The Understated Power of Sorting Out Your Priorities

We’re always finding ways to do more.

The buzzword today is hustle. Go out there, chase after your goal, and make connections. Only then can you make your mark.

Yet at a certain point, fatigue sets in. There’s only so much that can be done. No matter how productive or effective you are, there are only 24 hours in a day. There’s only so much that we can healthily optimise for.

More problematically, our decision-making hasn’t caught up with the abundance of information and choices that we have now. We put off making decisions — we decide to not decide — and instead pursue all the opportunities in front of us. The approach is well and good until one reaches the saturation point, where there’re too many choices for us to reasonably pursue. At that point in time, we’re burned out and it’s too late.

It seems that there’s probably a better way to do things. So why do we keep doing things the same way?

‘Hell Yeah’ Or No

When Derek Sivers started CD Baby, he wasn’t planning on building a major business.

He was a successful independent musician who just wanted to sell his CDs online. When no one would help him do it, he set out on his own and built an online store from scratch. It worked out extremely well as he never stopped hustling and chasing down opportunities.

But along the way, Derek realised something.

He wasn’t always enthusiastic about attending conferences or networking sessions. Doing more had led him to develop a habit of agreeing to do things out of obligation, and this was draining valuable time and money. He had set himself up to make suboptimal default choices.

From then on, he developed a new philosophy that he would use to guide him whenever he was over-committed or scattered. It’s simple:

If you’re not saying “HELL YEAH!” about something, say “no”. When you say no to most things, you leave room in your life to really throw yourself completely into that rare thing that makes you say “HELL YEAH!”

This approach might not make the most sense for those who haven’t made the most of their time. For people who fall into this category, putting yourself out there makes plenty of sense. But for many of us, this is often not the case. We have some sort of opportunity that we can already capitalise on, but we are constantly looking for more.

As Derek says in Anything You Want, there’s only a finite amount of time we have. His philosophy is sound advice for those who have taken on too much. Work on things you care about and ignore the others. Saying yes to less is the way out.

The 90 Percent Rule

Trade-offs are necessary when you are at full capacity. Every action carries an opportunity cost; sometimes that opportunity cost may be greater than the cost of inaction itself.

An essentialist approach to life is thus needed. It’s a matter of prioritising, and realising that we must practise extreme self-selection to truly thrive.

That’s what Greg McKeown advocates in Essentialism: “only once you give yourself permission to stop trying to do it all, to stop saying yes to everyone, can you make your highest contribution towards the things that really matter”.

McKeown offers his 90 per cent rule: that all opportunities should be scrutinised under extreme criteria. He pursues opportunities that are only a ‘9’ on a scale of 10, no matter how many perfectly good ‘7’s and ‘8’s he receives. The effect is that he passes on a good 90% of opportunities. But he knows that good opportunities don’t matter as much as having the right one.

To McKeown, there are the trivial many and the vital few. There are far more good opportunities and activities in the world than we really have time for. No matter how good the opportunity may be, it can very well still be trivial if it doesn’t help us to reach where we want to go. For this reason, selecting and committing only to the vital few is more important than ever.

Fear Of Missing Out

Of course, this is easier said than done.

When we speak of living better, we often talk about addition rather than subtraction. And as we’ve become more connected to each other, we’ve become more easily influenced by each other as well. If a peer participates in an activity, we feel that we should as well. And if we don’t, we feel anxious and excluded.

There’s even a name for this phenomenon – FOMO (fear of missing out).

FOMO exists everywhere. There’s the fear that you are missing out on an opportunity. Fear that you didn’t meet someone you should. Fear that you’re lagging behind. FOMO has been the greatest hurdle to living like an essentialist. I imagine we combat FOMO better — if only slightly — as we age, but for now it’s a constant struggle.

McKeown has a proposition: consider the joy of missing out (JOMO) instead. Relish missing out on the non-essentials. Place value on making the decision to pass on something and understand that missing out can manifest opportunity in its own ways too.

As he says, “We’ve been oversold the value of more and undersold the value of less.”

A Question Of Priorities

It’s often said that if we don’t prioritise our lives, someone else will. It’s true to a great extent, but it’s surprising how we often fail.

We do this by having multiple priorities. We make a list and decide that these are our priorities; sometimes the list numbers more than a few items. But the effect is that when we prioritise everything, we prioritise nothing. McKeown explains once again in Essentialism:

“The word priority came into the English language in the 1400s. It was singular. It 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.”

There’s comfort in having multiple priorities. It signals some level of ambition and gives us the feeling that we’re making progress. But the reality is that this serves only to distract us from what’s really important.

When we internalise this truth, making a conscious effort to do less seems far easier. Each inaction — or action to avoid less work — becomes an indirect way of supporting our most important goals.

Having multiple priorities don’t help us achieve them.