By Jennifer Laible

What do we really mean when we talk about “work-life balance”? After years of wearing many hats (as a leader of a fast-growing small business, a mom of two kids and an active member of my community), I’ve learned that work-life balance is really about making time for what matters.

Importantly, the conversation about work-life balance isn’t just a conversation for parents, or working mothers — it’s a conversation for everyone. What matters to me is most likely different than what matters to you. What’s important is setting your own priorities. And after some trial and error in my own life, I’ve defined my most important priorities and strategies for making time for them.

I zoom out.

One thing I’ve learned: You can’t zoom in too close. If you scrutinize how you spend your time at a micro level, day by day or hour by hour, you’ll go crazy (and always end up feeling inadequate on some level). Instead, I zoom out and consider how I can spend time on each of the things that’s important to me over the course of a week or a month.

I don’t know anyone who has a perfectly balanced day, with the ideal proportion of time spent on family, work, health, friends, and community every day of the week. Some days are going to be work-heavy, with meetings or projects taking up my entire day. Other days, I’ll focus on other priorities and do less work. The goal is to get the big-picture equilibrium established in a way that works for me.

Zooming out has helped me stop feeling guilty. I know I can’t get to everything every day. I try to consider all my responsibilities and goals over the longer term.

I’m ruthless with my time.

This is the most important lesson I’ve learned on my journey toward managing my time successfully. Over the past five years, I’ve learned to be ruthless with my time. To say “no” to a lot of things. To consciously recognize that I can make clear choices and decisions about how I give my time to others — my employer, my colleagues, the organizations I support, my community, my kids, my husband, myself.

Most people I know are used to being busy and stretched. That creates an unconscious expectation that people will always say “yes.” But I started pushing back. I said “no” -- to chaperoning every school field trip, leading new projects at work, taking on new board positions. I realized that each demand on my time was a decision I needed to balance with all of the other demands that were filling up my calendar.

This focus makes you narrow down the number of things you commit to and participate in, and inevitably, some things fall off. I’ve had to give up some things I like to do, in favor of the things that are most important to me. For example, I rarely watch TV anymore, which I really like, but I’ve prioritized sleep and getting up early, which meant TV had to go. I’m confident this mix will continue to evolve but right now, for me, this works.

I don’t chase perfection.

Getting over my perfectionism is one way I’ve gotten more ruthless with my time. I've learned that sometimes, “good enough” is just fine. Sure, I could spend two more hours on a work project, but it’s great as-is. And yes, I could spend hours baking a many-layer cake for my kid’s birthday party, but in the grand scheme of things, store-bought will be just fine.

It’s not about being mediocre, but about knowing what matters and what really deserves your time and energy. What do you need to knock out of the park? Who needs your full attention? Prioritizing those things might mean something else can be "good enough." To be clear, I have high expectations for myself and my team, but I also know that if I consistently deliver on my promises and expect others to do the same, I will naturally find myself focusing on the most important items.

I don’t chase perfection on my to-do list, either. Every morning, I prioritize what has to get accomplished. Most of the time, at the end of the day, I don’t get emotional or stressed about the items on my to-do list that haven’t gotten done. I know that things will settle down, I can work with other people to manage urgent tasks, and everything else can wait until tomorrow. It took me a long time to adopt this perspective on work, but I’m a more productive (and happier!) person because of it.

I carve out an hour for myself.

I’ve reworked my schedule in one simple way that’s made a huge difference for me. I’ve committed to taking the hour from 6 to 7 a.m. for myself. Before I did this, I woke at the same time as my kids. I started the day frantic, racing to get everyone out the door. Every day was a slingshot.

Now, I have an hour before anyone else wakes up to exercise, have a cup of coffee, and just be quiet. This hour alone sets a completely different tone for the day. Instead of feeling frantic and reactive, I feel in control. And, the benefits of exercising on a regular basis are great too!

In a busy life, carving out an hour for yourself is incredibly hard. I almost never succeeded when I tried to find that time later in the day. But taking back an hour at the beginning of every day makes me feel centered.

I ask for help.

I’m not perfect. I’ve always been a people pleaser, and I’ve always battled a “yes” problem. Even with my decision to be ruthless about my time, sometimes I mess up and need help.

One of the ways I work on my “yes” problem is vocalizing it to the people around me — my coworkers, husband and friends. They help me check myself when I start saying “yes” to too many things and help me remember to prioritize the things that matter.

These are the strategies that are helping me make time for what matters. I know that my priorities and what matters to me will change over time, but for now I’ll keep zooming out, letting go of perfection, and happily setting my alarm for 5:30 a.m.

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