If you've been in our community for long, you know that I (Shelby) have often shared that I am not a natural at prioritization. It was watching my younger sister McCauley live her ordinary (and yet remarkable) life that propelled me into the time-management space. She's a queen at getting the right things done, the right way, at the right time, and in the right amount of time. I'm the late bloomer in that area.
When I'd complain about how much better her life was than mine (just keeping it real here), she'd always go back to the same thing: prioritization.
That answer really used to annoy me because I didn't have a clue about how to prioritize. I'd try to get her to explain to me how she figured out what she needed to do next—and she didn't know how to explain it to me! She'd just kind of look at everything she had on her plate and then...know. It honestly seemed like magic to me.
It took me reading stacks of time-management books and articles, binging podcasts, and enrolling into workshops and webinars to start to get a sense for how this prioritization thing worked. From that research, I hobbled together some planning worksheets that applied the 80/20 rule to the Eisenhower Matrix, and helped me translate all of that into a time-blocked plan for my day. (It was actually in showing those worksheets to McCauley that the idea for the Evergreen Planner was sparked in the first place!)
The worksheets helped, and I still use an internalized version of that system to plan my day. Even so, I needed one clear principle that would help me identify my next priority in a heartbeat—even when didn't have time to sit down with my planner to figure it out. I was about a year into my time-management journey before I read the book that would outline exactly what I had been looking for.
It's All About Finding That First Domino
I found this pivotal principle while reading The One Thing by Gary Keller.
The book is worth the read, but I'll give you the highlights here:
- not everything matters equally
- multi-focusing destroys productivity
- you have a finite amount of willpower each day, so leverage it effectively and early
- balance isn't about tending every important area of your life in equal amounts every day
- doing impactful things takes just as much effort as doing unimportant ones
All really good stuff, but the zinger for me was actually the heart of the book.
Success doesn't come from cycles of trying to race the countdown to burnout by 10x-ing until you crash, nor does it come from straight-jacketing your time with an unrealistically idealistic routine and calling it discipline.
Success simply comes from knowing your next priority, and then applying just enough self-discipline to follow all the way through on that priority before moving on to the next one.
And if you really found the right priority, it would be like finding the first domino in a run.
From Chapter 2:
"When one thing, the right thing, is set in motion, it can topple many things."
"A single domino is capable of bringing down another domino that is actually 50 percent larger. Do you see the implication? Not only can one knock over other but also others that are successively larger... Number 57 would practically bridge the distance between the earth and the moon!"
"So every day, [highly successful people] line up their priorities anew, find the lead domino, and whack away at it until it falls."
That concept stopped me in my tracks. That's what my sister had been saying: it all came down to prioritization. By this point in my journey, I could 80/20 like a queen and filter out distractions and timeblock my schedule until it was a work of art. But HOW–I wanted to shout at the book—HOW do you figure out your next priority?!
Thankfully, chapter 11 answered my desperate question by providing one beautifully succinct "Focusing Question."
The Focusing Question
This is seriously worth taking the time to write down in big bold letters opposite of this month's calendar page in your planner. I'll even give it to you to set as a lockscreen right now.
If you're like me and struggle with figuring out your next priority, YOU NEED THIS QUESTION. If you really take time answer it, hour after hour, it'll change your life. It's transformed mine.
What's the ONE THING I can do that will make everything else either easier or unnecessary?
Answering this question honestly, day after day, will yield results. Anything that's a non-negotiable, like investing in close relationships, will be made easier by your following through on your top priorities. And so much of the distracting, annoying stuff that drains our valuable time and energy will often be eliminated completely.
Trading Efficiency for Effectiveness
I'm going to use an obvious example from my own life to demonstrate how this thing works.
A lot of you know that I'm a minimalist, and that I credit a lot of my progress to that single lifestyle decision. For the last five years, every January (or every time we've moved—which has happened 5 times), I've invested hours upon hours into decluttering. In the process, Kyle and I have gotten rid of at least 80% of the things we jointly owned when we got married.
