If everything is a priority, then nothing is a priority.

by Mark on November 19, 2012 · 7 comments

If everything is a priority, then nothing is a priority. I’m often reminded of this old saying when I’m at work. I work at a small software company that is currently tackling bigger and bigger challenges. While that can be exciting, it also creates a bit of chaos and makes it extremely difficult to be productive.

“Lack of time is actually lack of priorities.”
– Tim Ferriss

Corporate ADHD

Sometimes it can be like drinking water from a firehose. It just comes at you much too fast. We will work on one thing, but then we will quickly drop it as something bright and shiny and new grabs our attention. We tell ourselves that we will get back to the original project later. Sometimes we will decide that we really have to pick the project up again, only to set it back down when something else comes up.

We tend to treat the latest thing to hit our radar as our priority, which means that nothing is a priority. If everything is a priority, then nothing is a priority. I’m not pointing fingers. I succumb to it as well. It’s hard not to treat that new e-mail, that phone call, that person visiting your office, or that new letter in your inbox as a priority. It’s calling out to you.

Cut it out. You are being fooled by urgency. While it might be something that is important to do eventually, it is almost never the case that you have to do it right this minute. There are very few true emergencies. A true emergency is something that is potentially catastrophic if you don’t take action.

Unless you are an emergency worker, such as a policeman, ER doctor, or paramedic, stop treating everything like an emergency. It can wait.

It’s as easy as A.B.C. Always Be Closing.

“Always Be Closing” is a popular saying in the sales profession. It obviously refers to closing sales, but I think it is a helpful reminder in being productive as well. Always Be Closing out tasks on your To Do list.

Tasks on your To Do list are not like wine. They don’t get better with age. Either delete them from your list or do them. You are probably avoiding them out of discomfort anyway. Suck it up, take a deep breath, attack it, and get it done.

“Being busy is most often used as a guise for avoiding the few critically important but uncomfortable actions.”
– Tim Ferriss

Done is better than perfect.

This is a tough one for me because I tend to be a perfectionist. It causes me to procrastinate because I know it will take a long time to get it perfect, and it causes me to spend too much time on tasks when I do finally get to them. Just finish it. Always Be Closing.

“The tour through the house continued, and I commented on how clean everything was. In response, I heard the magic words: “Yeah, we try to keep it a nine out of ten at all times”.

What an idea! Who would ever admit that they tried to complete something only to ninety percent? Eight years later, I’m still in love with the idea of nine out of ten.”

Practice single handling.

Once you start a task, stay with it until it’s completed. Only handle it once. This will stop you from spinning your wheels as you move back and forth between tasks. Have you ever tried to use too many computer programs at once and your computer was just sitting there churning away and not getting anything done? That’s the way we are when we are bouncing from task to task, except that we are even worse than computers at switching tasks.

You can only have one priority.

The truth is that there is no such thing as multiple priorities. You can only have one priority. Everything else has to be a “posteriority,” meaning that it will have to be done after your priority.

“There can be only one”
– Connor MacLeod (Highlander)

If there is something that’s obviously critically important, then make that your priority, even if there is something else that is very important that needs to be done. The very important task will just have to wait. If there is nothing that jumps out at you as needing to be a clear priority, then just pick anything that you want to get done, and decree it to yourself that it is your priority.

Put just one item on your To Do list.

Few people use To Do lists effectively. To Do lists are where tasks go to die. They are like a task graveyard. I know, because it happens to me too.

“I like to keep it simple. My list has 1 item on it. I work on that until either it’s done (often) or I struggle so much with it that I decide to change plans (rarely)…

Just identify your critical path, remove it, and repeat forever.”
Ed Weissman

Try something different. Develop a To Do list for tomorrow that only has one item on it. If you need to remember other tasks, put it on a “Master List” and put it out of sight.

The reason that you should always prepare your To Do list a day in advance is because you will be braver about what you put on your list for tomorrow than about what you put on your list for today.

You should try putting only one thing on your list because there is a good chance that your priority will be something that makes you uncomfortable. If you have other items on the list, you will do them and tell yourself that you are still being productive, but the truth is you are just wussing out.

If you finish your one thing, beautiful. I’m sure that there will be plenty of other things to fill your day.

Just one thing. There can only be one priority. Get it done.

denise November 19, 2012 at 12:01 pm

wow Mark. that is a good word that I TOTALLY needed to read!

Mark November 19, 2012 at 3:43 pm

Thanks, Denise! It’s something that I try to remind myself to do, but it’s not easy!

Sana December 14, 2012 at 9:59 pm

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Craig Jarrow November 20, 2012 at 5:24 am


Really great post. 🙂

Best wishes,


Mark November 20, 2012 at 10:08 am

Thanks, Craig!

For others who like my article, see Craig’s post:

What Are You Absolutely Positively Going to Do Today?


Els November 20, 2012 at 3:38 pm


Really like your post, very recognizable (unfortunately 😉 there’s still a lot to learn for me!

Thanks, Els

Mark November 20, 2012 at 7:20 pm

Thanks, Els. I think it’s a pretty universal problem, and it’s a challenging problem as well.

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