I, like many of you, have struggled to juggle all the "balls" that make up my life. The "balls" include my children, my career, my husband, extended family, friends, time for me, etc. On any given day, we juggle multiple balls and try to fit a wide variety of things in. It is very hard, often thankless and at times seems completely overwhelming. I am the mother of three lovely daughters and have a full-time career. For years, I have tried very hard to "balance" my commitment to both my family and my career. I have had to make tough choices, sacrifices, and compromises to try to maintain this "delicate balance". But there was a time where there was no balance and I felt overwhelmed by my life and my routine. I was not alone as millions of women struggle with "work-life balance" and many would characterize it as this feeling of being overwhelmed.
The first step in moving towards managing your career, your life, and your sanity is by acknowledging the balls that you are juggling. Often, we feel out of control or overwhelmed because we are not making conscious decisions about what we are spending our time on. It appears as if the tasks and activities of our lives are in control of us vs. us being in control of our own lives and how we spend our time. We have choices and we must acknowledge this. The key is that you are making conscious decisions about what your priorities are; what is most important to accomplish both daily and over time.
Many times, we make unconscious choices, choosing to focus more heavily on our work or personal lives. Some women opt out of their careers or place them in a holding pattern, others defer their personal lives as their careers are moving at too fast a pace. We don't have to make extreme choices, and in fact, we can have more fulfilled lives if we don't prioritize one over the other. A 2003 study conducted by the Families and Work Institute, Catalyst, and Boston College Center for Work and Family, entitled "Leaders in a Global Economy" found that executives who were classified as either dual-centric (placed the same priority on their lives on and off the job) and tri-centric (emphasizing their job, their personal/family life and another significant activity) described themselves as more successful and less stressed than other executives. The study asked two questions to the executives, which are great questions for you to reflect on as well:
The study found that 61% of executives are "work-centric". Not surprising, we all know the type. They appear to be working 24-7 and feel that everyone else should also be working and accessible all the time. 32% of executives were "dual-centric" (placed the same priority on their lives on and off the job) and that this group was made up equally of males and females and had the highest ratings for feeling successful at work. It also found that executives who reported extremes (much higher priority on either work or home than the other) felt the least successful at work. The other finding was related to stress. 26% of dual-centric executives experience moderate or high levels of stress, compared with 42% of those who are not dual-centric. The key is to make conscious rather than unconscious decisions about your priorities.
I like to use an analogy that compares managing the "balls in your life" the same way you would manage an investment portfolio. Most investment professionals would advise that you want to have a diverse portfolio (a mixture of stocks, bonds, etc.) so you don't overexpose yourself to risk in one area. For example, you wouldn't want to have all your money tied up in stocks and have the stock market crumble. Essentially, most experts would advise against "having your eggs all in one basket". The same can be said about how you approach your life; you want to have a diverse portfolio not focused solely on one area at the detriment of others (ex: work at the cost of personal life or vice versa).
However, for many of us, we often place more of our time and energy into one of these areas, like the 61% of executives who were "work-centric". This creates an imbalance, exposing us to "life risk", stress and less overall satisfaction. What do I mean by "life risk"? "Life risk" would be defined as how you identify the core of who you are; and are you spending your time and energy proportionately aligned to that core.
To determine your core, think of your life as finite - which it is. For example, if you had only one year to live, how would you spend your time and what would you want to be remembered for. I would spend a higher proportion of my time and energy on my husband and children than my work, as my family is more core to who I am as an individual - this varies by person, but makes sense for me. If I am spending most of my time and energy on work (ex. even when I am not at work, I am checking my phone or stressing out about work) then I would have life risk, as this is not in proportional alignment to my core. The other way to look at "life risk" is if I were work-centric and lost my job, that would cause greater stress on me vs. if I was dual-centric, as I would have defined my core or purpose around a job.
For many of us, we make repeated small choices that can lead to "life risk". We do not consciously think that we are spending proportionately more of our time and energy on one aspect, which is often working. It is a series of "I have to stay late to work on this, I need to get this done this weekend, I can't say no to the work-related travel; we have an important project, so I need to stay connected while on vacation". These little one-off decisions add up to an undiversified or unbalanced "life portfolio", and in many cases, we are unconsciously or subconsciously making them. We make assumptions about what is expected of us, our perceptions of what others think and make decisions based on those assumptions. The issue is we often don't step back in the moment and don't realize the consequence of these little decisions until we are negatively impacted (comments from family members or friends are a good warning sign) or completely unbalanced.
Let me share my colleague Ann's story. Ann was a very successful female executive. She was two levels below the CEO of her organization and was considered one of the Top 100 leaders in her firm. She had a global role and as such felt that it was very important to be away for business-related travel about 3 weeks out of the month. When she was not traveling, she worked long hours in the office. She did this for almost three years at the cost of her marriage and much of her personal life. She was excelling at work but struggling at home. She was "work-centric". During the third year, the company underwent significant downsizing and her position was eliminated. In the next year, as she was on severance and looking for a new executive role, she had a chance to reflect and refocus. She spent her time reconnecting with friends and family that had been neglected, she got involved in her community, traveled for fun not work; all of which brought a sense of renewed purpose and joy to her life. The downsizing gave Ann a chance to reflect on how she was living or "not living" her life and the personal cost and toll it was taking. When she took her next executive role a year later, she made a conscious effort to try to keep her work and life integrated or be more "dual-centric". Ann had made many small decisions (amount of travel, time in the office) that led to having her personal life at risk, and it was not until the downsizing that she found herself with the opportunity to step back and reflect on that risk. Before the downsizing, she was just caught in the overwhelming routine.
It is important that we do not wait for a significant event, like Ann's downsizing, to take a step back and reflect on our lives and our choices. You need to step back and objectively reflect on the multiple balls in your life that you are juggling and if those balls are in proportion or out of proportion with your core self; i.e. do you have life risk?
Again, the first step is to acknowledge the balls that you are juggling. You can look at this on a daily, weekly or monthly perspective. Take a moment now to stop and reflect on your daily "balls":
Now, expand that reflection to look at your weekly "balls", as you want to hopefully start to see some of your leisure activities:
Now, finally expand to your monthly "balls":
In doing these three layers of reflection, what are the common themes? Are you happy with the proportions of time and energy?
If you are not happy, what do you need to change?
If you are struggling with the juggling, start with taking a step back and looking at how you are spending your time and energy. If you are unhappy with the mix, make a conscious effort to change it.
If you enjoyed this post and want to learn more, check out NonstopWomen, dedicated to helping women manage their work and life while maintaining their sanity. Subscribe and get a free copy of my new book, “Career Catalyst: 9 Drivers of Career Success and Fulfillment”. You can also connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.
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