Priority, Not Priorities

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I recently checked out the audiobook version of Essentialism by Greg McKeown and while I am not yet finished, there has already been much to think about. The book itself is a proposal for a better life, a self-help book of sorts but with practical application. It is not about giving you another set of rules to follow for success, romance, or finance but rather a way of decluttering your life and tailoring it to your needs, wants and interests.

In our society, we are constantly inundated with expectations that, for the most part, are not our own. We are expected to go to another board meeting despite the high chance that it will have nothing to do with us. We are expected to go to random social events because, well, the more people there the better they probably look. We don’t want to hurt peoples feelings, so we sacrifice our own. For what? To keep good social standing? So that we have that many more people at our funeral? Why are we so caught up doing the things we don’t want to be doing? This is the thesis of McKeown’s book: what is it that is of highest importance to you? And if you are not already doing it, then why not?

Early on in the book, McKeown talks about the word ‘priorities’ and why this is a corruption of the word ‘priority’. The word ‘priority’ was introduced around the 14th century and meant the most important point or goal taking place above all else. It wasn’t until the early 20th century that we pluralized this word.[1] As many of us have come to find out, we are not effective at multitasking. The human brain is not meant to take on several tasks at once, should this happen, you are doing several tasks at various degrees of effort.[2] It is said that we only have so much cognitive bandwidth and to divide this among multiple tasks means that none of the tasks will be done to our maximum capacity and efficiency. The more you divide, the less cognitive bandwidth you have to put into a separate task. Take me for example, I am currently writing this article while watching my ten month old play with toys. I simply can not do both at the same time, so I am constantly jumping between the activity of writing and watching my child. The result? Probably the formation of sentences that aren’t as clear as they could be had I only been writing this (I appreciate your understanding).

You are probably saying to yourself, well that’s great but we live in a world that is meant to multitask. Very true, which is why we need to give ourselves a long hard look and examine what needs to stay and what needs to go. We must identify our priority not our priorities. What is essential? What is the number 1 focus and let’s just stop there. Imagine your brain as a computer, on any given moment you might have several applications open: listening to music, three different social media apps, two different emails, four different word documents, whatever randomness you are searching on the internet and, just for a cherry on top, the latest “free-to-play” game that’s out.[3] All these different activities result in your computer running slowly. Your brain is no different. When you have multiple things on the go, you simply cannot think or focus clearly. While you might not be able to close all your applications down and just run one (I know I can’t stop watching my daughter), you can close down most of the other ones. With particular emphasis on the ones you don’t need.

This returns to my original point, there is so much unnecessary distraction in our lives. I say this because I used to be a willing victim of it all. I had all the social media accounts and all the time eating games out there. My life was one big distraction. I couldn’t focus on anything because I had something else burning in the back of my brain. I couldn’t enjoy the moment because there was another moment to think about or enjoy. While I am in no sense a master of the practice of essentialism, it is something that I want to incorporate and something that I truly believe will benefit you as well. So look at your life and ask yourself, what windows can I start closing down? Do I need this? Is this a good use of my time? Because time is the ultimate resource and it is not renewable. How you choose to spend your time is what makes you a free person. So choose wisely. Cut the distraction out of your life and I promise you, you will feel happier and more fulfilled.

There is a reason why people lose faith in politicians and leaders in general. Their goals are too vast, too numerous. They lack singular focus. They lack priority in favor of priorities. This is usually done to appease as many people as possible and ‘win them over’ but the results are often that everyone becomes equally dissatisfied (unless they are superheroes and able to achieve everything they promise). Perhaps this happens to you? You make so many promises but end up disappointing someone or worse yet, you spread yourself out so thin you don’t have time for you and you can’t give anything your full potential if you are not at 100 percent to begin with.

So ask yourself, right now, what is your top priority? What is the first thing you need to do today before you do anything else? Once you complete that, then you move onto your next objective. Give this one thing your most attention, effort and presence instead of completing multiple goals at once. If you can achieve this, then you are on your way to being an essentialist.

-R.G.


[1] McKeown, Greg. Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less (2014).

[2] See Salvucci, Dario D. & Taatgen, Niels A. The Multitasking Mind (2011) for further information and research on why the human brain can only effectively do one task well at a time.

[3] Don’t get me started on “free-to-play” games.