Work-life balance isn’t about doing everything well at once. It’s about making choices, and loving yourself despite C-minus performance in some categories.
When managing a life, a career, and a household of any size, each one of us struggles to feel we’re succeeding because we allow ourselves to set multiple and conflicting concurrent goals:
- Relax more
- But… work-out more
- Exceed expectations on highly-visible work project
- But… spend more time with kids
- Establish your own personal brand
- But… serve as the face of your employer/corporation
- Ensure your contributions are rewarded and recognized at work
- But… demonstrate you are a team player
- Keep kids happy, productive, challenged, educated, healthy and socially-enriched, establish (which is likely going to require you focus more on your family than on your career)
- But… make more money to be able to afford the best sources of happiness, productivity, challenges, education, health and social-enrichment for kids (homeschooling is not for everyone!)
- Show appreciation for people in your life
- But… demonstrate your strong boundaries so as not to get used by the people in your life
- Invest time in personal passion for foodie-ism and restaurant-going
- But… lose weight
- Be more Zen and meditate more
- But be assertive and create your own magic, no matter what barriers exist
- Spend less money
- But… enjoy the best life has to offer – YOLO!
There is an endless list of conflicting goals that seem like good ideas individually, yet in aggregate, will make you crazy. You’ll see yourself as a failure for what you haven’t done well, vs. seeing yourself as a success for having made choices and focused on an achieving them.
Images we see daily give us the perception that everyone’s out there doing everything, and that we’re the outlier
The world around us causes us to make irrational conclusions: “Everyone everywhere is achieving everything – I should be doing that too!”
You’ll read magazine articles that inspire you to add to your list. “Yes! I’ll do a cleanse!” …Though you’re already really stressed out and just need a little comfort and kindness vs. deprivation. “Yes! I’ll go to night school!” …Though your current work project is very high-profile and could make or break your next promotion. “Yes! I’ll train for a triathlon!” …Though your child needs extra support right now for learning challenges she is facing.
Because others are doing it, you feel like you should do it too. What our brains don’t do for us is to filter all that we intake against the reality that a world of 7 billion people, and almost that many news articles daily, is going to give us the perception that to be like ‘normal people in the world’ we should be doing everything those other 7 billion people are doing.
Rarely does a magazine article say “Ignore this article; you are doing enough right now. As a matter of fact, we’re going to leave this page blank. We are so easily influenced by the people and marketing that is all around us. Everything sounds like a great idea; let’s just add it to our list…
What you see is not what you get
When a friend talks incessantly about his success around a new goal (losing weight, achieving a promotion, building his dream house), you allow yourself to believe the myth that he must be adding that goal to a still-well-balanced life. You are not there when he gets home from a business dinner at 10:30 p.m. and finds his kids still awake, with child having a history project that is due the next day, and is not yet started. That does not sound like success. That sounds like out of control madness driven by unclear priorities. But for that guy, at that point in his life, he’s made that choice.
We let ourselves feel angst when we hear about all the things others are doing, thinking “I should probably put that on my list of to-do’s as well.” Your BFF shares her plans to spend a month on safari in Africa this summer. And you think “I should be doing something big like that too.” But in reality, you’ll be too busy driving the kids to all of their sports camps.
If you take a breath and think that impulsive emotion through to its full logical end, you’d realize what you’d have to give up if you were to add the “Safari in Africa right now” goal to your list. You’d realize there is no way you really actuallly want that at all.
If you honestly answer the question “Why aren’t I doing something amazing like taking a month away in Africa this summer?” you will realize it is because you have healthy clarity on what matters to you, and the one thing you want to do well is to build your legacy, which is your set of confident, productive, capable offspring. And right now – while they are young and living at home, is the time to make them the spotlight.
You don’t really want to leave your family for a month when your older son has just gotten into the Varsity-level golf team and your support right now would enable him to go all the way in his training and experience what total dedication feels like. And in some cases, it’s just not worth the added risks. If you were to contract malaria in Africa, you might not say “but it was worth it,” you might rather, have deep regrets, because you were chasing too many low-priority goals and not clearing your life to focus on what really “is worth it” to you. If you somehow got malaria taking your son to golf tournaments, and later in life he was a better man for your having taught him about commitment and sacrifice in order to achieve something bigger, you’d say “it was worth it.”
If you really listen to yourself, you may find you admire others’ accomplishments, but you don’t actually want what they want.
When a person commits to running a marathon, she will spend most evenings of the week training for that marathon. You’ll hear her talk about her training successes, and will hear how sore she is the day after a really hilly 18-miler. But you won’t hear her speak to the reality that she is handing her kids over to a babysitter 6 days/week in order to achieve her one goal. Or that she hasn’t seen her partner/husband for weeks, or that she desperately craves ‘balance’ and can’t wait ’til the marathon madness is over.
Or she may happily and willingly give up things that you wouldn’t dream of sacrificing, from giving up sleep, to giving up attending career-enhancing industry functions, to giving up the cozy, cuddly, sexy ‘crazy things happen in bed when you sleep in’ time that you spend with your spouse on weekend mornings.
Do you really want to run a marathon knowing you haven’t gotten it on with your spouse for the last ten months? Are you really going to be satisfied after several years if your spouse has become conditioned to not kiss you in the morning because he knows you’re just going to pull away and rush to go train before the kids’ soccer games start?
