In my 20s and early 30s, it seemed that lunch with my girlfriends resembled a scene from Sex and the City—nonstop analysis and opining about the pursuit of Mr. Right. Now, in my early 40s, it's amazing how much the conversation has shifted, although everyone seems to have the same struggle—how to manage the non stop juggling act of career, family, personal goals—indeed, the discussion inevitably turns to the question of, "Can we have it all?" It seems to be the lingering question in the back of everyone's mind 24/7, like a persistent nagging migraine, and recent insights from the likes of Marissa Mayer, Sheryl Sandberg, and Anne-Marie Slaughter have made the question that much more pressing. I've come to the conclusion that the answer lies in questioning the question: "Why do we want to have it all in the first place?"
I can't help but think that "having it all" may be an American concept. In many ways, we've built an entire society based on the concept of want. We want money, things, affection, achievements, successes—the list goes on and on. This cultural distinction is so important when we consider this age old question of whether you can have it all. In my mind, the answer lies in how you define "all."
In my case I could say that I would have it "all" if I were PTA president, managing a successful training company, happily married and constantly attending to my relationship, actively mothering two preschoolers, lunching with new clients constantly, mentoring at my alma mater business school, vacationing regularly with my family, having drinks with friends after work, training for/running half marathons to stay in shape, and reading Harvard Business Review and the Economist in my spare time. But, is that even close to realistic? I don't think so. Indeed, I question whether "all" should even be the goal. I think that the best analogy is an all-you-can-eat buffet. Instead of going in with the goal of eating "all" 78 items on the buffet, doesn't it make a lot more sense to pick the six items that you're most excited about and enjoy those? I call this mental shift "satisfaction with plenty." Indeed, I think that we do ourselves a disservice when we define "success" or "our all" as an insane list of roles, jobs, and responsibilities that we can never prioritize simultaneously. Somehow, I suspect that in other cultures, they feel that they have it all. Their "all" is just much less; it is actually doable.
Accepting this "satisfaction with plenty" (instead of "having it all") approach does require sacrifice, which means that we'll have to let go of what we thought we'd be doing. In my case, I always envisioned myself as someone reading scholarly journals before bed and continuing to run a half marathon every year after I ran my first several years ago, but the reality is that after the birth of my second child (after 40), my absolute favorite hobby was sleep—no periodical could compete with that, and my bucket list half marathon goal had been checked. Pilates classes have been perfectly satisfying since then.
Instead of embracing conscious sacrifice, I find that we often continue to try to fit a square peg into a round hole and scratch our heads wondering why it won't work. This reminds me of an article that I read years ago that left an indelible mark on my psyche and my overall perspective on life. It purported that our culture often breeds a state of low-level depression because our expectations of a continuous state of happiness are unrealistic. In fact, the article explained that it's much more natural to feel random fluctuations of highs and lows. The implication was that normal psychological state is not a state of euphoria but midway between sadness and happiness. The powerful takeaway for me was that it's unrealistic and inviting disappointment to expect happiness daily—ironically, recalibrating our expectations down results in less stress and more contentment. Similarly, with our day-to-day responsibilities, we set ourselves up for perpetual frustration and disappointment by striving for unrealistic goals.
Interestingly, in several of my training classes when I'm teaching techniques for decision making and/or prioritizing, I sometimes suggest a technique called "paired comparison." The concept behind the technique is that sometimes the traditional rating of options won't work because we're tempted to rate everything as "high" or "important," which means there's no clear distinction of what's truly highest priority. Paired comparison forces one to identify preferred options by comparing and selecting each option against every other (e.g., chocolate versus strawberry, board meeting versus kid's soccer game). In many ways, we too must use a paired comparison approach to life and simply acknowledge that having it "all" simply isn't a realistic goal.
Having embraced this "satisfaction with plenty" philosophy, I've identified small day-to-day actions that help underscore and reinforce the big ideas that help me maintain more realistic expectations and a healthy perspective.
Big Idea #1—You can't do 10 things at once. Instead, focus.
