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Jim Warner: Setting Priorities — The Key to Problem Solving

By Jim Warner

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When Having It
All Isn’t Enough

by Jim Warner

The Phoenix Process

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From problem solving to becoming fulfilled and fully alive... five steps to live in balance.

When we have fuzzy priorities, it’s no wonder we keep complicating our lives. Any life-balance problem usually isn’t so bad when we’re in our 20s and 30s, the time in life when we’re young and problem solving is pretty straightforward. And since we’re young, the responsibilities aren’t usually that bad. They’re usually pretty manageable. We normally can find a way to figure it out. 

But when we get into our peak-earning and tower-building years — when we’re making our mark in our careers, getting promotions, and our family is growing — we start hearing more of these voices clamoring relentlessly for our time. And they start saying, just like in the drama, “Pay attention to me. You’ve got to pay attention to me. I’m the most important one here.”

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When Having It All Isn’t Enough… discover what REALLY matters in life.

The majority of the people I work with — and these are educated people, professionals, high achievers, executives, people in ministry, spouses — they all keep asking me for some kind of a magic potion for problem solving and balancing their life. They say things like, “Just help me hold it all together.” It’s as if they think I have the power to give them a 36-hour day.

Well, here’s the bad news: Balance is a myth. No elixir exists. There’s no potion out there that’s going to give you the 36-hour days or give you a balanced life in which you can do it all. Something’s got to give. 

If you try to appease all of the voices, all those constituencies out there who keep hammering on you for your time, you will eventually let some of them down. And worst of all, you’re going to end up killing yourself. Someone or some group is going to get shortchanged either intentionally or subconsciously if you keep trying to do it all.

But I want to give you a ray of hope in this: It is possible to set clean boundaries and to release some of the responsibilities you thought you had to maintain. It is possible to return to a life of sanity, problem solving, and more fulfillment. You’ll find that when you release some of these things you thought you could never let go of, you’ll wonder why you waited so long.

During the crunch-time years, usually in our 30s, 40s, and 50s, when we’re forced to give something up, most of us choose to ignore the least squeaky wheel in our lives. And you know what that usually is? The family. I’ve found in working with more than 600 high achievers that with very few exceptions all of the lame clichés that go something like, my family comes first, are simply platitudes. They mock what really happens.

Delaying family needs, especially the husband-wife relationship, is the easiest for us to rationalize when we’ve got a ton of things going on. Yet, each one of these rationalizations, each late-night meeting, each crisis at the office, or the weekend problem solving, each one of these withdraws harder in funds from the inner personal bank account of our loved ones,  emotional and connection funds that are very expensive to replace at a later date.

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Don’t believe me? Ask the executive fathers who have teenagers, who are now seeking a deeper relationship with their kids after years of absence while they focused on their careers. 

The currency of this inner personal bank account isn’t money, but it’s time and tenderness. And these are rare commodities for most absent parents who long to connect. But I’m going to pose to you, there is hope. It is possible to release the obligations we thought we had to hold and to reclaim a vibrant relationship with our loved ones. 

Often, we somehow meet family and vocational needs, but we give up our personal needs. We postpone getting fit, enjoying recreation, or making time for solitude, prayer, or reflection. We just don’t have time for these. But these are the activities that keep us sharp and alive. We say something like, “I know I need to do this, and I really want to, and I’m going to get at it next year. I’m going to make that resolution, I know, next New Year’s. Once my life comes down, I’ll really be able to attack this,” but it never happens.

You’ve probably figured out life never calms down. There’s always just one more hill to climb, one more deal to close, one more quarter to make, one more board to sit on, one more team to coach, one more crisis. There’s always one more problem-solving, stress-inducing, time-involving priority.

But, again, I’m going to ask you to take heart; there’s a way out of this. If we closely examine the patterns of how we commit, we can start to hold back on these commitments. We can get out of this place of over-committing and live a life in which we’ve chosen the right priorities for ourselves and our loved ones.

