Decision: The most important thing.

17 March 2006

What is it for you? The very most important thing you could be doing?

What’s the most important relationship in your life? The most important business partner? The most important client? The most important project? The most important purpose or calling?

Each of us has to figure out the answer to this and then live as though the answer made a difference. It would be easier if we could come up with a single answer for all contexts and leave it at that. I might say “The most important thing in my life is my family,” and not worry about my projects, my working life, my vocational purpose. But I don’t spend 24 hours a day with my family. They have projects and purposes of their own, and I have professional projects that go far beyond what my family cares about. So I have to answer this question over and over, in each context of my life, and I have to do it not just once in a while, but constantly, right down in the flow of time.

I said before that the “keep it simple, stupid” approach to personal organization is to (1) decide what’s most important, and (2) do that first. But how do we decide what’s most important? I’m not sure I’ve found a definitive, once-for-all answer, but some approaches clearly work better than others when considering whether Action X is the most important thing you could be doing. The negative statement of the principle goes like this:

If you can skip Action X and still attain your dreams, it’s not that important.

This is good for weeding out things that simply aren’t that important. But among all the things that we do need to do to attain our dreams, how do we find the most important one? Here’s a version of the positive statement of the principle:

The best next action to take is the one that does the most to take you in the direction of your dreams.

Vague enough for you? Work with me for a minute. If you’re driving your car down a highway, there are many things that are important for reaching your destination. Among them:

  1. Knowing what your destination is.
  2. Knowing how to drive.
  3. Having a car.
  4. Keeping the car in good working order.
  5. Staying alert.
  6. Taking necessary pit stops–for the car and for yourself.

Sometimes, yes, you want to pull off at the scenic overlook to soak in the majesty of the surroundings. You may or may not want to drive with music playing, or a companion for conversation–and maybe to split the driving. There are different things you do when the tank is full and when it’s approaching empty. There are different things you do when you’re sleepy versus when you’re wide awake. You drive differently in the rain or snow than in the sunshine. Push the metaphor as far as you like.

But in general, you want to avoid deal-breakers. E.g., you keep oil in the car and you pay attention when the “check engine” light comes on. (Please do as I say, not as I do.) If your goal is to drive across all the continents 80 times before you die, 35 m.p.h. probably won’t get you there–you’ll need to maintain a steadier, higher speed. If you have a traveling companion (and we all do, whether in personal or business life), you’ll want to maintain good relations. And so on–there are many dimensions to this, and if it were easy, it wouldn’t be life.

The things that do little or nothing to help you along your way?  Ignore them as much as you can.  This is no more than an application of the Pareto Principle.  That thing on your docket that would help you move forward on two or three or four of your lifetime goals?  Do that.  That smallish thing that could sabotage your plans if you don’t hit the imminent deadline for it?  Do that.

The short version:  Skip the stuff that doesn’t get you where you’re going–and be tough with yourself about determining what really gets you where you’re going.

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