You can't have it all

feature-work-life-200aPlatitudes about the importance of work-life balance never fully capture the complexity of employees’ situations. The pursuit of a meaningful, multifaceted life involves endless choices about both short-term tactical issues (“Should I volunteer for this project?”) and long-term strategic ones (“How can I position myself to advance in my career?”).

Howard Stevenson is an entrepreneur, professor, philanthropist, former chairman of Harvard Business Publishing, husband and father who has spent four decades studying, teaching and advising leaders in all types of organisations. He likens the challenge to walking on a balance beam while trying to juggle an egg, a crystal glass, a knife and any number of other fragile or hazardous objects. As you progress in your career and life, more responsibilities and opportunities are tossed at you. And so at some point, to maintain your balance, you’ll have to drop something. The key is to decide consciously what to relinquish instead of unwittingly letting go of the most important item.

It’s hard for high-achieving people to accept that they can’t have it all. Even those who recognize the limits on their time often still expect to be energetic and efficient enough to excel in every role: productive employee, inspiring boss and mentor, supportive colleague, active community member and committed spouse, friend, parent and child. But it is impossible to do everything perfectly at the same time. You cannot pursue all your goals simultaneously or satisfy all your desires at once. And it’s an emotional drain to think you can. Instead, you must focus on long-term fulfilment rather than short-term success and, at various points in your life, think carefully about your priorities.

You, the ongoing process

We all know that it’s difficult for a company to make good strategic or tactical decisions without a mission in mind. The same holds true for individuals. Most of us start walking and juggling on the balance beam without thinking holistically and explicitly about what aspects of our lives we value most and how we value those things in relation to one another. It helps to carefully consider all the dimensions of your life. Howard and I have identified seven:

  • Family (parents, children, siblings, in-laws, and so on)
  • Social and community (friendships and community engagement)
  • Spiritual (religion, philosophy or emotional outlook)
  • Physical (health and wellbeing)
  • Material (physical environment and possessions)
  • Avocational (hobbies and other nonprofessional activities)
  • Career (both short- and long-term perspectives)

For each dimension ask yourself three questions: who do I want to be in this part of my life? How much do I want to experience this dimension? Given that I have a finite amount of time, energy and resources, how important is this dimension relative to the others?

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