Editor’s Note: this is a guest post from my friend and former colleague Larry Warrenfelz.

I would rather schedule my priorities than prioritize my schedule.  That’s an easy phrase to put on a Power Point slide, but it is apparently not so easy to carry out under the pressures of real life.

During my early years in the Navy, my command’s Plan of the Day always took precedence over my personal priorities.  I did my best to balance the demands of the Navy with the needs of my family and the desires of my personal life … with only a small degree of success.

When my daughter was born in 1983, I was on an aircraft carrier operating off the coast of Lebanon.  In the days before e-mail and satellite phones, the best I could do was a Red Cross message.  It’s hard to express true joy and thankfulness in a telegram.  I did manage to talk my boss into granting me a week’s leave during our next scheduled port visit.  I flew home and introduced myself to my month-old daughter.

About fifteen years into my Navy career, a friend submitted his retirement paperwork and opened my eyes at the same time.  I asked him, “So you decided to retire, huh?”  He responded, “No, the law says we WILL retire.  I just decided WHEN.”

It hit me—at some point in the future the Navy was going to be done with me.  As we’ve seen in the recent recession, this attitude isn’t limited to the military.  No matter how hard you’ve worked, some day your employer may be done with you as well. 

My best-case scenario was to leave when I wanted to go rather than to retire when they forced me out.  I spent twelve more years on active duty, but I was determined to shift my focus.  During those years I did a much better job of scheduling MY priorities.  The Navy mission was still number one, but I ate more dinners with my family, saw more high school plays, and watched many more ballgames.

Like many career paths, the Navy culture expects officers to put in an extraordinary amount of time every week.  It is almost a badge of honor to work twelve-hour days and to come in on weekends as well.

At sea, this is not a problem, because there really isn’t much else to do.  In port or on shore duty, I thought it was silly to hang around the office just to give the impression that I was more dedicated to my job and career than my shipmates were to theirs.  At each new assignment, from my first day on board I made it a point to leave the office at a reasonable hour.

That almost always made me the first one out the door.  I would occasionally get raised eyebrows from my boss or a co-worker, but in the long run, I think it actually helped my career.  I established a reputation as an efficient officer who was able to accomplish more in less time.  But, as I knew all along, the end of my time on active duty was steadily approaching.  Finally, after two command tours, there were no more fun assignments in the Navy.  So I picked my time and called, “When!”

Survivor

Each year at the local Relay for Life, the American Cancer Society gives me a purple T-shirt labeled “SURVIVOR.”  I suppose I am.  Counting my years at the Naval Academy, I survived 31 years in the Navy.  I also survived six rounds of cancer, two amputations, and a brain-stem stroke.  Now I only do things I want to do!

For me, it took a life-threatening experience to arrive at a balanced perspective.   I firmly believe that there are other pathways.  (My son has a much healthier view of his priorities than I did at age 30.)   Consciously decide what is really important to you, and act accordingly.

That doesn’t mean you have the freedom to quit working and go live on the beach.  Financial security for your family is undoubtedly a factor.  It has to be somewhere on your priority list.

For ten years my post-Navy paycheck came from a small research institute in Florida.  My research administration work was interesting and I enjoyed the people.  It truly was something I wanted to do.  (The fact that they paid me quite well didn’t hurt.)

After I had my leg amputated, I spent so much time at doctor and prosthetics appointments that I reduced my hours to 30 per week.  When my physical condition stabilized, I didn’t go back to full time work.  My wife and I decided that the additional free time was worth more to us than the extra income.

Shifting Priorities

Even before the amputations, I had started to realize that my “what I want to do” priorities were changing.

I was one of the better research administrators around.  I was also one of the better fast pitch softball umpires in my area.  My vocation paid me well.  My avocation barely covered my expenses.  But there was no doubt in my mind which one had top priority.

Retirement—and the time to spend in my personal pursuits—began to look more and more attractive.   But until last autumn, our goal of early retirement was someplace in the vague and cloudy and somewhat distant future.  It was always a “wouldn’t it be nice if …” instead of a “by 2015, we will …”  (I blame inertia and a certain status quo comfort-level for my failure to take concrete action to reach the goal.)

But last October we went to Maryland for Homecoming Weekend at the Naval Academy in Annapolis.  Because I was traveling with an extra leg, crutches, and a walker, we took a full ten days off and made a leisurely drive from Florida.  The autumn colors in the Blue Ridge Mountains were spectacular.

My wife and I decided we needed to spend more time doing the things we wanted to do.  My job, enjoyable as it was, slipped another notch down the priority list.

I could not reduce my hours any further without putting an unfair burden on my friends at the institute.  So it came down to a choice—would I schedule my priorities, or let them continue to exist in some fuzzy world of “wouldn’t be nice …?”

Why did it take me so long to get to this point?  In retrospect, I was pretty good at visualizing the goal, but I was terrible at plotting a course to reach it.  If I could do it again, I would keep the clear goals, but put a lot more emphasis on the plan of action required to achieve them.

It turned out to be an easy choice after all.   Well, it was an easy choice after it was made and I found myself sleeping more peacefully and waking up looking forward to what each new day might bring.

Larry Warrenfeltz is a husband, father, grandfather, fastpitch softball umpire, Navy veteran, cancer survivor, and one-legged golfer.  He lives with his wife Nancy in Pace, Florida.  He enjoys traveling, writing, reading, and life in general.

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