Balance. Everyone wants it, but does anyone have it?
Everyone I know seems to be talking about it. It’s a topic that never goes away and it’s the topic people most want to talk about in my mentoring sessions. Articles and books and blogs shout: Put down the technology! Get back to basics! Limit the screen time! Reconnect with your loved ones! Perhaps our smart phones are really making us stupid and stressed out? On the plus side, I haven’t heard anyone say “I’m bored” in the last 10 years.
But I do hear people asking, “How can I achieve work/life balance?” and “How do you manage it with young kids and a full-time job?” and “Does management not get how overworked and stressed out everyone is?” Even when the parking lots at job sites are empty by 5 p.m., people feel like they are always on, thanks to our ever connectedness to technology. So is there such a thing as balance?
At our recent all-staff meeting, our CEO asked me a question as part of a leadership panel: How do you balance it all? He cited the fact that I am the youngest executive on the team with a big job and two young kids. He wanted me to share my thoughts on how I achieve balance.
First, I laughed. Clearly he has never been to my house at 6:45 p.m. on a weeknight. That is when my kids are starving and trying to eat everything in sight, one is screaming “yo matey!” with a broomstick turned into a pirate sword, one is whining because she can’t hear the TV (don’t judge…allowing them to watch TV is sometimes the only way I get dinner done), my phone is pinging with emails non-stop and my husband is usually running around trying to do his half of the house work. It’s total chaos and very little looks “balanced.” But it’s funny and sweet and insane and full of lots of cries of “pick me up mama” and “what’s that?” (my two-year-old’s favorite question repeated 1 million times a day). So how do I “balance” it all?
I’ll start with a bold belief: there is no such thing as work/life balance. There is life. It’s how you construct it to make it work for you. There is certainly no magic answer to work/life balance, just as no two people are alike. Balance for me may mean something totally different for you. There is not a perfect answer to work/life balance. Let that sink in. Sorry, HR seminars.
It has taken me a long time to figure this out, and at times, I still struggle. Once upon a time, I worked. A lot. I was not a balanced person. It took a wake-up call from my husband, about who I had become, to allow me to change my life focus, that put me on a path toward “balance” for me. I also realized that achieving “balance” was my responsibility, not my employers. Sure my bosses could help me prioritize my work and get more help when I spoke up and asked for it, but I had to set my own boundaries and realistic expectations. It took a while to get over the feeling that I need to be working all the time, but when I did, I realized I was a better professional. It’s something I push for my teams today: go get some color in your life. You are no good to me or the team if you work 24/7. How can you market to people if you don’t know anything about people or what is going on in the world?
Here are the tips and tricks for how I order my life. These may be helpful for you or totally worthless. Honestly, I would love to hear from you on what works best for you, as sharing is how we all get better. Leave a comment here as the Lord knows I need all the help I can get!
- I wake up early. Sigh now for all of those who hate this. I once hated it too. Now, it’s a must despite my deep, deep love affair and desire for sleep. I wake up between 5 and 5:30 a.m. most mornings. I spend time in prayer and meditation on the day ahead (more on that). I quickly read my email to clear out anything that has come through overnight and do a quick scan of media and social media. Then, I…
- Work out. Left to my own devices, I would fail at this. So, twice a week, I see a trainer for shared sessions (cuts down on the cost) first thing in the morning. I realize this isn’t feasible for everyone, but it’s been worth the sacrifice and investment for me. I may know WHAT to do in the gym, but I stink at doing it on my own. The built-in nutrition advice is a huge help and keeps my healthy eating on track. Twice a week, I also meet a group of friends to run. Having accountability and entertainment from them is just what I need for my sanity. On the weekends, my husband and I take an exercise class together as a mini date as my kids love playing at our community center. Did you hear that? A date! Bonus on the balance time.
- Focus. Most mornings, I get the kids ready and out the door with my husband. It helps that I lay everything out the night before. Sanity in the form of some obsessive-compulsive organizing. This allows me to get ready in semi-peace and get to the office. While there, I am highly focused. The schedule is intense, and I try to make sure decisions are made in every meeting. A former colleague of mine used to say that he loved having working parents on his team because they don’t mess around during the day. Focus people!
- Toss the to-do list. Long ago, I threw out the long to-do lists. They just stressed me out and the tasks were NEVER done. Instead, I focus on 1-3 big things I have to get done that day, which has gone a long way in helping me achieve more. I also changed my perspective. Instead of being annoyed about every unplanned thing that pops up, I realized that IS what my day is about – reacting to the things that need my attention.
