at a time. Your light must face one direction and shine brightly on one clear subject for the best results. By trying to illuminate everything at once, your light will be scattered and ineffective.

scattered and ineffective priorities

Your current priority should always be your #1 Most Super-Important Thing. It stands above all else. One ring to rule them all, if you will.

Actually, I’m glad you brought up the Lord of the Rings. Because even the Eye of Sauron, Tolkien’s enduring symbol of an all-powerful evil, can only shine its bright, scary light in one direction at a time. It can only focus on one specific target. I keep telling people that The Two Towers is a self-help book, but I’ve been known to have unpopular opinions on what constitutes personal growth advice.

Life With a Million Priorities

Having a long list of priorities is effectively an attempt to name several #1 Most Super-Important Things, which makes no sense. For example, take a look at this to-do list, numbered in order of importance:

1. Sort the mail
1. Fold the laundry
1. Call Chuck E. Cheese about that refund
1. Finish application for your graduate degree at your dream school
1. Chop lettuce for taco night
1. Look up Chuck E. Cheese competitors in your area
1. Call back your aunt Margaret
1. Write a strongly worded letter to Charles Entertainment Cheese about how a proper business should conduct itself 

It doesn’t work, see? If this was your list, you could call all of these things “priorities.” But only one of them would have the potential to fundamentally alter the course of your life for the better. 

Obviously, I’m talking about the Chuck E. Cheese thing grad school application. Staying on top of your household chores and prepping dinner are important things too, but once you do them, they’re done and you go back to your regular life.

Higher education on the other hand, and other big goals like it, can make you a bigger person and your world a bigger place. The more life you can breathe into something like that, the better the result will be. That is why you need focus.

You can’t channel your light into a concentrated beam in multiple directions at once. It doesn’t work that way.

hand focusing sunlight on beach at sunset

So what do you do when you can only focus on one thing at a time, and you have several ‘most important’ things to do? Well, you have three options:

1. Bounce around and let chance decide where you end up

When you try to pluck things off your list without a clear vision, you end up going in any which way. Aim at nothing and you’ll hit it every time. You always need a direction.

2. Try to do it all, divide your attention, and produce subpar work

When everything is one of your priorities, nothing is. The road of trying to do everything is littered with half-measures and incompleteness. The key to accomplishment is focus.

3. Figure out your actual priority and get to it

When the entirety of your attention, energy, and substance as a person is brought to bear on a single focal point, nothing is impossible. Set yourself in a clear direction, tighten your focus to a single priority, and you’ll be unstoppable.

Priority = Clarity

Having one priority does not mean having only one thing you need to do. It means having exactly one thing that is at the center of your attention. This is the foremost thing for you to  attack with your time, energy, and other resources.

Working Smarter is one of the core building blocks of this blog, and finding your priority is at right the heart of that. Concentrating on your #1 Most Super-Important Thing changes your perception of the whole scene. The answers to many otherwise tough questions crystallize in the light of a clear priority:

  • What am I working on today?
  • What should I do first?
  • Do I have time for that too?
  • What can I put off until later?

A priority is clarity. That clarity helps you sort out what is most valuable to you. In reality, very few things are truly, deeply important for us to get done. Many create the illusion of urgency but are really just distractions that can be ignored entirely.

Everything else, that is neither a useless distraction nor a key priority, makes up your backlog. The things on your backlog still need to get done. They just aren’t your priority. This is where you’ll find that laundry basket, your IRS Form 1040, and so on.

Your priority must always come ahead of your backlog. Remember, prior = before. After you have made room for your priority task, completed it, created a plan, or reached a milestone, that is when you tackle some of the other stuff. 

Our default mode is to treat everything as equally important. And so we scatter our light all over the place in an attempt to cover it all. You can change that by concentrating your power into one spot for tremendous results. All that’s left is to figure out what that spot is.

Find Your #1 Most Super-Important Thing

It’s time to stop worrying about your priorities, and find your priority. Your true priority is your #1 Most Super-Important Thing at any given time. 

What is the one thing in your life right now that you want to change or improve, more than anything else? That is, what single goal would effect the greatest boost to your health, wealth, or happiness?

Focus on that one big goal, visualize it clearly. That is the direction you want to go. Now let’s tighten the lens.

light splashing through tree on hillside

What is the most important thing you can do today to plunge you toward your goal? What is the biggest win available to you right now? That is what you will focus on. It is the most important thing you can do for your most important goal. That makes it your #1 Most Super-Important Thing. In other words, your priority.

When you reach that level of direction and focus, turn up the dimmer and hit that priority with every lumen you’ve got. Shine so much light on the place you’re going that they can see it from space.

Focusing the full extent of your light on one core priority is the most effective way of making radical positive change in your life. Know what your goal is, and concentrate hard on the next step to reaching it. Everything else can get in line.

What’s your #1 Most Super-Important Thing today? How are you shifting from priorities to priority?

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