It's About Priorities, Not Time

This is the fourth in my series of Suit Yourself essays.

In a great chapter called "The Time Lie" in her book The Right to Write, Julia Cameron quotes a shrewd woman who says, "The busiest and most important man can always find time for you if he’s in love with you and, if he can’t, then he is not in love."

We can all find time for the things we love. In fact, I would argue that we all do find time to attend to the things we care most about. The problem in our working lives is that we don’t do this consciously or consistently, and we often substitute somebody else’s definition of what’s important for our own.

Balance The fact that so much of our time seems to get spent on things we don’t even like, let alone love, is, I believe, more a confusion of priorities than a lack of time. We all have the same number of hours in the day, days in the week, weeks in the year. Lack of time as an excuse for not getting to things is a red herring, nothing more than a comfortable delusion.

I started thinking about priorities and time management because I am frequently asked how I "did it all." This question amuses me, both for its implication that I am somehow an oddity (and therefore not a realistic or genuine example) and for its underlying untruth. (The list of things worth doing that I haven’t done is much longer than the list of things worth doing that I have done.) Still, I know the question is intended to be flattering and to refer to my particular combination of successful business career, happy marriage, and cheerful, interesting, grown children. The answer to the question is clear priorities and A+ organizational skills.

Getting your priorities clear isn’t impossible, but getting comfortable with the notion that you get to set your own priorities – and then setting them – is evidently close to impossible for many of us. It’s hard in part because the world (particularly our business-oriented, materialistic American world) is set up to tell you what your priorities should be.

Ask yourself why this is.

As a law firm lawyer, I worked in an environment that attempted to render glamorous (or at least cool and necessary) sitting at a financial printer for 36 hours straight, munching dispiritedly on M&Ms and waiting for corrected prospectus pages to come back for review. In the inevitable fall after the sugar high (usually on the train home at noon, trying hard to stay awake so as to end up at home and not at the end of the line in Wisconsin), I would wonder exactly what was so glamorous about this life.

Yes, it was cool to be working on big securities deals for companies and investment banks everyone had heard of, and to be an essential (if not revered) part of what greases the wheels of American capital markets, but, really – 36 hours of sitting in a room, eating candy, tossing pencils into the acoustical tiles in the ceiling, and revising a document that has to be right and first-rate even though no one will ever read it with enjoyment? Come on.

The truth, of course, is that you have to believe this work and this way of working are glamorous – or at least a necessary means to a desired end – or you’d never do it. There are much more sensible, efficient, balanced ways to get the job done. But the whole institutional structure of the law firm – and the accounting firm and the investment bank – is geared to reinforce the glamour and to reward those who manifestly buy in. Ever hear anyone in one of these environments say something like "Oh, I never take all my vacation time" or "I always work weekends" as if these were somehow good things, badges of honor or importance? I rest my case.

I’m betting we’d all agree that what really matters to us is some combination of good relationships, satisfying work, personal recognition, getting enough sleep, eating well, not having to worry about money, making some sort of contribution to society, feeling good about ourselves and our place in the world.

If you can discern between, on one hand, what you really care about, your spin on what’s really important to you and, on the other, what’s traditionally done and believed, then you can clarify your priorities and allocate your time so as to spend it on what matters most to you.

If what’s really important to you is a big house, a BMW and no financial worries, and you have a job that provides the wherewithal for you to have all that, why do you hate that job? If your job doesn’t provide the wherewithal and all that is really what you want, why don’t you get a job that does? If you can’t, why not and what are you going to do about it? If those things aren’t important to you and the only thing you like about your job is that it lets you have them, why are you still at that job? If you want to spend more time with your kids or your friends, why don’t you trade off the lower priorities that prevent you from doing that?

If you want to roll your eyes in disgust and tell me it’s not that simple (which many people have), I’ll ask you what I’ve asked them. Why not? If you’re honest, I think you have to answer that it’s not that simple for you because you’ve muddled what you want with what you believe will impress others or what you think you should want or what you think everybody wants. Let me ask my favorite question: Whose rules are these?

You don’t succeed by wasting time and energy (scarce resources, both) on whining or misery.  If you figure out what you care about, you can spend your time and energy far more profitably on going after it.  You can prioritize.

Here's how:

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