Family, Work, Life: Why You Should Come First

want to have it all

In a recent column, I explored what it means to “have it all.” Life presents us with the challenge, and reward, of an always-evolving definition of “having it all” — especially for women.

I also discussed that we feel most satisfied when we are mindful of how we balance and integrate the four domains of life: self, family, community, and work.

I’d like to explore the area that is often the most neglected, yet is the most crucial: self.

Every time you take a flight, you’re reminded of the instructions to put your own oxygen mask on before helping others in the event of an emergency. Why is that? Because if we literally can’t breathe, we are of no use to anyone else.

Women tend to focus on taking care of others — children, spouses, friends, colleagues — while neglecting themselves. But if we are not at our best, we cannot show up for anyone else.

Here are several things you can do to start making your “self” as important as the other parts of your life.

Prioritize your health. Numerous studies show that people who prioritize their health have more energy and better focus. Although we often try to do it all, we can’t: We need proper nutrition, sleep, and exercise, and the time to recover after long stretches of work.

I find that keeping my body moving is an enjoyable — and rewarding — way to prioritize my health, and many successful leaders feel this way, too.

Several years ago, I had the pleasure of working with Frances Hesselbein, former CEO of the Girl Scouts of America and recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom award. Once, I picked her up from the airport and accompanied her as she checked into her hotel. After check-in, she asked the front desk for two cans of soda. When they asked what kind she’d like, she said it didn’t matter — she would not be drinking the soda, she would be using the cans as hand weights to exercise with in her room. Frances found a way to prioritize her health — and keep moving — in a life filled with work and travel.

Manage your energy. In a recent article, McKinsey partner Gila Vadnai-Tolub writes that the term “work-life balance” implies that one area depletes energy while the other restores. She argues we’re better served by learning how to balance our four types of energy: physical, mental, emotional and spiritual.

Physical energy defines how we feel in our bodies. If you’re ever working for long periods of time and feel the urge to get up and walk around, that’s your body responding to a need for a boost in physical energy. Make room for physical resets in your daily schedule.

Mental energy is the energy we use to focus, analyze and think. We all have mental tasks that energize or drain us. Being mindful and aware of what these are helps us manage mental energy.

We derive emotional energy from connecting with others. Positive interactions can boost our emotional energy, while negative interactions can drain us.

Finally, we derive spiritual energy from doing things that are meaningful to us. When our work is fulfilling on a deep level, we may feel physically and mentally exhausted, but our reserve of spiritual energy is full.

If you are aware of the elements of your life that fill or deplete your physical, mental, emotional and spiritual energy, you can more easily find balance.

Take control of your smartphone. “Mindfulness” is more than a current-day buzzword — it describes the act of being truly in the moment, free of distraction, judgment, and mental noise, and present with the task or person in front of you. Sadly, one of our greatest tools for productivity is also one of the greatest hindrances to mindfulness: the smartphone.

Studies show that the mere presence of a phone between two people affects the quality and content of their conversation. An interaction that could fulfill your spiritual or emotional energy can end up depleting it.

One of my clients realized her smartphone was extending her workday into unreasonable hours, affecting her time with her family — keeping her from feeling like she was “having it all.” In response, she created three smartphone rules for herself.

One, she turns her phone off at 7 PM and on again at 7 AM. This gives her time to unwind in the evening with her family and time to ease into her day without rushing to check emails. Two, she avoids checking or sending emails to her team after hours and on the weekends. Doing so only perpetuates the cycle of frenzy. Three, she turned off notifications for most apps, lessening the noise that can distract her. With these rules, she allows herself to disconnect, and live in the moment and appreciate the people she is with.

“Self-care” is a term we hear often, but it means more than the occasional manicure or massage. When we truly take care of the “self,” we make ourselves as important as the people and the tasks in our lives — and, in turn, we’re able to be better parents, partners, and leaders.