Late work nights. Missed school plays. Sporadic dinner dates. Cancelled self-care appointments. Getting ahead usually evokes images of long hours sacrificing your personal life for the sake of your career. Do you ever fantasize about having it all – growing your career, your family and yourself without wildly tilting the balance from day to day?
I recently re-read my personal journal entries about turning points in my work and family lives. These situations often have required me to choose whether or not to take on more career responsibility and pursue dream projects, as well as to figure out how I would balance my work and personal lives if I did.
When faced with such tough decisions, I’ve tried a variety of strategies for having it all. Once I launched a “Get Organized” campaign. Three new black, shiny file cabinets, two new “to do” list approaches, and a new high tech office makeover later, I was more organized, but was equally unsure why the texture of my life still felt rough and uneven.
Another time I devised an “Early Riser” plan to devote a couple of hours to quiet, uninterrupted work every morning. It worked well for about a week, until my night owl instincts overthrew my common sense and demanded the return of my evening routine. Getting up at 5:30 a.m. and staying up until midnight quickly took its toll. After a couple of sleep-deprived, grumpy days, both my work and I drooped, and my inner voice, my husband and my children begged me in unison to try something else.
So I turned to what I called my “Boundary Watchers” program. I told myself that protecting my work periods from draining tasks and people would be “the answer” to my problem. I stopped running errands that I could accomplish by phone or online, and started only dealing with people who said and did mostly kind, uplifting things. I reclaimed about an hour of previously-squandered time and immeasurable amounts of energy a day. In these respects, this approach was a success. But it wasn’t a panacea. My latest project looked like a half-eaten sandwich — my ideas being endlessly chewed, not swallowed and digested, leaving me hungry for more.
What did I learn from these experiments? Getting organized, designating time, and prioritizing tasks and people are all good first steps. To really get ahead while balancing your life, it takes a powerful, multi-strategic approach. The ironic secret of the following advanced strategies is that they help you to slow down – get perspective, rejuvenate yourself, and live deeply. They allow you to progress at a comfortable pace in all areas of your life for the long haul. So you get to cross the finish line with your head high, smiling at an annual marathon, instead of sprinting across the finish line stooped and breathless at a quarterly race.
Here are my top ten strategies for slowing down to get ahead in your career and your life:
1. Assess your risk. Be honest with yourself about how much risk you’re willing to take at this point in your career. Factor in your personal obligations as well as how much risk you really need to take to reach your career goals. More is not always better. Taking just the right amount of risk – without jeopardizing your financial, emotional, physical, and familial well-being – is the key to advancing your career.
2. Ignite your passions. Actively pursue your passions at work. Request an assignment you’d love to do. Explore transferring to another position within your organization or field. If there’s no immediate way for you to hold your dream job, pursue your interests on the side – through volunteering, taking classes, reading, and networking with people who do what you want to do, informally and at professional association events. By immersing yourself in what you love, you’ll be happier, motivate yourself to succeed, and opportunities will follow.
3. Under-schedule yourself. Rushing through your days and nights with little down time won’t help you get ahead; it will just wear you out. And you’ll miss spontaneous opportunities to meet people and do things that could help your career grow and enrich your life overall. Pause to review your weekly calendar and make sure you’re not too booked to leave room for the unexpected.
4. Be fully engaged. Focus on what you’re doing at the moment rather than on what you’ll be eating for lunch in an hour; what’s going on at home when you’re at work or at work when you’re at home; or what crisis may be erupting at work while you’re on vacation. It’s only when you fully live in the present that you’ll make significant progress.
5. Leave your mark. Stand out from the crowd by showcasing your distinctive approach to your work. Take the time, for example, to hand-write thank you notes to your clients or to highlight your unique combination of talents and experience that make you the obvious choice for receiving the next big promotion.
6. Learn your way. Knowing how you learn best will give you an edge. You’ll absorb and integrate new ideas faster and deeper, making you a star performer. Pay attention to how you seem to learn naturally – by reading, listening, doing, or some combination of these and other methods.
7. Track all trends. Notice how you could incorporate trends about when, where, and how people work into your career both to better serve your clients and to better balance your work and personal lives. For instance, you could begin and leave work earlier, provide on-site services at clients’ workplaces, and arrange online or teleconferences.
8. Play at work. Take a cue from your children and let work equal play. Decide what the most fun activities are in your work and family lives and transfer the best ones to each world. Make getting to know new people a priority in your home community as much as it is in your workplace, and import activities like storytelling, role-playing, and cloud-watching from your family life into your creative brainstorming sessions at work.
9. Reflect every day. Review your performance as a working mom on a regular basis – gently and constructively – and keep records of these reviews in a journal or folder with letters of praise, thank you notes, ticket stubs from special events, and other mementos of good times.
10. Keep it fresh. Rotate your work projects, leisure activities, and family rituals to keep your interest and energy levels up. Shake up parts of your daily routine, like how you get to work, when you do your tasks, and what you eat for lunch, while still maintaining enough structure and consistency to feel grounded. By regularly energizing your mind, body, and spirit, you’ll make it easier to get ahead – and a life.