If you study the root causes of business disasters and management missteps, you’ll often find a predisposition toward endeavors that offer immediate gratification. Many companies’ decision-making systems are designed to steer investments to initiatives that offer the most tangible returns, so companies often favor these and short-change investments in initiatives that are crucial to their long-term strategies.
In the words of Andy Grove, former chairman and chief executive officer of Intel: “To understand a company’s strategy, look at what they actually do rather than what they say they will do.” Real strategy—in companies and in our lives—is created through hundreds of everyday decisions about where we spend our resources. But as you’re living your life from day to day, how do you make sure you’re heading in the right direction?
Here is a way to frame the investments we make in the strategy that becomes our lives: We have resources—which include personal time, energy, talent, and wealth—and we are using them to try to expand several “businesses” in our personal lives. These include having a rewarding relationship with our spouse or significant other; succeeding in our careers; and so on. Unfortunately, our resources are limited, and these “businesses” are competing for them.
It’s exactly the same problem that a corporation has. Your resources are not decided and deployed in a single meeting; instead, the process is continuous, and you have, in your brain, a filter for making choices about what to prioritize.
But it’s also a messy process. People ask for your time and energy every day and even if you are focused on what’s important to you, it’s still difficult to know which are the right choices. If you have an extra ounce of energy or a spare 30 minutes, a lot of people will push you to spend them here rather than there. With so many people and projects wanting your time and attention, you can feel like you are not in charge of your own destiny.
The danger for high-achieving people is that they’ll unconsciously allocate their resources to activities that yield the most immediate, tangible accomplishments. This is often in their careers, as this domain of their lives provides the most concrete evidence that they are moving forward. They ship a product, finish a design, help an employee, close a sale, teach a class, win a case, publish a paper, get paid, get promoted. They prioritize tasks that give them immediate returns—such as a promotion, a raise, or a bonus—rather than those that require long-term work.
Although they may believe their family is deeply important to them, they actually allocate fewer and fewer resources to the things they would say matter most.
Few people set out to do this. The decisions that cause it to happen often seem tactical, just small decisions they think won’t have any larger impact. But as they keep allocating resources in this way—and although they often won’t realize it—they’re implementing a strategy vastly different from what they intend.
Bottom line: If the decisions you make about where you invest your blood, sweat, and tears are not consistent with the person you aspire to be, you’ll never become that person. As you continue on your life’s journey, allocate your resources wisely—at work and home.