I was asked to speak at a conference this month on work/life balance. Upon reflection, I recalled a poem from college by Kurt Tucholsky, “Das Ideal.” In its essence, the poem encapsulates his idea of a perfect life:
“Yeah, you’d like that:
A villa in the countryside with an ample terrace,
faces the Pacific, backs up to Central Park (that’s the idea anyway) …”
Through the poem, Tucholsky paints a picture of the perfect life, one in which you can have it all. His ideal includes beautiful views of the mountains from the bathroom, servants, old wine, lots of money, splendid children, etc. While the bottles of wine sound pretty good to me at the moment, we all have our own versions of the ideal, don’t we? Yours likely varies from mine but the concept is the same – we all want to “truly have it all.”
Having it all – a high-paying and fulfilling career, a big family, ample free time to spend doing things you love, enough time with your spouse, caring for your children, and remaining an active member of the community.
Doesn’t having it all sound great? Juggling careers, families, and enough free time to enjoy the pleasures in life … totally doable.
In fact, that’s malarkey. The “wonder woman” lifestyle, being a full-time career woman, mother, and community volunteer, is highly over-rated (if not impossible). What is useful, however, are a few tips from someone who’s been around the block a few times and would like to see you get close to your own version of the ideal.
First step: prioritize. It took years of ignoring my husband and my therapist before I realized they were right. You can’t do it all. Everything is not of equal importance. So, what should you focus on first? YOU! If you aren’t healthy (mentally and physically) then you can’t effectively help your kid with homework, attend a reception with your spouse or answer that next darned email that comes right after you finish working through your inbox at 12:30 am. You need to budget time during the week to take care of yourself – get some exercise, for goodness sake get some quiet time, and do whatever makes you happy. Your family comes second. That may sound harsh, but if you don’t take care of yourself first then you can’t be there to take care of your family. Third: let’s talk about work and where you are apt to make the biggest contribution and get the biggest bang for your buck. Note – keeping an empty email box is not the answer. Instead, think of the bigger picture. If you could do one thing to make your company better, what would it be? Spend some time on the important things – the day-to-day issues will be there regardless.
Second step: learn to say “No.” (PLEASE don’t let my mother read this.) Yes, she’s right too – you simply can’t say yes to everything. One must set boundaries. “Five board positions and a full time job?!” my psychiatrist said to me one day. “Consider one or two max.” You can’t be everything to everyone, even though everyone may want you on their team. Prioritize outside work life too. Giving back to the community is fantastic as long as it doesn’t mean robbing you of yourself. I encourage you to find one passion and pursue it with gusto.
Last step: find out what’s meaningful to your family. We spend most of our time at work, and the added time for the daily commute, the after-hours emails and the like add on to time away from family. That means we need to maximize the bang for the buck. A mentor used to tell me, “Ask your kids what means most to them and then re-ask every year.” That’s great advice for prioritizing which family activities are the most important. I might feel bad about missing a practice my child doesn’t care about, but she might love for me to take her to school when that doesn’t really take any extra time out of my day. Focus on activities that can make the biggest impact on your family. Ask each family member what means the most to them and see what they say, then try to make that one thing happen.
Kurt Tucholsky was nothing if not an idealist. But what he depicts in his poetry is far from easy to obtain, and in reality we are seldom privy to such luxuries as wealth, servants, and bottomless wine (although we can only hope). What we can do is focus on what is important and prioritize accordingly. Work, family, and personal needs all need to find balance in your life. Be prepared to let some things fall off the radar. And, be okay with your own version of the ideal.