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The Single Most Important Thing
Practice the art of focus and prioritization with the help of a simple heuristic
Hello! I’m Pat and Better by Design is my newsletter devoted to creating great design, quality business, and a prosperous creative life. If you’re new here, join 2300+ creative professionals as we uncover new insights each week.
Most people spend a lot of time debating what to do.
But counterintuitively, defining strategy is more about deciding what you won’t do.
It's what's left after you intentionally rule out the other 99%.
It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that everything’s important. But show me a place where “everything is important” and I’ll show you one where nothing truly is.
Prioritization is always hard, but you can develop the skill over time with real-world experience and repetition.
Today I want to introduce you to a simple heuristic I’ve relied on for more than a decade to help me focus and prioritize.
It’s called the SMIT.
“Most campaigns are too complicated. They reflect a long list of objectives and try to reconcile the divergent views of too many executives. By attempting to cover too many things, they achieve nothing.” - David Ogilvy
In my time crafting ad campaigns at Leo Burnett, I learned to be militant about defining what we called the SMIT: the single most important thing a consumer should remember after seeing our ad.
Defining the SMIT was essential.
Trying to communicate more than one main idea would water down our message and increase the odds our audience would either a) remember nothing or b) remember the wrong thing.
Both bad outcomes.
No matter how much context we placed around it, the SMIT was the strategy.
No matter how many different executions we created as part of a campaign, the SMIT unified the collective over time and space.
Capturing a potent SMIT was an iterative process often incorporating many rounds of research, testing, and revision where we’d chip away at fluffy and imprecise language until all that was left was the simplest core idea.
When that idea emerged we locked it in and doubled down because delivering a single idea clearly and consistently outperforms a shotgun approach by a wide margin.
Now I can hear your objections mounting from across the internet.
“But Pat, surely I can have more than one important thing?!”
And yes, you’re correct, you can (and usually do).
But the point of the SMIT is to force yourself to make a decision.
It’s an arbitrary, but powerful, constraint to clarify what your audience should take away from your creation.
It’s a practice that takes discipline but pays major dividends.
While I started by applying the SMIT to advertising, you can use it to focus your work when creating just about anything.
👉 Designing a brand?
What's the single most important feeling you want someone to notice when encountering it?
👉 Building a product feature?
What's the single most important task your customer needs to accomplish when using it?
👉 Giving a presentation?
What's the single most important idea your audience should remember after hearing it?
👉 Writing a song?
What’s the single most important sonic element a listener should hear in each section? The most important lyric?
The examples are endless.
So the next time you’re creating something, stop and ask:
Can I explain the single most important thing in simple, clear language?
Is the work communicating that message clearly?
If the answer to either of those questions is “no”, it’s worth taking the time and effort to refine and clarify.
Developing the skill to articulate the SMIT has helped me countless times over the years and was fundamental to my growth and success.
Practicing it narrows your focus, streamlines your thought process, and amplifies the effect of your output.
While you’ll never remove all complexity, by clearly capturing the core truth of what you're creating you’ll be well on your way to higher-impact work.
Get good at defining the SMIT and doors will open for you.
I guarantee it.
Until next time,