I am a survivor of the mythical cult of multitasking. Some days I still cling to the belief that I can not only successfully accomplish multiple tasks at once but that I can do them well. Spoiler alert: I never could, I can’t today and I don’t think I will ever be able to. I might keep trying though. Old habits die hard.
Somewhere, somehow I was duped into believing that a high level of activity is as good as a deep level of impact. When asked how we’re doing, how often do we respond, “so BUSY!”? But ‘busy,’ doesn’t describe a state of being (well- or otherwise). It’s a badge of belonging to a grind culture that rewards volume and intensity. And, doing lots of things, as it turns out, can be a really good distraction from doing the hardest thing. I’m so productive! Look at all of those check marks on my list. Sometimes I put things on the list that are complete just for the satisfaction of crossing them out.
But the hardest things are hard. And, in my experience, they’re usually the most important or meaningful things on the list. The things that deliver real impact. Whenever I became frustrated as a kid, my mom used to say, “hard things make us grow.” As annoying as that was to hear, I say it to my kids now because I’ve found it to be true. My grandfather added a practical spin: “do the hardest thing on your list first, and everything else will melt away.” The hardest thing to do is to do the hardest thing first.
For me, this doesn’t necessarily mean finishing the hard thing in one sitting — hard things take time. Take this story, for example. I ran around my house doing a hundred little things and then found myself with 15 minutes before my next meeting. It was so tempting to take on/check off 3–5 little things in that 15 minutes, knowing that I would have the satisfaction of completing them. I even considered making some headway on the TV series I’m watching (! — progress on something, right?!?). But writing this is the hardest thing on my list today. And so even though I won’t complete it in 15 minutes, I’ll start it. And by starting it, I’m prioritizing it. And by prioritizing it, I’ll make more time for it, invest in it and eventually complete it.
Clarity and conviction around the things on your list that matter most can be a source of power. That power looks like strength, confidence and conviction. It looks like focus, and it feels deeply satisfying to know that you’re spending your time in a way that is meaningful and impactful. I’ve found that the world will always provide four hundred lists of four thousand things to do — it’s up to us to prioritize the things that matter most. For me, doing the hardest thing first is an important step toward recognizing the things that are both important and meaningful. And once I’ve tackled that thing, it’s true that the rest of the list melts aways. Sometimes because I can breeze through the other things after pushing my way through the hardest thing. And many times because in doing the hardest thing, I realize the other things have no place on my list at all.