From Essentialism, by Greg McKeown: The word priority came into the English language in the 1400s. It was singular. It meant the very first or prior thing. It stayed this way for the next 500 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 do multiple first things. People and companies routinely try to do just that. This gave the impression of many things being the priority, but actually meant nothing was.
McKeown’s words created a pause when I first read them. Like many, I was conditioned to think of having many priorities, and I categorized them according to my spirituality, my family, my relationships, my physical health, my personal finances, my work, and my intellectual and emotional well being. Each of these categories had sub categories, with goals and action plans. All were, in my own thinking, my priorities, but upon reflection, was my feeble attempt to “have it all.” The pursuit of all of those priorities was demanding, leaving me overwhelmed and governed the tyranny of the urgent. Having multiple priorities complicated things and resulted in chaos. Establishing one priority creates simplicity and order.
His words reminds me of what the Apostle Paul wrote to the church at Philippi. “I focus on this one thing: Forgetting the past and looking forward to what lies ahead, I press on to reach the end of the race and receive the heavenly prize for which God, through Christ Jesus, is calling us” (Philippians 3:13-14, NLT). Faith was not an important part of Paul’s life. It was his life. His faith served as the litmus test which ordered everything else. It doesn’t mean that Paul didn’t do other things or have meaningful relationships. For a while he held down a job as a tentmaker. He had numerous relationships with people he called friends. He developed a strategy for planting faith communities in towns that didn’t have a Christian presence. Paul developed people and leaders of people. He also had an extensive writing career. But each of those served the greater good of one priority. Having one priority doesn’t mean you only do one thing. However, having one priority governs every thing else you do, if you even do it at all.
Maybe instead of getting our priorities in order, its better to discover the “one thing” and focus there. No, we can’t have it all or do it all. But we can identify and pursue what is best and finally discover the freedom and power that comes by being able to say “no.”