Are you really winning if after the marathon your spouse turns to you and says “Here – now YOU get to handle all the cooking, cleaning and laundry duties for the next ten months because I’ve been covering all the weekend morning and weekday evenings for the last ten.” The extreme demands of one person’s goal can create a deficit for the whole family. So that’s fine for the marathoner. But if it wouldn’t be fine for you, don’t say “Ugh, I should run a marathon one of these days; everyone else seems to be doing it.” Love yourself enough to drop the impulse to collect all the goals out there.
Look inside you, vs. to others, to determine your top goals
With some introspection, you may find your greatest wish might be very simple: “to maintain positive emotional balances with each of my family members; and set boundaries on all entities that seek to deplete those balances, from work, to social activities, to volunteer activities.”
Or you may be at a different point in your life wherein you want to go all the way on something, like maximizing your career growth and getting some public recognition for your work. If so, forgive yourself for leaving the kids with a (great) nanny, or for letting your family know that you travel full-time for your job so on some weekends, even sacred weekends like someone’s birthday, you may not be available because weekends are your only personal time.
At any point you can rejiggy your priorities. You may reach a point where your promotions have enabled you to assemble a high performance team to support you, giving you more flexibility to start taking back a few week day evenings for yourself. But you’ll still be proud of the all-in commitment you made to achieving certain goals in your career.
Invest energy on your main goal, and let the other things happen, even if imperfectly
Clearly, we can’t eliminate all but one activity. We can be busy at work, but we still need to make time for doctor appointments, weddings, funerals, and a little more. The key is to stop expecting yourself to go full throttle on all of your goals. If you are in the midst of a heavy year-long legal case at work, and you’ve barely been sleeping, you don’t attempt to fit in a 3-hour shopping trip to find a new suit for a funeral, you wear something that’s in your closet, imperfect as it may be.
Mute the voice in your head: Focusing on one goal only works if you don’t berate yourself for what you’re not doing
Even as we prioritize and focus on a few goals, we make the mistake of still judging ourselves negatively, berating ourselves for what we don’t achieve: “Even though I volunteered for the charity event and got my work projects submitted today, I hate myself for not fitting in 2 hours at the gym today.” The only should that make sense is that you should give yourself gold stars for achieving what you did achieve. Watch the doughnut, not the hole.
You must mute the judging voice in your head that causes you to apologize when you show up at a birthday party with the same gift you’d purchased for the last 10 children’s birthdays. Ignore that negative self-talk and accept that, if you are focused on a career goal, you cannot spend your week perusing toy stores for the perfect gift for each 9-year-old child in your son’s class. If Minecraft gift cards are popular, buy 20 of them at one time and keep them in the car with spare gift cards and envelopes. Don’t berate yourself for not being Martha Stewart who carves out a toy from wood and wraps it in hand-designed parchment wrapping paper. That is not your current goal; so why are you measuring yourself against it?
With all that, you can see the importance of shortening your list of goals to one, or a very few. Because at the end of each day you will need to console yourself with the statement “Well, I didn’t fit in everything, but at least I did what’s important to me.” You need to be able to say that truthfully, so you need to make sure you spend your time on the things that matter at this time in your life.
<span class="pullquote">People who succeed at making choices seem to get a tunnel vision for one goal, and also appear to forgive themselves for any less-than-stellar performances on the other goals.</span>
Stop looking to others for what is normal or right
Don’t look to others for what’s normal. Not only are they completely different people with values that are just not yours; they are also in a different phase of their lives.
The person that is driving full-force on his career, traveling all week, spending time at home glued to his PC instead of with the kids, will achieve his one goal–sales commissions and career advancement. He will do a happy dance when his bank account is bulging and he won’t judge himself for all that he’s not done, because he’s clear on his goals, and his long-term strategy. (This might not work for you, but it works for him.)
He’s given up on winning the father-of-the-year award. He’s given up on being the homework helper. And he may have given up on being completely fair to his spouse who may fill in a lot of the gaps (and that’s a whole other discussion), but he’s not berating himself for what he’s not doing. He’s being honest with himself, accepting that if he tries to do everything, he’ll fail at a lot and the family won’t have the money to pay for nannies, great schools, colleges and more. In line with his personal values, he decided “I could live forever in frustration, getting a C- in everything from career, to material gains to child-rearing. But if I focus on my sales career early on, I’ll build up wealth that will enable me to retire early, and then I’ll go full-force on family. In the meantime, I’ll ensure we can afford all the support needed, from a nanny, to healthcare, to tutor support, to sleep-away camps during the summer, other help to ensure my wife doesn’t get run down, since I’m not around much. It’s a tough choice, but this fits my values and will meet my long-term goals for my family as a whole.
<span class="pullquote">You might not marry that guy, but you’d respect him for being realistic about what is achievable in a given day</span>, month or year. Trying to do everything on our lists every day only helps us succeed at labeling ourselves as failures.
I challenge you (and me) to end of each day by giving ourselves a metaphorical gold star for whatever we achieved that day, as long we were focusing on our true priorities, and turning off the noise about all the rest.
…And you might like to check out this list of media noise you should ignore when you are trying to prioritize your goals.
…And speaking of watching the doughnut, not the hole, enjoy…