How Priorities Really Work

And Why You Should Care

One of my favorite people on the internet, Merlin Mann, once wrote the following — which he also said on one of his podcasts.

“priorities are like arms; if you think you have more than a couple, you’re either lying or crazy.[1]”

When you think about it, this makes a lot of sense. If you don’t believe me, take it from the same guy who said the quote above:

…priorities can only be observed. In my book, a priority is not simply a good idea; it’s a condition of reality that, when observed, causes you to reject every other thing in the universe — real, imagined, or prospective — in order to ensure that things related to the priority stay alive.
Even though their influence informs every decision we make on the most tactical level, thinking about priorities happens at a strategic, “why am I here?” level.[2]

This “why am I here?” level is the important one; it’s where all the importance of any projects or tasks come from. And yet, we forget those important things constantly. We take our eyes off of the prize — so to speak. But it is easy to understand why that is.

The prize, you see, is not moving; it’s not buzzing in our ear or tugging at our pant leg — pulling us toward it. Rather, it is distant and unmoving, over the far horizon. It falls out of view from time to time, as clouds pass in between.

There are really two whys at work here, and these are not completely separate whys. The higher level “why am I even doing this kind of work in the first place?” question directly informs the lower level “why am I doing this specific thing?”

That’s why it is so damn hard to be given priorities. To really treat something as a priority is to give it a significant, prevailing existential weight. It’s the kind of weight that moves you — almost constantly. But that weight doesn’t exist for some goal unless you have run it through those two whys.

If a “priority” isn’t connected to your “why am I here?” — at least in some way — it isn’t really a priority at all. It’s a mirage. It looks like a priority, but it’s just an objective — vulnerable to being overshadowed by other actual priorities.

Priorities need to be internalized — meaning that you have to want whatever that priority is at a very foundational — almost visceral level. It has to be the kind of thing you think of automatically. It has to be the kind of thing that becomes a lens through which you view every other thing you do. It has to be the thing you think about every time someone tries to get you to commit to anything else.

You might have figured out by now that priorities can’t just be put on and taken off like a suit jacket. You have to care — really, really care — about X in order for X to be a priority.

Once you really care, everything tends to flow from there. So if you take nothing else from this piece of writing, at least take this: priorities can only be priorities if you truly, deeply care about them. That’s something that can only come from within.

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