When searching for ways to manage your time better and get more done, you’ll likely find a lot of talk about priorities. We’ve given our fair share of advice on how to set your priorities and use them to help you focus. But what if we’ve completely misunderstood the concept of priorities, or more accurately, priority?
In fact, the word “priorities” itself is a misnomer. Consider how the Oxford and Webster dictionaries define the word:
The fact or condition of being regarded or treated as more important than others.
Something given or meriting attention before competing alternatives.
But these aren’t actually the definitions for the word priorities–the real word is simply priority, singular. And that tiny change makes a big difference.
You can’t actually have more than one priority. Which means when it comes to setting priorities at work, you have to pick just one - what we often refer to as our “top priority.” Instead of a long to-do list of dozens of priorities, if you want to priority-set correctly, your list should be short: just one most important thing.
Of course, we don’t live in a world where we typically have the luxury of focusing on just ONE thing, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t rethink how we priority-set. For example, we take a family trip to my hometown in Northern Pennsylvania every summer, and this year I asked the kids what their one priority was for our trip. They all had different answers: Jack wanted to fish, Everett wanted to play video games at Pauly’s Hot Dogs, Elena didn’t want to miss the county fair, and Dorothea wanted to go horseback riding. (My husband and I also picked our top priority–him, pond swimming, and me, floating on the Delaware River.)
In reality, we all wanted to do all of these things, but it was helpful to know what was most important to each person so we could prioritize accordingly. The result? Everyone felt heard, and everyone left feeling like they got exactly what they wanted out of the trip.
So how do we start to shift our thinking around priority vs. priorities? Try this exercise: list all the things that are important to you, whether it’s things that you need to get done at work or activities you love to do on vacation, like our family. Only one of these things can be your priority at one time. So which is the MOST important to you? That’s your priority. And often, our priority is revealed in our actions more than our best intentions.
It seems small, but this simple mindset shift at work can help you clarify the most important thing you need to focus on and help you achieve it before all the other distractions of the workday get in the way. This requires ongoing reevaluation, as your priority will shift day to day or sometimes hour to hour. But unless you understand your top priority at a given time, you’re much less likely to achieve it.
Having a long list of priorities makes us think we have to do it all when that’s just not possible. Know your priority helps you focus and accomplish your mission, cuts down on wasted time dealing with distractions, and frees you up to achieve more.
Give priority-setting–yes, just one priority!–a try for a week and see how it changes both your attitude and your productivity at work.