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Off balance in work and life? Time to set some priorities

Off Balance: Getting Beyond the Work-Life Balance Myth to Personal and Professional Satisfaction by Matthew Kelly

Hudson Street Press, a member of Penguin Group USA

The following is an excerpt from Off Balance by Matthew Kelly.

In Search of Priorities

My life and career have been filled with incredible opportunities that often make me stop and look again. I am often overwhelmed by the people and experiences that make up any given week, and yet, the most extraordinary experiences still tend to come when you least expect them. It was that way on a cold morning in Boston last winter. I have never confined myself exclusively to the Fortune 500 space, my partners I also very much enjoy working with small and medium size companies. Nonetheless, I spend a lot of time working with Fortune 500 companies. They are all different and they are all the same, and it is a fascinating world. But having done as much work as I have with various corporations, I must say, I am very rarely surprised.

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I had been invited in by one of America's premier companies to speak to a group of their mid-level managers who had been chosen as rising stars within the organization. The seminar was to be based on my book The Dream Manager and specifically focused on the issue of employee engagement. But for thirty-five minutes, in the middle of my four-hour session, a senior executive was going to speak to the group about work-life balance and how it relates to employee engagement.

Taking my seat in the back of the room I didn't know what to expect, but I will admit I was a bit nervous what direction his time with the group might take. For the sake of anonymity let's say his name was Tom. I had met him for a few minutes earlier that day. He seemed quite and introverted, and to be honest, I wondered if he could hold the groups attention. To say that he held the groups attention would be a massive understatement. He captivated the audience. Within forty-five seconds of him first opening his mouth I was reaching for my note pad. I took more notes in that thirty-five minutes than during any speech I attended last year. It was powerful.

"I don't know if I have work-life balance. I do know I like my life. I enjoy my work, I have a rewarding family life, and both are important to me." The audience was shifting in their seats, still settling down a little, still sizing him up.

"What I can tell you is that is wasn't always that way. A few years ago all I did was work. I was on the road incessantly, had gotten out of shape, and wasn't even aware that my marriage was in trouble." He had them now. The room was silent. He had made himself personally vulnerable in a way that the corporate world doesn't see enough of and people were listening. "My wife sat me down one day and told me she didn't think out marriage was working, and that she felt like we were chasing different things. That was perhaps the scariest moment in my life.

"My life is very different today. The reason is that I have worked hard to figure out what really matters to me and have developed a value structure. My priority list is fairly simple: faith, marriage, children, health, and work. It took me a while to make the list, but since I made it I have carried a copy with me everywhere, and the list has become a guide and touchstone in times of decision."

"Now, the first thing I want to make clear is that this is my value structure and priority list. Yours may very well be different, but you should all have one. And it is up to you to figure out what your priorities are."

"It goes without saying, of course, that there have been times since I put this list together ten years ago that I have unnecessarily violated my priorities. Sometimes I did it unconsciously and at other times I did it consciously, deceiving myself into believing that it was absolutely necessary and unavoidable. All this has served to teach me what I consider to be the first law of your value structure: Don't mortgage your higher priorities for your lower priorities. Keep the list in front of you. Keep it especially close when making decisions."

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"What I discovered when I started to work on my priorities was that my priorities had not changed for many years. I was just ignoring them. So, from time to time now, I reflect upon my priorities and I ask myself, Could anyone gather enough evidence to prove that these were my priorities? Could a jury of my peers convict me of having these priorities?"

"At the same it is important to recognize that the lower priorities can be positive enablers of the higher priorities. For example, health is an enabler of everything else. When I am taking time to work out and eat the right kinds of foods I am a better husband, father, employee, and manager. In a similar way, work enables me to do certain things in my marriage and with my family that are incredibly positive. The money I earn provides opportunities for my wife and children. My wife is proud of the work I do and that contributes to the health of our marriage. My work also enriches my faith life by allowing me to contribute generously with our financial resources, but work also enables me to contribute certain skills to my church community. Work fuels the sharing of my time, talent, and treasure with all who cross my path. Another example of how the lower priorities feed and strengthen the higher priorities is found in the fulfillment I find at work. When my work-life is fulfilling I am a better husband and father. Additionally, the incredible training and development opportunities that my company provides make me a better husband, father, member of my community, and citizen."

"With my priorities firmly identified, my actions are not just things I choose to do, they are value statements. I do certain things because I value certain things. At the same time it is important to recognize that value statements are not time allocation statements. Faith, marriage, and my children are my highest priorities, but I spend more time at work each day than I spend directly with any of these top three priorities. And that's okay. If you try to make your value structure a time allocation structure I think you will get into trouble pretty quickly. My value structure certainly influences the way I spend my time and what I do, but much more important than that it informs why I do what I do each day, and in the moments of each day."

"Theoretically this all sounds neat, of course practically there are real challenges. In the beginning I had to completely reverse engineer the way I had been acting previously. So there were many slip ups, and some plain old mess ups. But over time it becomes pretty clear in practical terms. Over time, we start to make logical decisions that we should have been capable of all the time, but in truth they were impossible without the value structure. An example of that is something as simple as having the discipline to leave work at the time that allows me to be home to have dinner with my wife and children. Any sensible person with a view of the whole picture comes to the conclusion that it is better for me to leave work on my desk for tomorrow (or do it later that night) so that I can get home in time for dinner. The reasons are many but here is a basic summary. It is better to leave a little work undone than to have to fix my marriage. And when I say better, I don't just mean better for me, or for my marriage – but also better for work. Because if my marriage is not in a good place it is going to drain my energy, distract me from my work, and limit my ability to add value to my team, projects, and company.

