9 Tips for Setting Your Life's Priorities the Right Way

You're in your 40s. You've got a spouse. Kids. Friends that you've accumulated over the last several decades. Current colleagues. Former colleagues. Current employees. Former employees.

You've had some luck in business, which means you now have resources, relationships, advice that people want. But you don't have the time or emotional bandwidth to accommodate everyone. So what do you do?

You have to make choices.

That means saying no. It means letting people go from your life. It means drawing lines. It means hurting people's feelings. It's never easy. But the alternative is unsustainable. How do you decide where to draw the line? Here are the points I try to stick to.

  1. In any choice over your time and commitments, your spouse and kids always win.Sure, there are things you have to do to make a living or preserve your own health and sanity. But those aside, if someone wants something from you (say they want to get a drink after work but that's when you have dinner with your kids and put them to bed) and it conflicts with what your spouse or kids need, the answer is no. That includes your extended family. If they're not your betrothed or your spawn, they have to get in line like everyone else.
  2. Not all friends are created equal. The people you bond with when you're 23 are likely very different from the people you bond with when you're 43. There's loyalty and then there's just clinging to relics of the past. If you don't have much to say to someone anymore - or if all you have to talk about is what happened two decades ago - you don't have to keep giving them time and emotional support.
  3. Take care of the people who helped you along the way. You didn't get to where you are all by yourself. Some people went out of their way to give you an opportunity, to help you get a job, to help you make the right choices. Now it's your turn. Everyone needs something. Figure out what they need and do it for them, without being asked.
  4. Take care of your employees. From a pure business perspective, the better you pay and treat your employees, the harder they'll work. But even beyond just not being pennywise, pound-foolish, how you treat your employees (their pay, their benefits, the office environment, the culture) is a clear reflection of the kind of person you are. This notion that you're one person at work and another at home is nonsense.
  5. Pick your causes wisely and stick to them. You can't support every good cause. No one has enough money to solve all the world's problems. But there are issues that matter to each person and helping to address those issues is worth your time and money. Whether it's writing checks that hurt a bit, sitting on boards, volunteering, mentoring or anything else, at this stage in your life, make it a priority and do it. Saying you'll do it later (when you're richer, when you have more time) means you're just lying to yourself.
  6. Take care of yourself. Your health, your faith, your passions all matter. They're part of being a fully formed human being. So even if you can't meet a friend for coffee because you have to go the gym or you just want to practice guitar or work on your screenplay, that's fine. You can't help anyone else if you can't preserve your own health and sanity.
  7. Get rid of people with insatiable need. Some people want something specific from you like a check or a reference or a connection. But some people just need constant attention. Unless it's your spouse or kids, you can't give it to them. You already know how this story goes. At first, you give them what they want because you feel bad for them and it feels like the right thing to do. Then you start to resent having to spend so much time with them so you slow it down. But the need keeps coming no matter what you do. So the only answer is to cut them off. There's no halfway solution here.
  8. No one way relationships. As a matter of course, my policy is to help anyone I can whenever I can. I don't expect anything specific in return - but when I do need their help, I expect it to happen, no questions asked. So when you've consistently helped someone and they don't even try to repay the favor or they jerk you around or they actually even screw you over, they have to go. No second chances. Because if they did it once, they'll do it again. It's who they are.
  9. Politicians are politicians. This won't apply to most of you, but if you happen to work in politics like I do, this rule matters a lot. All relationships with politicians are, by definition, one way relationships (with a few exceptions, but not many). You may choose to support them because you agree with their views or you really disagree with their opponent. That's fine. And yes, they're friendly. But they're not your friend. In fact, other than those who had real careers before politics, they're not capable of real friendships that require true give and take (that's why they ran for office in the first place).

I came to most of these conclusions painfully. I either engaged in relationships I didn't like because I felt bad about cutting people off, or I did cut people off and felt guilty about it. But we're all human.

We only have so much time, so much energy, so much emotional capacity. If you choose everything, you're really just choosing nothing. So to protect the things that matter most, you have to shed the things that matter less.

Published in Inc.

Bradley Tusk