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What are Your Real Priorities?

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I’m not sure if it’s a real phenomenon, or just something put into my head by countless television shows, but it seems like turning 30 is a problem for most people. Looking back on it, hitting the big 3-0 didn’t feel like the end of an era or anything. Some view it as the end of partying or having fun. It’s when real responsibilities begin. You’re 30 now, time to start acting like an adult. I’ve never been one for partying, so I guess I didn’t feel like I had much to lose.

I’ve always just focused on work. Whether programming or writing, it’s been a constant in my life for the last 20 years. 

Programming started out as a hobby, right around the age of 12. I discovered HTML, CSS, and PHP and I was hooked. In my last year of high school, I started freelancing; doing websites for coworking spaces, car dealerships, political figures, and more. I took on new work every chance I got. Two things drove me: becoming the best programmer I could be and making money.

I wasn’t poor but there always seemed to be a far-off amount of money I needed to earn. Don’t bother asking me what number I had in my head. Looking back on it now, I realize that number was, “more.” Always more.

I hated my first job. The work was uninspiring, the clients were awful, and the pay barely covered my rent. But I have to give it credit for one thing; it inspired me to start doing side projects. Once I learned I could — without input from anyone else — brainstorm, create and promote my work, I was addicted. No matter how bad my day job got, I knew I could count on doing work I loved at night.

And that’s when a switch flipped in my brain. Previously, work was something that existed between the hours of 9 am and 5 pm. Sure, I had freelanced in my spare time through school, but this was different. I was doing work I chose to do. It was inspiring, fun, and fulfilled me in a way other projects couldn’t. 

So, I started working all the time; every spare moment I could find. Fuelled by caffeine and cigarettes, I coded long into the night. I released something new every few weeks, and always took the time to promote it.  I even became pretty well-known for my work. My projects got coverage in the newspaper, nightly news, and on local blogs. That drove me to work even more — I enjoyed the attention.

I can’t complain about that period of my life too much. Through all that work, I landed a couple of great jobs, built a reputation for myself, and got introductions to lots of really great people. I met some of my best friends and colleagues through those side projects. But they also instilled a lot of bad habits in me.

I was always tired. There wasn’t a car, bus, streetcar, plane, or train I couldn’t fall asleep on. I was miserable when I wasn’t working. I let relationships with my family, friends, and loved ones slip. My priorities were completely backward.

Thankfully, I’ve been blessed to have people in my life that stuck with me. They’ve understood when, rather than spend time with them; I’ve spent time alone with my laptop. Often, I think they’ve chalked it up to “needing time alone,” or, “being passionate about work.” And both those statements are true. I do need time alone to recharge, and I’m very passionate about what I do.

But focusing so heavily on work wasn’t a personality quirk, it was a choice I made. And it caused me to miss out on a lot.

Thankfully, halfway through my 31st year on this planet, I think I’ve started to get my priorities straight.

If you’d asked me last year what my priorities were, I likely would’ve said:

  1. My wife and family.
  2. My friends.
  3. My work.

But when I sat down and started to examine the things I did on a daily basis, I was a bit shocked. My typical day looked something like this:

  1. Get up early and work on one of my projects.
  2. Go to work.
  3. Come home & eat dinner.
  4. Hang out, briefly, with my wife.
  5. See her off to bed.
  6. Stay up way too late, working on one of my projects.

That’s not even counting bullshit like browsing Twitter, playing dumb games on my phone, or watching TV.

When I imagined my priorities, work came last. But it’s obvious, looking at that first list, that wasn’t true. Our real priorities are the things we give our time and attention. I had just one real priority: work. 

I cared more about making progress on my latest app than making a real connection with someone else. I cared more about staying at the office than taking my dog for a walk. I cared more about being successful — whatever that means — than taking care of the people I love the most.

I’ve realized that I need to make a change. And I’ve been working to make it happen. 

I’m not perfect. I still occasionally spend more time working than I should. I still lust after gadgets, rather than experiences. I still, sometimes, have to make a conscious effort to spend time with people, rather than code. Now, though, I’m aware of where my priorities should be — and I’m trying to make the changes required to support those priorities.

I still care, deeply, about my work. I still want to write articles that help others, write code that solves interesting problems and work with people I admire each and every day. I still want to make money doing things I love. But I’ve realized the people in my life must always take precedence, no matter what. Otherwise, what’s the point?

As Todd Brison so eloquently put it, your desk will not attend your funeral.

I’ve decided to stop telling myself things like:

  • I should have a deeper connection with my wife.
  • I should work on cultivating real friendships.
  • I should spend less money on crap I don’t need.
  • I should eat better, and get more exercise.

So many “shoulds,” not enough, “musts.”

Often, I write about how to work more. How to be more productive. How to squeeze every last drop out of your free time. And there are seasons of life where those topics feel authentic to who I am. But now, I’ve learned that there must be other seasons — time for rest, relaxation, love, and caring for yourself and others.

What are the “shoulds” in your life? What changes do you need to make, but keep putting off? Are your priorities aligned with what you say you care about?

Take the time to ask yourself those questions and, like me, you might be surprised by the answers.

Until next week,