So these are the steps to getting balance back in your life: The first step is to admit two things to yourself. The first is: This isn’t working. The second, I can’t have it all. If you’re still trying to figure out a way to do it all, to have your cake and eat it too, well, I’m going to tell you straight out, you’re in denial. I can’t help you. But if you’re willing to examine some of your life’s patterns and admit that parts of your life aren’t working and that you can’t have it all, then I’ll pose to you, you’re in a place where you can get your time and your sanity back.

The second step for getting your life back after you’ve accepted that you can’t have it all is to set and enforce boundaries in your life. Do this directly, cleanly, and, if necessary, bluntly. Setting boundaries means telling people very exactly what you will and will not do. 

Here are some examples for you. Try out some of this language and see what it would be like for you to use these words as you’re being confronted with new opportunities that will take away your time. First thing you might say, “I won’t serve on your board.” In a more positive sense, “I will be on your committee, but, if it begins to take over my committed amount, which is three hours a month, I’m going to have to tell you right now, I’m going to have to resign.” “I will accept your offer to join your nonprofit board, but only if I’m exempt from having to do the things that are outside of my skill set.” In a work environment you might say the following to somebody who works for you: “I won’t give you that raise until you can meet the following performance threshold.”

Another positive side effect, setting and enforcing boundaries may be very tough at first and it could cause some tension and conflict, but if you stick by your word, I believe you can deliver the message respectfully and you’ll be in a healthy, enduring relationship. And here’s the huge bonus: You’re going to have more time.

The third step for problem solving and restoring balance in your life is to start telling yourself right now you don’t have to do anything. About the only things you and I have to do are to breathe and to have our heart beat. And I’ll tell you, in my life, at least, those things happen automatically anyway. I’m asking you to consider that every action you take is a conscious
choice. Sure there are consequences, but you are doing the choosing. The key question is, are you willing to accept the consequences? If you are, then honor your choice. If not, then choose not to do the action. 

You may be at a stage of life during which you choose to work very hard. Okay, go for it. Be conscious about it. I’m going to do this because it’s important to me and I recognize and accept that some of my other relationships may suffer for a period of time. But I want everybody in my life to be aware of this. “Honey, I want you to know I’m choosing to work these hours because it’s important for me and my career right now. And I recognize there’s a risk it may hurt our relationship and our family.  But I’m doing it consciously, and I want you to know.”

Do this even though others may not like it and they may not even buy in. If you do this consciously, you’re acknowledging the risk, even though it’s a small one, that the relationships might end. But be conscious about it. You are making choices. 

The fourth step for restoring balance, find some people in your life who are good at setting and enforcing boundaries. Let these people become your mentors. If you find that you struggle with balance and boundaries, find people who both seem to get a lot done and also seem to have all the time in the world. Who are your role models for people who have good boundaries in their life? Ask them to be on your personal board of directors, to be a coach to you, to help you set and enforce your own boundaries. Ask for their encouragement; ask them to hold you accountable. Use them as an alcoholic uses his sponsor so that you can call them whenever you’re considering a project or a relationship that is on the fringe of your boundaries that might corrupt the balance in your life. 

Have these friends or mentors guide you in clearly resetting your boundaries so that you have time for what you’ve declared to be important in your life. And give them permission to both be your cheerleader when you’re doing what you want and, also, to cut it short when you start whining and making excuses.

There’s one final step for solving problems and restoring balance in your life. And that’s to find a group of friends, a community, who will express their love for you no matter how much or how little you do. Having friends or loved ones who will stand by us and love us when we make these tough choices gives us the confidence and support to make these choices and to stand by them. A direct, truthful, forthright message delivered with compassion can communicate our boundaries cleanly, clearly, and tenderly. And friends that support us also help us stay firm in our choices and not be swayed by the pleas and the bargaining and the rationalizations and all the threats of others who want our time.

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As mature adults, we’re never forced to do anything. We always know we’re making a choice. Anytime you find yourself saying, “Well, yes, but I have to,” you’re becoming a victim. And you’re honoring the treadmill way of life. There are always three choices that we have: To do something, to not do something, and to try to find some other approach. The choice is up to you.

Yes, I want to maximize the eight fundamental areas of my life: Purpose, Money, Balance and Boundaries, Energy, Marriage and Love Relationships, Friends and Community, Spirituality, and My Identity.

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