When it comes to career planning most people focus on the wrong priorities, dooming their chances at happiness.
I try not to use trite parables in my writing, but occasionally they can be helpful (especially if the story itself isn’t the point I’m making). Please bear with me as I use an old one to illustrate how most people get work-life balance wrong, not because they’re not focused on getting it right but because they prioritize incorrectly. We begin with the hackneyed professor with the rocks and jar.
In the story a professor fills a glass jar with big rocks until he could fit no more. He asked his students if it was full and they replied, “yes.” Then he puts in smaller rocks which fit into the gaps between the bigger rocks. Again, he asked if it was full, and they said “yes.” He continued with pebbles (now it must be full), then sand (the students start to catch on), and finally water. The professor explains that the rocks are the most important things in your life, down to the sand and water which are the least important. The moral of the story is to focus on the most important things first or you can’t make room for it.
If you’ve ever played calendar Jenga–trying to fit lots of things into your very busy calendar–you know you have to schedule the biggest meetings first. Those half day events with lots of people are the hardest to schedule. When you get down to 1:1 meetings or just quick things that only take fifteen minutes it’s easier to squeeze those in between the spaces of the big, hard to schedule meetings.
What’s the biggest time block on your calendar (other than sleep)? Your job. It’s 40 hours (or more) a week, plus all that time commuting. It’s bigger than your errands, family time, exercise, or most anything else. Obviously, we should schedule that first!
The catch is that “biggest” and “most important” aren’t always the same. Too many people put their job or career first, and schedule life around it (I was guilty of this myself early on in my career). Instead, focus on your life. Focus on family, hobbies, happiness, or whatever is important to you, even if it’s not the biggest item. You need to take your job into account since it pays for the ability to spend time with family or other activities. But the job is the means, not the end. If you love your career, all the better, but my guess is family is likely still more important than your career.
When I advise people on career planning, I give them some starting career plan questions. You’ll notice most of the questions aren’t about your job, but about your life. When planning, you should create a career that fits your life, not a life that fits around your career. So do start with the biggest rock but pick the biggest by importance.
It’s critical to learn about corporate culture before you accept a job offer but it can be awkward to raise such questions. Learn what to ask and how to ask it to avoid landing yourself in a bad situation.