Balance for the Busy Millennial

A stacked rock sculpture in a waterfront park in Vancouver

We millennials are a generation of side-hustlers. We pursue multiple careers simultaneously. Some of us maintain day jobs as a financial necessity while we work to make our side gigs profitable, but others really love our full-time professions and just happen to love our after-hours work too. As teens, we were encouraged to be well-rounded and involved in everything. The standard advice was that having varied interests and doing lots of things would make us more appealing to colleges and, later, to employers. We were also told from a young age that we could do anything, and we perhaps internalized that message as being able to do everything. In a way, I suppose I’ve been side-hustling since I got my first part-time job at 14. If you count all of my middle school extracurriculars, my full schedule of simultaneous projects and goals started even earlier.

We’ve also come of age in a time when work-life balance has been a hot topic. The conversation often centers around balancing work with parenthood, but we childless folks with interests outside of work also expect balance. We want the free time, flexibility, and predictability that will allow us to succeed on multiple fronts. We’re told that we should be physically fit, cook our own healthy meals from scratch, meditate daily, volunteer in our communities…we put a lot of pressure on ourselves to do these things that are supposed to enhance our wellbeing. In addition, we try to squeeze in time with our friends and family, and time for dating or romance. But there are only 24 hours in each day and 168 hours per week, and sometimes striving for balance can paradoxically leave us feeling imbalanced and overwhelmed.

So how do we really balance all of these efforts and desires? Is it actually possible for most of us to perform at our best at work while also achieving big things on the side? I don’t have all the answers — far from it. I continually struggle with these questions, constantly reassessing my priorities. Here are a few thoughts that guide my time management decisions.

  1. You don’t have to do everything every day. Laura Vanderkam makes this point in her book I Know How She Does It, in which she examines the weekly time logs of successful working women with children. When it comes to something like fitness, we have a tendency to look at our already full lives and say, “I don’t have time to do that every day.” But not everything has to be a daily practice. If you aren’t working towards a marathon or triathlon, and your goal is simply to be physically and mentally healthier, maybe it’s sufficient to work out two or three times a week. If you have an unusually busy week or something comes up and you have to miss a scheduled workout, maybe you can fit in an extra-long workout over the weekend. I would argue that the same goes for meditation. Every teacher out there will tell you that you need to establish a daily meditation practice, but I don’t think that’s really necessary. I don’t want meditation to be one more thing on my daily to-do list. I meditate when I feel like I need to or when I want to, and I don’t beat myself up for not meditating every day.
  2. You don’t even have to do everything every week. I’ve heard several successful people say in interviews that they strive for balance over the course of a month, quarter, or year. Maybe you’re working a ton of hours or pushing really hard to meet a deadline, so you have to decline some invitations and neglect your social life for a few weeks. When that busy period is over, you can call your friends and make up for it. They’ll understand. They’ve probably been in the same boat. Or maybe you prefer to push yourself hard for months at a time, but then you take a week-long vacation and do all of the things that relax you, rejuvenate your mind, and restore your energy. Perhaps your creativity isn’t best served by a regular routine but instead comes in bursts, so you spend a whole weekend painting or writing and leave your chores and workouts for another day. These are perfectly acceptable ways of achieving balance in your life, as long as they work for you.
  3. Prioritize one of your ventures slightly above the others. I do think it’s possible to achieve in several realms at once, but there will inevitably come a time when you have to choose one of your careers over the other, at least temporarily. It helps to set that hierarchy ahead of time. When I was practicing law, my law practice always took precedence over my career as an artist, and not just because the lawyer gig brought in significantly more money and allowed me to pay my bills. As a practicing lawyer, I had obligations to my clients, who were trusting me to protect their interests. I had an ethical responsibility to work on their legal matters diligently and competently. Sometimes that meant working late into the evenings and over the weekends, which occasionally required me to forego painting sessions or gallery events. Knowing that from the beginning made those decisions much easier and less unpleasant. And when you get really busy and have to cancel other commitments, it also helps to remind yourself about why you chose your number one priority in the first place. Sheryl Sandberg has said (I’m paraphrasing here) that she doesn’t like the phrase “work-life balance” because it pits work and life against one another, and why would anyone be excited about work when it’s billed as the opposite of life? Work is part of life, just like everything else we do, and it can be an incredibly gratifying part, even if it does sometimes require sacrifices in other areas.
  4. Cut out the stuff that isn’t meaningful. I’m a curious person, and I’ve always had many interests. Were time not an issue, I might learn to play a musical instrument, teach myself several new languages, grow my own food, take up new hobbies, read a ton of books, and volunteer for more causes. But as we know, time is finite. You can’t do everything and expect to do it all well. I have several hobbies that bring me joy, and I make time for those. I’ve found the time in part by jettisoning other hobbies about which I’m less passionate. I used to want to say yes to every volunteer request, but that’s counterproductive. There will always be organizations and causes that need your help, but you can’t help any one of them in a significant way if you’re trying to help them all. Pick one or two and focus on them as best you can. Do some serious thinking about your priorities. At the end of your life, what would you like to have accomplished? Which of your activities will advance those goals, which ones will make your life richer and more meaningful, and which ones won’t? If you’re devoting your time to something solely because you feel pressured or obligated to do it, or if you loved it once but don’t love it so much anymore, you should probably cut it loose. There are better ways to spend your time.
  5. Give yourself a break on the little stuff. There are areas of my life where I routinely do the bare minimum. One example would be dusting. It doesn’t happen all that often at my house. Why? Because maintaining a perfectly dust-free home isn’t going to enhance my life or get me closer to the goals that matter. Along the same lines, my garden isn’t always weeded, the laundry often sits in the basket for a few days before I put it away, and sometimes I go too long between pedicures. I’m ok with that. If your desire for perfection in these areas is keeping you from doing the things that are most important to you, step away from Pinterest and remind yourself that on your deathbed, there is no chance you are going to express a regretful wish that you had vacuumed more often. Women in particular need to stop holding ourselves and other women to standards of perfection in areas that make next to no difference in the world. Let those things go and give yourself permission to focus on bigger and better things.

What tips do you have for balancing the various spheres of your life?

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