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If You Don't Prioritize Your Life, Someone Else Will (hbr.org)
191 points by trevin on July 6, 2012 | hide | past | web | favorite | 59 comments

Having been in this situation before (albeit never missing something as monumental as the birth of my child), I would add another reason for this type of faulty prioritization : vanity.

It's so easy to be tempted by the notion that I am in fact so crucial and important to the business at hand that I have to attend. Flaunting the notion of my own importance was even bizarrely empowering. It's of course completely hollow and meaningless, and ultimately self-defeating.

So true, many times when I've lost sleep over a decision before ultimately saying, "no" I've been surprised that the other party is completely OK with it - I had assumed my saying yes was waaaay more important to them than it really was.

More posts like these need to go up on HN. I became a developer during the first boom (97) and spent countless all-nighters working on products for companies that simply no longer exist. I remember sleeping at the office, being up for days in a row, all that work for software that is probably stored in an IT closet, or purchased and used simply for the patents.

With this second boom and it's Hackathons and 2-week-challenges I find myself saying "No" quite often. "No, this is my daughter's soccer practice.", "No, I have a dinner date with my wife." and so on.

I stil work on startup ideas and I tend to take on more than I can chew. But now if I've got to make a choice between finishing a product or being a good parent/husband I'll take the latter.

> if I've got to make a choice between finishing a product or being a good parent/husband I'll take the latter

And that's why most successful startups are founded by childless, unmarried, under 30s.

Being young correlates to being energetic and not risk averse, and having no family commitments correlates to choosing the product over going to soccer practice.

> And that's why most successful startups are founded by childless, unmarried, under 30s.

Do you have a citation for that? It does not match the research I'm aware of. For instance:

> Founders tended to be middle-aged—40 years old on average—when they started their first companies. Nearly 70 percent were married when they became entrepreneurs, and nearly 60 percent had at least one child, challenging the stereotype of the entrepreneurial workaholic with no time for a family.


Having children is not the same as having time for children, as plenty of children can attest.

I'm not sure that working 16hrs per day vs 8hrs gives a 2x increase in productivity. Maybe not even 1.5x - maybe not even 1.2x.

And even if it was a 2x increase in output, I'm not sure that that's an enabling variable in a startup's success.

I agree. I may be an old codger but when I think back on all the 16+ hour days I've worked the vast majority fell into a few categories:

80% Fixing some stupid emergency drop everything issue that was somewhere between the user's keyboard and the oracle database.

19.99% Implementing some feature that got lost in the shuffle when clients are showing up tomorrow morning for a demo

0.01% Actually bringing the product forward and beating out the competition.

Honestly, over fifteen years I can only think of a few days where I ended at 10pm and said "yeah, that was a good day, we really got ourselves ahead", more often than not it was "shit, at least we are barely above water."

Of course YMMV

Let's work smarter, not harder.

I don't understand the article title. It looks like no one was "prioritizing" anything for him. He made the wrong call when it wasn't really required. Why blame someone else? We all make mistakes. Hopefully, we learn from them. (If you do this right, the reward is that you get to make all new mistakes instead of repeating the same ones.)

For any future father's here, my ex was there to hold my hand during the births of our two sons. It was one of the better things he did. I didn't care if he forgot my birthday, especially once I realized he couldn't remember his own. He had a demanding career and he was a challenging person to deal with. But it meant a lot to me that he was there when our sons were born.

It meant even more to me when I found out 2.5 years later that I apparently clawed him bloody during the very difficult birth of our first child and he never complained. He brought that detail up exactly once in all the years we were married. He mentioned it while shooing away some nurse who thought I was being a bitch during the birth of our second child. He waved her off and said "You are doing fine. You haven't drawn blood this time." I both respected and appreciated that.

My take on it was that when he was told "The customer will respect this choice." They were telling him that it was a higher priority that he make the meeting than anything else.

Rather than question that, he simply accepted it. And therein lies the trap. You let people tell you what your priorities are rather than setting them yourself. And yes setting your own priorities will get you fired some times (been there, done that) but it will also keep you balanced.

Time runs only one way, and then it stops. If you accumulate regrets life gets less and less enjoyable.