"Now from the very beginning some of you were perhaps perplexed that work was #5 on my list. That doesn't mean I don't care about work, or that I don't think my work is important. It is therefore critical to point out that there are dozens of things that didn't even make my list. Take for example friends. My friends didn't make the list, but I consider friendship to be a very important part of life. And yet, in my value structure I place work above friendship. Some people would not agree with that. Before I was married friendships would have ranked above work, but marriage and family shifts the priorities we have for the limited social time and energy that is available to us. This is why each of us needs to develop our own value structure and priorities."

"Once we establish our own value structure, or list of priorities, the challenges is to start making choices that honor those values and priorities. It is then that the consequences of our choices become clear. And the consequences of ignoring or betraying our value structure are significant. If I ignore #1(faith) I believe the consequences are eternal. If I mess up #2(marriage) the consequence could be divorce. If I neglect #3(children) I could screw up my kids. If I ignore #4 (health) the consequences are fatigue, disease, and premature death. So lets face it, the consequences of messing up #5(work) are minor by comparison. At the end of the day the worse that could happen is I could loose my job and have to find another one."

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"At the same time, while work is #5, I want to affirm that I take my work very seriously. I work harder and longer than most, and I am hungry for excellence and results in the professional realm of my life."

"Life is a continuum of choices. We are constantly making choices and our choices need perspective. Some people talk about deathbed perspective, the idea that you should consider how you might think about a choice when you are on your deathbed, but I don't think you need to go that far. Am I going to sit in a meeting that has run way over its schedule and that I won't even remember ten years from now… or leave and get to my son's birthday party? I used to be paralyzed by that choice, but not anymore."

"My value structure helps me to make better choices, and the business benefits from that as well. Because the truth is, if I am making bad choices in my life based on emotion, pressure from others, or other meaningless factors, I am probably making bad choices for the business also. Personal clarity leads to professional clarity. By getting clear about what is really important to me I have become much better at making choices, which makes me a much greater asset to this company."

"The constant temptation is to think if we flipped the list and made #5 (work) our new #1 that we would get more done. It's a lie. It's a deception. We might for a day, or a week, or even a month or a quarter, but for any meaningful period of time it is not sustainable. Work all night and see how long it takes before the extra work you got done is lost to down time, fatigue, or lack of focus. The most efficient people I know, those who consistently get the most done, know how to feed the different areas of their lives and they don't mortgage their higher priorities for their lower priorities."

" I want to close by sharing three scenarios with you that I think have been important in my journey."

"A couple of years after I committed to this value structure, it was tested in a way that I had not foreseen. I was up for a promotion and it was for a job that I had always wanted. The process advanced and I knew I was going to be offered the job. When the job offer meeting came around I said to my new boss to be, "I want this job and I know I can do it very well, but there is something I need you to know before I take the job." I pulled out my priority list, which I keep in my pocket, and placed it on the table in front of him. He looked at it for a moment and then I continued, "I will take this new role but I need you to know that these are my priorities and I will not betray them. At the same time I want you to know that I will get the job done." My boss looked at me and said, "Are you serious about this?" My heart pounded in my chest. "I am" I replied. "Good, because that is exactly the kind of leader I am looking for in this role."

"The second scenario is more general and my boss's attitude in the last scenario is a perfect segway. Twenty-five years ago the attitude was you are here to work, so work. At that time there would have been no opportunity for me to share this list with a group like you. And to share it with my boss would have been career suicide. In fact, at that time if this list had fallen into enemy hands, I would never have received another promotion and quite possibly been managed out of the organization or simply fired. In some companies that may still be true, fortunately it is not here. I'm glad I don't work for a company like that. The corporate world continues to evolve, and while some people think that corporate evolution is always negative in the impact it has on people, I think this is an example of how it is evolving for the better."

"The third scenario requires vulnerability and humility. Once a year I sit down with my wife and she gives me a Development Plan, in the same way my manager at work does. She gives me a score between one and five in a variety of different areas. We discuss where I am excelling and what opportunities for growth have. Accountability is the key to the process. We do it at work and we could not succeed if we didn't have this kind of review and accountability process. So if these other things are more important than work, why don't why have similar processes to help us grow and succeed in the personal aspects of our lives. I invite my wife to hold me accountable and that is powerful, though often humbling."

With that Tom finished his presentation and answered questions from a highly engaged audience for about twenty minutes.

Do you have a value structure? What are your priorities? In the next chapter we are going to help each other develop a list just like the one Tom spoke about.

A highly functioning personal life is a tremendous asset to an employee's company. Some people may call this enlightened thinking. I do not. To me it is just common sense. Helping employees develop highly functioning personal lives I simply the best way to lead and manage people.

Reprinted by arrangement with Hudson Street Press, a member of Penguin Group USA, from OFF BALANCE by Matthew Kelly. Copyright 2011.

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