I used to love international travel for work. I would get so much work done during the uninterrupted time on long-distance flights. Sometimes I would get whole days to myself if I was traveling over a weekend, or arriving on a Sunday morning. It felt wonderful because it was all me time “guilt free”, meaning it just happened and I didn’t have to assert my needs by asking for it. These pockets of time were gifts.
In retrospect, that was not a healthy point of view (especially when you consider the 6-8-hour time shift between where I lived and where I landed…). Yes, I was very productive, and that felt good, but in reality, it meant I wasn’t prioritizing my own needs (starting with sleep – jet lag is real). Asking for time for yourself is a skill, one we are not necessarily taught how to do. It is up to each of us to empower this for ourselves, allowing us to meet our own needs in an environment where there are others with their own, sometimes competing, needs.
When was the last time you took time just for you? Not for the kiddo’s, not to work from home, not to get errands done. Time to do something you wanted to do (not something you should or have to do)? It’s a healthy thing to plan for, taking time you’ve earned just for yourself; we plan for family vacations, but do you plan for an hour, or a day, of time for yourself? This doesn’t always mean taking time off work to do it, but if you have enough earned time, why not?
As it turns out, taking time for yourself also requires practice. A past client of mine opted to take a day off each month in the summer, and just enjoy it. Sounds good right? What happened was she enjoyed a leisurely breakfast coffee…and then took a phone call and was on-line with work for the rest of the day. Or she would get bored and decided to do some work in “stealth mode” (looking off-line but in reality, being connected to do work from home). Sometimes taking time for yourself has a learning curve. I know my own “me time” can easily get consumed with work, or family needs, if I don’t have an intention for that time (like pajamas and a good book).
Where are you in this learning curve? Can you, guilt free, take an hour, an afternoon or a day and do things just for yourself that help you to re-charge and take a break from the day-to-day? If you were to have time to yourself, what would you do with that time? How do you attend to your own whole-ness and well-being?
This is an important skill to cultivate, empowering you to put yourself first (even if just for a little while). Work to live, not live to work.
November can be a really busy month. Projects are hitting their stride in the run up to the end of the calendar year (and a holiday break). Your life has returned to its normal level of “busy”, with commitments and concerns outside of work. More demands are trickling in as everyone’s life gets fuller. Check in, how are you feeling (personally) about your work and commitments? Do you feel excited and challenged, or overwhelmed…like you are barely hanging on? Maybe a bit of both?
It is easy to slip into impulsiveness when life is over-flowing; saying “yes” to things you really want to do (but may not have time to do) or by saying “no” before the person making the request has even finished speaking. Or maybe you studiously avoid making eye contact in the hope that the work will just sort itself out. You are perfectly normal if one, or all, of these things are happening when you get busy.
Doing things is a comfort zone, that’s why often those who are the busiest tend to take on more. Being busy, being needed, can feel good even if it makes life difficult. This may be happening in your work life, or your home life, or both. Check in, what compels you to say “yes”? What need of yours is being met by saying “yes”? Which of your needs are you ignoring by taking more on? Is saying “yes” an impulse, or a well thought out response?
Protecting your time and schedule is a way to cope with feeling overwhelmed or ensuring you have control, and makes it feel necessary to say “no”. It’s not that you shouldn’t say “no”, it’s more in how you say it. Say “no” with compassion. Rather than an abrupt statement refusing the request (driven by impulse), acknowledge this other person’s/team’s need and importance, and then contextualize why having you take on more now isn’t going to get them the results they are looking for. “This is such a good initiative, and I would like to help. Right now, I am on a tight deadline to complete the reporting for year-end, and I can’t do justice to your request…”
Quietly withdrawing to avoid being tasked with more work is also an impulse. A healthy way to approach requests is through acknowledging what is right in the moment. If you are busy, don’t hide. Help the person making the request to understand that their project is important, but you are unable to help in the timeframe they need. If you are hiding so as not to be asked to do something because you don’t know how to say “no”, it may work, or the work may find you anyway. Learn how to say “no” with compassion, it’s an important skill to have.
Your time and needs are important. So is learning to advocate for them through voicing what is, and is not, possible during busy periods in you work and life. Balancing saying “yes” and “no” is all about using your voice to help others understand you care, but have commitments you’ve made that are also important (which includes your own well-being).
I take any opportunity that presents itself to speak to professionals who’ve retired from their careers. I want to know what their perspectives on work and career look like from the “other side”. Retirement, for many people, is far off (I’m working on the “Freedom 85 Plan” myself), and I often wonder what wisdom looking back has to offer. So, I ask those in the know…retirees. Everyone I spoke to had a unique story.
Like the woman who had just left a corporate job at 59. She had no regrets and said her best career decision was to get off the treadmill of climbing “the ladder”. Over time, she feels she likely did as well there as she would have done if she kept moving up in a much bigger company. “Not financially, of course!” she explained “but in terms of my own happiness. I got to raise my kids my way because of a predictable schedule and great working relationships with the leaders at the company. I never missed a birthday or a recital, and now my kids are doing well in careers of their own.” Her parting wise words were “Happiness is up to you, never leave your happiness up to someone else, especially at work; they’ll screw it up because they are not you!”