From the way the article is worded, it does not sound like he missed the birth of the child or left for a week. I agree with your point about needing to set your own priorities, but I honestly don't understand what the author is whining about. My ex was career military. Military men frequently cannot be home for birthdays, anniversaries and even the birth of a child. My husband had to find a way to get out of a deployment to be there when our second child was born. I appreciate that he did that but I also know I am fortunate: His chain of command was not required to give him an option.

I tend to not understand the complaints of people who have had cushier lives than I have had. I am okay with that. I think most people are wusses and whiners and I wouldn't want to live like they live.

I will no doubt regret replying to this. I seem to have misplaced my PC filter.


There's a big difference between making sacrifices for something that's strongly important to you (defending your country, supporting your family, etc.) vs making sacrifices for no real gain. This was the latter.

Without getting into a debate about what the correct choice was-the author of the article made a decision that was out of line with his values, due to social pressures and habits. He didn't choose to go to the client call because he truly believed that it was more important. In my opinion, that's a terrible way to live.

I strongly suspect that only someone with a ridiculously cushy life could think that. But I also suspect most people on this forum are incapable of understanding where I am coming from in that regard, so I am likely wasting everyone's time, especially mine.

Most people in the US have the option of a vary cushy life, they just don't realize it. The real problem is people are only aware of a minuscule fraction of their choices.

And no joining the military long enough to get a collage degree does not qualify as a 'hard' life compared to say living in as a super max prisoner, a hunter gatherer, or 95% of humanity before the 1500's.

Thanks and have an upvote. But my deeply in debt and homeless situation has now been compounded by a suddenly hugely negative bank balance.

Please excuse me while I go have a good cry. I no longer know how to cope.

Please, don't give up. A quick read of your profile suggest your in a difficult situation right now, but you still have options. You can read, your a US citizen, you have a high school diploma, you are reasonably mentally stable, you are still young.

Social Security includes disability benefits which you may or may not qualify for. But, you are probably eligible for some government assistance of some kind. ED: http://www.disabilitysecrets.com/conditions-page-2-38.html vs http://www.disabilitysecrets.com/resources/social-security-d...

Trying to make significant amounts of money from websites is far closer to playing the lottery than most people here want to think about. Still, there are ways to make money working from home or even just a library, but most of them don't pay vary much. Look at https://www.elance.com/ to get and idea what your competition is.

PS: I wish you the best of luck.

Thank you for your kind words, but I am too healthy to qualify for disability. I am mostly out of options at this point. I would cuss god out one more time but he/she/it clearly doesn't give a flying fuck. I have done the impossible. Is the world interested? Nope. Is there any money in it? Nope.

Have a good evening.

We are wusses and whiners. And I often want to live on that line I can see over there.

Enjoy your pc filter coming back online soon

He's not whining about anything except his own failure to take control of his life. I don't think he's blaming the client at all, just himself for wanting to ingratiate himself to the client when A) there's greater priorities, and B) the client probably won't care much, if at all.

And my point is that it doesn't sound like it was a really major failure. The way the article is written sounds like emo drama making a mountain of a molehill.

But I might need to bow out of this discussion as I get the impression my pov is neither understood nor appreciated. I was always there for my kids. They are 22 and 25 and I have their undying loyalty. We are currently homeless together. They have other options. They could stay with their father (where I am unwelcome) or try to get into a shelter without me. I could also try to get into a shelter without them (or take some guy up on offers to go home with him). No one will take us as a group. We won't split up. Most people do not understand our loyalty to each other. A public forum is probably not the place to try to express what that grows out of. Suffice it to say we all know we can count on each other in ways we cannot count on anyone or anything else.

Have a good day.

"And my point is that it doesn't sound like it was a really major failure. The way the article is written sounds like emo drama making a mountain of a molehill."

I think I do understand your point of view, could be wrong, but in summary it sounds like "hey things could be way worse, get over it."

The challenge I have is that while it is true that this particular problem for the OP was less 'problem' than say 'losing your hands in a freak wood chipper accident', the author was still trying to glean some life lessons from it. The particular lesson they were focused on was the need to have priorities come from inside rather than outside.

You've had a harder time of it than the OP, but that doesn't change the lesson that they learned, or the significance of learning it.

No, that isn't my attitude at all. But he compares himself to Ghandi and, in comparison, finds himself a failure for attending a meeting. If he learned something, good for him. But I doubt the time he took away from his family really was as significant as he is making it out to be. I wonder if he could have made up for the hour or more loss by, say, writing one less blog post. And I wonder did he really truly learn his lesson or is this overdramatization of the event a continuation of his bad habit.

But have an upvote for attempting to genuinely engage me in conversation in spite of your unfortunate impression that my attitude about this is somehow an ugly thing.

"If you choose not to decide you still have made a choice."

By going with the flow, as many of us are wont to do, we get caught up by those who decide that they are going to go their own way.

The title reminds me of this quote (which entrepreneurs will appreciate) from Christopher Morley's Where the Blue Begins:

"There is only one success ... to be able to spend your life in your own way, and not to give others absurd maddening claims upon it."


reminds me of another quote...

“If you don't design your own life plan, chances are you'll fall into someone else's plan. And guess what they have planned for you? Not much.”

~ Jim Rohn

For my wife's 30th birthday our inlaws paid for a mini vacation in probably the nicest hotel we'll ever visit. We had a fancy dinner planned for the first night and it had been a long time since my wife and I had gotten away from the kids.

As we are pulling into the hotel the system for one of our largest clients goes down. I'm the only developer on this particular system (we're a small company) and we end up cancelling dinner so that I can work all evening to get the system back up.

I still don't know if I made the right choice there. Yes it could have meant my job if I ignored the pager, but maybe I shouldn't be working for a place that has no respect for my other priorities.

You have to set boundaries and expectations, so before leaving on break tell the boss "I will not be online this weekend at all no matter what. Period. Have a nice weekend."

You don't have to worry about being fired for that because 1) boundaries are healthy and 2) they obviously can't operate without you so they wouldn't dare fire you for having a personal life.

Even worse, the more of yourself you give 24/7 to the business, the more the boss expects that of you, and gets disappointed when you slack down to 23/7. Establish firmly that you can give 110% during business hours but also you have a personal life that doesn't belong to the business.

If the business can't operate continuously without you then the boss either needs to invest in more staff or prepare to suffer the consequences. It's not your fault and don't let anyone guilt you into working 24/7 because they're not investing in enough staff and infrastructure for true 24/7 coverage.

So customers be damned? Perhaps, but that was your boss's decision when they failed to hire a full staff, not your fault.

What if you are the boss and owner, is it still customers be damned? What's the point of having the freedom of being your own boss if you don't use that freedom? So sometimes you say "no" to customers and partners, they are adults, they will get over it.

Your job is not your life. Believe it and live it.

fwiw: I think you made the right choice. Work is sacrosanct. I hope the rest of the weekend with your wife was lovely, but losing your job likely would not have made her happy.

-- former military wife who spent many a birthday alone

Even at the cost of family and friends? I dont see work as sacrosanct. Its a section of your life devoted to help you sustain a living. Some people love it, some people dont. There are other parts of your life that need the same, if not more of an attention to develop your character as a whole.

I have been meaning to write a blog post about this. I think if friends and family don't understand that your work is a priority, they should be cut loose. There are times when you should try to prioritize family. I spoke to that in another comment in this same discussion. (And I was a homemaker and fulltime mom for two decades, so my family was my work.) But unless it is the kind of friend that would happily follow you through the gates of hell, they probably don't deserve more loyalty than your job. And if they are that kind of friend, you probably have a word for them other than "friend", like blood brother or at least best friend.

I appreciate your comments and the level of understanding you showed your husband. I think a lot of your perspective comes from the military life. In that career path refusing to do something or to show up can potentially ruin your career, and it is not as easy to change jobs.

It's probably different for me because I could likely find a new job easily enough, so the consequences are not as severe as if I was back in the military.

From military life. From my dad growing up in The Great Depression. From my mom growing up in Germany during WWII and its aftermath. From devotedly raising two special needs sons and helping them overcome challenges that are supposed to be impossible to overcome. From getting well when that is supposedly impossible. I have yet to figure out how to make enough money from the things I consider my life's work. But I do think it is sacred, paid or not. Sorry if no one here understands that.

Have a good day.

I get it and I'm not trying to change your mind. I'm sorry that others here were not very nice today. I'm sure the work you are doing has real meaning and that is why it is important to you. At my job it just means someone gets a little more or less money. I appreciate your insight on the situation I've faced at my job. I obviously took the path you suggested since I'm still here :).

No big. I suddenly have a hugely negative bank balace. My bank is closed, so I can't even address the issue. Makes this bullshit conversation pale in comparison. But thank you for your kindness.

I don't think it has anything to do with your family's attitude towards your work (although I do agree if they put their interests before your priorities they shouldn't be given more importance). Family/friends could be more important than work to someone who derives more satisfaction from them. And in your comment, you seem to imply that a job automatically deserves loyalty (in this age where companies can let you go in the drop of a hat?). If you see a job as "just another activity one does", no more no less, (doesn't mean the person doesn't give their best, and not demeaning a job here) in the path to overall growth, and has the same importance just like perfecting a hobby in your leisure, you develop a different attitude to it.

My whole point is that work is not sacrosanct. It has no special place. There is nothing in it by its very nature that makes it right to put it above all else. There are other activities one does throughout the day, or maybe every so often, that is more important or needs to be prioritized, IF one feels that way.

A specific job may not be, in which case you should probably be looking for other work. But it has been said that two major themes in life are learning to deal with love and with work. If you need a paycheck to not starve, then your job should be pretty darn important to you whether you like it or not.

I know no one here is going to change my point of view. Maybe you could explain to me why people keep trying to do so while apparently making no effort to understand it when I have repeatedly indicated I would kind of like to bow out of what looks to me to be pointless contention.

"If you need a paycheck to not starve, then your job should be pretty darn important to you whether you like it or not."

This is what I suspected you meant by "importance". Something that you are forced to make important, not important by choice. And regarding my work, there's no reason for me to look for other work. I love my job. And also love some other activities I do during my day. But my job is not more important.

I know its hard to change a point of view. I just wanted to know where you are coming from. And regarding bowing out, all you need to do is stop responding. As far as I am concerned, I saw a comment, was curious about the why, and prodded a little. It was a good discussion. Thanks for that and good luck.

Re: bowing out. I have found that simply no longer replying when others are seriously mischaracterizing my remarks causes more problems than it solves. It creates additional work of an onerous sort which can haunt me for months or years. I wish that worked. I really do. But I have not found that it does.

Have a great day.

And who is now seemingly divorced and homeless.

Yes. My divorce was amicable and occurred to save my life. I went homeless by choice as the only hope I have of resolving health problems the world says cannot be solved.

But thank you for the gratuitous ad hominem which appears completely irrelevant to this discussion.

I'm sorry, I probably worded that unnecessarily harshly.

My point is that while you obviously feel strongly that you have chosen the correct path for your life, you are not an objective observer. I have come to realize that my thoughts on commitment and work--which were strongly like yours--were primarily a coping mechanism for a lifestyle that was not good for me.

Edit to add: This is the message of the "top 5 regrets" post linked in the HBR article: the decisions we make and defend during life might not look so great as greater perspective is gained.

Then I will suggest you might be projecting. My work saved my life. I don't regret my devotion to either my sons or my ex husband. I consider myself a success in life, something I wrote about recently elsewhere and will be happy to share the link to if you care to see it.

Of course you don't regret your devotion to your family. But what you've actually written in this thread is a defense of prioritizing work over family. So which is it?

Perhaps you have only read part of my remarks here. I have made the point that one should try to be there for important events like the birth of a child. But in the grand scheme of things, missing a birthday dinner but keeping your job, when that job is presumably supporting the family, is the right call. He said it was one of the largest clients his firm had. If the firm lost the client, depending on how large the account was, it could have cost the company more than just his job. How would he feel about that outcome? Work is sacrosanct because it is how the world takes care of people. There is a great scene in a movie about this. I wish I could remember the name of the movie.

I do not see the world in the black and white terms you are viewing my remarks through. That probably explains a lot.

I guess I am being thrown off by the words you're choosing. "Sacrosanct" means inviolable, above criticism or priority. If something is "sacrosanct," by definition it must always come first, no exceptions. It's a black and white term. If work is sacrosanct then that means that family will always be sacrificed. But then you seem to indicate that there are time that family should come before work.

You also said "I think if friends and family don't understand that your work is a priority, they should be cut loose." That seems like a pretty black-and-white position to me. But then you say that there are times that family should come first.

It also seems like you're conflating family and work, saying things like "my family was my work." When what most of us mean by "work" is an external employer. When you say "My work saved my life" are you talking about raising your family or working for an external employer?

So I guess I am just confused as to what you are trying to say. At first I thought you were trying to say that work should always come first. Now your devotion to your family is very clear to me, and you seem to be saying that people need to strike a proper balance. Which I agree with.

Sorry but I suddenly have a hugely negative bank balance and no means to address it. So my capacity to try to do any further clarification has disappearred, along with nearly $4000 in funds that I simply don't have.

Just when I thought things were getting better... <wry smile>

Great advice, but very difficult to follow when you're living paycheck to paycheck. For most people, I think the progression is 1) establish basic financial freedom (6 - 12 mo of basic living expenses in a liquid fund) and then 2) pick your moves purposefully. (1) is easier than most people think, and once you have it becomes a lot easier to clear your head and address (2).

In my experience, I started by saying yes to everything and getting burned. Then as I got older, I learned to say "no" and how say/how not to say/how to imply "no".

At first it's hard, but people will learn to accept your "no"s and is a sign of respect when they stop questioning why you said "no". (assumption: no is backed up by reasonable and rational reasons)

How much of this is caused by the "asker/guesser" (http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/2010/may/08/change-li...) misunderstanding? Probably a lot, since the main example in the article seems like one.

This is a great article, I hope you don't mind my submitting it to the main page. I was half-expecting it to forward me to past discussion.

Nice article. I think it highlights the challenge of trying to balance multiple sources of priority, all of which are important to you. Of course, we can say that the family is the most important (which it should be), but, if you always prioritize family events over work, you might not have much of a career. Beyond maintaining an awareness of your internal decision process, I think it is important to communicate to everyone your commitments and stick to them. In the long run, being reliable is more important than being being a hero in a specific situation. In the Gandhi example, he did not prioritize his grandson to the exclusion of everything else, but he did make a commitment and followed through consistently.

Of course, this type of prioritization issue also applies to work within a startup. There's always more to do than you can possibly finish, and you need to pick between multiple urgent tasks...

The wife and newborn example sure does evoke an easy, "duh, dude, you screwed-up" response.

The trick is knowing, in the moment, which alternative action will best serve which subset of priorities over which time frames.

It's not always so obvious as newborn vs client meeting. Sometime it's flying an airplane vs client meeting.

Good article. Before quitting my day job, I was constantly surprised at the number of meetings I could miss. I would sleep through many morning meetings. Other meetings looked boring and I would choose to miss. If there was anything important in most of the meetings, someone would find me later and catch me up in a minute or less. It is very easy for people to spend their whole day doing what they think is required of them, even if very little of it is actually required.

In many cultures (f.ex. Japanese, Arab) it's the social norm to prioritize family, and you are expected to do it. It's the westerners who ruined it, I can't believe how it can be socially acceptable to miss a child birth for a client meeting. If I were his client and knew he came while his wife is at labor, I would think this guy is completely messed up and needs some serious help, and sent him away quickly.

I generally agree with the sentiment, but I'm not convinced at all by deathbed regrets.

It's easy to say you wish you spent less time working and more time doing the things you love, because it's easy to forget how working hard enabled you to do the things you love.

What twaddle, look at the author. Greg McKeown is the CEO of THIS Inc., a leadership and strategy design agency headquartered in Silicon Valley. He was recently named a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum. Greg did his graduate work at Stanford.

What if the situation in his example was reversed? What if, his wife lay with the newborn baby, and he felt that he wanted to go visit the client, but he said 'no' instead? Would he still be wrong?

That's not really the point. It's not really about objectively correct decisions. It's about knowing the difference between what you think is important and what you think others think is important.

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