The three piles of life

Here’s an oversimplified theory to play with for today: there are only three piles in life.

  1. Things that are important
  2. Things that are unimportant
  3. Things that are unimportant but distract you from what is important

The dangerous pile is #3: as it’s the pile of misplaced energy. And it’s a hidden pile, one we often don’t realize we’re keeping. 

Marketers go to great lengths to add to the 3rd pile in our lives. Our impulses and desires contribute to it too. We’re told dozens of times a day that what’s missing is a quick fix, or something we can buy. But expensive sneakers won’t make you healthier. A fancy car or necklace won’t make you a wiser, more fulfilled person. A deep need can’t be satisfied by a sequence of temporary distractions, as tempting and exhilarating as they might be.

The important things in life rarely come to us fast or depend on what we own. Yet it’s natural in society today that those forces drive our decisions. The result is we live lives tending to the wrong piles.

Unless you define the primary piles (#1 and #2) yourself, you inherit a value system someone else decided. You might be inheriting it from people who were failed by that very framework, but are unaware. Or you are using piles from a younger version of yourself who’s priorities are out of date.  Why assume their system works now? Why not ask how it can be redesigned? Or study how people you trust and admire have shaped their piles? Make your own system and ask for feedback from those closest to you. Only they can guide you in shaping the piles most likely to shape your life into the experience you desire.

We all need other people to tell us what they think of the piles we’ve chosen and how well we are tending to them. Our habits often work against our own goals and we need help to close that gap. We’re all victim to our whims, weaknesses and egos. But if our friends know our piles, they can help us know when too much of our lives are invested in the wrong ones if we ask for their feedback. And if you don’t have a friend, be a friend to yourself. Keep a journal of where your energy goes and review it now and again so you’re honest about your piles instead of waiting for a mythical quick fix to come along someday. 

15 Responses to “The three piles of life”

  1. Joe McCarthy


    A related category is things that are important to other people, but perhaps not so important to me … and I can be extremely productive when I engage in structured procrastination, tending to the things that are important to me, but perhaps not so important to others … while avoiding doing the things that fall into the former category.

  2. Damon

    So are necessities of life considered as important or just required? I feel I do things that are required but conflict with what I feel is important to me. Exterme example: I feel spending as much time with my son as possible is one of the most important thing to me, which I could accomplish by not following the required traffic laws to get home faster.

    1. Scott Berkun

      It’s all up to you :)

      Necessities are important. If you didn’t have them, you’d die. Or be miserable. Food, shelter, companionship are all important.

      A different way to frame your question is: how can you structure your life so that you don’t need to spend as much time in traffic? Take a different job. Move closer to work. Or carpool so you can do other things (like talking to your son on the phone) instead of having to drive every commute.

  3. Noushad Moidunny

    “Marketers go to great lengths to generate a large 3rd pile in our lives. ”
    This reminds me the video I watched recently. PLANNED OBSOLESCENCE

  4. Susan

    Futzing around in email is definitely category 3, but it led me here and you are pointing me to 1, so thank you.

  5. Craig Johnson

    Nice general summary for prioritization. It dovetails nicely with my experiences in dealing with prostate cancer.

  6. Kenneth Vogt

    You had me, and I mean you really had me cheering with you, right up until the last sentence of the last paragraph when I crumbled to the ground. It said:

    “Lastly, inventory your time. It should match neatly with your piles. How we spend our time defines what is important more than any other measure.”

    Inventory your time: Check, great idea
    “Should” match your piles: Uh, that “should” made me nervous
    Time = Importance: Clanging warning bells!

    If you have your priorities straight, yes, your use of time matches up to pile #1. But there is an epidemic of it matching with pile #2 or #3. Of course the solution is the one presented in the article, namely examine your piles and your time.

    I would add a next step that people can take, make good choices. To assist in that, consider this:



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