German writer, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, wrote, “Things which matter most must never be at the mercy of things which matter least.”
And yet how often they are. We don’t even realize that we are doing it, ordering our priorities around less important activities. We go out partying when we should be studying or finalizing a report that is due. We call it unwinding. We treat our colleagues better than we treat family. We call it decorum. We put out our best china for a random guest and make dear ones eat out of chipped plates. We say it is putting our best foot forward. We spend more time watching television than working out. That’s resting. We never run out of excuses to justify our poor prioritizing until we fail the exam, lose our family or are battling a lifestyle disease.
The truth is we woke up every day but did not play to win. We thought showing up was good enough. If life is a game, you must play to win, and you can only win in life, work and love if you have a strategy for doing so. And part of that strategy is figuring out what you need to prioritise since you have limited amounts of time, energy and other resources.
In my house, we call it majoring on the minuses or the minors. This is similar to a student majoring in math in university but spending more time studying literature.
That student either needs to change her major or change her priorities.
There are several reasons why we let our priorities slide. One is that the things which matter least usually shout the loudest. It is that colleague who interrupts your carefully planned day with a “crisis” of their own making. Usually they failed to order their priorities. He insists that you now help him regardless of your to-do list.
He may use emotional language, “The boss really needs it today or else our whole department will be fired!” Meanwhile, those important calls you needed to make sit quietly on paper, ignored.
The second key reason is because we like to play to the gallery. We prefer to be seen to be doing something than to actually be doing it.
That’s why when the boss walks in, we stare intently at the computer when moments before we were casually perusing the newspaper.
In our image obsessed culture, perception is everything. It doesn’t have to be true, good or good for you. It just has to look like it is.
The third reason things we don’t pay attention to things which matter most is lack of motivation to set clear goals and then work consistently, patiently towards them despite setbacks on the way. If we don’t have a compelling vision of where we want to go, any road will take us there. We need to have, for example, five-year goals but all that won’t matter unless we break it down into weekly and daily goals that lead us there.
Fortunately, there is a better way to live. First determine what your priorities are. Then ask yourself everyday, is this my major or my minor?
Washing the car or the dishes matters but if you have to choose between that and watching the sunset with your child, choose people over activity. You might be too busy to take random calls, but hopefully, you are never too busy to call your parents. I once heard of an executive who told his wife not to call him at work unless it was a matter of life and death. Apparently, he didn’t like interruptions. Contrast that with the businesswoman who made a decision not to take up golf until her children were in university. “My children won’t be young forever and they won’t need me as much later. I can pick up the sport then.”
Things which matter most usually play second fiddle to other things, which may matter too, but in the scheme of things, they shouldn’t matter too much. Let’s not get to the end of life and find that when we examine everything, the scale that received our best attention was the lightest of all.