Focusing on one thing at a time not only enhances productivity long term but also provides greater personal satisfaction (for all parties involved, actually). This applies not just to working but also to talking to your spouse or child. Even as multitasking has become more and more commonplace, it still feels rude to the other person when you're texting while talking to them.
How do you integrate this idea into your daily life?
Daily Tip #1—Change your email settings to turn off the chime to announce each incoming message.
I don't care if someone is performing life-saving surgery. Once they hear that little "you've got mail" chime, they invariably stop what they're doing, glance at the message, and either change gears to now focus on it or at a minimum become sufficiently distracted so that they lose not just time but critical momentum with the original task. To help avoid this, turn off the chime so that you focus on one task at a time. Also, consider scheduling specific times during the day to check email so that you're not constantly checking it throughout the day and thereby inviting distractions throughout the day.
Big Idea #2—Make first things first . . . religiously.
I believe Stephen Covey originally coined this phrase, and it's so true. Most of us have one or two goals that are important to us during a particular time in our life (e.g., losing weight, providing care to an aging parent, positioning yourself for a promotion, etc.). Of course, we could all come up with a laundry list of goals/interests, but anything beyond the top one or two can become noise that distract us from the most important short term goals.
How do you integrate this idea into your daily life?
Daily Tip #2—Isolate your top one or two short term goals, and block out regular time to work toward them.
The simple truth is that we make time for what we choose to make time for. We're all given the gift of 1,440 minutes each day without fail. The tragedy is that we too often waste them by blindly walking through our "to do list" without taking ownership of it. If you want to finally get your small business records in order, swap a weekly client lunch for a records management analysis meeting with yourself until it's done. Or if you're tired of blaming baby weight on your kindergartner, commit to a regularly scheduled morning jog and plan other tasks around that commitment. Write it down and keep the appointment as you would if it were with a client or coworker.
Big Idea #3—Let go of the dream—embrace the reality.
Recalibrating expectations means that some things won't happen . . . sad, but true. The first step toward moving forward is letting go of the past. My previous vision of myself as a successful 40ish entrepreneur included skirting between client meetings in stylish clothes and a flashy car. The reality is that while the idea of expensive, stylish clothes is appealing (still), comfort and fiscal responsibility simply trump glam at this point in my life. Likewise, with two children in private school, there's nothing sexier than not having a car payment. Focus on the opportunity cost of trying to do/have it all—what you're not able to do/have as a result of that choice. This will help you embrace (not just accept) your new reality.
How do you integrate this idea into your daily life?
Daily Tip #3—Develop a "Stop Doing" list.
To operationalize this principle, identify 3–5 activities that you will relinquish in order to create more space and time for more important goals and actually move toward your new reality. If you're struggling to identify those "stop doing" activities, try finishing these sentences:
"If I didn't achieve x this year, I'd be okay with that."
"If I'm honest with myself, x takes too much time/energy for the benefit that I receive."
"If I stopped doing x tomorrow, there would be minimal negative impact in my life."
As my preschoolers get a bit older and become involved in extracurricular activities, I'm horrified at the thought of my loving, low key home environment turning into Grand Central Station. I've heard such horror stories about completely overscheduled kids whose lives are filled with stress and exhaustion with so many activities, commitments, and "responsibilities." As I enter this critical age with my children, I can't help but wonder if women trying to "have it all" breed children trying to "do it all"? Indeed, making choices, sacrificing, and being okay with not doing it all is indeed a skill—one that I'm hoping my children will begin learning at an early age. I can't help but think that part of my parenting responsibility is to begin to role model this "satisfaction with plenty" lifestyle now. I'm not sure if there will ever be a firm, decisive answer to the "can we have it all" conundrum, but for me, I've made small changes that have had a huge impact on both my productivity and my peace. Maybe I don't have it "all," but it sure feels like it.
Dana Brownlee is an acclaimed keynote speaker, corporate trainer, and team development consultant. She is president of Professionalism Matters, Inc. a boutique professional development corporate training firm based in Atlanta, GA.
Reach Dana at [email protected]. Connect with her on LinkedIn and Twitter.
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