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

Most suffering in life comes from #3.

Marketers go to great lengths to generate a large 3rd pile in our lives. Expensive sneakers won’t make you a better athlete. A fancy car or necklace won’t make you a better, more fulfilled person. The important things in your life are rarely dependent on what you own. Or what your neighbors and extended family think of you in any way. Yet these are often the primary forces that drive our most important decisions and how we spend our time.  We live lives based on other people’s flawed piles.

Unless you take explicit action to define #1 and #2 on your own, you are inheriting the value system that defines your biggest life choices. And you are inheriting it from people who likely were failed by that very framework. Why copy their system? Make your own piles 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 point out #3 for us. We’re all victim to our whims, weaknesses and egos. But if our friends know our piles, they can help us spot when too much of our lives are falling into #3.

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.

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:



Leave a Reply

* Required