Josh Irby

Live from Sarajevo

Maybe you should quit

We love to multitask. At work we manage a matrix of projects, partners, and priorities. At home we Skype with a friend while chatting with another, cooking dinner, and answering questions from the kids. We are expert jugglers and the world is our circus.

No wonder we end up running around like clowns. Maybe we should quit.

Rocky Lubbers (Creative Commons)

Rocky Lubbers (Creative Commons)

The word “priority” made it’s way into the English language from French and Latin in the 15th century. As my Oxford American dictionary defines it, a priority is “a thing that is regarded as more important than another.” A priority is so important it takes first place. But the word speaks to more than importance, it also speaks to timing.

At the root of the word is the latin prefix “prior”, meaning before. A priority is something that should be done before other things. It comes first.

Okay, enough etymology. Here’s why this is important to you whether you are an entrepreneur or a stay-at-home Mom or a student. Until recently, the word priority was always singular. You had one priority—one thing that must come before all other things. I mean, how could more than one thing be first?

And yet, how do we use the word today? We talk about priorities. We make lists of them. We are not satisfied with only one first thing. At some point in the 20th century, the word priority became plural.

The result: we are multi-tasking clowns in the circus of life.

The Heath brothers give a good example of this phenomena and it’s result in their book Switch: How to change things when change is hard. There was a hospital director in San Francisco who was determined to decrease medication errors. The error rate was already low—only 1 error in every 1000—but each error was harmful if not fatal.

The nurses administering the medication were hard-working and conscientious. They read the doctors’ chicken-scratch prescriptions, collected the correct medicine from the distribution center, and administered it correctly almost every time. So simply telling the nurses to be more careful would not result in any significant change.

After observing the process, the director noticed mistakes were most often made when nurses were distracted. And a hospital is a distracting place. A  nurse must juggle patient care, doctor requests, and the general operation of her unit, while administering life-saving (or life-taking) drugs.

The director, determined to help these nurses focus and avoid distractions, developed an idea. She purchased bright orange safety vests and asked each nurse to wear this “medication vest” while administering drugs. She then informed the rest of the staff they could not talk to a nurse if he was wearing the vest.

At first, the staff were reluctant to accept the change. However, in the first 6 months, the error rate dropped by 47%. All because the nurses were able to focus.

Our world has never been more distracting. Mankind has never been pulled in so many different directions. Not a minute passes without a ding or vibration or billboard or advertisement demanding our attention. It is harder than ever to focus on what takes priority.

For the past two months I’ve not written on the blog. I’ve stayed away from social media and cut back on my non-essential communication. While I missed writing and interacting in this space, the break was refreshing. With focused intention I was able to give myself to a priority issue for the summer.

I am glad I wasn’t afraid to put on the orange vest.

For two months I said “No” to writing in order to say “Yes” to my priority. I quit one battle in order to win a more important one.

Maybe you should quit too. Maybe you should put on the orange vest and focus in for a period of time. Or maybe you should quit something permanently. Don’t let secondary goals distract you from your priority objective. Even the most talented clown has a limit of balls he can juggle. Which balls will you let drop?

What is your priority? What are you willing to do to keep it in first place? 

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