Prioritizing my priorities

My dear friend Jason’s recent marathon was sponsored by Zappos, so at the finish line they were giving out free copies of Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh’s new book, Delivering Happiness. I read the book on the plane back to San Francisco. It’s a wonderful, inspiring read, but I’m not going to write about it here. (Just read it if you’re interested. It only took me about two hours.) At the end of each part of the book, Hsieh included a few short quotations, and this one blew my mind:

If you have more than three priorities then you don’t have any.

Jim Collins

The words went through me like a tremor, because I’ve grappled with my priorities so much this year, and I really think Collins is right. I thought, oh god, it’s hopeless! I’ll never be able to focus, because just look, writing and painting are two priorities already — do I have to choose between myself and Erik for the third one? Even my shortest priority list has eight items on it. But then I thought, maybe I’ll just worry about getting it down to three per day. Or I could break it down by parts of the day: have quiet time alone in the morning and evening, time with Erik before bed, exercise or grocery shop as needed, and the rest of the day goes to one or two priorities and that’s it. I always feel so pulled in different directions, every day; to tell myself “today I will just work on writing” feels amazing, liberating. When I envision structuring each day this way, it seems like it could really change my life.

I’ve been trying this for a week so far. There was one day when it worked beautifully, and I was so happy, spending the whole day writing without stressing about anything else. But on other days it’s been a bit harder for me to neglect the kinds of little tasks that so easily drag down a work day: phone calls, errands, holiday planning. How does one set priorities for the day when one’s most pressing emotion is just “I’m behind on everything?” Still, remembering this three-priorities standard, and thinking of being and not doing, does help me to not get so overwhelmed as I used to, and focus on what’s most important.