Like many women leaders who work full-time and have a family, I regularly get the remark “I don’t know how you do it all.” I really haven’t come up with a good reply, but I do have a list of talking points for when a younger leader poses this as a question, namely, “How do you do it all?”
A few caveats, before I share my “top five” responses with some reflection questions: first, no two personalities, schedules, life demands, relationship constellations, etc. are the same, so while I try to be as general as possible, I also acknowledge and provide examples from my own personal context. Next, the usual advice (get enough sleep, exercise, eat healthily, manage time wisely, prioritize relationships, practice spiritual disciplines) applies, even though not explicitly on my list (which has more “to think” than “to do’s”). And finally, while research shows there are unique demands placed on women leaders, I have observed these practices in many successful leaders, regardless of gender.
1. Don’t “Balance”—Integrate
Language matters, because it shapes the way we think about our lives. When it comes to the question of “doing it all,” we need a new metaphor for work-life “balance.” There are a few reasons for this. First, it is quite literally impossible to balance our work and personal lives—to make sure that everything is evenly, perfectly weighted, on different sides of a scale—in a zero-sum game where either things are balanced, or not. (For a hilarious take on why “balance” is a bad word, see here.)
A healthier metaphor is work-life integration. By integration, I mean a masterful weaving together of all of the threads that make up our lives, which if done well, creates a beautiful (healthy, flourishing) pattern in our days. Instead of asking whether we are balanced or not (a “yes/no” question), we can instead ask more reflective and fruitful questions, like, what threads might be starting to fray in our lives, and need more attention and better integration? Where might the pattern need to be adjusted, to emphasize or de-emphasize a certain color (activity, priority, etc.) that is encroaching on or overwhelming another? Most importantly, if the pattern we are weaving doesn’t look quite how we’d like, we can proactively reposition the threads to achieve a more desirable pattern.
Reflection: This week, instead of trying to “balance” everything, think through how you are “integrating” the many roles and responsibilities you carry. How might you improve your integration of work and personal life, to create an even healthier pattern, next week?
2. Stop Stressing About Stress
Life will be stressful. Even Jesus promised, “In this world, you will have trouble.” (John 16:33a NIV). One key to navigating this well is to not add to that stress, by stressing about being stressed. This is going a bit “meta,” but take this example: if I have a major deadline at work, I will naturally feel stress around getting it done on-time and well. This is normal “trouble” in life, and to cope, I may to devote extra hours (perhaps evening or on a Saturday) and miss out on exercise or some family time as a result. This by itself is stressful, but I can add to this by becoming more stressed out about the fact that I’m stressed (moms everywhere will recognize this feeling as “mommy guilt”). None of us can do everything well at all times, so instead of accepting that fact and just doing the best we can, we can create more stress for ourselves by stressing about the fact that we can’t do everything—and in the process, deplete our reservoirs of energy even further, thereby ensuring we will accomplish even less.
In my experience, the only way to get off this negative hamster wheel is to practice radical acceptance—meaning accepting the fact that stress is a normal part of life and there will invariably be seasons that are more stressful than others (see this helpful Harvard Business Review article). That does not mean that we don’t take positive, faith-filled action during those seasons. In fact, Jesus’s next words were, “But take heart! I have overcome the world” (v. 33b). But he absolutely did not say to “make the trouble even more difficult, by stressing over it even more.” Instead, we can try reframing our thinking, from thoughts that add to our stress (i.e. “oh no… I have to do this!”) to thoughts that reorient ourselves through gratitude (i.e. “wow… with God’s help, I get to do this!”)
Reflection: Ask yourself, to what degree is the stress I’m feeling right now “normal”—i.e. related to actual tasks or circumstances I’m facing—and to what degree am I unnecessarily adding to that, by being “stressed about being stressed”?
3. Change “Default” to “Designated”
A few years back I came across the concept of the “default” parent. This is typically, though not always, “mom”—particularly if she stayed at home when her children were young. For those that are not parents, they can still become the “default” caregiver—whether as adult children (whose parents rely on them), as adult siblings, or in their friendships. When you are the “default” caregiver in any relationship, it means that others will turn to you, 24-7, for their needs—even if there are others (spouses, siblings, friends, neighbors, etc.) who are just as willing, capable, and/or accessible to help. Being the default person means that in the game of caregiver “tag,” you’re “it”—always. This can become exhausting and also an impediment to our families and friends learning how to help others (and themselves).
