Priorities and possibilities

“What one thing is going to make the most change in my life?”

I ask myself that question every six months or so. And whatever the answer is, it becomes my priority. Not one of my priorities, but the priority.

In Essentialism, Greg McKeown talks about this, about how we abuse the idea of priorities:

“The word priority came into the English language in the 1400s. It was singular. It meant the very first or prior thing. It stayed singular for the next five hundred years. Only in the 1900s did we pluralise the term and start talking about priorities. Illogically, we reasoned that by changing the word we could bend reality. Somehow we would now be able to have multiple “first” things. People and companies routinely try to do just that. One leader told me of his experience in a company that talked of “Pri-1, Pri-2, Pri-3, Pri-4 and Pri-5.” This gave the impression of many things being the priority but actually meant nothing was.” 

A simple way to remember this is provided early on in the same book. It’s a diagram. A simple, beautiful, powerful illustration of this idea of putting emphasis on one impactful thing.
I’m in full agreement with what McKeown says. Mainly because I’ve got first hand experience of how ineffective—and frustrating—it is to try and prioritise many things and then make minimal progress on each one. So, as I described above, I now make one thing my priority and the target of my focus for an extended period. Right now, it’s growing Swell & Cut, the vehicle through which I provide editorial services.

But there’s also some contradictory, conflicting ideas I’ve been learning about. The first is that, generally, the human mind likes to work on multiple things. I call it the “many paths” approach. Because we are working on multiple things, multiple projects, multiple pathways, when our progress is impeded in one, we can switch to another and maintain our momentum there. Rather than butting our skull against the wall, we can work on something else and come back to the problem later on, when we’re fresher, when we have more perspective and more energy. 

Related to the idea of many paths is optionality. Generally, optionality is a good thing. The world changes, fast, as does our work, so we need to maintain our ability to switch focus and energy and re-deploy our resources. 

These ideas—preference for variety, optionality, and the accelerating pace of change—have made me reconsider how to utilise the ideas McKeown describes. Now, I prefer to deploy his philosophy in sequences or phases. Rather than focusing always on one thing, on one priority, on what I think is the most important thing, I like to alternate. Focus on one thing for a while, then explore many things. Zone in on the most promising option, then test out other potentially promising routes. Consider it like this:

Essentially, I’m cycling through choosing a priority and exploring possible priorities. Exploring and emphasising, exploring and emphasising, exploring and emphasising.

I believe that that’s the best way to operate. Don’t go for many things, all the time. And don’t go for one thing, all the time. Cycle between them. A single thing, many things. A single thing, many things.

Funnily enough, a while after I wrote this, Venkatesh Rao came out with the idea of Explore-Explode-Exploit. It has some things in common with the above. After reading it, I visualised the cycle like so: