Recognising Priorities in Your Life

Recognising Priorities in Your Life

As the new year begins, undoubtedly, people will be thinking about how they can “make 2023 their year.” I applaud the efforts people make to better their lives, but the manner in which they go about it needs to be planned out well to enhance the likelihood of success. For example, resolving to work out more, spend more time with your family, and get more involved in community activities sounds great, but if you struggled to find the time for any one of these in the past, what are the chances that you’re magically going to find time for all three now, just because it’s January?

Perhaps the plan here is simple. Don’t bite off more than you can chew and, instead, prioritise what’s most important and order the resolutions accordingly. As you achieve goals (even “subgoals”), little by little, you can begin to integrate other “resolutions” as you go along—little by little. Who cares if it took until May before you even broached the prospect of working on “resolution #2”? Well, you, of course…but remember, you’re likely the only one. It’s better late than never! Remember, it’s how you perceive the resolution and how you think about it that’s often really the issue—and, sometimes, all it needs is just a little cognitive reframing. In a piece I wrote for this blog a few years ago, around this time of year, I discussed such reframing alongside a number of other factors that require consideration for successful resolutions.

In conversation with a few people over the holiday break, I noticed a recurring trend in the fabric of people’s resolutions. People either wanted to commit more to advancing their careers or, on the other hand, to pulling away from focusing so much on their careers. Now, I’m not going to say one is better than the other, because that really comes down to context. Who you are and what your situation is will dictate which is “better.” With that, in one of these discussions, one person made a point that I don’t think I’ll soon forget:

If you died tomorrow, it would take your employer about a month to replace you. On the other hand, your family would never be able to replace you.

This was truly food for thought—for a number of reasons. One of those reasons is consistent with a story I heard years ago where a cocky Ph.D. student thanked himself in the acknowledgments section of his thesis draft, “because, without me, this work could not have been done.” His supervisor commented back that he actually would have just got another Ph.D. student to do the work… Needless to say, such self-acknowledgment did not appear again upon re-drafting. Of course, modesty is important, but, that’s not the point of this anecdote. Rather, it’s a reminder that, consistent with the point above, in terms of work and career, you are replaceable. I ask you to remember that in thinking about what you prioritise in this new year.

Is that a bit of an overgeneralised recommendation? Sure, but there’s some nugget of truth in it for everyone. What if you don’t have family to priortise over your job? Well, prioritise your own personal mental health or physical health. What if you need to work more to earn enough for your family? Fine, prioritise time management as a resolution to enhance the quality of the time that you do get to spend with your family. What if you like your job and don’t mind going above and beyond to help you succeed? This last question is a tricky one and is actually something I hear a lot from people in research and academia. My answer stems from another piece of advice I received years ago: “Learn to say ‘no’.”

Learn to Say ‘No’

Regardless of how much you enjoy something, it will take its toll if you take on too much of it. Burnout is a real risk in such scenarios, and it can happen to anyone, regardless of how much they like what they do. For example, at one stage in my career, I was actively engaged in 14 different studies/projects at the same time. If that doesn’t sound like a lot to you, then you’re probably the target of this particular message…unless, of course, you’re one of those professors who takes credit for the vast bulk of the work your underlings do for you, but that’s a matter for another day. In any case, even for someone who loves research, I felt the strain of being actively involved in that much work and I promised myself to never do it again. That promise came upon recollection of yet another piece of advice I received years ago: “Work to live; don’t live to work.”

Of course, only time will tell if I can maintain that resolution. With that, I count myself very lucky to have had a nice break over the holidays, coupled with paternity leave before that following the birth of my son. The extended break has helped me re-evaluate and prioritise different elements of my life. In classes where I discuss stress management, I present the notion of “waking up and smelling the flowers” as a useful coping strategy, and I think any break you get—no matter how long or short—can be used in a similar fashion to help you, like I said, to re-evaluate and prioritise. With that, I wish you all a happy new year.

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