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How I Balance Work and Life (Or How I Fail at Both Most of the Time)

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A little more than three years ago, I became a first-time mom. As I entered the world of feeding times, nap schedules, and general post-pregnancy life and eventually went back to work, I was introduced to a whole new balancing act — and a bit of working mom's guilt.

I struggled to find the right balance and at times felt guilty that I wasn’t managing the coexisting demands of work and childcare in the effortless ways I had once imagined.

As vice president of client services at Acceleration Partners, I now recognize this same struggle in many of my co-workers, specifically women. According to a Pew Research Center study, one in five full-time working mothers find balancing work and motherhood "very difficult."

And though research suggests this lack of balance (and the difficulties that accompany it) is fairly common, most working mothers I know actually feel alone in their struggles. Not only are they “failing,” but they’re also the only ones doing so — everyone else must have it all figured out.

Why Working Mothers Feel So Alone

Balancing both work and home has always been difficult for working moms, but we now have more people telling us it should be effortless.

Case in point: social media. Any time you refresh your feed, which is likely multiple times a day, you see post after post from sponsored mom influencers who miraculously have everything under control. It’s never been easier to feel inadequate in comparison.

But it’s not just social media superstars who seem well put-together. I’m just as guilty as the next mom of using Facebook or Instagram to share the best moments of my life while leaving out the moments of pure chaos, which actually make up the majority of most days.

As most of our day-to-day interactions move to an increasingly curated and self-edited online bubble, it’s no wonder we start to feel isolated. We can’t see that someone else’s 3-year-old is out of control, too. Instead, we see only the pretty picture of the child smiling at a nice (and quiet!) meal out.

The Suffocating Myth of Perfection

For high achievers and perfectionists who are highly represented in the professional workforce, this problem is especially challenging. We are not used to lacking full control of our days. We’re not used to not making it down our to-do list in a calm, methodical way.

When I first started working again after having a baby, one of the major mistakes I made was trying to live my life “the old way,” while simply slotting in childcare into an already-full day. Even when it was something as simple as going to the gym (which I had once done in the mornings), I assumed I could simply wake up earlier and still go.

But if you had full days before, you can't just have the same day and then squeeze in an extra four hours; that's not how it works. You have to figure out new routines.

Even when mothers make active choices to prioritize one part of their life over another, they experience shaming from others. In a widely circulated, much-discussed op-ed from 2012, a senior-level government employee discussed leaving her high-pressure job to spend more time with her kids. Reactions about her decision ranged from disappointment and pity to downright condescension.

But as most working moms can attest, staying in a demanding job at the risk of neglecting your children would likely be met with similar judgments.

So when perfection is impossible, how do you simply aim for balance?

Strategies to Help You Balance Work and Home

As a mom with a demanding day job and two young children, I have found a few practical tips that help better manage my schedule. Note that this advice isn't about having it all; it’s about letting go of the guilt and finding a balance that works for you:

1. Pick three buckets every day.

I had been practicing this tip for a while, but I didn’t have a great framework to explain it until I heard entrepreneur and author Randi Zuckerberg speak.

The concept is simple. There are five “time buckets” that make up your day — fitness, family, sleep, work, and friends. Instead of trying to do all five each day, pick just three time buckets. This way, you don’t have to sacrifice one bucket entirely; you simply leave it for another day.

This will help give yourself a pass on the other two, as well as determine what’s most important to you each day of the week.

2. See your time as a bank account.

In each bucket of time, you also have a bank account. Much like calories, sustenance and substance go in and out. This also means you can over-invest in, or overfill, one of those buckets when you have the opportunity, and then time will deplete it slowly.

A great example is fitness. I struggle making fitness one of my top three buckets, but when I travel, which I do quite a bit, the family bucket is no longer available to me. Because this leaves more time to work out, I over-invest in fitness while I'm on the road. This helps me make it through periods where I choose to de-prioritize exercise.

