You’re busy. I get it. You get lots of emails. You work a lot. You’re really important to lots of people. You usually get nods of approval when you talk about the depths of your busyness.
But I’m not impressed.
Look, everyone is busy. It’s not impressive anymore. Bragging about being busy is like a fish bragging about floating downstream. Neither busyness nor floating requires any effort. Busyness is an inevitable consequence of our culture.
You do, however, have to do quite a bit of work NOT to be busy. You have to do even more work to be busy with the right things. Saying “no” is one of the most difficult parts of my life. Falling asleep thinking about work happens more often than not. Giving my time to the right people in the right proportions happened once in 2007 (and it was an accident). The current of busyness is strong and swimming upstream is not easy.
So how do we swim upstream?
Your Goals Aren’t The Problem
People think focus means saying yes to the thing you’ve got to focus on. But that’s not what it means at all. It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are. You have to pick carefully. I’m actually as proud of the things we haven’t done as the things I have done. Innovation is saying no to 1,000 things. – Steve Jobs
There is a common practice among productivity gurus called the “M.I.T.” or “Most Important Task.” An MIT is a single, actionable task for the day. If all you accomplish today is your MIT, you’ve had a good day. Setting daily MIT’s is a great habit.
But when I first implemented MIT’s, I failed constantly. The problem wasn’t that I couldn’t decide what needed to be done. I couldn’t decide what didn’t need to be done. I had too many priorities. I wanted too many things. My MIT’s were inconsistent. I couldn’t focus on one task without feeling guilty for not completing the other 10 things I also considered “most important.”
Sure, I could write down one MIT every day. Sure, I had a mission statement. Sure, I could tell you about my passions. But for every spoken priority, I had so many more unspoken, unwritten priorities. The truth is that clarifying one’s goals and aspirations is only half of the equation. And it’s the easy half.
The hard part is clarifying one’s anti-goals. The almost-passions. Someone else’s aspirations you’ve unknowingly adopted. The I.I.T.’s (“Important-ish Tasks”). The passions you’re “supposed” to have.
The thing about an Un-Priority is that it often looks and feels just like one of your real priorities. An Un-Priority isn’t something you don’t want to do, but something you do. Un-priorities are the mostly-good things that make you too busy to follow-through on your priorities. They’re the shadows of your real priorities. Prioritize an un-priority and it will give the illusion of progress, but will bring very little long-term satisfaction.
To help you identify some of the un-priorities in your life, I’ve broken them down into a few categories. Just like the first step in reaching your goals is to identify them, the first step in eliminating un-priorities from your life is to identify them. Grab a piece of paper as your read through these categories and see how many un-priorities you can identify in your own life.
Someone Else’s Priority
Many of the priorities we adopt from others are really good. My mom is a priority in my life because she is a priority to my dad. I learned to prioritize my mom by adopting someone else’s priority until it became my own. Of course, I’ve adopted a lot of priorities that I don’t want. Those are tricky. My dad wants me to move closer to home. My boss wants me to start traveling to give presentations. Acquaintances want to “stay in touch.”
These priorities didn’t originate with me, but I feel pressure to keep them. These un-priorities don’t bring fulfillment to my life, but rather function to please someone else.
Our lives only have room for so many priorities, so we need to be quick to label the expectations of others as un-priorities and turn our attention somewhere else. It may feel weird (or even mean), but the sooner you label someone else’s expectation of you as an un-priority, the quicker you can move forward with your true priorities.
Too Many Priorities
The people on this planet who end up doing nothing are those who never realized they couldn’t do everything. -Kevin DeYoung, Crazy Busy
In any sport, there is a clearly defined out-of-bounds. Un-priorities are your out-of-bounds. The grass may look the same on either side, but the line tells you where you need to be. Un-priorities aren’t bad things. They’re good things that take you a little too far out of the game. Shrink your field of play. Define your out-of-bounds so that you can play the game you want to play.
If you’re like me, you default to treating every project, every opportunity, every goal, and every person as a priority. But if you want your life to matter in any way, there can only be room for a few priorities. To be busy with the right things means you have to label a lot of really good things as un-priorities. Not the bad stuff. The good stuff.
What are the good things that are stretching you so thin that you can’t give yourself to what matters most? Where do you need to draw an out-of-bounds line, even for the things you value?
Everyone Else Is Doing It
Some un-priorities are so commonplace that they are generally believed to be priorities. They look and feel like priorities, but they aren’t. They’re counterfeit priorities. Let me give you some examples.
Priority: Cultivating friendships
Un-priority: Daily Facebook use
Un-priority: Christmas cards
Un-priority: Excessive alcohol use
Priority: Communication with customers and co-workers
Un-Priority: Constantly checking email
Priority: Lifelong learning
Un-Priority: Over-consuming the news
Priority: Being a loving father and husband
Un-priority: Over-working to “provide”
Cultural stigma and peer pressure are powerful forces. Don’t let them push you to make pointless or harmful activities a priority. Label them an un-priority and move on.
Unspecific Priorities Are Un-Priorities
When is enough enough? If I’ve never taken the time to decide, I will be susceptible to over-work and giving my best time to the wrong priorities (or maybe the wrong proportions to the right priorities). Let me throw out some examples. In all of these, your ability to say no to un-priorities is dramatically increased if you have been specific and clear on your priorities.
Vague Priority: Serving my local church
Specific: Serving through handyman work for widows and single mothers
Specific: Volunteering once every month in the church’s nursery
Specific: Mentoring a high school student every other week
Vague Priority: Loving my wife
Specific: Asking a thoughtful question every day after work
Specific: Planning (and never missing) a weekly date night
Specific: Being home by 5:30 every day, leaving all work at the office
Vague Priority: Improving my resume
Specific: Working on a side business daily from 5-7 a.m. (no more, no less)
Specific: Spending 30 minutes every day learning Spanish via Youtube videos
Specific: Increasing measurable work metrics by 20% over the next 60 days and then asking for a raise
How can we know when enough is enough? Be specific. How can we prevent our most important priority from overshadowing our other priorities (and becoming its own un-priority)? Be specific. It’s all about drawing that out-of-bounds line.
While it’s not bad to be busy, it’s dumb to be busy with the wrong priorities.
If you don’t want to be defined by your un-priorities, you need to identify them. Remember the tips we discussed.
- What un-priorities are the expectations of someone else?
- What un-priorities are the result of having too many priorities?
- What un-priorities are the product of peer pressure or cultural normalcy?
- What un-priorities have resulted from lack of specificity?
If you haven’t started an un-priority list, start one now. What is your most profound un-priority? Check the comments to see if others are struggling with the same ones.
Matt Smelser is an aspiring doctor, the founder of GY20R, and is glad that you read this entire post. He is from Colorado, but currently lives in Lincoln, NE. He often speaks in the third person, like he is doing right now. Whether you’re young or old, he thinks that you should check out his blog Get Your 20’s Right.