What Having Twins, a New Career, a New Business and a Life Taught Me About Balance
Today we have our first guest blogger! Welcome to Leisa Flatley from Change Sage Career & Change Management.
It seems the biggest challenge for working women and mums, in particular, is this ever-elusive concept of balance. Most women fall into the mindset trap of thinking and believing that they must do it all in order to ‘have it all’. The word balance has gotten a bad rap of late. Many critics believe that it puts undue pressure on working women and mums to be all things to all people, to have everything in ‘perfect’ order, juggling all the competing responsibilities and obligations with a smile on our faces and energy in reserve. The thing about balance is that it is relative and everyone’s definition of what a balanced life looks like is personal to them and their circumstances.
There is no one definition that works for everyone and no one vision to aspire to which means that we can all finally breathe a collective sigh of relief.
But that doesn’t end the debate or solve the equation about how to ‘juggle’ everything you have going on in your life without losing your mind, patience or your will to live. We still need to find a way to live our lives with enough space for it all.
The key to finding your own definition of balance or a way to integrate all the competing aspects of your life is to let go of everyone else’s definition and expectations and create your own vision of what a balanced life looks like to you.
What does balance mean to you? What does a balanced life look like to you and your family? If you were to feel ‘balanced’ and in control of all the competing aspects, what would be happening in your life?
When you get clear on what it is you want, you are one step closer to making it a reality. Without a plan, you have no idea where to start, how you will get there and more importantly, when you have arrived.
My internal default setting has always been based on organisation, routine and scheduling. I thrived on knowing what I was doing and when. I liked to be in control and when things followed my well laid plan, I found I was living my very definition of a balanced life. This was all well and good when I was young and single but as with all seasons, life changes and evolves and, well, you know what they say about best laid plans. Almost three years ago, I became a mum to twins. I left my full time career as a lawyer (which suited my default setting to a tee) to go on maternity leave. I hoped against all hope that this default setting would not abandon me when I needed it the most as I entered the foreign world of motherhood. I loved my maternity leave because it gave me permission to focus on my most important task which was to keep these two tiny humans alive and to help them grow into caring, interested and delightful young people. I took on board all the advice of accepting help when it was offered, ensuring that I got enough rest and just doing the bare minimum that needed to be done each day. I learnt to replace multitasking with single focused mindful action because there is only so much you can do whilst feeding two babies at the same time. I learnt to let go of all the expectations I put on myself because at the end of the day the reality is that not everything is important. Things can wait.
Life will still go on and the sun will still rise if you don’t have a clean house or all the washing folded.
After twelve months maternity leave (and a redundancy from my legal job) I embarked on a whole new world of navigating motherhood, a new part-time career as a lecturer and starting a new business all the while maintaining the house, cooking, cleaning, entertaining, fixing, mediating my way through life at the same time as trying to be a good partner, person, friend, sister, daughter, citizen.
As I entered this brave new world, I learnt that my old definition of balance did not apply to my new life. I learnt to accept that my life had drastically changed which meant that my expectations of what I was capable of doing and what I wanted and needed to do also had to change.
I became a quiet but diligent observer of my own life. When was I the most stressed? What did I feel pressured to do or be the most? When did I feel most at ease and when did I feel so far from balanced that I could barely drag myself out of bed each day?
And I began to piece together a new definition based on what worked for each phase of my new life. Having kids meant that I had to learn to be more flexible and to embrace the often treacherous terrain that comes with being a working mother.
We become stressed when we feel like nothing is going to plan, when it feels like too much effort and when we have too many competing interests. Stress is always about feeling like you are under too much pressure. And as with anything that is put under too much pressure, if there is no release, catastrophe is usually just around the corner.
So how do you arrive at your own definition of balance? How can you find a way to integrate all those competing aspects of your life?
Here are some of my tried and tested tips for creating a more balanced life:
- Accept and embrace that life changes constantly and that your definition of balance this month or year might be completely different next year or in five years time. Be willing to change your plan when the old one is no longer working for you.
- Redefine your expectations of what you are capable of in a 24 hour period and what you can achieve when you have kids, a career, a business, a household to run, relationships to maintain, activities to attend, and a soul to nourish. Unrealistic expectations only serve to add more pressure on your already burgeoning shoulders. Be realistic about what you can get done in the time you have available.
