Perfect Timing and Abundant Paths: The Unplanned Delights of a Professional Journey

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Exploring opportunities and questioning assumptions can lead to unexpected places in work and in life.

Perfect Timing and Abundant Paths: The Unplanned Delights of a Professional Journey
Credit: McLittle Stock / © 2021

This winter I decided it was time to do the unthinkable: I added one more thing to my plate. I participated in the online EDUCAUSE Managers Institute.

In December I had hesitated to register for the Managers Institute, which started in January, for all the usual reasons people hesitate to sign up for a little something extra. Then January hit and a mountain of reasons were added that said this was not a good time to take a class. My plans for the first quarter of 2021 were upended on both the home and work fronts. My institution, Columbia College, had a major enterprise system upgrade scheduled. My office experienced a round of turnover, which resulted in absorbing the difference, supporting the team, interviewing, and onboarding. Annual reviews and goal setting were approaching. My kids were still doing virtual learning from home, and we were planning summer vacations. Oh, and my husband ran for our local public-school board, and I served as his campaign manager. It was not a good time to sign up for anything extra.

The thing I learned about this bad timing is that it was perfect timing. The class came when I needed it. I needed a recharge. I needed the comradery, growth, discussion, and insights the class provided. I needed to set aside this time to learn and reflect. It is no secret that burnout is something that creeps into even the most satisfying job and positive individual. The events of 2020 made content on burnout more relevant than it has ever been. Ironically, sometimes when you need something the most is when it feels like the least logical or least feasible time to commit. Take the leap. Sign up anyway. Do it anyway. Energy begets energy.

I am looking at the phrase "As soon as ______ I'll start _______" much more sparingly than I once did. If you wait for a lull in life to start something, you might never start at all. There will (almost) never be "extra time" to invest in yourself and reflect unless you actively create it, unless you make it a priority. Last year also reinforced many clichés that we already knew. We know tomorrow is not guaranteed. We know we should live life to the fullest. We know to squeeze that lemon today. We know there's no time like the present.

During the institute, one of the instructors said time is our most valuable resource. That is so true, not just in business but life in general.

Okay, so there is no time like the present…but my plate hangs out at full, and most goals are not finished in one day. How do we go about seizing the day while also setting goals, tackling big accomplishments, balancing competing priorities, and, oh yeah, prioritizing self-care?

The amount of time in each day is finite and precious. It is up to you to decide how to use that time. How you spend time is a declaration of what you value, so ask yourself whether the ways you spend your time really do line up with your values. Taking on the Managers Institute even with a full plate allowed me to align my time with my values.

One of the videos included in the course was Rory Vaden's TED Talk, "How to Multiply Your Time."Footnote1 In his talk, Vaden suggests asking about three dimensions of time management:

  • Urgency: How soon does it matter?
  • Importance: How much does it matter?
  • Significance: How long does it matter?

Then, he says, send each task through what he calls "The Focus Funnel." For this process, eliminate what you can, automate as much as possible of what isn't eliminated, and then delegate what you can of the rest. For the tasks left after these steps, ask yourself whether each is something that should get focus right now. If not, make a strategic decision to "procrastinate on purpose."

This framework really struck me. Part of my professional role is to manage all the business-process, project, and application improvement requests that come through the Project Management Office. The work ranges in impact and effort. This wide variety of tasks ranges from repeatable operational maintenance to table-flipping strategic initiatives. It can be overwhelming. It is also important to invest in professional development and continue to learn and grow in the industry. The queue will never be empty, but I think focusing on that statement is where I go wrong. Is the goal an empty queue? If it is, that's sad. It means my job would be done and there would be no more innovation to be explored. That is not the mental model I want to carry; instead, the goal is to give focus to the right tasks at the right time.

The challenge becomes defining "right" at all levels in order to know what should be the priority on any given day. The college has priorities. Within that, each project team has task priorities, and each individual has decisions to make on task priorities each and every day. I found Vaden's approach to be very empowering. The goal is to proactively and strategically decide what gets focus instead of reacting to the pile of work and grabbing autopilot tasks for the sake of being able to say that you checked something off the list. In leadership, there is a balance between spending your time on tangible tasks and spending time on significant tasks.

The greatest gift anyone can give or receive is time. Investing in people and relationships falls in the SIGNIFICANT task category along with IMPORTANT. The tricky part is making sure that the URGENT tasks don't monopolize the focus that would be better spent on more important and more significant tasks.