The solution is to transition to “designated” instead of default. “Designated” means that a conscious choice has been made, and recognized, about the who, what, where, and when of caregiving. As such, it enables us to set boundaries, ask for help, reframe expectations, say “no” when appropriate, and empower others to build relationships and share responsibility. While I was the default parent when my children were little, we began a transition when the youngest started kindergarten and I went back to work fulltime. It wasn’t easy or without its challenges (and it took a few years), but eventually my husband and I sorted parenting tasks, often based on our strengths and interests, and communicated them (repeatedly) to our children. Where’s your missing shirt? Mom will know. Want PB&J in your lunchbox? Talk to dad. Need something from Amazon? Ask Mom. The Wi-Fi is down? Definitely go tell Dad! Many times these designations follow traditional gender roles in our home, while sometimes they don’t. But what matters is that everyone’s needs are met, we are all less overwhelmed, and we learn together that no one person can do it all.
Reflection: Do you play the role of “default” parent or caregiver in some way? If so, does that cause you added stress or frustration? How could moving toward a “designated” caregiver approach help?
4. Bend—So You Don’t Break
The more rigid we are with ourselves and everyone around us, the more likely we are to “break” like a branch snapping under pressure. Priority setting is of course key here. We need to determine our “non-negotiables” for which we will not flex, and then be willing to flex for everything else. In our home, this has come in handy when it comes to dinnertime—which can be very stressful with two adults on different diets, plus three children with varying degrees of food aversions and sensitivities, mixed in with hectic schedules for all five of us. Applying this principle looks like this: our non-negotiable when it comes to dinner is that everyone will eat as healthily as possible. However, we are flexible on how that gets accomplished—through a combination of healthy take-out, differentiated meals that we prepare ourselves, and so forth.
This concept is anathema to much of parenting advice—everyone should eat the same home-cooked meal, all the time (Supernanny would not approve). But for us, our family is significantly more likely to “break” (become overwhelmed and frustrated) if we are rigid in our mealtime practices—and in fact, we can more easily achieve our non-negotiable (eating as healthily as possible), if we are more flexible in our approach to accomplishing it. Of course, non-negotiables around food (and everything else) will look different for everyone, given variations in available options, family budget, and so forth. But the idea is the same: know and be unbending when it comes to your principles, whatever they are, but be willing to flex in the day-to-day logistics where you can.
Reflection: Pick a current area of work-life challenge. What principles are you committed to upholding in the midst of this challenge, versus where can you be flexible in the day-to-day logistics?
5. Instead of Multi-Tasking, Multi-Purpose
Most leaders are really good at multi-tasking. But I believe the true secret to “doing it all” is learning how to multi-purpose. If multi-tasking is like juggling a bunch of unrelated balls at the same time, multi-purposing is like picking up a single stone and hitting multiple birds with one throw. The latter is far more efficient—in terms of energy, time, and resources—than the first. Two personal examples: first, in my career as a researcher, if I had a choice between writing a random article or applying for a grant, I’d always go for the grant (which always yielded data for multiple articles in the long run). When I worked in a school context, I once had a choice between selecting a new ELA curriculum or developing a coherent curricular review cycle; I made sure to pick the latter (which ensured the ELA curriculum was updated in the long run, along with the entire academic program). The basic principle is this: don’t do anything in your role (writing a report, hosting a meeting, developing a policy) that is an isolated one-off; instead, connect it to a larger set of activities, deliverables, or goals so you get the most “bang for your buck.”
This works at not only the individual level, but also organizationally; at the school level, this might involve collaboratively developing expected student outcomes (ESOs, or a “portrait of a graduate”) that are then used to drive schoolwide needs assessment, strategic planning, accreditation efforts, and marketing and development pieces. We may recognize this strategy by another name: organizational alignment, which helps make organizations more effective—at least in part—because they are more efficient. In other words, their leaders know how to align seemingly disparate departments, programs, and people, and then create a domino or cascade effect for change—to both maximize impact and to expend their energy as efficiently as possible. And then they re-invest their leftover resources (which would have been otherwise squandered through inefficiency) in further change and improvement efforts, both for their teams and their schools. If you peek under the hood of any successful school, leadership team, or even the schedule of an individual leader, you’ll often find multi-purposing is the powerful engine at work.
Reflection: Think about an area of your work where you are multi-tasking—in other words, simultaneously managing disparate or seemingly unconnected projects or tasks. How might you align them coherently and intentionally multi-purpose instead?
Note: This post was originally published in February 2021.