I spoke with a 76-year-old plumber who started with his Dad, and then ran the business himself until he retired about ten years ago. “Was my work meaningful? That’s an odd question. I never thought of it that way.” He said, and then added “But I seemed to meet people at a very stressful point, when their toilet was overflowing, or they had water in their house from a burst pipe. It felt good to help them out because I knew what to do to make the plumbing right.” He also raised a family on his earnings. “It was different in my day, my wife looked after all the home stuff, but I can tell you, I wouldn’t have been able to run my business like I did if she hadn’t been there to manage that…we had a real partnership that way.”
A 67-year-old retiree wondered aloud if his relationship with his kids would have been more like the ones he now has with his grand kids (who were happily running around the living room as we chatted). “I worked a lot, it’s what you did in my day, but I guess in looking back, and now seeing what I missed with my own kids through my grandchildren, if I had to do it all again, I’d have spent more time with them.” He then added “but then I wouldn’t have been able to support paying for their education, living in the bigger house, and having the things we did…so I guess it’s all about your priorities.”
In all the conversations I’ve had (and I strike one up with anyone I meet who tells me they’re retired), not a one of them wished they’d worked more hours, or climbed higher in their careers. Many had regrets about what they missed by prioritizing work over other things, or that they waited too long to move out of jobs that were not good for their souls, and into jobs where they were appreciated and supported.
What do you want to see in the rear-view mirror of your career? In the rear-view mirror of your life?
It’s instinctive to harden towards those circumstances and people that are difficult, as a way to mask vulnerability, or keep yourself intact. Meeting challenges head-on is a good instinct to have, facing the threat. Yet, it may not be giving you what you actually need. For many years I “armored up”, toughened myself to hold my limits in place against those who would trample them (and me in the process). I hid my perceived weaknesses behind a well thought out argument, cutting off dialog before we got anywhere near compromise. I made decisions from a place of fear.
And of judgement. Judgement of myself foremost, but judgment of others as well. I wielded it like a shield so I wouldn’t get hurt. Not surprisingly, it didn’t have the intended effect. It drove people away, making them wary of me (at work and at home) making me feel worse about myself (without understanding why). As long as I was making decisions based on fear, I couldn’t see that I was experienced as being inconsistent, no one knew which Carleen they were going to get; reasonable rational Carleen or defensive/offensive Carleen. I thought I was being resilient, when in fact I was being tough. Hard on myself and hard on others.
Toughness was what I thought was called for, but when put in place to shore up fears and judgment it can only hurt, not help, and not heal. How then to get to resilience, without becoming a door mat? Judgement has many synonyms in the dictionary, one of them is discernment. Discernment is based on rational, objective thinking, while judgement is based on assumptions. Healthy boundaries are created with discernment and put in place with compassion, first for yourself, and then for others.
This still requires you to face the threat head on, so there may already be something that is strong in you that can help. The next “move” is to be open and curious about the threat, as that is how you get to discernment. Doing so is also an act of compassion, for yourself and others, allowing you access to more information, so you can more accurately assess what is being called for, and make your needs known to others in ways they understand (even if they don’t agree with you).
Resilience is facing the threat, knowing you will do so with compassion that leads to discernment. Knowing that in discernment you have the tool to make healthy decisions, putting in place boundaries that work. In so doing, giving yourself what you need to be respected, understood, helped and, sometimes, what you need to heal.
“People cry, not because they are weak. It is because they've been strong for too long.” – Johnny Depp
Loving your working life sounds like a great aspiration, but it can also feel distant and vague, like something you’ll achieve when you look back over your career. I am a huge fan of perspective taking, but there are big implications to your well-being when you wait to love your working life (and then only enjoy it from the rear-view mirror). Let’s take a practical look at what falling in love with your work means.
To start, the word love seems out of place in the context of work and career. If we look at the definition of love, it is “an intense feeling of deep affection that nourishes your well-being.” Given that many of us spend more than 40 hours a week preparing for, thinking about, commuting to, being at, and doing work, it needs to nourish us. Your work needs to support life; yours, your loved ones and your community.
With a word like “love”, it’s easy to romanticize what our working life should look like, and often this is a version of perfection. No stress, easy commute, pressure-free. Check back in with the definition of love, there is no promise of perfection. Love is complicated and, just as in relationships, something you don’t do once, but over and over again, recommitting to it each day. You fall in love with your work one moment at a time, and it is this deep affection for what you do that sustains you through the mess that is competing demands and stress.
Can you remember the first moment you were able to find joy in something you did? It was likely at school where you discovered you not only enjoyed doing something, but were good at it. This is the moment where love at work begins, because that one moment becomes motivation to continue to curiously pursue more of what you enjoyed, taking the next step to explore what a subject was all about, and what you could do with it.
Then comes the point in time when you transferred your interest and acumen to the workplace, and here there were moments where you realized what a difference your work could make to both others and yourself. You may have been recognized, possibly even valued, by a client, employer or team mate. Or you connected the dots yourself and were hooked on that feeling of having something meaningful in your life that only you could do.
Falling in love with your work is not about promotions, raises, bonuses or awards. While those things are nice, It’s the moments that give you energy to keep going, to get out of bed and pursue the work you enjoy doing in ways only you can. The meaning comes from understanding that you are connected to both yourself, and something bigger than yourself through your work. What moments give you that spark of understanding? What moments sustain you, allowing you to love your working life?
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I believe in empowering others in many tangible ways. When I learn new career strategies or see something that might help others, I share it using my blog and website.