Balancing life’s competing priorities

Nov. 1, 2005
The diversification of modern life is exhilarating! Opportunities are everywhere.

The diversification of modern life is exhilarating! Opportunities are everywhere. Productive and interesting activities surround us. But diversification creates complexity. Exhilaration turns into stress. How will I honor my commitments? Can I meet my deadlines? Where will I find time for me? My life may be exciting, but it’s out of balance, and it’s not getting any better.

Does this sound familiar? If not, you belong to a fortunate minority. Life balance is a major social dilemma. Many of us have too much to do. No, that’s not it. Many of us are choosing to do too much. It’s all about choice. Despite what some of us want to believe, you can’t do it all!

Is balance ever possible?

If balance means consistently devoting equal time and energy to each major segment of our life, then it is rare at best. This definition just doesn’t fit today’s realities. We need a different perspective. What is possible is control over our many competing priorities. When the forces of life push us against our will, and we rush to places we don’t want to go, it is the lack of control that hurts us the most. Our stress levels go way up. Our energy goes way down. Our creativity fades. Control, however, allows us to manage our stress much better. So for me, balance means making a deliberate set of decisions about how I choose to spend my time and energy.

Gaining control

Easy answers won’t be found, but you can take action, gain control, and set better priorities.

1. Tough choices: There are occasions when we must fully invest in one segment of our life, and pull back in the others. Crises occur. Major turning points need our full attention. Crucial projects have to get done. Special opportunities appear. Have the courage to make the tough choices.

2. Core values and purpose: Be guided in your choices by two of the essential questions already discussed in earlier columns - “What do I believe in?” and “What is my purpose?” Your core values and purpose will direct you to what matters most at a particular time in your life. Use them to elevate the quality of your choices. Acting in harmony with them will strengthen your sense of control.

3. Learn to say “no”: You cannot take on every worthy activity. Years ago, I listened to the brilliant therapist, Virginia Satir. She talked about her struggles with saying “no.” She told us about a bracelet she wore that said “IADT.” It stood for “I already did that.” It reminded her that she had to make choices. She couldn’t serve every cause. She couldn’t fight every battle.

4. The extremes of imbalance can’t last forever: The pendulum must swing back. An overly focused concentration on any one life segment must be modified over time or negative consequences can result. Even though the circumstances may not be ideal, the extremes of imbalance must eventually be addressed. It is crucial to reestablish more reasonable boundaries.

Hold on and let go

With more control of your life in place, concentrate on making better choices. Your goal is to free up your two scarcest resources - time and energy. Then, reallocate them to places of greater need. Start by identifying the significant segments of your life. Divide your life into quadrants - personal, professional, family, and community. List your current activities for each quadrant. Personalize this process by making sure these activities truly reflect your life as you are living it.

Now, select one quadrant where you overspend time and energy. What activities in this quadrant are essential, unessential, fulfilling, and unfulfilling? Hold on to the essential and fulfilling. They point you toward priority and focus. Review the unessential and unfulfilling. What can you eliminate? Make the tough choices once again. If you are already using all your time and energy, the only way to alter your balance is to determine what you can drop. Discipline yourself to let go of those activities that offer the lowest payback. The quality of your actions will improve, and you and those around you will benefit.

Remember, you can’t do it all. Identify those things you can do. Bring your “best self” forward, and do those things well!

Doug Young, MBA, and his spouse Marlyn, MCC, have a professional speaking and executive/team coaching business in Parker, Colo. They co-author this column and share an interest in leading-edge business concepts, achieving personal and professional potential, serving patients, and improving how people work together. Marlyn’s insights into people and relationships and her coaching skills complement Doug’s motivating and mind-expanding presentations. Contact them by e-mail at [email protected], by phone at 877-DMYOUNG (369-6864), or visit their Web site at