If you don’t prioritize your life, someone else will…


Do you ever feel like there’s not enough time in the day and that you’ve definitely got more to do than you’ll ever be able to get done?  Do you feel overwhelmed?

Are you spending time on stuff that’s ultimately not important?  Or maybe on stuff that’s really not important to you, but you’re working on it anyway? Do feel like you have a lack of focus?

That problem is the core of the book Essentialism by Greg McKeown and he does a great job of illustrating a challenge all of us have dealt with at one time or another.


There are a lot of great, powerful, ideas in this book but one quote really jumped out at me:

“If you don’t prioritize  your life, someone else will.”

When you’re not focused, strategic, and accountable for how you spend your time and efforts, the end result is going to be lots of wasted effort, false progress, frustration and reduced success.  As McKeown explains, that’s the path of nonessentialism – the undisciplined pursuit of more.  One way to counteract the path of nonessentialism is to have the right mindset and to really understand, live and breathe the Pareto Principle…the law of the Vital Few (the 80/20 rule).

The Law of the Vital Few

In case you haven’t thought about in a while, the Law of the Vital Few states that in any given situation there are a few things that are vastly more important than everything else.  To put it in terms of the 80/20 rule – 80% of your results are coming from 20% of your actions.  *Note – don’t get hung up on the actual percentages – maybe it’s 65% of your results coming from 25% of your actions…but the end result is the same:

There are some things you do, as an individual or as a company, that are much, much more important than everything else.

In fact, if you flip that idea on its head, it’s clear that most of the things you do aren’t important…!  Obviously, the real trick, then, is to figure out what your Vital Few things really are and start focusing your efforts on those things most of the time.

But how do you do that? Here are 3 ideas that will help you start figuring out your Vital Few:

Give Yourself Space

One of the big problems most of us face is all the work that we’re currently trying to get done every single day.  Most of our schedules are so jam-packed that we literally don’t have any time to think – we only have time to react.

Counter-intuitively if you want to be more productive, you need to start doing less, and specifically, you need to build time into your schedule to think and to breathe.

Seeing the big picture or figuring out your ‘Vital Few’ ideas isn’t an easy thing to do, but it’s downright impossible if you don’t have enough space and the time to dig in and think about things.  Bill Gates famously takes a couple of weeks out of the year, hides away without any distractions and just reads and thinks.  Gino Wickman, the author of the excellent book ‘Traction’ highly recommends what he calls clarity breaks. A couple of hours every week or so where you can just get away from everything and look at the big picture of your business.

What would it take for you to find some real space to think about what’s going on?

Say ‘No’ (a lot more often)

One potential way to open up your calendar is to actively start saying ‘no’ to almost everything that others ask you to do. If most things are truly not important, then turning down requests from others is a great place to start freeing up your time.

There’s a good chance this idea makes you uncomfortable…and for good reason. None of us like to disappoint anyone and we’ve often been trained from an early age to be agreeable to say ‘yes’ to things.  The reality is that most people will respect you even more if you politely, and firmly tell them ‘no’.

Try it for a week and see how it goes.  What do you have to lose?

Look for the Signal in the Noise

Finally, if you want to figure out what’s really important, what’s part of your ‘vital few’, then you need to develop the skill of picking up the essential core of what’s going on around you. World class journalists are trained to analyze situations and facts in order to get to the underlying heart of the story. They listen to what’s not being said, they look for the signal in the noise as ways to come up with the big picture impacts.

Consider keeping a journal to help you identify patterns on issues, where you spend your time, what boils to the top of your thoughts, etc.  Keep asking yourself (and your team), ‘What problem are we really trying to solve’ as a way to get to the heart of what’s really going on.  The reality is that most of us spend an awful lot of time with surface level distractions that ultimately aren’t important and until we can get past that we will continue to be unable to identify the ‘vital few’.

What about you and your business?  Do you know the top 2 or 3 things that really drive your success? Are you trying to do it all or are you focused in on your vital few?  I’d love to hear your thoughts on this – share them in the comments below.

Shawn Kinkade   Kansas City Business Coach

3 thoughts on “If you don’t prioritize your life, someone else will…”

  1. Bella Sarah says:

    Great article. Have you tried doing only the essential? Checkout Greg McKeown’s interview on the AoC Podcast, he gives a lot of tips about this, it’s been really helpful for me.

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