3. Check one task off every day.

Mental decluttering is particularly important — especially when all our to-do list tasks consistently nag us. Think of them as doors that squeak every time you open them.

For example, I have a painting that has been sitting in my hall for months, and I still haven’t figured out where I want to hang it. It drives me crazy! And I scold myself every time I see it.

Instead of trying to do it all at once, commit to doing just one small task every day. Most of these tasks take less than 10 minutes — some just five — yet the mental payoff is substantial. Over time, it adds up to a less cluttered mind and a much smaller to-do list.

4. Give up the guilt.

When everyone has an opinion about parenting, it’s easy to feel guilty. Do enough Googling or read mommy blogs or talk to judgmental people, and you might start to question your choices.

But all that matters is what works for you — no guilt necessary.

For example, I work from my home office all day, and my kids don't really see me. However, if I go downstairs, they get overly excited and energetic, and it can take them ages to calm down. I’ve learned to stay in my space and use our time as true separation.

Some people would judge this decision-making: I’m home, so shouldn’t I make time for my kids? But this is what works for me and successfully avoids throwing off our entire routine.

Even celebrities like Mindy Kaling experience mom guilt when they put themselves first, but we have to stop feeling bad for making time for our career and, ultimately, ourselves.

5. Be all in, here and now.

Think back to those five buckets: fitness, family, sleep, work, and friends. Whichever three you choose each day, be there. Be all in.

If I'm working out, sometimes I'm tempted to have my phone in the little caddy on my exercise bike. When I do this, I inevitably receive some notification from work that distracts me from my workout.

The same is true when spending time with family. You shouldn’t be trying to juggle work emails as you play with the kids. You’ll only start mixing your buckets, doing each of them less effectively and feeling dissatisfied. Instead, be present and commit to each bucket individually.

6. Take advantage of Amazon.

I live in the city, so going to Costco and bringing big boxes of stuff back to my place is not feasible. Instead, I do a lot of my shopping on Amazon, and I’m hardly alone.

More than 50 percent of people use Amazon because of its ease and convenience, and 64 percent use it because of its price. It’s one of those rare win-wins where you don’t have to sacrifice your budget for convenience.

Not to mention, with features like Amazon Subscribe & Save to Amazon Give Back Box, it’s a comprehensive service that's hard to beat. The former helps refill your regular household products on a set schedule with major price cuts; the latter allows you to use Amazon boxes to donate to Goodwill.

7. Find a way to multitask your self-care.

It’s challenging as working mothers to take care of ourselves. Whether it’s going to the salon or getting a pedicure, it can feel impossible to find adequate pockets of time. The key, though, is multitasking.

For example, getting my hair highlighted makes me feel great, but it can take a really long time — a ridiculous amount of time, even. And unlike going to the gym, I don’t need to be focused on what’s going on, so it’s easy for me to sit there and think about all the things I could be doing instead.

But one simple fix changed everything: I found a salon with Wi-Fi. I also found a stylist that doesn’t feel the need to talk to me nonstop. Now, I block my calendar for four or five hours so I don't have any meetings or calls, and I’ll go to the salon and work from there. It’s actually super productive.

It’s not about doing it all; it's about finding balance. Using these tips has allowed me to prioritize my time and has facilitated my professional growth while keeping my family at the forefront.

As working women, we must neutralize this sense of feeling overscheduled and discouraged. The minute we can start talking about these feelings openly (while sharing our best tips and tricks), we’ll be on our way to a more balanced, happy life.

Sarah Johnson is Acceleration Partners’ vice president of client services. Sarah has served on AP’s leadership team for more than five years and is responsible for the success of its 60-member client services team and the happiness of our clients. She has been especially instrumental in shepherding the success of AP's key accounts, including Target, Uber, and Adidas. Sarah is an experienced digital marketer and manager, having launched and grown a successful, innovative, and high-growth e-commerce fashion business from 2004 to 2011 prior to working with Acceleration Partners.

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