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Karen Meager

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Conflict management: Are competing priorities affecting your health?


Everyone can recognise that familiar tug of war inside us; go out or stay in and catch up on work, make a fresh dinner for the kids or finish catching up on e-mails; work late or go to the gym?

These are common everyday dilemmas we all face but have you ever stopped to consider that this constant tug of war could be impacting your health?

Investing energy

Underneath these seemingly tedious choices there are darker forces at play. Our values - things which are important to us and we are willing to invest time, money and energy to achieve - drive our decision making behaviour. Good when they help us make clear choices, less helpful when we are choosing between things that are of similar importance.

If you’ve ever been totally focused on one thing you’ll know how easy it is to make choices; studying for important exams or caring for your newborn baby, anything that gets in the way doesn’t stand a chance.

When life gets a bit more messy though, and the choices are less impactful, our values can cause us anxiety and lead to exhaustion, stress and lack of sleep. These are critical to health and the constant playing out of competing priorities wears away at our energy and lowers our immune system.

The ability to make easy decisions about priorities and avoid the conflict is key to keeping more of your energy, making life easier and saving you a lot of time. So how can you stop competing priorities and help employees do the same?

The way to do this is to firstly help employee get aware of their work related conflicts? Common conflicts are:

1. Freedom v Security conflict

When people experience a Freedom v Security conflict their choices and priorities are being assessed by whether this supports their need to be free and have infinite choices and their need for security and safety.

If someone is running this conflict they will spend a lot of time thinking about whether you have enough security and a lot of time dreaming about freedom type experiences or regretting not doing them.

2. Me time v Others conflict

When people have a Me time v Others conflict they will feel like they are running a constant juggling act or trade off between doing things they want to do for themselves and attending to the needs of other people.

3. Work v Down time conflict

They will often dream about down time when working and think about all the things they need to do when relaxing. They cannot be fully present in either and are never truly satisfied when doing either.

This is also seen in people who do both in quite extreme ways, for example working all the hours for six weeks and then taking a big chunk of time off to relax.

4. Ideal job v Family responsibility conflict

The responsibility aspect of this is important because people with this conflict will feel trapped and hog tied by their responsibilities whilst also feeling secretly resentful about not being able to follow their dream.

To resolve inner conflicts you need to first recognize that they are both important to you, denying one will only cause stress. Once you have awareness the following tips will help you or your employees to flow through the day or week easier.

1. Consciously decide on the one thing that takes priority TODAY. Then sort all choices through it. If today is all about ‘getting on top of work’, then your choice of activities should all lead to that. If today is all about health, then you will prioritize choices around food and exercises over other things.

If it’s not practical to do it as a whole day you can break it down into half days or even hours. This helps the brain to make a clear choice on any given day and empowers people in their lives. It doesn’t mean they won’t do other things during the day but when the tug of war arises, the thing they’ve decided will win. Notice the choices and it’s impact.

2. Go for rhythm in life rather than balance. If you are trying to balance everything off against everything else, you will never be satisfied - think of an old fashioned set of scales - they are never still and stable when in balance. Instead think about how to structure your week and plan with the competing priorities in mind.

Create good routines you know you can stick to, with a bit of leeway here and there for emergencies. For example you could decide that you will exercise twice a week in the mornings before work and leave work on time three nights a week. The other two nights you can decide to stay late if you need to. This will prevent you feeling hogtied by your own plans and give you scope to adjust until you find a life rhythm that works best for you.

This is hard for people who like to go with the flow, for them routine is worse than death. The purpose here though is to find rhythm rather than routine and avoid those competing priorities by deciding how to live your life and focus your attention - and what can be more empowering than that?

Do it in small steps rather than trying to change everything at once, giving one change a chance to embed before moving onto the next thing. People report that after practicing these simple tips, that they feel less stressed, make better decisions, sleep better and feel more fulfilled.

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