44 - How to identify the most important thing



Some years ago, when my wife and I were beginning to think about homeownership, we spoke with recent homeowner friends. On one such visit, we marveled at the surrounding greenery (Sanjay Gandhi National Park in Mumbai). Our friend said that their decision to buy that place was based on a specific need. He said, “We knew what’s outside the walls was outside our control, and what’s inside we could fix. So we picked a location that was going to stay green.”

Hearing our friends made my wife and I realize we had to be clear about what was most important to us.

Not knowing what’s most important to you can cause you future regret. It can have you optimize along the wrong direction. How do you know your North Star?

Each of us has multiple objectives guiding us so taking them all into account is a necessary first step. Most objectives aren’t absolute. They have an “as long as…” attached to them. I want good pay as long as I’ve flexible hours so that I can be there for my young family. But these contingencies may not all be immediately apparent.

The process of listing down all your objectives and pitting them against each other two at a time eventually brings out what you value most. Farnam Street offers a simple way. For a big decision you’re considering:

  1. On a post-it write one thing that’s important to you. Do this for all objectives, and you should end up with a bunch of post-its.

  2. Stick the one _you think _is the most important objective on the wall.

  3. Take another and stick it alongside.

  4. Now ask: If I could have only one of these two, what would it be?

  5. Along the way, add weights to the objectives.

    Quick tip I learned from Jehad Affoneh: Imagine you’ve $10 to spend on your objectives and you can spend in $1 increments, how would you do it?

  6. Continue with the post-it battles until you’ve the most important thing.

Probing what’s important to you is an exercise in self-awareness. It clarifies where you want to go and, later on, what trade-offs you’re okay making. It forces you to ask questions of yourself that you may have taken for granted. It is a practice that travels well across parts of your life: work, relationships, values.

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