3 min read

You've got too much on your plate: principles to help you prioritize

How do we cut the number of our projects down to build a manageable portfolio and select the right mix of projects that will bring us fulfillment, and hopefully, some economic benefit?
You've got too much on your plate: principles to help you prioritize

You probably have too much on your plate. The psychologist Brian Little has spent decades studying the goals that humans pursue in their everyday lives. Little’s research finds that the average person has around 15 personal projects going at once, ranging from trivial activities to significant obsessions. Little argues that projects are critical to our identity and how humans build meaning in their lives. In other words, projects are life.

Little’s research may also explain why so many of us struggle to accomplish anything. Having 15 projects on the go at any given time is a lot, even if some are trivial. Indeed, we’ve all heard the mantra, “If you have more than three priorities, you have no priorities.” When we’re young (i.e., in our twenties), having 15 projects on the go is doable. I’ve juggled more than 15 projects at once before, and I was able to make progress on all of them.

However, that was before life happened. As we age, many of us tend to take on more responsibilities at work and in life. Careers expand and progress, children may come along, parents age, and houses need renovation. If you have a portfolio of 15 projects in your thirties, trust me, you’re not getting anything done. You’ve got to cut that number down, way down.

But for people with broad interests and multiple passions, this is incredibly difficult. The feeling of missing out on a business opportunity, a chance to learn something new, or leaving a road unexplored is tortuous for a motivated person. “Life is about tackling challenges and pushing yourself forward," these Type A people say to themselves. Cutting your project portfolio down from double to single digits feels nearly impossible - it means frequently telling yourself and others “no.”

To add further complexity to the analytical process, there’s the question of what projects to work on – do you focus on projects you’re passionate about, or do you tackle the ones with true economic benefit to yourself and your family? 

As life progresses, we realize we have less time than we thought. Given limited time, does it make more sense to have fun or turn a buck? Projects that fill our cup don’t always have clear economic value, but if you primarily focus on what you ought to be doing (i.e., activities that will make you money or earn you a promotion at work) you will eventually become depressed. Allowing external forces to shape your path versus following your internal compass rarely leads to happiness.

How do we cut the number of our projects down to build a manageable portfolio and select the right mix of projects that will bring us fulfillment and, hopefully, some economic benefit? The truth is, I haven’t quite figured this out, but I’m getting closer. Over the past six months, I’ve adopted two valuable principles to help cut down the number of projects distracting me from the work I truly want to do. 

The first principle is "The best work is the work that excites you." When I was younger, I pursued work and education I was passionate about; however, at some point, I became more practical and financially driven. For a while, this approach was beneficial to my life and career, but I’ve since stopped reaping any benefits from pursuing practical projects over passion projects. 

These days, when contemplating whether to take on a project or task, I ask myself, “Am I truly excited about this work?” If I’m not, I don’t do it. And I don’t care if it might increase my earning power by 5% over the next year.

The second principle is "Does this project align with my purpose that I’ve identified for myself?" I have spent countless months reflecting on my life’s purpose, and while I haven’t got it completely nailed down, I’m getting closer. One’s purpose changes and evolves as life progresses, so it’s important to re-evaluate, from time to time, if your purpose still resonates with you. Still, I analyze all projects against this principle. If the project doesn’t align with my purpose and broader life goals and objectives, I don’t pursue it.

You probably have too much on your plate; you may think of everything to be discovered. However, you won't accomplish anything if you don’t cut your project list down. I’ve found adopting the above principles helpful in steering me in the right direction concerning the projects I want to pursue. The sad thing about this approach is that it requires you to pick a path and steer in a particular direction, leaving a potential other life undiscovered. However, the above principles will help direct you confidently down the right path instead of staying hung up and not moving toward any meaningful goal.