Like most Americans, I grew up thinking that having priorities was a normal thing. It is part of our culture to have multiple things to focus on and if you only focused on one thing, you were an underachiever. Think about it, even when we go to college, we have a major and a minor. Or we have multiple majors and minors. This is encouraged and applauded. I'm not saying that this is a bad thing in all aspects. I do believe that minors add to the well-roundedness of an education, but there is a point at which having "priorities" no longer serves us.
I was first opened up to this idea in Greg McKeown's book Essentialism. Below is an excerpt from his most excellent book.
"The word priority came into the English language in the 1400s. It was singular. It meant the very first or prior thing. It stayed singular for the next five hundred years.
Only in the 1900s did we pluralize the term and start talking about priorities. Illogically, we reasoned that by changing the word we could bend reality. Somehow we would now be able to have multiple “first” things.
People and companies routinely try to do just that. One leader told me of this experience in a company that talked of “Pri-1, Pri-2, Pri-3, Pri-4, and Pri-5.” This gave the impression of many things being the priority but actually meant nothing was."
-Greg McKeown, Essentialism
That final sentence in this excerpt is a powerful and merits repeating:
"This gave the impression of many things being the priority, but actually mean nothing was."
When we set priorities, rather than a single priority, we are actually dividing our brain power and making ourselves less effective. Even though we are capable of doing multiple things at once, that does not mean that we are being the most efficient with our time and energy. We are capable of walking on our hands, but that's not generally how we choose to go about life. Instead, we walk on our feet and do other things with our hands, because it is more efficient.
When we set a single priority, we are walking on our feet. We are channeling our energy towards one thing and not dividing our concentration.
Let's boil this idea down a little bit. Imagine you are trying to manage your finances and you're also responsible for watching a very demanding toddler. You're on the computer, trying to focus on your finances, but your toddler is screaming for milk. You get up, get the child milk, and sit back down. You spend a few seconds figuring out where you were and you resume. Your child then wants a granola bar. You get up, get the granola bar, and sit down. Finding the ends of the string again, you refocus. The child is then begging you to play. You tell them you will after you finish what you're doing and get back to work... this can go on for hours, seriously. I may or may not have just described my life right now...
So, if managing the finances is just one of your priorities, the toddler represents all the other "priorities". Instead of begging for milk and tugging at your shirt, these other priorities are tugging at your brain. They steal mental power by continuously coming to your mind as something else that is important to be done and steal your focus.
Instead of working in this way, you can tell your brain what one thing is the most important thing. This is your priority. The other things that you would like to get done get pushed to their proper place in the background where they wait their turn to be the priority. This is effectively managing your finances when the toddler is napping. Your other tasks, or the toddler, is still there, but they aren't pulling at your brain and stealing your concentration.
If you are feeling overwhelmed, try having just one priority. You will find that your ability to focus, and thus your ability to achieve, is greatly increased and you will get more done in less time.