There’s a story I tell people frequently about the opening lecture from the only college-level philosophy course I ever took. It’s a story I think of even more often as the holidays approach and our schedules fill up with more events, more errands, more commitments, more parties and all the other general craziness of the season.
"What is the greatest philosophical question of all time?" my professor asked on a crisp fall morning 20 years ago.
My fellow students and I called out clichéd guesses: "What’s the meaning of Life? Is there a God? Does objective moral truth exist?"
"NO!” my professor exclaimed, dramatically turning to the blackboard.
"The greatest question of all time, the question great philosophers have been trying to tackle since the beginning of time is… What should I do today?"
And he was right.
When we wake up in the morning, what could be more important than determining that what we will spend the next 16 hours doing has meaning and deserves our precious time.
There is no more democratic currency in our world than time. We all get just 24 hours in each day, 60 minutes every hour. I’m afraid, however, that when spending that time, most of us are living at such a rapid pace of doing that we’ve skipped right past examining the value of what we do. Instead, we engage in an almost blind faith that the things that happen to be on the calendar that day are worth their price in the minutes and hours they’ve been assigned.
But most likely, at least some of those activities are vastly overpriced.
The Ikea Effect
There’s a phenomenon out there that cognitive psychologists refer to as the IKEA effect. In short, it describes how we often value things that take up our time and energy more than it objectively deserves. If you’ve ever built a piece of IKEA furniture (I just spent several hours this last weekend doing this), you’ve probably experienced the sense of pride and accomplishment that comes after the project is complete. The new bookshelf means a little something more to you just because you built it yourself — more than the identical piece of furniture might be worth to you if you bought it preassembled and ready-to-go. It seems worth more simply because you made it.
To illustrate the point, scientists asked participants to build some origami swans according to instructions that they also provided. None of the participants were professional origami artists, so none of their sculptures were all that great, but when they asked the participants how much they thought others might pay for their sculptures, the subjects greatly over-estimated their worth when compared to asking other subjects who had not built any swans how much they might pay.
In fact, you can exacerbate the results by taking away some of the origami instructions from the participants. The task gets harder, the sculptures look even worse since they did not have the benefit of clear instruction — but because they took even more time and energy to complete, participants assume that other non-origami-builders will want to spend even more on their ugly swan sculptures.
The experiment reveals a deceptive and alarming trap. We are often easily fooled into believing that what we are doing is important simply because it happens to be what we’re doing. But what if we were to take a more objective look?
The Quantity Trap
My wife and I are parents of three elementary school-aged children who keep us plenty busy. We live active professional and social lives that call us to all sorts of events and meetings where I get to talk to others in the same boat and I’ve noticed a common refrain in many of the conversations I have:
"Hi, Judy! How’ve you been?"
"Busy! How ’bout you, Andy?"
"Busy! It’s crazy!"
We rarely follow up those introductions with any substantive discussion about what exactly is keeping us so busy, and certainly not any conversation about whether those things really deserve to keep us so busy.
It’s as if unqualified busyness itself has become a statement of self-worth and importance. Value has become a function of quantity, not quality. We assume that the busiest people around us are the most important and we wear our own busyness as a badge of our prestige. The end result is a situation where we feel forced to choose between two realities:
1. Respected and worthy, but harried, exhausted, and sometimes downright miserable.
2. Relaxed and rested, but left with the gnawing sense that we’re being lazy and in danger of becoming insignificant. If we really mattered, we’d be busier.
It’s a familiar tension, but not necessarily an old one.
As Greg McKeown points out in his book Essentialism, the word "priority" first appeared in the English language in the 1400’s. When it does, it’s exclusively singular and means exactly what it sounds like — that which comes before all else, the very first thing. And then, about 100 years ago, some guy in a conference room threw an "s" at the end and made it plural. Now, it’s not uncommon for businesses to draw up strategic plans that outline 10, 20, 50 priorities. They are literally describing 50 first things. In the industrial age, as productivity became paramount, we didn’t just start making more stuff. We started making more priorities.
And we’ve contracted the same malady in our personal lives. Everything feels important. But that can’t possibly be correct. In the end, there must be a few things that matter more.
Asking the Question
A number of years ago, I was fortunate enough to spend a year as a member of the Shannon Leadership Institute at the Wilder Foundation. One of the core purposes of the institute is to help clarify your own personal core values. After a year of reflection and exploration, I settled on the following three: Family, Physical and Emotional Wellness and Contribution.
Over the years, that clarity has been keenly helpful in sorting through all sorts of difficult decisions, especially when it comes to how I direct my time.
Like so many of the big questions, the answers are often very simple and very hard.
Getting clear on priorities (not 50 – but three or four) requires time. It needs reflection and conversation and exploration. It requires saying "no" to what we could do for the benefit of what we should do.
And just like a great strategic plan fails when you just look at the goals once a year at the annual meeting, managing our own priorities takes constant attention.
It’s something I’ve learned to make a priority in my own life — time for reflection and adjustment. But with all my own busyness recently, I was starting to feel off course. I began to wonder if my core values were clear to the people around me — especially my kids.
So the other night at dinner, I asked them.
Hey kids, what do you think is most important to Mom and Dad?
I was relieved to hear that "your family and your kids" was the first things out of their mouths. Next was "pizza". (They may have been projecting some of their own stuff there.) Work was also on the list, but it seemed to rank where it should, a little further down the list. Apparently I hadn’t drifted as far off course as I had feared, but it’s a question I’ll keep asking them and myself.
What should I do today? What’s really important? What comes first?
How often do we really slow down enough to answer those questions with any presence of mind? How often do we have the courage to ask the people we care about most what they think about how we spend our time?
I try to have conversations with my kids about these things, not just because their feedback and perspective is important to me, but also because I want them to build the same habit — to regard the currency of their time not as something that you spend extravagantly on stuff to impress, but instead invest in things that really matter.
As the holidays approach, the candidates for potential priorities will only increase: attending the various and many holiday parties, finding the right gifts, getting the house decorated just so, sitting down for a glass of wine and a conversation with the relative you haven’t seen in a year, making that special appetizer that takes 10 times longer to prepare than it does to eat, huddling with kids in front of a fireplace, playing in the snow, managing the inevitable spending – not to mention all the other responsibilities you were managing before the holidays came around. The amount of disposable stuff we’ll encounter will certainly increase, but so will the opportunities for real, significant time with the people and endeavors that matter to us most.
There are no better mornings than the ones in the next couple of months to wake up and start each day with the most important question of all time:
What should I do today?