Words change meaning over time. Soon, for example, originally meant now. In The Etymologicon, Mark Forsyth explains:
Soon was the Anglo-Saxon word for now.
It’s just that after a thousand years of people saying ‘I’ll do that soon’, soon has ended up meaning what it does today.
These days, now has to have a right stuck on the front or it doesn’t mean a thing.
The word priority has changed meaning, too. Greg McKeown, in his book Essentialism, says:
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 pluralize 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.
For years, I’d assign arbitrary priorities to tasks on my todo list: this task is #1, this is #5, and so on. This gave the impression that I had lots of priorities, but in reality it meant I had none.
I’ve often fallen into the trap of busyness and overworking myself, letting a mountain of todos and an overflowing inbox dictate my schedule. But the act of being busy is deceiving. It feels like you’re making progress because you’re getting lots of stuff done, but just because you’re busy, doesn’t mean you’re working on the right stuff. It’s easy to confuse activity for productivity.
When you’re in a state of busyness, it doesn’t mean you need a better productivity system. It means your priorities aren’t straight.
So, more recently, I’ve been following the rule that I should have a single priority for a given day. I got this idea from Tim Ferriss in The 4-Hour Work Week where he asks the question: “If this is the only thing I accomplish today, will I be satisfied with my day?”
In the evening, I review my todo list for the following day. That question helps me decide what my priority is for the next day. What do I really need to get done? What will make me feel better for having done it?
Sometimes it’s a small thing, like a difficult phone call I’ve been putting off. Other times, it’s a task on a larger project. But once that priority task is complete, I consider my day a success.
Yes, there’s always multiple projects on, and, yes, there’s always something next on the todo list. But having a priority for the day allows me to make progress on what’s important.
The priority task is often something that is uncomfortable, something I’ve been sitting on and procrastinating over. These uncomfortable tasks often have a considerable cognitive burden — it sits at the back of you mind, nagging at you because you know you need to do it. Once it’s done, however, it frees up your mental capacity so that you can attack the rest of your work with a deeper focus.
Try assigning yourself a priority for the day. Because when we have priorities, it really means that we have none.