- A village. I would be a mess if left on my own. My assistant is the boss of my world (she is the absolute best woman with a heart of gold who has taught me so much about service to others) and my husband is a true partner in life. At work, I have a philosophy of surrounding myself with people who are smarter than me. My job is to help them get what they need to succeed. This formula makes for a fun and highly productive environment. My kids go to wonderful schools and have incredible teachers. I was once given advice to let other people love your children as well, as it teaches them how big and wide love is. Now, my kids are blessed with a huge circle of loving people. I have an incredible family who helps where they can despite long distances and friends who are like blood relatives. I have a church family who loves me just as I am and helps me become a better person. I keep haircuts on a regular schedule and sign up for shopping services like Stich Fix that deliver to my door and include cards on how to put the clothes together. A village, people. IT TAKES A VILLAGE.
- Sleep. That get up early thing…it means I go to bed with the sun. Okay, not quite, but pretty close. By 9-9:30 p.m., I am wiped out. I need all the sleep I can get to build up energy for the next day. Bless the weekends when I can sneak in some shut eye when the kids nap or sleep to the late hour of 8 a.m.! Woo hoo! Living it up over here at my house with our wild nights!
- Perspective. Even as I write this, I am laughing at myself. This is all about what I TRY to do. I remind myself that I cannot be the perfect wife, mother and executive all at the same time. I also reflect on how fortunate I am. I know single parents who pull off more in a day than I can in a year. They are my heroes. I know families who are working multiple jobs and set the definition for productivity. Talk to them about balance and then think about your world.
Most importantly, I see families every day that have had their lives turned upside down when they hear the words, “Your child has cancer.” Life as they know it stops. They move immediately to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, often thousands of miles away from home. Medicine and scans and surgeries and a new way to do school and a whole new way of living become the norm. Yet, they don’t complain. They smile. They play. They find millions of ways to cherish each day and count their blessings. So, what on Earth do I have to be stressed about? Their journey reminds me that every day is a gift. I should be grateful for breath. For family. For my kids. For my health. For my ability to have a crazy schedule.
So, call it what you want. For me, balance means a little time spent taking care of me each day so I can be well enough to care for others. Balance means enjoying time with my kids as they grow up fast. Balance means using the talents I have been given in a job I love that makes a difference to others. As Ghandi said, “The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.” Balance means time with my husband and my favorite people because they are good for my soul. Balance means feeding my soul with God’s words and quiet when I can get it. Balance means getting outside of me through reading and traveling. And balance means laughing at myself a lot and trying not to take it all so seriously.
My hope and prayer is that you will define what “balance” means for you and work to find it. Don’t let anyone judge you. Do what works best for your life for the season you are in, but don’t expect others to solve this for you. Don’t be afraid to say no or to spend time alone in quiet reflection. Don’t hesitate to carve out 30 minutes for exercise or a long bath or a glass of wine (beer and bourbon for me). Make time for the things that fill up your cup and you’ll be amazed at how your productivity will soar.
And, by all means…share! Your tips. Your tricks. Your life hacks. People, these things are like great recipes that should be passed down from one to another.
Signing off now. After all, it’s almost 9:30 p.m…
Julia Kivistik says
Always am inspired by Emily’s perspective and wisdom of which I have recently experienced. I so look forward to having the gift of more time with her. She’s an amazing woman who is clearly here to make a difference in our lives and the world. I look forward to more conversations about this with her. Can’t wait!
Emily Callahan says
Wow. What kind words. Thank you so very much!
Jill W. says
Love this synopsis and your authenticity because this is what it is really like for our household. I would add to have fellow working moms and dads in your friendship pool. It helps unbelievably to know you aren’t the only one who drove all the way to the office with a quiet kid in the back seat to then head back the 30 minute commute to drop them off. They share the drama and help you realize its not drama at all, its life. You also laugh with one another all along the way. I saw a sign last week at World Market that said “Life does not have to be perfect to be wonderful”. It took my breath away at describing raising our son with two working parents and the expectations we put on ourselves. Thanks for sharing Emily. Your candidness continues to open doors and insights. Jill W.
Emily Callahan says
Thank you so much. Totally agree re: people who understand what you experience. I feel so grateful to have working parent friends who sympathize and stay home working moms who have helped me out on more than one occasion.
Adine zornow says
Wow, love this!!! I agree that work life balance is for me not my employer! Great post and thank you for sharing with us all!!! I remember being mentored by a NGO exec and asked this very same question in my session and she laughed an said this did not exist. She said for me to never ask this question of execs as they get asked this all the time and that other questions would be much wiser for me to get advice on. Great advice then and a wonderful reminder for me today! Thank you!
Emily Callahan says
Wow. Wise words. I don’t mind people asking me because I think it is such a common struggle. Especially seems to hit people in the early to mid parts of their career. I think some positions and moves are particularly hard. That first move into management when it ceases to be about you and becomes all about your people. Then that middle management role and then that leap to VP. Those all seem to be big leaps that make balance hard. Thanks for sharing.