Discerning whether something is important can be tricky.1 You can start with 3 questions:
- How much does something matter?
- For how long does something matter?
- In what context does something matter?
In addition to these questions, you also need to ask “For whom does something matter?”2 This question of for whom something matters contains two distinct senses.
The first is interest and highlights who benefits from whatever activity you’re considering.
It can be an odd thought to consider, but not everyone has the same level of claim on your involvement. The command to love your neighbor excludes no one. So, as a good (next door) neighbor, you might watch out for your neighbor’s children when you see them playing too close to a busy street. But you won’t invest in them in the same ways and to the same degree as you do your own children. (And your neighbor would have good grounds to find you a bit creepy if you tried.)
As Paul says, “Let us do good to all, and especially to those who are of the household of the faith.”3 The doing of good especially to one class of people doesn’t by any means imply that others are excluded. But it does direct specific attention to the priority of the claims that certain others have on benefitting from your doing good.
Paul considers this principle particularly as it applies in the Christian community. But it helpfully extends elsewhere too. You wouldn’t want to do good to a casual acquaintance in a way that means you’ll fail to do good to those who are closest to you.
So, the closer to the center someone is in your “circle of concern,” the more important an activity associated with that person will be.4
The second sense of the question “For whom does something matter?” has to do with agency. In this sense, the question highlights who performs the activity you’re considering.
In some cases, an activity might matter, so it’s important and needs to be addressed. But it might not matter that you’re the one who does it.
There might be an equally good outcome if the activity is addressed without your involvement. That might happen by someone else doing it (delegation) or by creating a system so that no one has to do it (automation).
In some cases, the outcome might even be better if you’re not involved because you’re not the best person to produce that outcome. Someone else might have more expertise, speed, bandwidth, or any number of other resources that will allow them to produce a better outcome than you could.
Or setting up a system that runs without input from anyone could do the same. Automated systems are excellent for ensuring consistency, since they circumvent human error. And they keep work from trading hands. It just moves off everyone’s plate altogether.
Consequently, the more something can be handled automatically or the more someone else is better able to handle it, the less important it is for you to be the one to do it.
Life’s too short for you to spend it on what’s not important for you to be doing. And discerning that isn’t about selfishness. It’s about personal responsibility and self-discipline.
It’s about intentionally devoting yourself to what you honestly believe is best because, in the end, the person you’ll have to give an account for is you.
It can feel a bit odd to reckon squarely with a difference in levels of different people’s claims on you or need for your involvement.
As Greg McKeown summarizes,
When we try to do it all and have it all, we find ourselves making trade-offs at the margins that we would never take on as our intentional strategy. When we don’t purposefully and deliberately choose where to focus our energies and time, other people … will choose for us, and before long we’ll have lost sight of everything that is meaningful and important. We can either make our choices deliberately or allow other people’s agendas to control our lives.5
By all means, yes, you should extend to others the kindness of being of service to them. But both kindness and self-discipline are fruits of the same Spirit (cf. Gal 5:22–23).
And it’s sometimes necessary to exercise the discipline of incurring unpopularity with some in order to prioritize what matters to others as fully as they deserve.
Header image provided by Jimmy Dean. ↩
Particularly helpful in assembling this list have been David Allen, Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity (New York: Penguin, 2003); Stephen R. Covey, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change, 25th anniversary ed. (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2013); Michael S. Hyatt, Free to Focus: A Total Productivity System to Achieve More by Doing Less (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Publishing Group, 2019); and Rory Vaden, Procrastinate on Purpose: 5 Permissions to Multiply Your Time (New York: Perigee, 2015). ↩
Gal 6:10; my translation. ↩
For helpful discussion of the relationships between a “circle of concern” and a “circle of influence,” see Covey, Habits, 88–100. ↩
Greg McKeown, Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less (New York: Crown Business, 2014), 16. ↩