I was reading a book recently called Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less.
In it, author Greg McKeown mentioned the word priority. It made me think about the term in a way that I’d never before considered.
“We have our top priorities that need to be accomplished asap”
“We need to have a meeting to establish our top priorities”
“I don’t have time for these top 3 priorities”
One common string when we use the word priority is that we often find it in its plural form. The interesting thing is that the plural form didn’t come into widespread use until the early 1900s.
The word priority comes from the latin word prior; to take precedence in right or rank. When we set a priority, we aim to focus on that most important task which needs to be accomplished. It is the one thing that takes precedence over everything else, hence why it is dubbed the priority.
This also means that no, we cannot have multiple priorities. Multitasking, while many would hedge bets on their ability to do it proficiently, is actually not possible. We can do one task at a time; performing the actions of one task, and quickly moving to another, and then back to the former does not mean you are multitasking.
Rather, it is the act of giving activities our divided attention, and thus performing each more poorly than if we allotted them our full focus.
Interestingly, the word multitask didn’t come into widespread use until the early 1900s, much like priorities mentioned above.
Both words stem from the idea that we can do everything, at the same time, with the same level of proficiency. This may have had something to do with the Industrial Revolution coming to fruition towards the end of the 18th century. Bringing the idea that with the onset of industrial production we could produce in the largest of quantities with higher quality than ever before.
While this may be true for industrial production machines, we humans cannot do the same. We made those machines for a reason- they could do something which we could not. We can, however, use our creative capacities to focus and create tools and systems thereby increasing our productivity. It’s our ability to prioritize a single task that leads to extraordinary results.
I write about this because in this day and age many of us experience overwhelm. We have too many things to do, and never enough time to do them. We make to-do lists and mark the top 5 as our “top priorities”, and either don’t finish them or do them all less efficiently than we would have liked. Perhaps we should use the word ‘priority’ in the way in which it was intended.
When we look at our to-do list, don’t make 5 “priorities”. Instead, carefully consider what needs to be done. Choose one, only one thing which absolutely must be accomplished, and make that your priority. Then complete that one task. I think you’ll find that your world hasn’t fallen apart, and you’ve done work that you can be proud of. The other tasks will be completed, but only after your priority is done.
In my own life, there are always things that need to be finished. They all feel incredibly urgent. It’s like a hive of bees buzzing around my head. I have to swat them or I’ll get stung. The good news is that tasks aren’t bees. While it might feel urgent to get them all done, I’ve found that I get more done and with less stress when I focus my energy on one task until completion. After that task is done, I can now set the next task as the priority. And so on and so forth.
Eventually, all the tasks are done, without stress and with a professional acumen that could not be achieved by attempting them all at once.
Next time you feel an urge to charge at your mountain of work, take a pause. Decide on one urgent task, and do just that one.
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