What Is the First Thing?

I’ve read a number of books and blogs on productivity, fulfillment and essentialism. Effectiveness is doing the right thing, efficiency is doing the thing right. Or something to that effect. Similar ideas can be found in the urgent-important and focus-energy quadrant graphs. The key point is that it’s possible to be doing the wrong things. Given that our time is finite, we should endeavor to not do that. The most prevalent advice to counter this at a high level is to keep the first thing first. Work on your most important goal / project every day. Preferably in the morning, before the distractions and the busyness and other people’s agendas step in to take over your time.

So how do you decide what the first thing is? Some people just know. They have a clear vision or drive or goal that they are singularly focused on. I envy these people. Especially those who know that their job is their first thing. They are answering a calling and none of what follows is applicable. For the rest of us, we sometimes just don’t know. Maybe our day jobs are good and we do that work to the best of our ability so that we can do other things in our down time. We have too many interests, or our value systems point to multiple options. We don’t have a priority in the classic sense of the word. We want to build that mobile app, or write a screenplay, or learn to play guitar, or take up blacksmithing, or a hundred other things. We want to do something but there’s just all this potential. So we end up with the paradox of choice and often just throw our hands up and surf the internet or pick up a book.

I admit that this is where I have been of late. I want to do something, to make something, to learn something (bonus points for all three), but I have a hard time deciding what. I want to build or write more on this site. I want to write a book (a choice that has maximum fan-out because then it’s a question of which story among the myriad different ideas that I have). I want to build a side-hustle that I can perhaps get some additional income with. I want to write a video game. So many options and all about equal in importance (and yes, blacksmithing is on the list, but it’s not in the top five). There is no clear winner.

Time to break out the lists. Pro-con the hell out of it. Still doesn’t work. What am I most passionate about? Yes. What would make extra money? Potentially all of them. Do you at least have a top two? If so, maybe you flip a coin. If not, write them down on small pieces of paper, fold them up, randomize and pick one (the use of a hat is optional). Does the random selection disappoint you? Good. That’s a signal. There’s actually something you want to do, or that your subconscious wants to do (or perhaps it doesn’t want you to do what you picked, that’s also fine). Repeat until you’ve found something that doesn’t disappoint.

But what if it’s the wrong choice? There is no wrong choice, these are all things you want to do. Even so, it’s not an unreasonable question. Figure out a timeline. Commit to it for thirty days, or sixty, or a hundred. Just pick some span of time and commit to working on that thing without second guessing and with as much time and focus as you can bring to bear. Do not stop, do not research blacksmithing techniques when you are supposed to be working on your novel (unless your main character is a blacksmith and then maybe it’s okay). At the end of your planned time horizon, ask if you want to change gears or keep going. Most likely you should keep going, especially if you’ve been spending time on it every day like you should. Use inertia to your advantage and keep going if you can.

Not knowing is not the problem. Not experimenting, not doing, is the problem. Each of those interests or ideas is a hypothesis. Make the time to play with what might bring you fulfillment and flow. Be biased toward action. You have to do the work - research about the work isn’t the work (reading about writing isn’t writing). Be okay with failing, you’re not going to be as good as you would like. Not at first anyway. Keep trying. If it doesn’t interest you after staying with it, that’s fine, move on to something else. Just be sure that the disinterest is really that and not your fear masquerading as boredom. When something captures your imagination and lights something inside, then stay with it. For now, that’s your first thing.