The Myth of Priorities

Today I met with my MasterMind group partner, and we started out our meeting by holding each other accountable for what we’d said we’d do the previous week.

“Did you announce your Defining Moment Webinar class?” she asked.

“Yes, I did!” I said, and sent her the link. You can see for yourself; I’m pretty excited about it, and if you think it’s interesting, feel free to register (here endeth the oh-so-subtle plug). I checked my notes from last week, and turned the tables on her.

“You were going to consolidate all of your to-do lists into One List,” I said. “Did you?”

“I did!” she exclaimed triumphantly (see, that’s what’s so great about Mastermind Groups). “I’ve got about seventeen things I want to do right now,” she continued, “and eleven things that are…well, I can do them later.”

I laughed – not at her, of course, but with her, because I’m the same way. My backburner’s backburners have backburners, and there’s never not a project I could be working on.

One of the favorite verbs of the Productivity People is “prioritize”. We hear it as parental advice, too: “That boy needs to get his priorities straight!” The problem with that kind of counsel, though, is that it’s about as meaningful as saying “That boy needs to find himself a unicorn!”

There Can Be Only One

In his book Essentialism David McKeown talks about how surprised he was when he looked up the lexicon of “priority”. The word was coined in the 14oo’s, it seems, but with one major difference from today: it was singular. That is, there was no plural form, because after all, it meant “that which is first.” There can’t be more than one thing with that ranking. Picture the Olympics: “The Gold Medal goes to…Ukraine! And the…other Gold medal…um…”

But in the 1900’s, as McKeown put it, industries tried to “bend reality” by deciding there were priorities – as if more than one thing could be “the most important”. In fact, what they did by pluralizing the word was take away it’s meaning – or, I will reluctantly admit, expand its meaning, much in the same annoying way that “literally” now also means “figuratively”. Instead of something being “the priority” – the most important thing – it could be “a priority” – one of several important things.

But by doing that, they irrevocably made the word less meaningful. “Make this the priority!” is not unclear as to what should come first. “Make this a priority” leaves a few choices open to debate or consideration. It dilutes the impact, and, I feel, the purpose of the word.

Why do I bring this up? Because of the squirrels, man, all the verdammt squirrels that keep on jumping into life and trying to become the priority. I think they sometimes wear little t-shirts that say “I’m a priority, too!” that make us want to make room in life for them.

The t-shirts are a lie, my friend. You can have multiple priorities…but you can only have them one at a time. Anyone who tells you otherwise is trying to sell you something.



Hey! Did you know we’re putting all these on a YouTube Channel now?

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