The class drove home the importance of mentorship. Having mentors to invest time in you and to pay it forward is invaluable. I have had some great mentors over the years. In almost every case, I did not call them mentors (in my head or out loud) until much later, in retrospect. Most value was through organic conversations. True encouragement came from seeing me through their eyes. They saw potential in me that I could not see. Many of them have shown me content and pointed out opportunities.

Opportunities and great advice are just ingredients. They do not result in growth without also adding personal ownership and execution. The best managers point out opportunities, but arguably more importantly, they give room to go and do it. They get out of the way and let the team shine and run with the opportunities.

I would venture to say there are people in your life who are pointing out opportunities and volunteering wisdom. Don't leave it up to them. Go out and advocate for yourself too. The instructors emphasized this point. During a conversation with institute faculty member Brandon Bernier, I said, "Shameless plug…." Bernier stopped me and said, "There is no such thing as a shameless plug. It is utilizing your network. Do not be afraid to use that network. It is powerful." Another faculty member, Jared Johnson said, "Raise your hand. Volunteer for new responsibility. If you are going to a conference or event, always volunteer for something. Submit a session for the agenda. Get involved."

Something can be learned from each person and each interaction. We don't need to have a formal mentor/mentee relationship with someone to understand that they have a unique perspective from which we can learn. Each conversation is an opportunity to connect with others and grow. Don't take those for granted. They are an opportunity to leave a positive impact. As another faculty member, Mary-Kate Najarian said, "You are only as good as your last interaction."

Chasing career goals can look different for each person. I have always been one to consume content through reading, listening to speakers, and watching videos. The difference the institute brought to light was practice and peer discussion.

According to one of the course videos, when approaching larger goals such as completing a course, people should skip the syllabus review on the first day of class because it is overwhelming and instead provide it to students in chunks. I can see the merit in that, but I can also see how we could be robbing students of a lesson. There is an important lesson in looking straight at an overwhelming hill to climb and understanding the process of putting your head down and climbing it one step at a time. Sometimes you lose your footing. Some parts are quick and easy. Some parts take two or three climbs and slips and falls before moving on to the next section. The satisfaction of getting to the top of the hill is irreplaceable. Turning around to look at how far you have come is a satisfaction that can only be found by going through the process. This is the foundation of goal setting and achieving. A college degree follows this same process. A collection of courses makes up a degree, and each course and assignment includes the lesson of taking a big, long-term goal and chunking it into smaller, manageable pieces.

That is true for so many things! That could translate into purchasing a house, paying off said house, saving for a car, completing another degree, completing a certification, recovering from an injury, running a marathon, refining a craft, etc. If we skip the part where we look at the complete goal, we can easily veer off target and wander onto a completely different path. No matter the size of the goal, the SMART strategy—setting goals that are specific, measurable, actionable, relevant, and time bound—is a simple approach to take action.

Let's assume you have decided to invest in yourself today. An abundance of content is available to help you on this journey. No matter where you are in your career, there is so much to learn—how to decide what to focus on next?

Bernier recommended looking at job descriptions and spending time thinking about what you really want your next two positions to be. This was a more tangible way for me to formulate an answer to the question, "Where do you see yourself in five to ten years?" This has been a challenging exercise for me, which is great. I have been quick to raise my hand for new opportunities over the years, and that has led me to where I am today. I travel down that path until the next opportunity to raise my hand. I can see myself happy in many positions, which makes it hard to focus on a specific path. I also have struggled to reconcile making a plan with not getting such a laser focus on that plan that I miss great opportunities along the way if they don't look the way I picture them in my plan.

I have come to realize that there are lots of right paths. If you have a clear vision of where you want to be in five years, go for it! Utilize all the tools of breaking down a goal and go after the dream. Remember that what might feel like the worst time to take on something new might be the perfect time to push yourself and broaden your horizons.

If, like me, you are not so sure, continue to learn and dabble in all the opportunities along the way. Know that you are on a journey, even if you can only see the step in front of you. Begin with the next step in mind.


  1. Rory Vaden, "How to Multiply Your Time," TED Talk, June 1, 2015. Jump back to footnote 1 in the text.

Heidi Saylor is Assistant Director, Project Management Office, at Columbia College.

© 2021 Heidi Saylor. The text of this work is licensed under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 4.0 International License.