Reclaiming my Life, One Priority at a Time

Mary Thengvall
May 1, 2018 · 5 min read

It always blows my mind when someone is able to come into a situation, stand in my shoes for a moment, and then completely reframe what I’m thinking about with a simple statement or question. While I know that an outside perspective can be helpful, I’m used to having an answer to most questions, and by the time I’m asking for advice, I’ve often already thought through all of the likely scenarios. So when one of my altMBA coaches came alongside me in a recent assignment and made the observation that I wasn’t simply trying to prioritize all of the projects I have on my plate right now, but I was actually deciding to reclaim my life, it stopped me in my tracks.

Let me back up a moment. I’ve been doing this self-employed / running my own business / working as a consultant / trying to be a changemaker thing for exactly 6 months now (sidenote: that blows my mind in and of itself! How is it possibly May 1?!). I’ve learned a few things along the way, and for the most part, can enthusiastically say that I absolutely love what I’m doing!

But when I take a broader look at things, I realize that I’ve been running myself ragged (see also: 2 bouts of cluster headaches/migraines in the last 3 months & the fact that I’m currently on Day 10 of being sick). If I run the numbers quickly in my head, I can easily estimate the amount of time spent working every week (on client-work as well as passion projects) to be between 70–80 hours. While I recognize that these types of sprints are occasionally necessary when starting a brand-new business, a “sprint” is typically considered to be short. Let’s face it: 6 months is not a sprint… it’s a marathon.

“…if you can’t say no, you can’t have priorities.”
-Scott Berkun, Making Things Happen

But when presented with the challenge of walking through the process of making a good decision regarding something in my life, I felt pressured to make a decision that would likely lead to more work (Do I expand my business? What’s the next step with my consultancy? What’s my 5 year plan?). As you can tell, making a decision to pursue something new simply isn’t an option right now. I’ve found my line in the sand. Once I realized where that path would lead me, I took a step back and approached it from a different angle. What if instead of making a new decision, I decided to prioritize everything that was already on my plate? After all, in their most basic form, decisions are choices about how you’re going to spend your time.

As Scott Berkun says in Making Things Happen, “… if you can’t say no, you can’t have priorities.” At the end of the day, too many good things are still too many things, and decisions must be made in order to prioritize projects for the betterment of myself — personally as well as professionally. By whittling down my list of priorities, I’d be able to focus on specific projects, increasing my productivity and reducing stress.

While my professional mission is to be a changemaker in the Developer Relations industry, I also need to balance my personal life with my professional ventures in order to further my own communities and wellbeing. When I’m faced with too many options, I have a tendency to give 110% of myself to every single thing rather than prioritizing these items according to what’s urgent versus important, which things I can pass off to someone else (or drop altogether), and which things I can spend less energy on — tuning out my perfectionist inner critic and turning in a B- or C product rather than an A+ one.

That last piece is perhaps the hardest for me. One of my fellow altMBA’ians pointed me to Tim Urban’s Yearning Hierarchy. He uses the analogy of a bookshelf for prioritizing tasks:

  • Which items are non-negotiable? These sit on top of everything else, protected and guarded, but also front-of-mind and visually prominent.
  • Top Shelf: Which ones are the top priorities that I’m choosing to pursue at 110%?
  • Middle Shelf: What projects are important to avoid completely failing at?
  • Bottom Shelf: These are the projects that it’d be nice to work on, but only if there’s time.
  • Trash Can: What is easy to fall into but should be resisted at all costs?

This afternoon, I’ll be sitting down to re-prioritize my newly streamlined projects for a 6-week sprint. While Sunday was a good start, I think there’s still a little bit of work I can do. As many of my altMBA fellows said, “Are you really pushing yourself as far as you can to actually eliminate things?” Another asked how much better my work output would be with fewer things on my plate. Yet another encouraged me to think about how amazing it will feel to be doing even fewer things, but do them brilliantly. In other words, what would I like to be investing an “A+” amount of time into instead of settling for B+ effort? And likewise, what am I spending far too much time on that can actually be “demoted” to a streamlined product or eliminated completely?

I’m eating an elephant, but need to remember that I’m only expected to do it one bite at a time. What matters most at the end of the day isn’t how much work I’ve accomplished, but whether I’m proud of that work and also proud of the life I’m living. As I said back in January,

As exciting as this prospect is for me, and as energized as I am to do what I can to make this industry a better place for the DevRel community, I have to recognize that… I’m not the only leader.

This is my moment to reevaluate, restructure, and refresh so that I can keep moving on. I need to remember that a rising tide lifts all boats, but I’m not responsible for the ebb and flow of the tide. Let’s keep exploring this ocean together.

Originally published at

Mary Thengvall

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