Managing Your Priorities Over Time

I was reconnecting with good friends and former colleagues this week and was struck by a few common threads. I got a few blog post ideas from them, but the one I’ll focus on is the impact of stability versus change as well as different categories of priorities in your personal and professional life and the impact your life stage can have on your emphasis.

In three different conversations in one day with executives running significant operations, all had personal commentary on where they were in their life and had thoughtfully come to their own conclusions. Each was trading off effort and engagement in career with personal career goals beyond current job and also against their life & family realities.

I see the same thing with my students. Some people have tremendous career ambitions, some merely want good work and fair compensation to fund their lives and goals beyond work. Many haven’t decided where they fall on that continuum. That’s part of the struggle. And by the way, the answer is different at different points in your life.

The tough part is sometimes we have to choose. Advice that looks like “you can have it all” strikes me as a partial truth. First – “all of what?” I’ve written on defining your goals before. Suffice it to say, you have to actually decide on some priorities along the way or circumstances will decide for you.

I’m going to avoid all my “what do you want” and “will that make you happy” commentary and focus on thinking specifically about how many moving parts do you have in your career and life at one time.

Balancing Priorities

A former boss once commented “you can have it all, but usually not all at once”. I think this is exactly right. We go through cycles in our career and it’s important to recognize that most people can’t be “cranked up” all the time. You’ll burn out.

I’d personally group needs into:

A) Career/professional (job, promotion, pay etc.)

B) Personal/Emotional (family, friends, health etc.)

C) Meaning (spirituality, community, impact beyond yourself etc.)

D) Intellectual (learning, growing, excitement etc.)

This mirrors other writers (I just can’t remember who I’m parroting).  Anyway, the categories are roughly MECE and broadly representative. I visualize these as a “stacked bar” chart representing energy (not the same as time) applied to these 4 categories and the distribution changing over time. (OMG – this sounds so much more new-agey than I mean it to).

So let’s deconstruct me as an example. I have definitely “red-lined it” a few times and dialed it down at others. There have clearly been reasons that I switched roles or jobs that went beyond “career”.

  • After undergrad, I pursued a History PhD. I’d say that was a bit about career, but much more about intellectual. I also married Michele here – so personal was pretty high as well. We had a nice quality of life. I had things I had to find out, but was able to do it without much “sacrifice” (beyond income).
  • MBA was much more about career and “growing up”. All the materials was new, we moved to MN and I worked really long hours to get up to speed. We did move closer to family though, hitting a bit on personal.
  • Consulting was definitely about career and involved very long hours, travel and lots of sacrifices. But I learned al lot as well. I consciously chose the challenge precisely because I thought it would stretch me and expose me to many situations I would never have seen otherwise or at least do it in a lot less time. Mission accomplished.
  • Coming back to the Carlson School to help launch the Consulting Enterprise was more about personal and intellectual. We were starting a family and I wanted more control of my time. Also – for me the meaning category runs through most jobs I’ve had. I enjoy situations that involve teaching, coaching and working with people on their development.
  • The move to 3M was about “the itch” in career. I was still career progression, compensation and corporate challenge oriented. An opportunity to work on interesting things in corporate strategy at a highly regarded global corporation was too much to pass up. I got to work on cool business problems, hire and develop MBA talent and ultimately run a global business. I had more control over my life than in consulting, but was losing it as I had larger responsibilities. In my last year at 3M I hit a personal life “red-line” with the birth of our 3rd child and the deaths of both my parents in a 6 month period. Lots of things became clearer to me in terms of priorities.
  • The move back to Carlson was about turning up the dial on meaning, personal and refocusing the career basket. I probably do better on intellectual too. I’m happy as a clam with where I am right now. I can coach youth soccer, be at home for dinner most night and enjoy diverse work. Also – the challenges in my work environment don’t bug me that much. Frustrations are muted when you like what your doing and can sleep at night.

The point of the walk through time is to show how differently the priorities were over time and how out of whack you can get. I have had extended periods where I was definitely “draining the tank” and others where I was filling my tank” emotionally.

Each of my friends had come to terms with their need for some emphasis of the personal over the career either in terms of time away to refill or an emphasis on intellectual needs. They were also managing to put things into motion to do this, rather than sitting back and complaining.

So are you conscious of how you are spending your energy and is it what you want it to be?

How Many Learning Curves Are You On?

I think many of us struggle with the balance between external challenges (and the professional satisfaction and recognition that comes from them) and personal feelings and needs (like family, private time, relaxation etc.). When you are ambitious it is often hard to achieve balance. Every new problem or work situation is interesting and could be career advancing. Similarly, we tend to prioritize the more “urgent” things and put off things that aren’t screaming for our attention. Things like working out, going to the doctor, taking a long lunch with a loved one.

So think about how much pressure you’re putting on yourself in how many different areas. I describe it sometimes as answering the question, “how many learning curves are you on at once?” If I take a new job in a new industry in a new city – a lot. If I’m moving into a new role in the same group I’ve been in for 2 years – one. Big difference in how much time and energy get expended. So be conscious of this and manage it as best you can. Don’t take on too many changes all at the same time if you aren’t really prepared for it.

Also – some may be imposed on you. My parents passing away certainly wasn’t a choice but it imposed estate planning, long-distance real estate transactions and emotional trauma when I already had a full plate. Still had to manage my P&L and be around for three small kids and Michele. Something had to give. It was sleep and my health.

Never forget to be open to living life as it comes, not in the future. Whatever plan you have will have to bump up against the reality of other’s plans and the universe. The act of planning and thinking some of this through will help you better respond to unplanned opportunities as they come along.

So I encourage you to think about the categories I suggest or come up with your own. Be conscious of what you’re trying to get out of the activities you engage in along the way. You can’t get time back and sometimes put yourself under unreasonable pressure to maximize everything at once.

7 thoughts on “Managing Your Priorities Over Time

  1. Thanks Phil for a great post on life balance. Balance has certainly been an issue my parents have stressed throughout my life and an issue that I have come to respect and reflect on as I take on new challenges.

  2. Thanks, Phil, for the interesting post that comes to life with your personal story. One thing I noted is that the meaning component of your structure is not pursued independently, but tends to be a consequence of actions in the other three. This suggests a different structure, where the career, personal and intellectual components are three pillars that support the development of significant and sustained meaning. I suggest this alternate structure because I think that it is often impossible, and usually fruitless, to try to directly work on “meaning”.

    • Dave – That’s a really good point. I often note to people that they are looking for some insight or alternate career/life path to hit them like a bolt of lightening, as if all will become clear in a stroke. I don’t think it works that way. It’s much more about trying things out and exploring. The paths that feel better and capture your attention become clear over time if you’re exploring. Those things tend to have more meaning.

      I also am finding as I get older that it’s hard to disentangle any of the threads. I used to have an artificially high barrrier between work and personal etc. Now I try to let them bleed into each other more.

      Thanks for the thoughful insight.

  3. And also, you are very nice to me in this post. Sometimes other people, like for instance a nagging spouse, impose circumstances on you, that you will sometimes have to fit into those work priorities…or not. Trying to “match up” your priorities at a given time with another person’s can be a huge part of the struggle. For instance if one person wants to work overseas for 2 years and the other person flat out refuses, well, there goes another shift…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *