A couple years ago, for their last day of class before Christmas, my son’s preschool decided to have a PJ and movie day. It coincided with my last day of work and I decided to take the afternoon off to join him at preschool. I timed it so that I could join him and his friends for their walk from daycare to preschool. As soon as I pulled up in front of daycare, I heard my son squealing in the playground, jumping up and down at the gate yelling “Mommy! My mommy is here!”.
We had to wait outside for the preschool teacher for about 10 minutes. During that 10 minutes, my son looked up at me about 50 times, squeezing my hand tight through his mitten each time, grinning from ear to ear, repeatedly saying “I’m so happy you’re here, Mommy!” His excitement and happiness caught me off guard. I thought my visit would mean more to me than him. Clearly, I was wrong. My son reminded me again how much my time and undivided attention meant to him.
In my first few years as a working parent and before I could make my ideal picture of balance a reality, I was constantly thinking about the number of hours that I was working. Somehow, it felt simultaneously too much and too little to me.
It felt too much when I compared my working hours to the time I spent with my son. Yet, it felt too little when I thought of all the things that I wanted to accomplish and how long it would take to accomplish those things working at the pace that I was.
One day, I broke down in front of my boss (only after she asked some VERY incisive questions and created a safe space for me to reveal my full messy self). I told my boss that I was feeling overwhelmed and that I didn’t think I could keep it up for much longer. After listening to me and helping me calm down, my boss asked: “If everything could work out exactly the way you want it to be, what would that look like? How many hours would you like to work here if you got to choose?” Her question stumped me. While I had day-dreamed about quitting many times, I had never actually sat down and figured out exactly what I wanted things to look like if I were no longer working the way I was.
That night, I sat down and started the first draft of my ideal work week. I started by listing everything that I wanted to get done in a week. Then, I ranked everything in order of importance and specified the amount of time that I wanted to dedicate to each of them every week. Then I created a blank weekly calendar page and started to plot things in, from most important to least important. As I started to plot things in, I quickly realized that it was physically impossible to fit everything on my list on that calendar. So I went back to the list and started to eliminate things from my list. I eliminated things like volunteering, reading, and social life from my list. Time to volunteer, to read, and to connect with friends were (and still are!) important to me. However, at that point in time, I made the decision that they were not as important as all the other things I chose to keep. It was liberating to cross those things off. Instead of feeling like a failure for never getting to the things that I believe I should do (I kept falling asleep and rereading the same page of a book for months because I was too tired), I felt empowered to put aside things that didn’t make the cut of prioritization.
Here’s a picture of the very first iteration of my ideal week.
Since then, I’ve done many iterations of this exercise for myself and debriefed the same exercise with many clients. Here are a few things that I’ve learnt along the way:
The goal of the exercise isn’t to create a precise schedule to follow each week. It’s more an exercise of awareness and intention. A lot of my clients come to me because they’re unhappy with their current state. But they’re not sure what they want instead. This exercise is a great first step to get them thinking about that ideal future state. We cannot work towards something unless we can see it, feel it, and explain it. This exercise also provides a great blueprint to test things out and tweak as you go and your work-life circumstances evolve.
For some people, a week isn’t the right frame to work with. Some of my clients prefer to look at things from a monthly or yearly perspective because of the rhythm of their work and their personal responsibilities. The same ideas and principles can be applied to a monthly, quarterly, or annual calendar. Some of my clients find it beneficial to do both a weekly calendar and an annual calendar so they can have clarity at the day-to-day level as well from a longer-term planning perspective.
Always overestimate how much time things will take or add in chunks of buffer time to account for the unexpected because life happens.
Do you know what your ideal picture of balance looks like? Would an exercise like this help you? I’ll be curious to know what has helped you gain clarity on what balance means to you and how you maintain a sense of balance.
P.S: For those who are curious, I’m happy to report that my current picture of balance includes time for volunteering, reading, and friends on a weekly basis ;).