Lessons # 16 & 17: Having five and picking two

It's been a while since we talked life lessons, so today, it's time for numbers 16 and 17.

After a year and some on local projects, I started traveling for work in early October. Between getting up the learning curve of a new project, working with different people after having had the same team for 9 months, learning how to actually travel for work (a subject for another post), and learning to listen to what I wanted (versus what I thought I wanted), let's just say I emerged a whole new woman.

Out of the many memorable moments of those late fall - early winter months, one moment in particular will forever be ingrained in my mind.

Leading up to this moment, I'd been pushing as hard as I could to respond to multiple "firedrills" (urgent requests) as well as to stay on top of my usual daily responsibilities during a 14 hour workday (of a 60-some hour workweek). Saying it was taxing was like saying that water is wet - at the time, I felt like I'd given up everything in my personal life in order to make my part of the project's success happen. We're not just talking not hitting happy hour or canceled dinner plans bad--we're talking not getting up to use the restroom paired with staying at the office post-9pm and working weekends dedication. #struggle.

In spite of the hecticness and feeling like I hardly had time to breathe, I figured that's just how things were going to be. I rationalized it by saying that peers of mine had it worse and that I was just paying my dues. That things were going to be insane for a bit, but then I'd be finished, get a gold star for my effort, and receive a pat on the back for doing so much for the team. And (importantly) that my belief in that happening wasn't me living in la la land.

If you can predict where this is going though, then you know that wasn't quite how things shook out. Instead of the adoration I expected to receive, I was instead told by my supervisor in the middle of this multiple-day saga + self-pity fest,

"Lisa - you are putting the project at risk."

...and let's just say it wasn't what I wanted to hear.

After some defensive retorts, denial, and crying into a glass of wine over it, I realized there was some truth in it. Was I actually putting the project at risk by focusing on doing to the best of my ability? No. Was I putting other things at risk by doing that such as my mental health and burnout potential? Guilty as charged.

Within a project (which really, is a metaphor for life), things are never going to go quite as planned. For some of us, our reaction is to shut down. Others dig deeper, determined to overpower whatever it is ahead of us by brute force. The smartest ones though, note that something big is happening and take a step back to prioritize.

"Buuut Lisa" you'll say, "I don't have time for that if I want to get everything done!"

And while at first it seems like there isn't enough time for everything and that not getting everything done seems like the most horrible thing in the world (Your reputation! Your self-image! Your you-ness! All at risk!), the key word/phrase in your reaction isn't "getting things done." It's the "I."

So here's the thing about prioritization that took me forever to learn and that I'm still learning - it takes precious time up front, but figuring out what is and isn't worthwhile for you to do paired with delegation of the things that can be done by others will save you ridiculous amounts of time, sanity, and tears on the back end.

TL:DR : Prioritization = happiness.

Putting this into the context of a day, most of what we spend our time on fits into five big categories:
1. Family
2. Friends & significant others
3. Health
4. Hobbies
5. Work

The catch is that we only get so much time for each of these in a day.

Coffee, efficiency, and/or getting faster at things can help, but with each turn of the clock hand (or pixel flash for that matter), we all have the same 24 hours, 1,440 minutes, or 86,400 seconds. Despite what we tell ourselves, how we use our time is on us--not our boss or mom or roommates--on us.

Each day we make prioritization choices (consciously or otherwise), yet what separates our normal days from our crazy ones isn't our to-do list but instead our amount of usable choice time. When the time we're used to having at our discretion decreases, the drop in that choice time is what causes us to feel pressure. To give up things in order to make others work.

In consulting, we call this "letting things slide."

I'm going to give you a minute to let that sink in.

For those that didn't just make a face of disgust, congrats. You win. You're not a type-A perfectionist achiever (or if you are, you at least know how to not let things phase you). For anyone that did make a face, welcome to the club.

The first time I was told that I had to let things slide if I wanted to deal, my immediate reaction was along the lines of a face that should never ever be repeated in public. For someone who has built her world around being on top of things and not letting them slide, it was definitely a thanksbutnothanks moment. Or, it was a thanksbutnothanks moment until I got a nice little reality slap from that "you're putting the project at risk" moment, and got it (and not just that brisk slaps to the face are an excellent wakeup call):

"Letting things slide" isn't about wanting to let them slide - it's about actively choosing what's most important to you at that time and then prioritizing your days around that choice so that you can make those important things happen.

