Prioritizing the Truly Important

Whenever I start to think seriously about the obstacles to accomplishing goals and doing cool things, I always come back to a deceptively simple phrase I heard from Merlin Mann: “First, care.” (His essay of that name is super short and worthy of your time. Even if you’ve read it before, it’s worth reading again.)

Awareness is the first step toward caring. But it is only the first step.

What makes the “First, care.” direction so deceptively simple is this: of course you care. Of course I care about my weight, every time I look in the mirror I think “Do not want!” I find my weight unattractive. Of course I care about the mess that my office is, everyday I say to myself “Someone should really clean this place up.”

Caring is a complex thing. Awareness is the first step toward caring. “I know I weigh too much.” “I know my house is a mess.” But it is only the first step. We frequently miss that fact.

As intelligent people, we’re perfectly capable (perhaps even too capable) of having thoughts we don’t do anything about. We’re perfectly capable of thinking that things matter to us that we don’t actually care about. We think we can make everything a priority — it’s all so important — that we miss the reality that we’re systematically focusing on nothing.

Put very frankly, without a bullet-proof organization system people are capable of actively making progress in a few large, over-arching areas of life at once. Your priorities might sanely be a list like: diet, exercise, and career. You can swap these into and out of focus over days and weeks, and see concrete change that’ll impress you and keep you interested.

But you cannot sustain a list of priorities that looks like “buy a new car, build a stronger relationship with my brother, exercise more, meditate regularly, organize the office, find the love of my life, figure out if I want to go back to school, pursue new job opportunities, and repaint the guest bedroom.” There’s too much there for you to sanely keep in your head, never mind do. And by holding your failures in one of these areas against yourself, you can easily make progress even harder by convincing yourself of your worthlessness and impotence. That you’re just not the kind of person who can lose weight, or stay organized.

You can do small things about each item in that long list of “priorities”, but unless you reduced the list’s length, the cognitive weight of each of them pressing on you will be your most substantial progress toward accomplishing them.

Reduce and clarify: pick the few things that you’re going to change about your life in the next year, and plan to systematically focus on them. It’s from there that you can start to do the work of building the life you want.