Simply asking what’s important can help you see when some things clearly aren’t.1 This status becomes still clearer when you look more closely at things like quantity, duration, context, interest, and agency.
For all that, though, what do you do if “what’s important” is still too much?
You’re already avoiding what’s neither important nor urgent. And you’re making headway on saying “no” to what’s merely urgent but not important.
But what do you do if you’re still in a place where there’s too much that you find important to do it all justice?
When what’s important feels like too much …
It’s a good time to pray. As the psalmist says, “by my God I can leap over a wall.”2
But that should go without saying, and it should be a regular part of your spiritual life even when things don’t feel like they’re too much. The reality is that life can go from manageable to overwhelming either slowly or instantaneously. So, you need to navigate the whole prayerfully.
In addition, laborare est orare, “work is prayer.” And here I’ll focus on the kind of work you can prayerfully do when even the comparatively few things that are truly important get to be too much.
In this context, 3 strategies can particularly help. These are to
- watch for importance creep as you distinguish grey areas at the border of the important and the unimportant,
- recognize degrees of importance and respect your limits to discern differences in layers of importance in different contexts,
- focus on what’s important about what’s important to help you see when things that are actually important sometimes have things that aren’t nestled inside, and
- work on one thing at a time to gain traction and minimize overwhelm.
1. Watch for importance creep.
Asking better questions can give you a clearer picture of what’s actually important. But sometimes, the dividing line between “important” and “not important” can still appear blurry.
This blurriness can make us feel that some things are important, even when they actually aren’t. This dynamic is “importance creep.”
Importance creep comes from unexamined bleed over from “interest” into “importance.” It causes you to focus on areas of concern that stretch beyond what you actually have control over—your areas of influence.3
Unfortunately, the more effort you spend spinning your wheels in this margin, the less you’ll be able put into the things you can control.
The result is that your area of influence shrinks, and the disparity between your areas of concern and your areas of influence grows. Or you might shrink your areas of concern to match the shrinking in your ability to affect them.
Either one is a downward spiral. So, you need to watch for when you might be considering something as important that almost has that status, but not quite.
2. Recognize degrees of importance, and respect your limits.
The fact that some things are closer to or farther from being important implies that importance itself isn’t a binary. “Important” and “not important” are helpful core categories. But each of them contains a gradation.
It might be “important” for you to be writing a paper. But when you go into labor—or your spouse does—it becomes very clear very fast that a new baby is more important than a new page of writing.
Limits are bases for discerning importance.
You only have 168 hours in a week. For a good amount of that time, you have a physiological need to be unconscious.
The same was even true for Jesus. Being finite, having limits is part of what it means to be human.
Just because you judge something to be important doesn’t mean you have the bandwidth to invest in it. And if you find you don’t, you may need to recalibrate and tighten up your sense of what it means for something to qualify as important.
As you do, you may find that some things were only just apparently important. But on closer inspection, they’re actually not.
That status of “not important” might be permanent. You might recognize that you don’t actually need something in your life that you thought you did.
Or the status of “not important” might not be absolute. It might, in a bigger picture, just mean “less important.” For example, if your writing a paper gets interrupted by a new baby’s birth, the paper will—at some point—cycle back into being important.
Important doesn’t mean “worthwile.”
“Important” doesn’t just mean “worthwhile.” Something is important or has more importance only when it’s worthwhile and deserves priority.
You might not be able to give something priority even if you recognize that it’s worthwhile in principle.
If you had no limits, you wouldn’t have to make that distinction. But because you do have limits, what you decide to prioritize has to fit within those limits.
Otherwise, you’re back in for the downward spiral of importance creep.
3. Focus on what’s most important about what’s important.
In addition, not everything about what’s important is equally important. In your research, for example, you need to interact with good sources and document them well.
A guide like the SBL Handbook of Style might tell you what “documented … well” looks like. But how you get your documentation into that shape is secondary.
So, you could type each footnote one by one and meticulously check that formatting against your style guide. If you do so, your effort has exactly a 1 to 1 correspondence with your results. One footnote typed and meticulously checked gets you … the chance to do exactly the same thing with the next footnote.
Or you could invest a bit of effort into learning a citation manager like Zotero. That’s more complex than typing, so there’s some overhead in getting started.
To cite a source, you can create and meticulously check one Zotero record. But once that record is there and structured properly, Zotero can prepare corresponding footnotes without limit. And Zotero can automatically edit your footnotes if you need to change from one style (e.g., SBL) to another (e.g., Chicago).
What’s essential about good documentation isn’t your method in preparing your footnotes. It’s the copiousness, clarity, and consistency of those notes. And you can make what’s important (e.g., good documentation) less burdensome by optimizing for what’s important about it (e.g., the final product).
Just because something is important doesn’t mean it has to be burdensome. As Greg McKeown helpfully ponders,
What could happen in your life if … the essential things became easier?4
And a prime way they can become easier is by focusing on what’s essential about them.
4. Work on one thing at a time.
Especially when you have far too much to do, it’s tempting to try to do everything all at once. The only problem is that doing everything at once scatters your attention and efforts however many different commitments.
The result is that you make less progress both on each commitment individually and on the group as a whole.5
Instead, identify the single most important thing on your plate and work steadily on that. If you complete that commitment entirely, that’s great. But your goal might simply be to complete it enough so that it’s “done for now.” At that “done for now” point, something else might be the single most important thing on your plate.
Longer stretches of uninterrupted time tend to be helpful for completing larger projects. But nothing in this process requires them. Instead, if you need to pivot, do so. But do so because you’re pivoting to something else of greater importance—not just something of greater (or seeming) urgency.
In seasons like this, it can be especially helpful to have some kind of ordered list of all the important commitments you need to address. I’ve found it useful to order such a list by due date. That way, I’m addressing the sum total of everything that’s important in an order that means I’ll be less likely be late on any individual commitment.
Sometimes, everything in life all together can just get to be too much. Separating yourself from what’s urgent but not important can help.
But if you find yourself having too much that’s important, try to
- watch for importance creep,
- recognize degrees of importance, and respect your limits,
- focus on what’s most important about what’s important, and
- work on one thing at a time.
Doing so can help lighten the load, including when “life happens” in unexpected ways.
2 Sam 22:30; Ps 18:29 ESV. ↩
For these categories and a helpful description of the basic dynamics among them, see Stephen R. Covey, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change, 25th anniversary ed. (affiliate disclosure; New York: Simon & Schuster, 2013), 88–101. ↩
Greg McKeown, Effortless: Make It Easier to Do What Matters Most (affiliate disclosure; New York: Currency, 2021), 14. This core theme runs throughout Effortless in different iterations in the book’s various chapters. ↩
On this dynamic, see especially Greg McKeown, Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less (affiliate disclosure; New York: Crown Business, 2014); Cal Newport, A World without Email: Find Focus and Transform the Way You Work Forever (affiliate disclosure; New York: Portfolio Penguin, 2021). ↩