It's about Lesson # 16: Having five and picking two.

Having five and picking two is all about owning your choices, not apologizing for them, and putting yourself in a position of proactive creation rather than reactive defeat. Much like lyrics to Among Savages' "New York City," (substituting whatever you're struggling with for "the City"):

Now if you leave 
Will you feel defeated 
Cause you didn't take from the city 
As much as the city took from you 

What if you'd stayed 
What if you'd done what you were thinking 
I'd rather you give up on life in the city 
Than giving up on life too 

Yeah, you came here with nothing 
And you're leaving with the same 
Sometimes the road that you were walking on 
Is going the wrong way 

Just come as you are 
When you leave you will be changed 
Everyday is a gift, everyday is a gift 
And it's all slipping away 

Follow your dreams 
But beware of the illusions 
You won't feel the void in your heart 
With a bank statement and a car 

What is it worth, what is it worth 
Have you given up on freedom 
You spent your life earning the keys to set you free 
When you were free all along 

Prioritization is all about that last verse -figuring out what you need, what it's worth, and if for you, it's freedom. It's about testing the waters, keeping your head up, and doing what you were thinking rather than to letting things happen to you. And, most importantly, it's about recognizing that sometimes the road you're walking on is going the wrong way, which brings us to Lesson # 17:

Lesson # 17: The two you choose at first should not be the two you choose all the time

If you repeatedly choose the same things again and again, whether it be work or friends or hobbies, the other areas of your life are going to suffer. Consistently choosing your hobbies over your friends means that they're going to stop calling. If you never go home to see the fam, your childhood dog may not recognize you anymore. So having five and picking two is both about prioritization and in knowing when it's time to re-prioritize your priorities.

Sometimes that happens when balance is the furthest thing from what we feel we have and other times, (more ideally), it happens when things become a little more normal again. Regardless, the perceivable shift is your cue to shift your priorities around to compensate accordingly.

So why the essay?

In part, because it's worthwhile and something that we don't talk about as much as we should (heck: I'm up at midnight on a worknight, so even now my priorities are a bit off) and partially because I'm in the midst of a shift right now. After a few days off over the holidays spent figuring out what I want my priorities to be for this year (another subject for a future post) I was pulled onto a nine-week high-burn (aka 70+ hrs/week) project that means my life outside of work will be relegated to sleep and not a whole lot else.

I wish I could say that I was happy right from the start to be staffed on the project or in love with what I was doing, but the reality was that it was a shock to the system. After a week of feeling like I couldn't handle it and being miserable, I decided to take a hard look at my priority list. Between the five categories, I realized that the two I needed most were to 1. focus on work (whatup promotion year) by finding ways to make it fun so that I'd rock the project and 2. focus on my health so that I could make #1 happen.

Having made that choice, everything else started to come together.

My mood started to shift from one of defeat to one of possibility. My family & friends were really supportive and have been shooting me awesome texts of random encouragement. Running is something I can still do a few times a week, and boxing I can do on Sundays. Anything that falls outside of these things are for now either occasionals (like hitting cool local music shows or writing) or things that I'll put aside all together until this project ends (like being able to unplug or take a long weekend). While this would usually be tough, for the next seven weeks, I'm actually okay with it because I know that come March 10th, it'll be time to reassess, de-prioritize work, and make the other ares of my life priorities again.

And that, friends, is something that I'm thrilled to prioritize.


  1. Proud of you Lisa. We all have been wondering if you were ever going to achieve this moment of sanity in your life because you always have wanted to do it all. Not only that, you were Lisa, so you had to do it 3x better than the rest of us ;P I'm happy you're finding that everything suffers if you spread yourself too thin. I am still working on this area of my life as well and am hitting a time at work where a huge amount of projects are getting started so the storm is about to hit also. This has helped me figure out there may be some things that need to be dropped. Best of luck to you.

    Matt Tomai


Post a Comment