Have you ever been told that you need rethink your priorities? That can be good advice, but I will add this twist: you can only have one. The plural form of priority was invented in the 1900s and the term “priorities” didn’t really show up in print until around the 1940s. Priority comes from the Latin word prioritas which means “first in rank or order”. There can only be one first! So, having multiple priorities literally makes no sense. This also means that there is no such thing as conflicting priorities. Accepting this definition, a conflict can only exist because of the lack of a single priority or the attempt to keep swapping what is the priority. You may be personally and emotionally conflicted about what to set as your priority, but that is a different issue.
I recently read Executive Toughness by Dr. Jason Selk. He encouraged setting process goals and project goals. A project goal is a big accomplishment that will take a lot of time and work to complete. The process goals are nested within the project goal and must be completed in a sequence to eventually finish the project goal. But, even in this scenario, you can only have one priority at time. The priority is the next task (process goal) that needs to be completed to move you toward the project goal. This may seem like there are multiple simultaneous priorities (several process goals and a project goal) but there are not. Having multiple goals or a long to do list is NOT the same thing as having multiple priorities. Your one priority is what you decide to spend your time doing right now. For example, my current priority is writing this blog. Earlier this morning my priority was getting to the airport in time for my flight. Yesterday my priority was taking a hike with my family.
I guess, what I’m really saying is don’t set multiple concurrent priorities. You can have multiple priorities that apply to different times, places, and circumstances. They may even be nested priorities as in the process goal priority leading toward the project goal priority example. BUT, you can only have one priority, one thing that must be done next, at any given time. This is the essential principle of time management.
For me, my BIG priority is my health. My rationale for this being my priority is because it is a necessary condition for all other things that are meaningful to me. If I’m not healthy I can’t attend to any other of the important things in my life. That priority isn’t likely to change. But, every day I still need to make many decisions about prioritization. I usually have a list of things that need to be accomplished. I pick one as a priority and away I go. I don’t confuse myself by trying to set multiple priorities. One is just the right number. I also try to complete each priority task before I switch to another one because as we now know, priority isn’t plural.
Don’t set priorities,