“I’m really sorry honey, but I won’t be coming home in time for dinner. I have to work”.
“I’m sorry son, I can’t take you to football practice, I have to go to this meeting”.
If this sounds familiar, rest assured you are not alone. I get many requests for help from people struggling to time manage and frustrated for consistently having to let their loved ones down. Many of them want to have a better balance but are simply feeling overwhelmed and unable to move away from the hamster wheel they got themselves into.
You might be struggling to deal with your work flow alone and any thoughts of work life balance are pure fantasy. Time and time again there’s something at work that comes up and obliterates your plans. That theatre play you wanted to see? Killed by that last minute meeting your boss called on. That football match you were so keen to watch? Not this time. That bed time story you wanted to read your child? That powerpoint needs finishing.
This is your work controlling your life. This is everybody else but you controlling your life. You probably got yourself into this narrative where you are a powerless victim of this unfair professional world. You are just tagging along doing what needs to be done.
You HAVE TO stay at work late. You HAVE TO send that one more email. You HAVE TO finish that powerpoint. You are in this vicious cycle that feels impossible to break away from.
Let me tell you a little secret: not only it is possible to get out of it, it starts with a very simple shift. Next time you are about to let a loved one down with one of those infamous sentences, do me a favour: swap the word “HAVE” with the word “CHOOSE”. And see how that sounds.
The truth is there is very little we actually HAVE TO do. Aside from staying on the right side of the law and perhaps abiding by some basic social rules, we CHOOSE TO what we do. We choose the time we wake up in the morning. We choose what clothes to wear. We choose to go to work and how to go to work. Every time someone asks us to do something, we are faced with a choice. Because whether you like it or not, what you do is your choice alone. Unless someone is holding you at gun point to finish that proposal, or to attend that meeting, it is your choice (and if someone is, you might want to reconsider your career choices!).
Fulfilled people are not victims. They are not shackled. They don’t HAVE TO do things. Successful people CHOOSE TO do things. And that is a world of difference. It’s the difference between hiding behind a narrative of having no control or being in charge and owning up your decisions.
Swapping HAVE TO with CHOOSE TO forces you to rank your alternatives. And it makes your preferences very visible to you and to those around you. If you chose to do something, than it must be more important that whatever you are giving up on.
There will be times when that meeting is, in fact, the most important thing to do. There’s nothing wrong with that. There’s nothing wrong with investing consciously and smartly in your career or making sacrifices to ripe the rewards later. But by acknowledging you are always making a choice, you’ll become aware of the relative importance of every option and you’ll appreciate them more.
So own up. Try saying to your young child “I can’t read you a bedtime story because I CHOOSE to stay late at work instead.” Try telling your partner “I won’t be home for dinner because I CHOOSE to fire off a few more emails instead”. When you pick up your mobile phone to check emails at home, tell your family you are choosing to look at the phone rather than focusing on them.
Because, maybe, just maybe, the next time you have the urge to do that, you might think twice….and perhaps that thing you thought was really important or had to be done urgently, it’s not that important after all.
When in doubt, apply the 3 year test. In 3 year’s time, you won’t remember what that meeting was about. You won’t remember what that urgent proposal led to. But I guarantee you that in 3 year’s time your family will still remember if you consistently chose not to be there for them.