We'd figured out that paring our stuff down to the essentials was one of those First Dominoes that would make everything else in our life either easier or unnecessary. And we were so right. For a long time, I'd been trying to figure out the most efficient systems for keeping the house clean and tidy. I'd tried so many different things. But decluttering wound up ending my search for good. It turns out that you don't need a fancy system for organizing and maintaining the basics when you're a minimalist. There's simply not enough stuff around to bother hyper-organizing.
For our family, becoming minimalists was the ONE THING we could do to make everything else (about maintaining our home) either or unnecessary. And if you're a mama who works from home or has other big projects going on, I don't have to tell you how much having housework easy and on autopilot truly impacts everything else.
Here's a current example from my work life. I was sitting down recently to set goals and work them into the timeblocked rhythm of my day. As I was doing so, I realized that I had two important projects with approaching deadlines that were competing for my attention. I started out by creating this complicated little schedule that would have me working on one of the projects on Tuesday and Wednesday, and the other project on Thursday and Friday. I was going to split my work time on Saturday between two projects when I realized that I was not going to realistically be able to keep this elaborate schedule up.
I sat back from my planner and thought about the situation while nibbling my Panera baguette. I realized I needed to ask this focusing question. Quickly wiping my hands, I started to outline what I had left on both projects. I started with what felt like the easier one to outline. After that, I turned to the bigger, hairier project and started trying to outline it. My brain felt completely blocked.
I stopped and asked the question: What's the ONE THING that would make everything else about this more difficult project feel easier? (I knew that that bigger project was going to be necessary, no matter what.) And that's when I realized the answer. I needed to get the smaller project off my plate so I had all of my work-related attentional bandwidth available to develop a strategy for the more overwhelming project.
In turn, this decision to focus and knock out one project at a time made it completely unnecessary for me to maintain my unrealistic balancing act. The projects would get done in the timeframes they needed to, because the one due sooner would be done sooner—which would mean more time to focus exclusively on the really difficult one.
The Moon is Reachable
I'll end this post with a final quote from Gary Keller.
"So when you think about success, shoot for the moon. The moon is reachable if you prioritize the most important thing. Getting extraordinary results is all about creating a domino effect in your life."
You don't have to keep spreading yourself so thin. Leverage your personal agency, and figure out that next right step that will make everything else a whole lot easier. Oftentimes, the answer is as simple as getting the house totally clean so you're set up for a strong week. Other times, the answer can be as big as deciding to move forward on moving to a new place so you can craft a better lifestyle.
This question is most powerful when aligned with our values. When our ONE THING is deciding to homeschool, we're not trying to make everything about our kids' school situations easier per se, but instead we're trying to make the opportunities for rich experiences and important conversations easier to come by. When our ONE THING is picking up a side project for the income boost, a lot more things will become necessary during that timeframe, but taking out a loan may become unnecessary, making your money future a whole lot easier.
The real power of this principle is unleashed when you know where you're trying to go as a family, and you use this question to launch you closer and closer to those goals.
Let's go back our minimalism example. For our family, the "moon" was being able to have an essentialist lifestyle that gave us plenty of space and time for pursuing the work and projects that mattered most to us. Back when our home environment felt like chaos, the littlest domino was cleaning the kitchen. The next was getting our house all the way clean.
That gave us mental bandwidth to declutter our storage room to almost nothing. That gave us the flexible elbow room to fully declutter our living space. That gave us the momentum to do more waves of decluttering, deeper and deeper, until everything we had was down to the essentials. That enabled us to live in a smaller home and put our housework on autopilot with foolproof systems. The constantly tidy environment shaped our kids mindsets about what's normal—causing them to consistently pitch in even at the ages of 3 and 6 with minimal training.
And now we've reached that moon. After just five years, we went from wanting to escape our overwhelming home life to being absolutely in love with our essentialist lifestyle that gives us plenty of space and time for pursuing the work and projects that matter most to us. Applying this principle to those new projects—by God's good grace—will help us reach the moons we envision for them.
Your one thing will be different. It'll answer the unique goals that resonate with your calling and context.
When you learn master prioritization, your results will compound over time.
And that moon that seemed so extraordinarily far away will be gained by simply taking the next right step in every ordinary day.