Priority Management and Life Balance

Most people believe that somehow, if they can just find the right system, they can get everything done. I think this is a myth bordering on an outright lie. You can’t do it all. Time is a limited resource. This is just something you have to understand and accept.

Photo courtesy of ©iStockphoto.com/Spanishalex, Image #3043850

Photo courtesy of ©iStockphoto.com/Spanishalex

In my experience, the key to work/life balance begins by getting crystal clear on your priorities. I have six, and they are arranged in a specific order:

  1. God
  2. Self
  3. Family
  4. Work
  5. Church
  6. Everything Else

If you are a Christian, God obviously comes first. Jesus said, “But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you” (Matthew 6:33). He is the ultimate priority. Until He is first, everything else will seem out of kilter.

On a practical level, I read the Bible first thing in the morning. I want to get a divine perspective on things. I also pray in the morning on my commute to work. In addition, I pray before meals, and various points throughout the day, and right before I go to bed. It’s rarely formal. Most often, it’s just an ongoing conversation.

Perhaps surprising to some people, I come next. That’s right, me. I don’t think this is because I am selfish or ego-centric. It’s because I can’t take care of anyone else unless I take care of myself. If you fly much, you have probably heard the flight attendant say, “In case of an emergency … put the oxygen mask on yourself first before attempting to help others.” This is how I look at life. I have to attend to myself first in order to help others.

If I don’t look after my own health and become sick, I am not much use to my family or my employees. This is why I run and try to eat nutritionally sound food. If I don’t get sufficient rest, I get grumpy. No one wants to be around me. This is why I try to sleep a solid seven hours every night.

Plus, I want to model how to take care of myself, so that my children will take care of themselves. Some people put themselves at the bottom of their priorities, but I think this is nothing more than a false—and dangerous—piety. We are in a much better position to serve others when our basic needs are met.

My family comes next. Frankly, this was very difficult when the girls were little. I had a hard time balancing my work and my life. Sadly, this priority sometimes got shoved to the bottom of the list. Fortunately, this was usually temporary. But I constantly had to fight to keep from neglecting my family. When I got too far astray, Gail would gently reel me in.

Today, things are much easier. Right now, we only have two daughters living at home. One of those leaves for school this weekend. I usually come home at about the same time every night. Usually, I leave the office at 6:00. Gail and I eat together almost every night. Our daughters—or one of the daughters not living at home—will usually join us three to four nights a week.

We try to make meal time special. Not to wax too theological, but we see meals as sacramental (small “s”) and a reminder of God’s kingdom. It’s not just a “pit stop” or a refueling opportunity. Instead, we see it as an opportunity to commune with one another and reconnect with the people we love most.

Since the girls were very little, I have always asked, “What is the best thing that happened to you today?” We still continue that tradition today. I like how it focuses everyone on the positive events of the day.

Sometimes the girls would say (with a big frown or even a few tears), “Nothing good happened today.” My wife, Gail, would always say, “I understand, but if you had to say one thing, what was the best thing of all the bad things?” We have had some wonderful and amazing conversations based on this simple question. As a result, dinner always lasts for at least thirty minutes—sometimes an hour or more.

Weekends are a little different. Gail and I try to go out on Friday night. Sometimes we go out alone, sometimes with friends. This is our “date night.” A good friend once told me, “The most important gift you can give your children is to love their mother.” How true—especially in an age when broken homes are increasingly the norm.

On Saturday mornings, we sometimes walk down to the bakery two blocks from our house and have a late breakfast. If the kids are up, they join us. Occasionally, one of my married daughters and grandchildren join us. We don’t have a fixed routine for the rest of Saturday. We just kind of let it happen. (I like it that way!) On Sunday we go to church and have lunch together with the whole family or as many of them as we can corral.

By the way, with regard to “projects around the house,” I follow Clint Eastwood’s advice in the Dirty Harry movies: “A man has to know his limitations.” I am the most mechanically-challenged person I know. I know the difference between a hammer and a screwdriver. After that, it gets fuzzy.

So, I don’t do a lot of household repairs. I usually ask one of my sons-in-law, hire someone, or—if I wait long enough—let Gail do it. Seriously, having grown up with four older brothers, she is very good at this stuff. But, alas, your situation may be different. I know this can be a family activity. It was in Gail’s family. She got to spend a lot of time with her dad by helping him around the house.

After family, my next priority is work. I think it is really important that this come after God, self, and family. I have seen too many people sacrifice the other three on the altar of work. Usually when that happens, their work life crumbles, too. Work can be a rewarding experience if you keep it from becoming an idol. However, if you don’t put it in its place, it can suck the life out of you. No one ever said at the end of their life, “Man, I only wish I had spent more time at the office.”

I only work about fifty-five hours a week. I usually work eight to nine hours during normal work hours. Then I work another hour or so on e-mail after dinner. I also work for a few hours on Sunday evening as I prepare for the upcoming week. Occasionally, I will work more than this, but rarely less. If I try to work too much more than this, I find it becomes counter-productive. In fact, at some point, I believe there is an inverse relationship between time at work and productivity. It’s kind of like golf—you play the best when your grip is relaxed.

After work comes church. I teach an adult Sunday school class. This is my ministry. In addition, I also serve as a deacon. Gail and I have been at the same church for twenty-five years, so our relationships are long and deep. I believe man was created for worship. If we don’t worship God, we generally end up worshiping something else. Church is a great way to start the week on the right foot.

After that comes everything else. The truth is that I rarely get past the first five priorities. These pretty much make up my life. The bottom line is that you don’t need to get everything done. You only need to get the right things done and leave the rest with God. You’re only human and you can only do so much.

Question: Is life balance a struggle for you? How do you manage your priorities? Is your life balanced?

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