Even under the best of circumstances, managing work obligations is often difficult for women. In a time when the U.S. Census Bureau notes widening pay gaps between women and men as employees get older, women are burdened with managing responsibilities at home and work. This burden has historically been more significant for women than men. During the COVID-19 pandemic, women have continued to bear an unequal burden of responsibility and impact. Women are at increased risk for coronary heart disease and burnout while taking on more responsibilities relating to child care. The fact of the matter is that the different hats that working women have had to wear far predate the COVID-19 pandemic. These multiple roles, without proper support and avenues for healthy coping, are significant factors in the negative physical manifestations of stress and in performance difficulties in the workplace. This article presents strategies to better align your work with your personal goals.
Brainstorm the Important Aspects of Your Life
First, it is critical to understand the facets of life that are most meaningful to you. We often hear of the necessity of “work-life balance,” but at its core, work-life balance is rooted in the idea that work and life are two separate entities that are in competition. In reality, life has many facets, including (but not necessarily limited to) personal, familial, spiritual, social, and work. When we understand work to be only one aspect of life, and not at odds with others, it becomes easier to conceptualize the role work should play. When we identify our values, we are better able to understand how much of our time we want and are able to devote to each.
Set Your Goals
First, think about your goals. Whether you prefer to create a formal list, mind map, or journal entry, set aside about 15–30 minutes to record what you would like to accomplish for each area of your life. Begin with a list that is broad and aspirational. If that little voice creeps in telling you that a goal is unrealistic, write it down anyway. You can cull the list in the future as necessary. At this stage, the objective is to get you feeling comfortable with identifying where you would like to be as if there were no obstacles. Perhaps you’d like to work part-time to leave more time to go to your children’s events, travel every couple of months, or move closer to your parents. Maybe you would like to take an art class, or maybe you simply want time to yourself at the end of each day to read those books that have been sitting on your nightstand. Your goal list is your opportunity to be expansive with your hopes for your life.
Challenge Your Obstacles
After you have created your goals, list the obstacles in your way to achieving your them. While it may be possible to determine an obstacle for each of your life goals, try to keep the obstacles to those that are realistic impediments to your goals. Then find reasons to disprove each obstacle. Imagine that each one is an argument presented by opposing counsel and that you must present a response to each argument in front of a mediator or judge. Using the skills you already possess as an attorney can help you find the workaround for your obstacles.
Identify Your Motivations
Take another look at your life goals. What is it that inspired you to have these goals? Why are these goals important to you? Your reasons for creating your goals are just as important as the goals themselves because they help to establish your mindset and reasons to persevere. Are you looking to become a senior partner because you’d like to take part in shaping the direction of your company? Would you like to establish your own practice in honor of your parents who sacrificed to help you through school? Maybe you would like to make sure your kids, or even your grandchildren, won’t have to worry about the stability of their futures. You, or a loved one, might have a medical condition that has reminded you of how short life can be. Or better yet, maybe you are motivated by the time you have spent working toward goals that were instilled in you by others, and you are ready to define your own standards of success. While it may be easy to remember our motivations for achieving career goals, we can lose sight of the reasons why our personal goals are important to us. Taking time to think about your motivations is an excellent way to keep you grounded when working to achieve all of your life goals.
Prioritize Your Goals
With clarity on your goals and the paths around your obstacles, next identify your priorities. This means creating a hierarchy of your goals in terms of their importance to you and the feasibility of accomplishing them. Four ways to categorize your priorities are whether you (1) have to do it, (2) want/love to do it, (3) tolerate it, and (4) hate to do it. When times get particularly difficult, you may want to try to incorporate more tasks that you have to do and want to do, while minimizing (or, better yet, delegating to others) tasks that you tolerate or hate. This may mean accepting help from others or accepting help from someone who may not do things in the same way that you would do them but that still gets the job done sufficiently. Keep in mind it is OK to adjust your priorities from time to time.
Schedule Time for Yourself
Especially during times of heightened stress, you may find you have the capacity to work toward only a few goals. Just be sure that at least one goal at any given point in time is a personal goal. Basic goals that are necessary to manage multiple stressors at once include good sleep hygiene and eating habits, regular exercise, connecting with others, and spending at least 15–30 minutes daily for yourself. If negative thoughts begin to creep into your mind—such as I don’t have time to get eight hours of sleep a night, or Rather than spending 30 minutes each day for myself, I should put that time toward billable hours, or My kids go to bed so late that I don’t have time for myself—write them down and then challenge them. You cannot expect to have improved mental wellness when times are difficult if you are not tending to your needs as well. If you find it particularly challenging to carve out time for yourself, consider seeking the help of a mental health professional. A mental health therapist can help you uncover paths to creating a healthier life prioritization.
Unfortunately, difficult times can present additional challenges for women who may already be stretched thin. While creating work-life balance is a myth, establishing healthier life prioritization habits is attainable. By keeping your goals and motivations at the forefront of your daily routine, it becomes easier to create a lifestyle that allows you not only to survive unprecedented times but to find a sense of enjoyment, fulfillment, and forward progression in life.
Cindy T. Graham, PhD, is a licensed clinical psychologist and the chief executive officer and founder of Brighter Hope Wellness Center in Howard County, Maryland.
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