If it were any other year, it probably wouldn’t have happened. But, 2020 was an exceptionally remarkable year. As such, I decided to reach out to a long-lost friend.

I never wished any ill-will upon this person. I concluded several years ago that it was best to distance myself from him. On my part, I felt that the relationship had run its course.

However, while organizing my closet, I found an ancient photo album that contained a picture of us. Nostalgia ran wild. And, I decided that life was too short to never hold onto any nonsense.

While things haven’t gone back to the way it used to be, communication lines are open. I also don’t have the would’ve, should’ve, could’ve guilt if something happened to him. Moreover, I made it a point to reach out to family, friends, and acquaintances throughout the year.

The thing is, that was just the beginning. Not having to go to work or travel gave me the time to do the things that I enjoy. I could also finally get around to the projects I’ve been putting off.

Most importantly? I’ve had the chance to engage in self-care. And attend to my mental health and wellbeing.

Long story short. It took a pandemic to make me realize that work should no longer be my top priority. And, as America’s greatest treasure Dolly Parton once said, “Never get so busy making a living that you forget to make a life.”

“When I’m 90, will this matter…?”

I came across this question in a Medium post written by Virginia Ulrich. And, it’s honestly an excellent one to ask. Particularly when “prioritizing all of the puzzle pieces that form my life — especially work itself.”

As Virginia explains in the article, throughout life, “we’ve all been socialized to put so much weight on work.” In fact, for some, it’s “the single most important defining factor of who we are as people is our job.” And, for a lot of people, “work is hollow, or a source of anxiety, or any number of things far from a sense of meaning and purpose, far from consistent, nurturing positivity, and far from a source of joy and happiness.”

Despite these drawbacks, “work comes out on top as our number one priority,” adds Virginia. But why? “When you’re 90, will you wonder why you made work your first priority?” Virginia asks.

“No one on his deathbed ever said, I wish I had spent more time at the office.” – Paul Tsongas

At the end of the day, will “work be there by your side?” Do you think that work will “be there to remind you of the most important moments?” And, “will work fill the memories you look upon with gratitude and fulfillment?”

If you really thought about it, the answer to those questions would be “no.” And, it’s probably even more so for the millions of people who have lost their jobs or closed their business because of the economic fallout of COVID.

Even before the pandemic, people questioned the importance of work. For example, in the book “The Top Five Regrets of The Dying,” palliative nurse Bronnie Ware found that these wishes were the most common regrets her patients had:

  • I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
  • I hadn’t worked so hard.
  • I’d had the courage to express my feelings.
  • I had stayed in touch with my friends.
  • I had let myself be happier.

These regrets almost line-up exactly with what Grace Bluerock, LCSW, found while working in hospice care, as well as research from the University of Illinois, Champaign. And, according to Harvard’s famous 80-year-study, the secret to a healthy and happy life is close relationships — not fame or money.

Prioritizing Work and Life

Even if work shouldn’t be your top priority, the truth is, it’s still something that you have to do. Unless you’ve had some fortune, like an inheritance, you need money. Without out it, how can you put food on the table, have a roof over your head, or turn that side-hustle into a full-time business?

Additionally, you might have a legal or ethical obligation to work. Examples would be honoring contracts or delivering the best product/service to your customers.

What if you love what you do and don’t mind putting in the hours? At some point, you need a timeout to rest and recharge to avoid burnout. And, not to be too grim, eventually, you may no longer be physically or mentally up to the task.

In other words, when it’s time to work, give it your full attention and effort. But, when you’re “off-the-clock,” it’s time to focus on what truly matters. I know, easier said than done.

However, it is possible to get things done while putting your priorities at the forefront. And, here are seven ways to achieve that.

1. Work-life balance is a myth.

For years, work-life balance was the answer to having your cake and eating it too. Unfortunately, it’s a myth.

For starters, there will be times when work bleeds into our personal lives and vice versa. That could be putting out a fire or responding to an important email. Attempting to maintain this non-existent balance while only stress you out.

Instead, you should be striving for integration. Examples could be having your child file, sort, or organize your office or having a work call while taking your dog for a walk.

