What are you willing to give up?

HopeAs a reporter I learned a technique that saved my sanity. I asked my bosses to make choices.

In journalism, as in other fields, there’s far more good work to do than there is time to do it. Editors can and will keep piling on the assignments. So I learned, when my plate got too full, to ask my bosses to help me prioritize.

Here’s how I did it. I always said yes to the new assignment, then followed immediately with, “But I’m also supposed to do this and this and this. Which of these other projects should I drop?” Or “back burner” or “table” or whatever euphemism worked best with this particular editor.

Saying yes made it clear that I was a team player, that I valued my boss’ direction and that I wasn’t one of those pain-in-the-ass whiners who had to be wrestled into doing actual work. But quickly reviewing my current assignments reminded the editor of all the other work she’d tasked me with.

A more experienced journalist had explained that it was part of my boss’ job to help me prioritize. Managers are supposed to keep an eye on the company’s ultimate mission and encourage the actions that support that mission. Until he said that, I’d been saying yes to everything and driving myself nuts trying to fit it all in.

Fast forward a few years. I’m now my own boss, writing for different clients and once again faced with far more work than time to do it. Now I’m the one that has to make choices. I have to figure out what my ultimate mission was and what actions support it (and which don’t). I also now have a life—a husband and a baby girl I want to spend time with. Suddenly it became a lot easier to ditch the work that didn’t pay enough (or at all), and focus on the stuff that did.

There’s one other place it can be helpful to ask what you’re willing to give up, and that’s negotiating with family members about financial priorities.

First, you need to sit down together and set some priorities—what’s most important to accomplish, where you want to be in five years, 10 years, 30 years. You figure out what you need to do to get there, then wrestle your priorities into place. (Quick example: You want to take a vacation with your family next year, replace your car five years from now and retire before you’re 80. You figure how much you need to save for each goal and adjust until it’s doable. Maybe to save enough to retire by age 65 you’ll have to put the Disney cruise off a couple of years…that kind of thing.)

When new wants rear their heads—somebody’s agitating for a bathroom remodel, say—you return to those priorities and decide together what you’re willing to give up. Maybe the bathroom remodel is important enough to delay your retirement until 67 or to continue to drive your old car another five years. Maybe it’s not. But the exercise reminds you of what you really want, and helps you decide—together—when and how to adjust those priorities.