Want to take the 24 out of 24/7? I was at lunch the other day with a friend who is a senior leader at her company. She was talking about how many junior women “opt out” as they think about having families. This, despite all the work her company, a leader in work-life flexibility options, has done to improve the situation for working families. In fact, a McKinsey study reports that C-suite executives believe the top two barriers to the advancement of women are women’s “double-burden” (work and family responsibilities) and our 24/7 “always on” work environments.
The recent debate about “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All” has thrown fuel into the fire. The article is written by Ann-Marie Slaughter, a senior White House staffer who gave up her position to spend time with her family. On one side of the debate are those who feel we’ve made tremendous sacrifices to pave the way for others, and want them to believe that women can have it all. On the other side of the debate are those who want to acknowledge that there is still a lot of work to be done in society, our workplaces, cultural expectations that prevent women from having it all. They don’t want to set women up for disappointment and self-blame if they discover that they cannot have it all.
I’m not sure what the right answer is. But I do wonder if we’re asking the right questions. Asking the questions, even if I don’t have all the answers, creates a new perspective on the debate.
- What do I (emphasis being on I) want in my work and in my life?
- What is my definition of “having it all” and how is it different from “having enough”?
- What are the trade-offs I am willing to make that are right for me?
- What are my standards of success? Do they prevent me in attaining happiness and fulfillment?
We tend to blame society, our workplaces, our bosses for putting us on the 24/7 treadmill and preventing us from “having it all”. And yes, I am a strong proponent of the many changes still to be made in our work cultures that demand us being “on” 24/7. However, my challenge to myself and others is to look inside first and see what needs to be changed within ourselves. How can I claim my own power to make the choices that are right for me?
Here are seven leadership practices that help me and I wanted to share with you:
1) Take a step back and define success on your own terms – Often we are so focused on climbing the corporate stair master we forget why we are doing it in the first place. Take a moment to reflect. What does success look like defined by my own terms? How does this align with my happiness? Looking back when I am 80, what would a worthwhile life have looked like? Given life expectancies and good health, women can live up to 80 years+ and healthfully work into their 70’s if they choose to. Does this mean that I climb the corporate ladder to my peak position by the time I’m 40? Whose clock am I running to?
Let me share a personal story. In my career with Fortune 100 companies I was all about hustling for the next challenge. I had 13 assignments in 7 different cities over 3 continents in a 20 year corporate career. I was a country CEO for our division by the time I was 38, Region President by the time I was 40, running a business over a half billion dollars. It wasn’t until I was close to burnout at the age of 44 when I started to pay attention to what was important to me. I started to define my success in terms of what impact I wanted to make, what brought me joy in my work, what talents I wanted to express every day. Take time to answer these questions. Mindfulness and journaling are both great ways I get connected to my inner voice.
2) Set Your Priorities and Follow Them – The people I have observed that have the best work life sanity are very clear on their priorities and follow them. I have a simple tool that helps me prioritize (or else I am likely to chase the next bright, shiny object). It is a list of my five life priorities. I share these with you as food for thought and encourage you to develop your own: 1) Personal Health & Wellbeing (which includes personal & spiritual growth), 2) Connection with my daughter and parents, 3) Financial freedom, 4) Making an impact in the world through the work I do, 5) Fun/Friends/Carpe Diem. Yes, I know creating a goal to have fun seems a bit counter-intuitive but as a recovering workaholic, believe me I need it. I set goals each year in these areas and each week I monitor the progress against these goals. A bit compulsive you say? It works for me. Figure out what would work for you.
3) Get clear on biggest levers of success – When I was in marketing we used to remind ourselves of a wise saying “50% of our marketing spending is wasted. I just wish I knew which 50%”. The same is true of our time, energy and resources. If we want the corner office, do we know what the highest impact two or three levers are that will help us get there? Let’s not waste our energy on 80% of the activities that create 20% of the impact. Is the next promotion really contingent on answering every single e-mail and working 24/7? Start to step back and ask yourself, what assumptions am I making about what it takes to succeed? How do I know these to be true?
4) Reclaim Your Self-Worth – For many of us (I’m on the list too!) we associate our work with our worth as human beings. Unless we’re really productive we’re not feeling good enough about ourselves. So, while we’re happy to blame our boss for sending an e-mail at midnight, secretly we feel quite proud replying to it at 12:01am. I know this from personal experience. At one time I left a gathering of friends I had been with after three hours because I felt bad that I’d wasted all this time being unproductive. This was a Sunday morning by the way.
As we free ourselves from the notion that we must work constantly to be worth something then work becomes less compulsive. If the work we do comes from a place of love for the work, for expressing our creativity, rather than the fear of not succeeding or being worthy, it becomes more joyful and energizing. We may be well served to ask the question to ourselves periodically “Is this (insert specific work situation) coming from a place of love for the work or from trying to feel worthy?”
As a corollary to this, sometimes our self-worth comes from getting approval from others. Don’t worry, that’s normal too (or so I’ve convinced myself). I go in and check the number of visits to my blog. More visits and comments (hint, hint!) make me feel validated. It’s just important to be aware if you’re doing that so you don’t blame others for making you work 24/7. Awareness brings power because with awareness comes choice. Take a moment to reflect whether your work satisfaction is contingent on someone’s approval, versus love for the work you do or your own definition of success. You may continue to work yourself into the ground waiting on approval and not even know why.
5) Give up on perfection and start to embrace “good enough” – We often associate our self-worth with the work we do: “If all the work is not perfect then I must not be perfect (gasp!)”. Can anything less than perfect be good enough? Or, because we want everything to be perfect we’d rather do it ourselves than give someone else a chance to fail (and learn). So guess what? We work 24/7. As you embark on any task at work or home ask yourself what’s good enough. Ask yourself what are the costs of getting to perfect and whether you really want to bear them.
6) Ask for what you need and learn how to say “No” – We’re afraid to ask for help or resources because of how it will be perceived. If we ask for help it undermines our “Superwoman” persona. If we say “No” we may not be liked. Make a list of what you need and ask powerfully for it. Experiment with saying “No” in low-risk situations and see what happens. If you struggle with this you’re normal like the rest of us. Daily practice makes each of us a bit better at it.
7) Practice being present where you are – What sometimes makes our work productivity low and saps our energy is that we are thinking about how we could be the even more perfect PTA mom (and generally feeling guilty) when we’re at work. When we’re at home, we’re distracted from truly being with family because we’re thinking about the work presentation that’s due tomorrow.
Getting to work life sanity requires us to claim our personal power and authenticity – our power to make choices about what’s important to each of us, our power to become aware of all the reasons why we work, to be discerning and get clear about where we want to spend our time, our power to express ourselves to say “No” gracefully and to ask for what we need, our power to make the choice daily to return to our core. As we exercise these muscles, not only do they give us the opportunity to simplify the demands of life, they also give us the courage to be part of the change in workplace culture that is required. The daily actions we choose as leaders give us the power to change our workplace norms.
In the book “The Top Five Regrets of the Dying”, a hospice nurse chronicled the five biggest regrets of people whose perspective on life sharpened as they got closer to losing it: 1) I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me, 2) I wish I hadn’t worked so hard, 3) I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings, 4) I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends 5) I wish that I had let myself be happier. Important lessons about living from those that are dying. These are my wishes for all of us.
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