And the cat’s in the cradle and the silver spoon
Little boy blue and the man in the moon
When you comin’ home Dad?
I don’t know when, but we’ll get together then, son
You know we’ll have a good time then
- Harry Chapin, Cats in the Cradle
I have a free weekend. I want to spend that weekend doing a bunch of small home repairs that need my attention. At the same time, I want to spend that weekend visiting an old friend who is in a troubling situation.
I have a free hour. I want to spend that hour bicycling over to the gym and lifting some weights. At the same time, I want to spend that hour working on my novel and actually getting it somewhere near completion rather than a half-finished mess. Alternately, I could spend that hour getting my office neat and orderly.
I’m going to make supper for my family. I could make a meal that would be healthy and pretty enjoyable for me but my family members will likely not enjoy it too much. On the other hand, I could make a much less healthy meal that would be utterly delicious and enjoyed by my whole family.
Life is full of these kinds of value conflicts. We have two (or more) things that we value deeply in our lives and sometimes those values simply come into conflict with each other. Quite often, you’re in a situation where you really can’t compromise, either – you only have one way to use that hour and splitting that hour will mean that none of the options really gets completed.
What do you do?
It really helps to have a strong understanding of your own values and priorities before you’re ever faced with these decisions. When it comes right down to it, what are the most important things in your life? What’s on top of that list? What really matters the most to you?
If you want something to fill up your thoughts on your afternoon commute, think about that list for a little bit. Does your job trump your family? Where does a new episode of your favorite television series rank?
It is also absolutely vital to understand the difference between what’s important and what’s merely urgent. Important and urgent are two different things. A good television show that’s just starting or a phone call from an unknown number? Those things are urgent but not important. An afternoon spent with your son working on a science fair project? That’s important but not really urgent.
So often, we let the urgent things trump the important things. We’re buried on our phone answering a text while our daughter pedals her bike for the first time. Your spouse seems a bit distracted, but the big game is on.
Money issues are very strong examples of these kinds of conflicts. Quite often, our spending desires are urgent but unimportant, while our long-term financial goals are important but not urgent.
That drive-thru right there looks delicious (urgent but not important) and it rather overshadows our debt repayment plan (important but not urgent) in the heat of the moment. We make those kinds of decisions all the time.
Should you spend $100 taking your son and your daughter-in-law out for a nice dinner where you can have some great conversation before the meal, or should you prepare a nice meal at home, saving quite a lot of money but taking some of the energy and focus out of your sails for conversation with those people you love so much? These decisions happen, too.
There is no universal right answer to these questions. It all depends on what you value the most and what value you place on the simple urgency of something rather than the long-term importance of it.
Even though there is no universal right answer, the key to financial, professional, and personal success is really thinking through those questions and figuring out what the solutions are for you.
Do you know the real value of shutting off your cell phone for a while? What about the real value of making a meal with your family, even if it means extra work over the course of the day? When do you say yes to a work project – and when do you say no? The better you know what those things actually mean to you, the easier it becomes to make the right choice when that moment comes.
Without that, you might just find yourself in danger of winding up like that father in that song: realizing that you’ve lost the important thing because you always let the urgent thing trump it.