Other myths that need to be debunked include:

  • Life needs to be compartmentalized. You can’t evenly split-up your time between work and life. Rather, you need to devote the right amount of time to your current priority.
  • You can have it all. Sorry, you can’t. Sometimes you will have to make certain sacrifices.
  • Time management is the answer. It’s not. The answer is managing your energy and focus.
  • Technology will give you more free time. It helps. But, you can’t automate everything.
  • It’s what employees care about most. Flexibility is important. Most employees, though, want meaningful work, recognition, and empathy.
  • The early bird catches the worm. Unless you’re a morning bird, don’t fight against your circadian rhythms.
  • You never work during off-hours. Some days you might have to put in a 12-hour day. The tradeoff is that other days you might only work 4-hours.
  • The less you work, the happier you’ll be. Even if you worked a 20-hour week, would you be happy if you spend the majority of your time just watching Netflix?
  • Everything needs to be scheduled. Outside of your essential tasks and appointments, you can leave some free space so that you have a little wiggle room.

2. Schedule your priorities.

Let’s say that your top priorities are your family and health. If you don’t want anything else to get in the way of these, then add them to your calendar.

Some ideas could be blocking out your calendar from 1 pm to 2 pm to workout. You could also make yourself unavailable any time after 5 pm so that the entire evening can be spent with your family. The sooner you had these, the less likely you’ll have to deal with conflicts.

As Stephen Covey perfectly stated, “The key is not to prioritize what’s on your schedule but to schedule your priorities.”

3. It’s time to be more (strategically) selfish.

Frequent flyers are all too familiar with the flight attendants’ instructions. Mainly, putting on your own oxygen mask first. Doesn’t that sound harsh for the people who can’t do this themselves?

There’s actually a valid reason. If you’re too busy helping others, you’ll forget to put your mask on. And, eventually, you won’t be able to assist anyone.

You should have the same mentality in life. That means carving out time for self-care and attending to your own health and well-being. The key is choosing the right moment.

For example, if your child is severely ill, you can’t dart off to play golf or visit the spa. You can’t read a book, take a nap, or even have a Zoom call. Your sick child comes first.

When they’re healthy, stick with your plans if they’re outside playing, lounge in an outdoor chair and read. When they go to bed, meditate, or take a bath. Remember, there’s nothing wrong with being selfish — it’s just knowing when.

4. Fight back against the “urgency bias.”

Sometimes a little urgency can be beneficial. If you’re struggling with procrastination, as an example, butting up to the deadline could motivate you to get moving. But, in most situations, urgency does more harm than good.

The reason? Our brains are biased towards tasks that seem urgent even though they’re objectively less important.

“People may choose to perform urgent tasks with short completion windows, instead of important tasks with larger outcomes, because important tasks are more difficult and further away from goal completion, urgent tasks involve more immediate and certain payoffs or people want to finish the urgent tasks first and then work on important tasks later,” researchers have found.

As a result, we might be wasting precious time and energy on things that aren’t really worth it. To fight back against this urgency bias, try an Eisenhower matrix, embracing micro productivity, and becoming more mindful.

5. Actually, take time off.

On a daily basis, take frequent breaks. Some people find the Pomodoro Technique to help with this as it encourages them to take breaks every 25-minutes. If you don’t want to interrupt your flow, take a timeout after completing a task.

Additionally, make it a point to take a step back from work. That could be going on a 2-week long vacation or planning a staycation this weekend. Even if you don’t completely disconnect, you need time off to mentally recharge, improve your health, and reduce stress.

6. Know when to say “yes” and “no.”

I’ve learned that to succeed in life; you need to compromise. It’s not always an easy feat. But, it can help you be productive while not neglecting your priorities.

For instance, you might not be able to go camping with your family this weekend because you just launched a new product. But, once everything at work gets back in order, you can reject additional time commitments so that you can spend time with your family or engaging in your favorite hobby.

7. Forgive yourself.

Want to be successful while preventing burnout? writer and habit coach Niklas Göke has an easy solution; “Relentlessly forgive yourself.”

That might sound vague. But, it’s nothing more than doing what makes you happy or what feels right. And, above anything else, not apologizing for it.

Do you need to take the afternoon off to help your kids with a project? Reschedule that meeting cause your kids won’t always need your help. You want to take a week off and visit your grandparents? Awesome, you may not have much time with them left.

“The reality is that people just shouldn’t feel guilty for utilizing vacation,” says Matthew Grawitch, Ph.D., a Director of Strategic Research at Saint Louis University. “In fact, there is more evidence to suggest that taking vacation time is beneficial for long-term well-being, motivation, and productivity, especially when employees can more fully detach from work during that vacation.”

“They should feel more guilty if they don’t take a vacation because when they fail to do so, they are putting their own long-term motivation, work quality, and productivity in jeopardy,” adds Dr. Grawitch.

Again, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t follow through with your work commitments. And you should never phone-it-in. But, you also need not to beat yourself up when prioritizing other areas of your life.