The word “priorities” is a bit of a misnomer. By definition, a priority is a thing that is regarded as more important than another. If we have a list of important items, logically only one of them can be the absolute most important.
We all have lots to do or lots we’d like to do. We have big goals and even bigger dreams. As a result, we attempt to make everything—our health, our relationships, our careers, our families, our home, our bodies, our interests, our personal projects—a priority. But by prioritizing everything, we effectively prioritize nothing. And often, the result is that little, if nothing, actually improves. One reason is because the energy behind our priorities gets spread too thin and becomes watered down. When this happens, the power to make significant progress diminishes and many of our so-called priorities get abandoned or fall by the wayside.
The best advice I have read on setting a true priority is in the book The One Thing by Gary Keller, the founder of real estate powerhouse Keller Williams. In the book, Keller expands upon Pareto’s Principle, also known as the “80/20 rule”. This concept, named after Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto, stipulates that 80% of effects come from 20% of causes.
Keller explains that the secret to really excelling and attaining mastery is to “80/20 your 80/20” until you arrive at your “one thing”. And then to work that one thing to the exclusion of almost everything else.
For example, if your business has 25 money-generating priorities, it is likely that 5 (20%) of them will account for 80% of revenues. And of that 5, one (20% of 5) will potentially account for the lions share—about 64% (80% x .80).
Imagine that. One primary activity accounting for two-thirds of your revenue. I know this to be true from my experiences doing freelance graphic design work. While the invoicing, phone calls, emails, meetings, networking, and file preparation are certainly important, is it the actual time at the computer creating killer work that brings in the money. And this 80/20 idea holds true for other areas of your life as well.
Narrowing our priorities down to a single actionable priority reminds me of a scene—also featured in Keller’s book— from one of my favorite movies, City Slickers. In it, city slicker Mitch, played by Billy Crystal, is having a conversation about life with the grizzled, trail-hardened cowboy Curly, played by the late, great Jack Palance.
Curly: Do you know what the secret of life is?
Mitch: No. What?
Curly: This. [He holds up one finger.]
Mitch: Your finger?
Curly: One thing. Just one thing. You stick to that and everything else don’t mean sh*t.
Mitch: That’s great, but what’s the “one thing”?
Curly: That’s what you’ve got to figure out.
Great advice. But if the thought of having just “one thing” or putting all your eggs in one basket feels too uncomfortable, here are some ideas for focusing your priorities:
1. Periodization. Popular in sports training, periodization is the systematic planning and progressive cycling of training designed to achieve optimum results in a specific time frame (i.e. peaking on race day, etc). To take advantage of periodization, set a time limit in which to focus your efforts on one priority. Maybe it is a year, or a month, or just for this week. Hit it hard. Repeat for your next priority.
2. Categories. Pick a few (no more than 3 or 4) areas you’d like to focus on and set a singular priority for each category. For your health, maybe it is to drink more water each day. For your career, maybe it is to spend an hour a day improving your skills. You get the picture.
Remember, when you prioritize too many things, you often end up giving them weak, unfocused effort—if you even do them at all. When you take time to prioritize your priorities and figure out your one thing, you’ll see your results take off.