Self aware self care: Priority is singular

This is the second in my self aware self care series where I explore an aspect of self care that takes some deeper thinking and introspection.

Call it hustle culture, girl boss attitude or you know rent but most of us are being pulled in way too many directions. Some of those are financial, others are for our health and we also want to live these happy full lives too. The same person might be working on a promotion, starting a family, saving for retirement and trying to buy a home all at the same time. These days that’s not a whole lot. We also all want to get healthier, spend our time on the things that matter most and check off all the things on our bucket list before it’s too late. We’re told all of these things are urgent and you need to find a way to do them all. Here’s the lie in all of that and that is the idea that all of these things can be a priority at the same time. For all of my thinking about the pitfalls of way to many priorities I can’t say I’m immune.

I recently heard a YouTuber say that the word priority probably should never have been pluralized and that got me thinking. If it can be pluralized then it definitely shouldn’t be endlessly so. The big lie is that we ever could view priorities as never ending in the first place. We might be able to have a few balls in the air and maybe even multitask but we certainly can’t have a bakers dozen of number one priorities and expect real progress on any of them. 

The origins of a plethora of priorities

There probably isn’t one reason so many of us have so many important things to focus on but it might be the fatal flaw with multiple mindsets. In other words there are lots of roads we can take to end up in the same place. 

I think it’s pretty natural to want to have it all. I mean if you could have it all why wouldn’t you? For one person it might come down to lots of things. Things like a big house, two nice new cars in the driveway, a big boat to take to your lake house on the weekends and a high end wardrobe to wear to all of those things. For another person it might be a whole different list of achievements it could be running your own company, doing an ironman every year, seeing the world and being a great mom too. I wouldn’t turn down anything on either of those lists by the way financial or the life accomplishments. Here’s the thing we do sort of live in a world where we can have anything we want but… we can’t have everything we want. It’s a drag but realistically we might have to pick.

Here in lies the issue with all of the things we want whether they are altruistic or hedonistic they all cost in terms of money or time. Even if you want to devote your life to funding charities near to your heart you’ll need to amass a fortune first. Just living these days costs a fortune, it’s no secret that wages just haven’t kept up with the cost of living for a couple of decades now. Our parents bought houses that were roughly one year’s salary for the people living in them. Now it’s more like 5 years if not a lot more. Getting to work and what you do in your down time is more expensive too and it seems we all have higher expectations of what that whole picture should look like

Now grind culture enters the conversation. If you want to buy a house, eventually pay off a nice car, have a hobby and eat well I would argue that we all need to work more than full time. We’ve just accepted over the years that if you don’t have it you’re just not working hard enough to get it yet and even with certain privileges that’s just not true. We should all educate ourselves at a high cost to get a high paying job where we rarely take our leave. Then we should have a side hustle and invest giant chunks of our time into setting up some sort of passive income. If somehow all that isn’t working out or we can’t quite get there it’s our fault.

Let’s take a moment to sum this up then if you don’t want more out of life then you’re selling yourself short. If you do have everything you wanted there’s lots to take in that just makes us want more. But getting any one of those things is harder to do than it’s ever been before but if you don’t have something you want then it’s your fault. How does anyone then live in that environment and not end up with dozens of top priorities?

The power of inappropriate pluralization

One definition of priority is “something that is very important and must be dealt with before other things”.  So you see the problem that arises when we try to have many, many priorities the result is that now none of them are. Does this mean we have to pick one and only one thing to focus on until it’s done. No not exactly, that’s not really realistic either is it. But perhaps we should have one top thing in each category of our lives at any given time. That might mean we work diligently on one account at work each week and then move onto the next. It could mean we save for one goal at a time or pick one, and only one item or category to splurge on in our lives. A single top priority in each category if you will. After that maybe we just pick the next most important thing and then leave it there. I suspect for a lot of us we might end up with more progress in less time.

Like a lot of land our attention can’t be divided and still useful an endless number of times. Divide it enough the bit of attention we have left to devote to any one thing just isn’t enough for progress at all. The attention that we have to divide varies from person to person but for all of it the amount we have to give is basically fixed. Priorities are one thing that draws from that well but so does all those mundane things we have to do in a day. Add to that we have tasks that come up in life that need our attention but definitely aren’t part of our priorities either. Say urgent car repairs. With all that in mind its clear that while we might be able to have more than one priority in our lives the overall number we are capable of managing is certainly not endless.

Scale back and scale up

I took some time to write down all of my priorities, or what I would have called my top priorities there were about 20 of them, maybe more. I had vague ones like ‘grow my business’ and many things I wanted to save for but there was no road map to get to each point. Each category had 5 or more top priorities and some of them contradicted each other. For example I can either work on my triathlon times or run another full this year I cannot do both. There were some in there that when I thought about it a little deeper I’d already accomplished or it turns to I just really didn’t care about at all. 

I encourage you to write down all of your priorities, all the things you think you absolutely have to focus on. Then sit back and take a look, maybe divide each one up into categories like work, family, health and whatever else makes sense for your life. Is that list a manageable one? Which items on it really are more important than all the rest? I would suggest that with fewer things to divide your focus there will be more progress on what is left. Once you decide what is left take a long hard think and ask yourself if you have that much bandwidth and the space for downtime in your life. Once your inventory is complete you’ll have a better idea of where you stand, what’s really important and a clear road forward.

At the end of the day the idea that we can and should have an endless list of priorities really is toxic. Never mind that it also won’t work! Where do you think the idea that priority can be pluralized indefinitely came from. What priority rose to the top of your list and which did you let go? Leave it in the comments below!

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