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What The Pandemic Taught Us About Work-Life Balance—And 3 Ways To Protect Your Time Moving Forward

Amy Stanton

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I have always been a hard worker. Some might call me a high achiever. Others might describe me as an “overdoer.”

I spent the first several years of my career overdoing everything. My calendar was jammed to the max. I lived “work hard, play hard” as I would work long hours in my advertising job and then always find time for dinner and drinks with friends, late nights, then waking up early for a run in Central Park. Nothing could stop me.

I lived in a constant state of fight or flight, always operating on adrenaline. And when I would crash, I would crash hard — but I was young and always thought, “That’s okay. I’ll rest for a day or two and get right back to it.” Somehow it seemed to work. And as time went on, I realized that it was too much, so I started creating a little space in my life. Nights unplanned, I blocked “me time” during the weekday so I’m not a victim to everyone else’s needs all day. It was never really enough, but it was a start.

But, let’s be honest…this past year has been the ultimate education for me on what actual balance feels like.

I know the pandemic has been a very different experience for people depending on life circumstances, where they’re at in their lives, their careers, whether they have kids, whether their work was challenged or accelerated, and so on. For me (aside from all the other stresses), the pandemic was a rude awakening in the most positive sense. For the first time in a very long time, I realized, “Oh, this is what it would feel like to truly have time and space. This is what it would feel like to have time to myself.”

And you know what?

It felt good.

But as soon as 2021 began, and now that the world has gotten used to this new way of remote-first living, I have found myself back at square one.

For example, I have been loving Clubhouse.

The channel has allowed for a newfound sense of connection from afar. The panels I’ve been holding each week have created lots of momentum professionally. It has helped me reconnect with people I haven’t talked to in years, and allowed new friendships to blossom.

But somehow I’m right back to filling my time — with things I’m passionate about, sure, but things that would probably be more manageable if spread out across 3 months as opposed to 3 weeks.

I suspect I’m not alone in feeling an enormous rush of energy now that things (slowly but surely) are available and possible again.

As the world prepares to open back up again, I’m sure my inclination to slingshot back into my daily routines, exercise classes, lunches and dinners, and scheduled meetings, is going to compound the problem. We are all going to want to sprint as fast as we can, and like an overused rubberband, we’re going to end up overstretching ourselves.

So I’m trying to get ahead of it, and here are a few of the things I’m putting in place to find balance and more successfully protect my time:

1. Instead of saying “yes” to things right away, say you’ll decide in a few days.

If you feel overbooked and strapped for time right now, just imagine how you’ll feel once everyone is vaccinated and people feel comfortable going out again.

One of the big mistakes I notice myself making is when people ask me if I want to participate in things, I almost always say “yes” right away. In the moment, I do! I want to support them. I want to be involved. I want to show up and participate. It’s not until afterwards (sometimes immediately after) that I realize I’ve said “yes” to more things than can realistically fit in my schedule, which inevitably makes me feel stretched too thin.

Instead, it’s better to take opportunities as they come and give yourself a few days to reflect on whether this is really something you can commit to, how this is going to fit into your schedule, and what you may need to give up in order to participate.

After all, there are only so many hours in the day.

2. Don’t think of your schedule from week to week, or even month to month. Think quarter to quarter or year over year.

Not everything is urgent.

When you live your life week to week, you feel like every single thing you want to do needs to be done right now or it will never get done at all. When this is the case, every single item on your To Do list has a red “high priority” mark next to it. Guess what…this means that none of them become a priority.

I’m working on remembering that I have the ability to schedule things out months in advance. They’re things I want to do. They’re commitments I want to make (either to others or to myself). I may not have the bandwidth to do them right this instant. A month or two from now though, I can plan ahead to dedicate the time.

When you’re planning minute to minute, day to day or week to week, you may feel like every day is a sprint and you’re constantly out of breath.

If you start to organize your life across longer time frames, suddenly you have the time and headspace to approach things with clarity.

3. Make in-the-moment decisions based on your long-term goals.

Learning how to say “no” is a skill. And learning to do that without guilt or FOMO, is an art form.

It’s easy to say “yes” to things because they sound fun and interesting. And that’s totally fine! We need that. But those things may or may not be aligned with our long-term goals. So if we say “yes” to too many things that aren’t focused on the big picture, there’s no room for the things that will move us forward with our highest priority personal and professional goals.

My experience during the pandemic was that never before has time moved so slowly and so quickly at the same time. The first few months seemed like eternity and now, a year later, I don’t know where the time went.

And at this point in my life, every year counts. I don’t want to waste time. I want to work in ways that are productive and meaningful and I want to make equally conscious choices about how I spend my personal time.

After a year that shook up our lives in inconceivable ways and forced us to take a step back and reflect, now is the time to make meaningful changes in our lives for the long term.

Amy Stanton is the founder and CEO of Stanton & Company and co-author of "The Feminine Revolution."

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