What did you make more important…

Long ago and far away, when I was new to the U.S. workforce, I handled paperwork for a large company’s training department. A perq of the job was that, if “real participants” cancelled or weren’t available, we got to fill in at the last minute. That was how I got into their Time/Design class, which combined classic early 90’s time management techniques with a really cool planner system. The catch was that, though we enforced a standard that participants’ work-groups had to leave them alone while they were in our classes, we weren’t really participants, and still had to get our normal work done. My boss James was big for double standards, among other less-than-functional practices.

James was the instructor for this session. He made a good class facilitator, high energy and with good pacing. We hummed along right up to our mid-morning break. As he prepared us for our 15 minutes of leg-stretching, he sternly told the class that timeliness was a key value at our company. That timeliness indicated personal integrity, and concretely demonstrated that you valued those persons to whom you’d made the commitment to be with at a certain time. Nothing should be more important than your commitment to be on time. With that admonition, he released us. And warned us that, for latecomers, there would be consequences.

(By the way, James was late for everything. And I do mean everything.)

I dove back into my office and started working through the phone messages from my internal customers. Remember, I was responsible for, at minimum, my usual response times to customers despite being in class all day. I knocked out quite a few, but the last call spilled over into door-closing time. I sighed.

I opened the closed door, to the swiveled faces of a full room of peer participants. James fixed me with a stern gaze and declared, “What did you make more important than your commitment to be on time to this class?!”

“My commitment to my customers and my boss,” I calmly replied. And sat down.

“Oh,” he said… and I think he almost smiled. And went on with our class.


The lesson stayed with me. Not so much about promptness; I’m not especially good at that, though I like to think I stay within the ten-minute buffer common to Austinites. The one about making your commitment. And knowing which commitment is more important.

I’m feeling guilty. Been carrying guilt around for a few weeks now—I signed up for this personal development class with the internal (and external) understanding that I would put in the synchronous time to do the work. That part of the juice of the class was using synchronous pacing with colleagues. But first there was the week my whole self forced some rest on me, and once I was off-pace it became easier to relegate the persdev class to just another car in my daily game of Rush Hour.

I think this class is the small blue-grey car jammed in the lower right corner.

Now one interesting element to this guilt trip is that my instructor actively bans guilt. So even though I feel behind, all her materials sustain a murmur of, “there is no behind; you are not late; your pace is fine because it’s your pace.” Her specialty is working with women; it’s a practiced murmur.

There is an element of, “Are you giving this work the importance you committed to?”

Normally, given my early experience, my answer is a firm, “Close enough!” I made a career out of successfully sliding priorities around all day long, and carried my skills with me into my multi-focused at-home parent life. These days I complain about not knowing what I’m doing, but it’s in some ways the flip side of a good day’s game of Rush Hour, when all the cars and trucks slide into their proper positions and I have a colorful filled grid of completed effort. Rush Hour’s no fun if you either have only three cars or the board is gridlocked.

Our instructor Jen has an additional question, though. “Is the importance you first committed to this work’s true importance?”

And that’s where my exceptionally rare guilt has crept in. Because my answers are not my usual answers. Normally I’m fine with ignoring a project for a while. Urgency bubbles up in varying places, and I’m really good at juggling priorities. So that this project’s importance would shift from high to low isn’t usually a problem for me.

But this time the answer to question #2 is, “Yes,” for the aforementioned synchronicity reasons. Which means the answer to question #1 is, “No.” While at the same time I remain unwilling to concede priority for the other, also-time-locked, efforts I’m juggling.

It’s a conundrum.


B has shifted her focus from telling me All The Things to bringing her gamer’s system up to speed. Maybe that’ll free up a few squares for me to slide all the other trucks around. Next time, I need to build in more empty squares!

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