- Limit your priorities to three core things you need to get done each day – when you limit your priorities to the top three most important things you need to get done, you reduce the amount of pressure you put on yourself. If you tick off these three things each day, you not only feel a sense of achievement for having completed these tasks but it may spur you on to achieve more if you feel so inclined. Identify what is vitally important to get done each day and focus your attention, time and energy on those three things. The rest will get done at some point (or they won’t and it won’t matter so much).
- Use your time wisely – I work well with a schedule or a routine but I appreciate that not everyone works this way. Whatever is your preferred style, it is vital that you know how you spend your time and where you may be able to tweak things in your favour so that you can dedicate time each day to things like meditation, exercise, self care, relaxation. When you become time savvy, you begin to appreciate how much time is wasted doing things you don’t even realise you’re doing which, in turn, don’t lead to making you feel how you want to feel. Be aware of time wasting activities such as watching too much television or spending time on social media. When you work out what is vital to your definition of balance, it becomes a non-negotiable to schedule it into your day or week and you will find yourself replacing mind-less tasks with more soul enriching activities.
- Design a schedule of your day/week/month/year – block out time for each activity that is scheduled for the day – work time, kids activities, cooking, cleaning and importantly what the top priorities are for each day. Here is an example of my daily to-do list which is part of my free eBook “Babes in Balance – Ten Essential Principles to Achieve Balance, Meaning and Mindfulness Everyday”.
- Don’t over schedule yourself or your family. We feel like we need to fill our lives up with lots of stimulation, activities and devices when what we really need is time to ourselves, to relax, to create, and to breathe. When we over-commit ourselves and our children, we burn out much more quickly so it’s wise to limit the number of activities each season or term.
- Ask for and accept help – as the saying goes ‘many hands make light work’ so where you can, ask for help. Outsource what you can. Trade babysitting duties with a friend. Join a cooking co-op and share meals, order your groceries on line, ask a trusted friend or relative to watch the kids while you go on a date or have a massage.
- Negotiate time for yourself – this relates to my tip above. I have learnt that to feel balanced, I need to take half an hour to an hour for myself each day to either exercise or read and write. I appreciate that my partner needs the same so we have worked out a way to factor that into our lives. My partner exercises in the mornings whilst I get the kids up and fed which means that when he gets home from work and after the kids have had dinner, I take off for an hour to do what I need to do that day whether it’s a run on the treadmill or a blog post.
- Spread the love – and the cleaning. Divide up the tasks between all members of the household. If your kids are still young, work out what tasks you and your partner will each do so that it doesn’t always fall to one person. I find that what works best for me is to do one thing each day rather than setting aside a big chunk of time to clean the house. I clean the shower whilst I’m having a shower. I clean the toilet the next day. I clean the basin the next. I sweep the floor whilst the kids are having breakfast. Small bite-sized chunks that don’t feel so overwhelming.
- Do one thing at a time – multitasking is the enemy of balance. When you try to do many things at once, it is the very antithesis of living a balanced life. So if you are putting on the washing, put on the washing and mentally tick that tasks off. If you are cooking dinner, cook dinner and resist the urge to unpack the dishwasher, fold the washing and put away the toys at the same time. There are many studies which show that multitasking doesn’t actually save you more time. When you focus on doing what you are doing and being present whilst you do it, you are more likely to feel more balanced than if you are trying to do many things at the same time. When you think about it, when you arrive at the end of the day, which approach is likely to leave you with more energy?
- Develop a mindfulness practice – this has been the biggest game changer for me since having kids. I cannot emphasise the importance of being mindful as you move through your day. It will revolutionalise your life simply by being intentionally present, focusing your full attention on the task at hand, without judgment about what you’re doing, how you’re doing it and what else there is to be done. This doesn’t need to be another activity to be scheduled into your day. It can be done in as little as two minutes a day. It can be done as you are going about your day, going about each task in your day. Simply focus your attention and breathing on the task your doing. Be present as you hang out the washing. Simple hang out the washing. Bring your awareness to the task at hand and not to the ten other things still left to do. Be aware of your thoughts. Don’t try to control them or change them or stop them. Simply notice where your attention is and concentrate on your breath.
- Most importantly, be kind to yourself and give yourself a break, literally and metaphorically. You need to remember that you are a person, an individual, a human being with needs and wants. You are more than your roles of mother, employee, business owner, CEO, wife, friend, sister, cleaner, chef and all the others roles you play in your life. Don’t downplay your need for time out, for nourishment, for quiet time to reflect.
You are in control of creating your own definition of balance and likewise, you are in control of changing your own life for the better.