Setting your Priorities

when You Can’t Have It All!

Despite what social media and magazines make you believe; you simply can’t have it all. However, you can be happy and grateful for what you have!

At each stage of life, you will have to make choices, and your working life is no different. You will have to set your own priorities and review them occasionally.

I grew up on a small farm, it was definitely a marginal existence. Most of our clothes were hand-me-downs from older relatives, and most holidays were filled with chores instead of trips. I was bullied at primary school, and regularly sported bruises. My priorities from an early age on were financial independency, and travel far away. This has set the tone for my career; a range of roles that took me across the world and allowed me to retire at the age of 55. 

So, what really motivates you? This is not good or bad, it is what makes you you!

You will have to start by acknowledging your deepest set of priorities, as they will guide you to a career with an associated work life balance and lifestyle. Do you really want to climb the corporate ladder, or do you prefer to have a job which pays enough to pay the bills and leaves you more free time? Can you do both in your line of work? Be honest to yourself, do you really like or want to set yourself very hard targets to achieve? And if you do, how would you feel if you failed at them? How likely is that?

It is amazing how many of us lie to ourselves about what we really want out of our working life. 

I did a course which was called “Leadership for High Performance” by the Hay Group (which is now The basis for this course was the three social motives as defined by Dr David McClelland in 1949, which collectively explain the widest range of human social behaviours. It is spilt up in three motives:

  • Achievement (efficiency)
  • Affiliation (genuine friendly relationships)
  • Power (influence).

These motives drive our behaviour and are effectively our basal priorities. Our individual requirement for these (let’s say the size of each of the three buckets), is different for everybody. The better your work and life choices fill the needs of your individual “buckets”, the happier you will be. Now there is a lot more to this, which I won’t go into here. These underlying motives underpin a next level of more groups and classes, like the many personality definitions that are around (eg Myer Briggs, Disc, etc).

A job should match your personal needs, your deepest underlying motives or priorities. If there isn’t a good match, you are likely to find in yourself a need to get involved in voluntary work or hobbies that seek to fill that “space in your bucket”. And for many of us that is an excellent way to balance our lives.

But what when there is a change afoot. How do you deal with your priorities in view of a change in your life?

When you are starting a job, it may require a decision to move to a new city, state, or country. How do you feel about that? If you are in a relationship, this is likely to result in having to make a hard decision. 

The parenting question, when and if to have children, and who should look after them. In a truly modern relationship this is also something you have to consciously make a decision about.

I don’t know of any successful really dual career couples who have children, and both work fulltime and are perfectly happy. There is always some niggling guilt at least…

Sooner or later decisions will have to be made and being aware of your priorities is important so you can articulate and share them, to agree on the way forward. 

Photo by Polina Zimmerman on

I remember being asked at my first job interview if I had a boyfriend, and what would he think of following me around. Yes it was 1987, and such questions were still normal. My answer then rings even more true today, “we will have to talk about it”. 

And we indeed did, I ended up having a baby and returned to work after 3 months parental leave. My husband became one of the first stay-at-home dads in 1992. I thoroughly enjoyed my job, the financial independence, the career I had started and the travel I was doing. He was looking for something else and loved kids.

As for new parents, I always try to encourage both parents to enjoy some time with their new addition and each take some time off or reduce their working hours for at least some time. It shouldn’t automatically be the person who gave birth, it should be a conscious decision between partners.  

And it is not only children, as we get older our parents may need more support or dealing with your own or your partner’s health issues can be another reason to change priorities. 

Maybe the job you loved 10 years ago now makes you feel flat and demotivated. Take stock and see with an open mind what your options are.

A lot of companies will allow staff to take a longer break, move roles, go flexi, etc. Have an honest chat with your HR person or seek professional help via the Employee Assistance Programme.

As a former discipline chief, I appreciated staff coming up to me and discussing their changing priorities, very simple: if I know, I can help, if I don’t know, I can’t!

Our priorities change as we get older, and as the situations that we find ourselves in change over time. And that is very normal. You should review your priorities at a regular interval or when big events happen in your life; like the start or end of a relationship, an illness, a change in your responsibilities. Evaluate if you job, your career, is supporting your new priorities or if you need to change something. 

Remember, it is also in the interest of the company you work for to have you fully motivated and happy, working to your best in a role you love. 

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