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What matters?

Updated: May 19, 2021

“You can do anything, but not everything.” David Allen

It’s so easy to fall into the trap of thinking that because we’re busy, we must be productive.

Well, if homeschooling during a pandemic has taught me anything, it’s that that is not true. It’s perfectly possible not to stop moving for an entire day and yet go to bed not quite sure what has been achieved.

I’ve always been a bit of an organisation nerd (ask my previous colleagues about the colour-coded to do lists), and I am definitely guilty of thinking that the next shiny new time-management tool will be the answer to all my problems.

But the heart of getting what you need to get done, done, is knowing what needs to be done.

Until about 100 years ago, the word “priority” was only ever used in the singular. But now it is perfectly common to talk about “our top priorities” at the beginning of an ever-growing list. For the sake of both our effectiveness and our wellbeing, we need to stop!

So how do we decide what’s important?

The third of Stephen Covey’s Seven Habits of Successful People is “Put First Things First”. He suggests starting with two questions:

  • What one thing could you do (that you aren’t doing now) that if you did on a regular basis, would make a tremendous positive difference in your personal life?

  • What one thing in your business or professional life would bring similar results?

If you're struggling to come up with an answer, I’d throw the following factors into the mix:

  • What problem are you trying to solve? A strategy shouldn’t be a long, jargon-heavy document that no one reads, it should be a simple articulation of where you are now, where you want to be, and how you’re going to get there. This should help make the most important steps clear.

  • What are your (or your organsiation’s) values? For example, if the business says it puts customer experience above everything else, then this should mean a focus on reducing waiting times over developing new brand guidelines.

  • What can you do now that will free up time for another priority down the line? For example, developing clear brand guidelines could mean cutting out time-sucking daily conversations about how communications should be designed and written.

  • What’s really stopping you from getting things done? Is the priority to address an obstructive working relationship, or a process that means you have to spend time fixing mistakes? Sometimes those internal elements really slow down progress.

  • What are your strengths? What can you do better than anyone else, and what can you delegate? At the moment, I'm aware that not only am I a better parent than a teacher, but that it's also much more important for me to fulfil the former role, because no one else can.


It is important to remember that choosing one priority means you have to not choose another. By saying yes to one thing, you have to say no to something else.

In his excellent book Essentialism, Greg McKeown talks about dismantling the deeply held assumptions we make about how we manage not just our work, but our whole lives. What would happen if you shifted your thinking:

  • from “I have to” to “I choose to”?

  • from “It’s all important” to “Only a few things really matter”?

  • from “I can do both” to “I can do anything, but not everything”?

By accepting that time, effort and energy are not endless and ever expanding, and that you can make a decision about what is important, you can stop chasing your tail and focus.

Saying “no” requires courage sometimes. You may not want to upset someone else, or you may just be afraid of a missed opportunity. Maybe the culture of your organisation is to say ‘yes’ to everything and you’re swimming against the tide.

But if you’re clear about what you need to focus on, and why, this is easier. You can explain your thinking. You can manage expectations. You can be sure that you’re doing the right thing.

And after all, it is better to finish one thing and do it well, than to half-do a lot of things not very well.

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