Necessity is a Habit

Prioritize — How to find what is truly necessary when everything claims to be

We live in a world of constant, never ending distractions. Every single time the phone buzzes or an email hits the inbox, it demands our immediate attention.

Every single one claims to need an instant response.

Every thing we write on our to-do lists is perceived as being necessary to complete right this moment.

The hard truth is that you will never reply to every email or finish every task. The moment you get your inbox to zero, a new avalanche of emails will come in to fill it up.

You will always add more items to your to-do list.

Your kids will always need once more thing from you.

The key to success is determining what is necessary to accomplish now and what can wait until later.

The hard part, though, is cultivating a sense of necessity in the first place.

How do we cultivate a sense that some things are necessary and other things are just someone else’s preference for us?

First, we have to learn to prioritize. Our lives are a constant torrent of requests. Everyone and everything demands every second of our time. So we need to find a way to organize this mess into a format that allows us to make sense of it all. The best way is to determine what is truly important.

There are a lot of ways to do this, but the one that works best for me looks something like this:

Every single time someone needs something from me, I attempt to compartmentalize it into one of those four categories.

Important/urgent — These are requests that must be accomplished right now. These have an immediate consequence if they are not taken care of right away. To be honest, very few of the things that I am asked to do fall into this category. In fact, if they do, chances are I have created that problem myself. More on that in a moment.

Important/not urgent — These are requests that need to be accomplished as soon as possible, but do not carry a some kind of do or die footnote. Most requests that people want done “today” fall into this category. It is important to feed your kids while you are on a road trip, but it is rarely so bad that you need to pull over to the side of the road and scrape the bird out of the grill of the car that you hit 5 miles back so they can eat it because they might die of starvation otherwise. Things only get that bad if you put them off for too long. Eventually, it becomes not only important to feed your children, but also urgent, and this is a situation of your own creating. If you have an assignment due in school next Thursday at 2pm, and you do not start it until 1:30pm that day, you have no one to blame but yourself.

Not important/urgent — This is another category that my day to day requests tend to fall in relatively often. A lot of the things that people ask you to do come more from their personal preferences than from a place of necessity. They need to be done soon, but they are not going to cost you anything in the long term if they are not done right now. An important task might. And an important and urgent task is sure to. But if you take care of things before they become both important and urgent, you will not have any problems.

Not important/not urgent — This is where most emails go. And most requests never leave this category. These are the things that you can say “no” to with confidence.

Remember that list you made last time? Before we go any further, I want you to draw the grid above and place the items on your list into those four categories.

Once you have done that, we will continue.



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Jeremy Zerby

Jeremy Zerby


Hermeneutics, religion, pop psychology, self-help, and culture. They are all connected, and I am here to explain how.