you really couldn’t have had it all

Earlier today, a friend of mine, also a librarian and an administrator, asked for advice on how to handle a complex personal-job-health situation. And then I saw that Abigail Goben had written about work-life balance and asked “I’m curious what self-care you have implemented in your life that helps you to cope?”. I laughed, gently, as I read those things, thinking, “Well, I have a massage scheduled for 3:30, but that’s me”, and thought I should write something.

Then this evening I read Sarah Glassmeyer’s 2012 in Review post, and got to this part:

Because after my 2012, my resolution for 2013 is to embrace my humanity and imperfections as well as accept it in others.  Because we all like to think that we keep personal life at home and professional life at work, but “business in the front and party in the back” only works for mullets.  We’re all human and have illness, death, birth, marriage, etc going on that are going to be running in the background when we’re “on the clock.”  And no one reading this blog has a job so important that personal well-being should be put aside so that their job can continue.   But of course, this requires communication.  And the bravery to admit to someone – especially your supervisor or anyone that you work on projects with – that you have something going on and may not be 100% for awhile.

And I agreed so fully that I couldn’t quite figure out what to write… until I did. Here’s what I want to write: I want to tell you all to stop trying to keep your life compartmentalized, and to stop trying to do everything. You’re sick? Say so, and earn, demand, and acquire the space to figure out how to heal yourself. You’re overwhelmed? Examine your life and figure out what has to give. You’re exhausted? Sleep more and stop doing the things that prevent that.

I know none of it’s that damned easy — saying it doesn’t make it possible — but I think this point matters: Stop trying to have everything.

We’re always looking for ways to have it all, because the modern American myth tells us we can. Hell, even as I type this, Adele is singing “we could have had it alllllll…” then lamenting about how some douchey dude’s choices mean that now he’s reaping what he sowed. Have it all! Marriage, career, family, friends, hobbies, travel, we could have had it all!

Hell no, you can’t. You can’t have it all. Stop trying.

There are 24 hours in each day. There are 7 days in each week. And you only get as many years on this earth as you do, your number being uniquely yours. You cannot, in fact, have all of those things and live each of them with fullness and passion, because for each thing — relationships, career, family, friends, hobbies, travel, insert your passion here — that fullness and that passion each ask for more than their fair share. At some times, you can choose to give more to some aspects, and live them more fully, and at other times you have to starve some things so you can feed their counterparts. We all go through cycles in these years we’re given, and our priorities and choices change with the cycles. Career, marriage, kids, travel, hobbies, passions: They all cycle us through different phases. But even if you accept that you can’t give each of the pieces everything it’s asking for all the time, even if you accept that life is full of sacrifices, compromises, delayed gratification, and deferred desires, you still have to decide how to balance the things you’ve chosen in whatever cycle you’re in. And so people, understandably struggling, ask each other how they cope.

How do I cope? Well, first, I know I can’t have it all. Your average American works a 5 day week, in which there are 120 hours total. How does mine break down?


  • For me, right now, I spend about 50 hours each week at my day job to just stay afloat with my workload.
  • I also have committed to delivering 14 hours of content, each hour unique, at 6 different conferences this spring, which means adding about 10 hours of work to each of my non-traveling weeks between January and May.
  • I also regularly wish I had a better formal management education, and try to create that by doing my own reading — say, 3 hours a week minimum — of books on management, leadership, and innovation.
  • Then there’s the networking, casual professional development, and current events and trends awareness. I’m going to guess another 10 hours on that.
  • I also spend at least an hour each night and morning at home checking my email tending to work shit, total 5 hours.

That’s the work side. The total is 78 hours.

Each weekday, for my own personal health, wellness, and happiness, I generally do the following:

  • I spend an hour every evening cooking dinner and prepping the next day’s breakfast and lunch. [Yes, I have a partner, and yes he can and will and does cook, but it’s also a hobby of mine, and something I take pleasure in. So I often do it.] (5 hours)
  • I spend 45 minutes exercising in an intentional and focused way. I am most certainly not getting any younger… (About 4 hours)
  • I spend 20 minutes meditating for clarity, blood pressure management, and stress relief. (less than 2 hours)
  • Have a massage or a chiropractic appointment as a part of both stress relief and management of my physical health issues, most of which reside in my muscles and joints. (2 hours)
  • I spend at least two hours of every evening actively interacting with my boyfriend, because, seriously, why bother if you’re not going to bother? (10 hours)
  • Each day has about two hours of personal grooming, household cleaning, tasks and chores, running errands, and other miscellaneous stuff in it. Inevitably. (10 hours)
  • I also like to sleep, and have learned that I am only healthy and effective if I get at least 8 hours of sleep each night. I really need 9. (45 hours.)

That totals 78.  (Which is pretty damned coincidental!)

If you add all of that up, it’s 156. I said a workweek has 12o hours in it. You can already see that I have a problem: I’ve come up with 31 hours of stuff to do in 24 hour days. Which side do I steal from, the 78 hours of living, or the 78 hours of working? In practice, I do both. Some weeks I slight my contract work and push deadlines, and don’t do my ‘extra’ professional reading, and bug out of work after 8 hours rather then 10. Some weeks it’s my personal life, and we order pizza, I buy breakfast on campus, I escape into my home office instead of hanging out with Justin, and the laundry just doesn’t get put away. And I didn’t even include any of my hobbies: gaming (board, video, roleplaying, and live action roleplaying), crafting (knitting, crocheting, leatherworking, jewelry making), reading (any one of the 6-10 books I usually have in progress), traveling (I love going new places!), outdoorsness (camping, hiking, rock climbing, kayaking), or writing (here and elsewhere). I should be getting ready for bed right now, in fact… because I’m doing what I often end up doing: stealing from sleep to feed a hobby. Either that or I end up cramming it all into the weekends: 48 hours of intensive something, depending on what’s more behind. Sometimes I work all weekend. Sometimes Justin and I run off somewhere on an adventure. Sometimes I play Skyrim for 14 hours. Sometimes I COOK ALL THE THINGS. Sometimes I sleep til noon trying to play catch-up.

And yet. Most of the time, I think the balance I’ve crafted doesn’t suck. It’s imperfect (check my math!) but it’s what I’ve got. (And I also would clearly note: I don’t have kids, which would change the math like whoa.)

So. Work/life balance, huh? What I just described is clearly deeply personal, because you can’t have these conversations without being deeply personal. At this point, I sort of feel like there’s very little left I’m not willing to share, so have at it. There’s my math. Welcome to my life: it won’t match yours. We’re each going to do our own math. We’re each going to choose our own priorities, and we’re going to offer what we can when and where we can, based on those priorities. But I’ve learned that if I don’t prioritize my personal needs, the rest falls apart. I tried working 60 hour weeks in my office and making my day job my first and absolute priority. Everything fell apart. And so I learned what mattered to me, where I had to put my energy and where I didn’t, and where I could borrow from one to give to the other. My coping tactics are also deeply personal: reading, writing, sleeping, massage, cooking, gaming, crafting, Justin. You can’t have my hobbies, and you can’t have my boyfriend, so you’ll have to find your own tactics. There’s no transferable solution here. Your work and your life and your balance: Find your own, in your own way, and just make sure it works for you.

And stop trying to figure out how to have it all. Figure out what you value most, and make sure you have that, in sustainable and maintainable ways, for this particular cycle of your life. That’s the only thing that matters.

Be well.

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