The Power of Deep Prioritizing

Not too long ago, I spent an entire workweek without writing a single word for The Simple Dollar or any other writing project for that matter. Yet, this wasn’t a week of vacation or sabbatical or anything like that.

What did I do, then? I spent an entire week reading a few relevant books and a stack of articles. I took a lot of notes. I did a lot of brainstorming and very vague outlining. I tried out a few interesting things that I thought were perfectly suited for articles.

From a short-term perspective, this was a disaster. This produced nothing in terms of having articles for The Simple Dollar, and an entire week was down the tubes. However, it was incredibly valuable and efficient in terms of a longer-term perspective. I had the raw materials to quickly finish a good month’s worth of articles fairly quickly.

The truth is that the “deep priority” of The Simple Dollar – or at least my part of it – is ideas. What can I observe or write or learn about that is an interesting or useful perspective on the challenges of personal finance? The core idea and the basic outline is the really valuable part, and it’s the long-term value of the site. It’s why readers seem to come back.

Here’s the kicker: Everything has a “deep priority.” Everything has one or two key elements to it that makes the whole thing move over the long term, and when you really focus in on those key elements, everything else just kind of follows along in its wake. If you take a long-term perspective on those deep priorities, then you’re setting yourself up for a great life.

“Deep prioritizing” is a term that I’ve been using to describe this very practice of using the key part of long-term aspects of life to prioritize everything. It must be SUPER URGENT for a short-term aspect of life to overcome a long-term aspect.

You might recognize this idea to an extent from Stephen Covey’s excellent book The Seven Habits of Highly Successful People. It’s a book with a handful of really sharp ideas in it, and one of those sharp ideas is that everything we do in life breaks down into four key groups. Everything is either important or unimportant, and everything is either urgent or not urgent.

Most of the time in life, we prioritize things based on urgency. If something is urgent, we do it first. Deep prioritizing is about choosing things based solely on importance and only using urgency as a second factor at best.

When I choose deep priorities for The Simple Dollar, that usually means ignoring the urgency of getting my next article up and instead handling the important task of ensuring that there’s a large supply of useful ideas to write about. While it is important that I get my next article up in time and it does become somewhat urgent as the deadline closes in, it’s more important that I have a large reservoir of ideas to draw from so I’m not stuck there idling in place when I really do need an article. A single article is urgent but relatively unimportant; a big pool of good ideas is rather important but not as urgent. When I deep prioritize, I’m making sure that the big pool never runs dry.

If I ran solely based on urgency, I’d try to constantly write toward the next deadline, but there would come a point where I ran out of ideas and the wheels would fall off. Ideas are the deep priority and I make as much time for them as possible.

The idea of “deep prioritizing” shows up over and over again in life.

In food, one sees it in terms of deciding whether to eat healthy foods or convenient and purely tasty foods. Healthy foods are the “deep priority.” If they happen to be convenient and tasty, great, but the deep priority is your health.

In parenting, the deep priority is building long-term character for your kids. Often, that runs counter to what’s convenient in the moment or what will bring about short-term happiness. The “deep priority” is shaping your children to be functional independent adults. If it happens to be fun and make everyone happy, that’s great, but the deep priority is character building.

In careers, the deep priority is building a skill set and a set of achievements that will make you incredibly employable. While it might be more fun to blow off an afternoon reading celebrity gossip on your phone, you’re better served attending to your deep priority of building a career at every opportunity.

In social life, the deep priority is building lasting meaningful relationships. While it might be a short-term priority to hang out with whoever’s doing the most fun thing at the moment, that rarely leads to building a deep relationship with someone. Deep prioritization means watching your friends’ children in an emergency or being there when they really need you instead of going to a party you’re invited to. Deep priorities build lasting relationships.

Almost everything in life can be considered in this fashion, even leisure time. What can I do with my leisure time that really adds more meaning and understanding to my life while still being relaxing? It’s a question I’ve asked myself a lot lately, and I’ve come to several conclusions that work for me.

If you turn the idea of deep prioritization to money, it means frugality. It means finding efficient spending in the short term, of course, but also figuring out what will get the job done in the long term. It means saving up for long-term goals as a top priority. It means figuring out how to spend money in an optimal way to produce joy. It also ties into the career moves discussed above, as earning more always helps, but frugality always plays a role.

What are your deep priorities? What kinds of things do you want in your life beyond the next few months? What choices can you make in the moment that makes that long term better? Those are your deep priorities. Strive to make them more central.

There are other benefits of using deep prioritization throughout your life.

It makes your days feel more meaningful. If you spend a day really focused on deep prioritization, you go to bed feeling great. Whether we consciously realize it or not, we all have a lot on our plate in the coming years, and a day spent lightening that incoming load is a day that feels deeply meaningful.

It puts your life on a constant slow upward trajectory as the deep prioritization starts to pay off. You begin to feel like your life is simply headed in a better direction whether you’re consciously doing anything that day to steer it that way, and it becomes more and more obvious the more you deep prioritize.

It becomes a very useful filter for what to do when you’re faced with a decision. If you just learn to ask yourself, “What choice makes my life better five years down the road?” then a lot of decisions actually become really easy. Even when you clearly need to focus on the here and now, that filter can still help you figure out the best choice amongst similar options.

For the next several days, try letting deep priorities guide you. See what life looks like when you simply ask yourself what the true priority is in this situation, and if you’re unsure, ask yourself which option pays off the most for you five years down the road. You’ll often have a gut response to that question that you can act on immediately, and then you can think about what the deep priority that you’re addressing is later on.

Start with money. Consider each dollar you spend this week through that lens of how it will help you five years or ten years from now. What can you do with it that really pays off in that time scale?

It won’t always be easy or obvious. Nothing worth doing ever is. However, it will end up slowly putting you on a better road going forward.

Good luck

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Trent Hamm

Founder & Columnist

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 and still writes a daily column on personal finance. He’s the author of three books published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press, has contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and his financial advice has been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.