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Establishing a Primary Pursuit
Using restriction to create freedom.
Hope you’re enjoying the beginnings of summer. Today’s edition of Prompted touches on the paradox of choice and strategy for coping with it. Without further preamble, let’s jump in.
As always, thanks for reading!
Establishing a Primary Pursuit
What you aim at determines what you see.
Dr. Jordan Peterson
When I was 12, my Mom took me to Dick’s to buy a new fishing pole before our family vacation. I knew nothing about fishing poles, and shortly after being confronted with hundreds of options, my brain stopped working. I tried to evaluate them objectively, but with no context and so many options, I had no idea what to do. After a few minutes, I broke down into tears, and eventually, my Mom pulled a random rod off the shelf just so we could leave.
Trying to become a bit better each day can lead to similar paradoxes of choice.
Our time is limited, but it needs to be allocated between our families, jobs, fitness, spirituality, finances, relationships, hobbies, projects, mental health, social life, and more. Within these Worthwhile Pursuits there are countless strategies to do each of them well.
This leaves us with a dizzying number of options to choose from every day when we are trying to decide what to do and how to do it. Aside from trying to become a bit better each day, we don’t have any constraining factors to make decisions, so we have no way to compare options.
Before long, we’re overwhelmed and retreat to a strategy of inaction. We need something to frame our decision-making to avoid the anxiety and paralysis that comes with too many choices.
Many smart folks have discussed the power of keystone habits. James Clear describes keystone habits as habits that “lead to a cascade of other actions”. For example, waking up early makes it easier to go to the gym, provides time for a nice breakfast, and eliminates the stress of rushed mornings. It’s one habit that leads to lots of positive consequences.
Keystone habits help pull our days in the right direction, but they don’t help much with the overwhelming decision fatigue of balancing worthwhile pursuits in all the important areas of our lives.
To make decisions effectively, we need a specific objective in mind. We need a point of optimization. While becoming a bit better each day is a great thing to aim for, it’s too broad to help us cut through all the options. Keystone habits are more specific but don’t run deep enough to help us make decisions in other areas of life.
We need something meaningful and specific to simplify the decision-making process in every area of life. Something more important than a habit and more focused than a broad desire to improve.
I call this a Primary Pursuit: an objective within one area of life that is more important than anything else. A singular point of focus doesn’t mean we ignore other Worthwhile Pursuits; it provides us with a framework for prioritization and decision-making.
If our Primary Pursuit is training for a marathon, every decision is simplified because we have a clear framework for evaluating our options. Choosing what to eat, when to go to sleep, how often to see friends, how to structure our day, what our work schedule is, and so much more fall into place when we make decisions with a Primary Pursuit in mind.
There are inevitable trade-offs when we commit to something specific, but there are also powerful positive externalities. If done correctly, Primary Pursuits build our confidence and improve our performance in every area of life, not just our Primary Pursuit. The path to broad improvements is a narrow focus.
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When are you faced with indecision?
How do you currently balance all the areas in your life?
What are you optimizing for when choosing how to spend your time?
A short read from James Clear explaining the power of keystone habits.
Thanks for reading! I’ll see you next Sunday.