Positive Outliers Self-Awareness

The Only Thing that Matters is This

Photo by Matt Bero on Unsplash

In my last article, When Work Speeds Up, I used a short video to illustrate my point.

Allow me to do the same again in talking about priorities. This time the clip comes from a movie called City Slickers (1991), and this scene features two of the main characters, the old hardened cowboy, Curly, played by Jack Palance, and one of the city slickers on a ranch holiday, Mitch, played by Billy Crystal.

Is this true, though? Is it all about “figuring out the One Thing” or is this just Hollywood sentimental psychobabble?

There is no doubt about the fact that most of us have a tendency to take on more than we can handle, more commitments than one life can meet. All these different demands on us clamour for top priority, or at least for our momentary attention.


When I read Gary Keller’s, One Thing: The Surprisingly Simple Truth Behind Extraordinary Results, I was intrigued to learn that the word priority, was always used in the singular in English until the nineteenth or early twentieth century. Maybe this was because we bought the lie that we couldn’t possibly have only one priority in the modern world.

We can dismiss pre-20th century wisdom as something quaint and naif from a more relaxed and stressless age, and say, “Now we must focus on many things.”

The problem is that our performance begins to take a dive when do this. Humans are not equipped, it seems, to deal with many things at once. Multi-tasking, loved by many who thrive on the adrenaline rush of feeling they are being super-productive, has been demonstrated to be a huge waste, a waste of time. This way of working requires switching the brain when we move from one task to another. We try to keep as many plates spinning as possible, but that is all we are doing. As we rush from one matter to another, there is a depletion of time and energy, not to mention cognitive confusion and emotional stress.

And we carry this foolish, crazy way of thinking into our organisations as well, making them dazed and internally competing towards this downward spiral.

So, what is the alternative?

Developing the Habit of the Daily MIT

At any moment in time, there is one thing that is needful. That is your MIT, your Most Important Task. This is true in the moment, for your day, in a project, in a month, in our lives – whichever time horizon you choose. And, as Curly said, “That’s for you to figure out.” The rest is about triaging all the calls for your attention, rejecting most of them, returning to the rest, but keeping your eyes on that priority.

I talk about this more in My Daily Bullet Journal Method.

Curly challenged Mitch to discover the One Thing for his life. For most of us, that will take some time, in prayer and meditation.

How about we set the bar a little lower to begin with? What about the next day? Ask yourself this question:

What is the most important thing for me to achieve in the next day that will make everything else easier, more achievable or irrelevant?

Let me know in the comments what you discovered using this approach.

A free course that takes you through the workflows of how I use bullet journaling for my Daily Heads Up, Gratitude List, Weekly and Monthly reviews.

Personal Margin Self-Awareness

Multiple Priorities? Really?

This article is updated from the version published earlier in 2018.

Very likely, the following scene will be familiar to you.

I was invited to facilitate a strategic workshop. I was told fairly early on, “We have 32 strategic objectives we need to meet.”

“OK,” I replied. “Which one is the most important?”

You can probably guess my client’s reply…

“They all are.”

Now, what’s wrong with this picture?

When 32 strategic objectives are all a priority, something is wrong. Badly wrong.

If you are inclined to say, “Nothing, that’s just the way business has to be in these complicated days,” then I would ask you to think with me for a moment. Too many of our organisations are like the proverbial donkey who is stalled into inaction because of two competing piles of hay.

Surprise Findings in Neuroscience

The more we learn about the human brain, the more we learn how awesome is its capacity, but also how limited it is to consciously focus on things in the foreground of our awareness. Neuroscientists put the number of items we can concurrently focus upon to be as low as four.

So we have a dilemma. There are all these targets our organisations set us to meet, but we can only focus on a few.

One Thing

Recently, as part of the current release of our Leading Yourself Workshop, I released a book review of Gary Keller’s The One Thing: The Surprisingly Simple Truth Behind Extraordinary Results. At one point, Keller explained that the word Priority entered into the English language in the 14th Century. It came from the Latin word prior meaning first. What surprised me was that it was only made plural in the 20th Century: priorities. Think about that. To previous generations, to talk about priorities would have been madness.

I suspect the human brain, and a team, and a project, and even an organisation works better with a priority than it does with priorities. Priorities (plural) begin to generate confusion, internal competition for attention and erode focus.

What if we were to budget to one priority in any given moment?

OK, complex organisations do have a number of matters to achieve, but budgeting to one priority begins to make us dig deeper. We begin to see the dependencies between different objectives, where some enable others. For example, here is an Outcome Relationship Model of an Olympics Legacy development.

Outcome Relationship Model Example

We begin to see the real drivers of organisational success. Maybe some of these objectives or targets can be met, or more easily met if we were to focus on the one thing.

Focusing on One Thing

As an individual, if I invest time now in making this blog post a priority at this moment, focusing upon it exclusively to everything else that clamours for my attention, it may help me meet some of my other objectives later.

Focus is inseparable from this kind of singular attention.

Now, this is not to say that my priority may not change during the day; it does. Nor will my priority today be the same as tomorrow. Or next week. Or next year. Priority is the matter I should focus on now.


In my coaching, I recommend clients identify maybe three or four planned tasks they intend to achieve each day. Among those, I ask them to identify their MIT, their Most Important Task. This is the daily priority, that one thing they commit to achieving that day. The real value, though, is not the MIT itself; it’s in the process of deciding that MIT. This is where we gain clarity and leverage over our day.

Now, this is not to say that we can expect no surprises during our day. What I identify in the high-performers, the Positive Outliersis a quality of mental agility to switch in a moment their priority. Something comes up. It requires urgent attention. They fully focus on that task. And when they are done, they return to their MIT. This is very different from multi-tasking two or more priorities at the same time.


The MIT is my technique for identifying my personal priority each day. What is yours? Leave your comment below.

Photo by Evan Dennis on Unsplash

A free course that takes you through the workflows of how I use bullet journaling for my Daily Heads Up, Gratitude List, Weekly and Monthly reviews.