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There Can Only Be One No. 1: The Best-Kept Secret about Priorities

UrgentPapers_400When the word “priority” came into the English language in the 1400s, it only existed in the singular form. It meant the very first or prior thing. It stayed singular for the next five hundred years. Only in the 1900s did we pluralize the term and start talking about “priorities.” Illogically, we reasoned that by changing the word we could bend reality. Somehow we thought that by pluralizing the word we would now be able to have multiple “first” things.

People and companies routinely fall prey to the false belief that we can have multiple No. 1 priorities. For example, I once worked with an executive team that needed help with their prioritization. They were struggling to identify the top five projects they wanted their IT department to complete over the next fiscal year, and one of the managers was having particularly a hard time with it. She insisted on naming 18 “top priority” projects. I asked her to take a step back and think about that for a minute. How could all eighteen be the No. 1 priority? I insisted that she choose five. She took her list back to her team and two weeks later they returned with a list she had managed to shorten—by one single project! (I always wondered what it was about that one lone project that didn’t make the cut.)

Only upon further reflection was she able to see that that while all these items were important, they were urgent to varying degrees. Only by looking at each one carefully and critically could she isolate the one most crucial item that actually was her No. 1 priority.


But in a world where our days are overstuffed with meetings and assignments, we are constantly being pulled in a million directions (and by a million people’s agendas). Our to-do lists are often longer at the end of the day than when we walked in that morning. So how do we gain clarity about which items on our to-do list actually should take priority?

I suggest you start with the following four-step activity:

Step 1: Before you leave the office today, write down all the most important things you need to get done tomorrow. Include anything that is expected of you, whether it’s from a boss, colleague family member, or business client.

Step 2: Rank the list in order of value to you. Not in order of what’s most important to other people, but in order of what will allow you to move closer towards achieving your goals for the next day, whether at home or at work.

Step 3: Now cross off all but the very top item on the list. The items you crossed off may be things that need to get done eventually – if so, copy them down on a separate list to deal with later. Right now we are talking only about the #1 thing that takes priority for tomorrow, not some vague and unspecified time in the future.

Step 4: Finally write down your top priority on a Post-it note and put it on your computer. Then schedule a 90-minute window to work on that priority—preferably the first thing of the day.

If you take 10 minutes at the end of each day to isolate your true No. 1 priority for tomorrow, you’ll find that all those 17 other “top” priorities will eventually get done anyway. But instead getting done in a rushed, haphazard manner, and causing you all manner of stress and anxiety, they’ll get done with an exponentially higher level of focus, purpose, and composure. And in turn, the results will be of an infinitely higher quality.



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