Most people don’t stop enough and think hard enough about their priorities and the problems that are the most worthwhile for them to try to solve. Figuring out what matters to you most may be the most important decision you can make. Life, at its best, is about finding what’s best for you or finding the one decision that removes 100 decisions. In a world where information is abundant and easy to access, most information is irrelevant and most effort is wasted, so the real advantage is knowing where to focus. When you know what matters to you, it’s a lot easier to ignore what doesn’t. One of the greatest forms of freedom comes from knowing what is important to you. It grants you the freedom to ignore everything else.

Cost of Delay is a way of communicating the impact of time on the outcomes we hope to achieve. Cost of Delay combines urgency and value — two things that humans are not very good at distinguishing between.

If you can’t figure out if something is going to be worth your time, consider these questions:

What project solves the most problems?

There’s also an similar version of this question from Tim Ferriss: “What is one thing that, if completed, makes the rest of these tasks easier?”

According to the Pareto Principle, for many events, pattern of nature in which ~80% of effects result from ~20% of causes. What 20% of your work drives 80% of your outcomes? What’s one thing you could do now that if you did regularly would make a tremendous difference in your life? 

The key is to look at the whole system to find the limit. In a company, is the limit sales? Some aspect of production? Customer service? If you’re working on anything that isn’t improving the bottleneck, then you’re not improving the throughput of the system. Essentially wasting time and resources, where any improvement to the bottleneck would be a massive payoff.

What activities have long-term ROI?

My favorite example of this is Tim Urban’s (Wait But Why) answer to the question: “What’s something I can learn or do in 10 minutes that would be useful for the rest of my life?”

All self-help boils down to “choose long-term over short-term.” We waste our time with short-term thinking and busywork. Some projects (even super small ones) can have enormous payoffs over a lifetime, if they save you time and mental clutter.

Focus on the extremely long term. Make a lot fewer short-term compromises. Aspire to only work with people who you can work with forever, to invest your time in activities that are a joy unto themselves, to buy less but buy better stuff that you’ll feel good reusing, to avoid dinners with people you won’t see again, to avoid tedious ceremonies to please tedious people, to avoid traveling to places that you wouldn’t go to on vacation. If it is not making you happier, smarter, or healthier, or calmer, or having better relationships, or wealthier, then what good is it? It’s useless. You can safely discard it. When faced with a decision, ask yourself, “Is this helping me get what I want?”, or “What option feels like it will produce the most amount of luck in the future?” Choose it. Everything else is just noise.

What is the cost of not having this (done) yet?

The measure of how much you love something is what you sacrifice for it. When something has weighed you down, even the sentimental, remind yourself that it has a cost. No matter where we’ve been or where we’re going, when we fixate on the past and the future, it’s at the expense of the present. The question of what you want to own or do is actually the question of how you want to live your life. Henry Thoreau put it best when he said, “The price of anything is the amount of life you exchange for it.”

Pretend you don’t own it yet. Instead of asking, “How much do I value this item?”, you should ask, “If I did not own this item, how much would I pay to obtain it?”, or “How much am I willing to sacrifice my passion and purpose for possessions?”.

You can do the same for opportunities and commitment. Don’t ask, “How will I feel if I miss out on this opportunity?” but rather, “If I did not have this opportunity, how much would I be willing to sacrifice in order to obtain it?” Similarly, you can ask, “If I wasn’t already involved in this project, how hard would I work to get on it?”.

How urgent is this?

To make decisions, we need to understand not just how valuable something is, but how urgent it is.

Apply The Eisenhower Matrix strategy developed by Dwight Eisenhower for taking action and organizing your tasks. Using the decision matrix below, you will separate your actions based on four possibilities.

  • Important and Urgent: tasks you will do immediately.
  • Important, but not Urgent: tasks you will schedule to do later.
  • Urgent, but not Important: tasks you will delegate to someone else.
  • Neither Urgent nor Important: tasks that you will eliminate.