How to Gracefully Choose Between Work and Life

**This post is in response to a reader's request. If you have ideas for things you'd like to know more about, let me know! megan leatherman career coach and human resources consultantI write a lot about work life integration - the idea that there's no real separation between "work" and "life," so we're better off finding ways to integrate the two instead of trying to balance them.

The tenets of work life integration get a little murkier you have a seemingly black and white decision to make about where you will be and how you'll spend your time. Will you stay at the office another hour, or get to your kid's soccer game on time? Will you finish that blog post or get coffee with a friend you haven't seen in a while?

Our attention, physical presence, and time are finite resources. We cannot be everything, everywhere, to everyone. Sometimes we have to choose.

Most people choose this way:

They're faced with a conflict: let's say it's family dinner v. happy hour with colleagues. Panic ensues. They try to weigh all of the factors in their head in a split-second (Who will be more upset if I don't show up, my spouse or my boss? What did I do last time? How can I get out of one or the other?). They make a haphazard decision to go out for drinks, aren't sure it's the right one, and then spend their time with colleagues feeling guilty about not being at home.

I've totally made my decisions this way in the past, and it doesn't feel good. But there's a better way - one that gracefully honors who you are and what's important to you.

In four simple (but not always easy) steps, I'll outline how I choose between competing priorities in my life in case it's helpful to you, too:

First, I set intentions about the way I want to live.

Being caught in the "work v. life" crossfire is exponentially harder when you aren't clear about your own priorities. This will go much more smoothly if you essentially make the decision ahead of time. If you know that out of the four major domains of your life (more about that here), self-care and your community project are at the top, then it's easier to tell your boss "no" when she asks if you're available to come into the office over the weekend.

megan leatherman career coach and human resources consultantSo that's step number one: get clear about what's most important to you right now.

Second, I create structures that will support those intentions.

For example, I used to prioritize networking and email management above my own quiet working time, which resulted in me being burnt out and not able to produce very high-quality content. That way of living went against my intention to reflect deeply on the way we relate to work.

Now, every morning, there are walls of titanium around me as I read, write, and design classes about how we relate to work. It's not always easy to keep that time sacrosanct, but it is so important. I realize I'm fortunate to be able to work alone, but even as a solo-preneur, I have demands and distractions coming at me all the time. I mean, it's not like I've got a boss who would notice if I just watched Game of Thrones all day. If we're going to live the lives we want, we have to set intentions and then reinforce them with structure.

For me, that structure usually looks like: a) blocking off my calendar, b) turning my phone on "Do Not Disturb," and c) never, ever opening email until my top priorities for the day are met.

Third, I enforce my boundaries.

Intentions and structure are the foundational elements of choosing gracefully, but they're not enough - at some point, we have to draw boundaries and say "no." This is usually where the breakdown happens. We've got our intentions set, our calendars blocked off, our email closed, and then...someone comes into our office. Or we really want to stay up watching t.v. for another hour. Or we're convinced that it's okay if we just schedule one teensy meeting during our quiet working time.

We have to be disciplined with our boundaries. We have to lovingly say "no" to that person who came into the office, or to the part of us that just wants to watch t.v., or to that person who really wants to meet with us.

We have to enforce our boundaries for others in a loving but assertive way. 

There's a big difference between cowering in your boss's office asking if it might, umm, be okay if, uh, you took next Friday off and saying with confidence, "I need to help my mom move out of her house next Friday - what do you need from me in order to make that happen?"

megan leatherman career coach and human resources consultantWhen we stand in our truth and lovingly assert our needs, it makes our boundaries clear to others, which is actually very helpful to them and to us.

People may not like your boundaries at first, but they will get used to them. Let me say that again: they will get used to them. They will adjust. You will be living a life that feels authentic to you, and they might kick and scream at first, but then they'll respect you and may even find the strength within themselves to enforce their own boundaries.

When you're clear about your intentions, have built helpful structures around them, and know your non-negotiable boundaries, communicating them to others is way, way easier. If you need help knowing how to communicate your boundaries to others with grace, here's a quick little formula based on the principles of Non-Violent Communication:

  1. Observation (example: I can sense you're upset that I won't be at that meeting, but...)
  2. Feeling (...I feel excited about where this project is heading, and...)
  3. Need (I need to stay focused on it for the rest of today if I'm going to meet my deadline.)
  4. Request (Would you be willing to share your notes with me afterward?)

No demands, pointed fingers, or screaming, just assertive and compassionate boundary-enforcement.

Finally, when I have to make a difficult choice between work and life, I heap on the self-compassion.

This stuff is hard, especially for those of us who naturally prioritize external demands over our own internal needs. Oftentimes, I'll feel some guilt after making a tough choice, and that's when I have to remember to communicate compassionately to myself as well. Instead of allowing the onslaught of guilt and shame to rush through my thoughts, I think back to my intentions, take a deep breath, and accept that I'm doing the best I can with the time and resources I've got.

In case it's helpful, I'll walk you through an example from start to finish so you can see these four steps play out:

Intention: You want to feel more connected to others around you, so you intend to strengthen your ties to your community.

Structure: In order to do this, you sign up for your local neighborhood council and block off your calendar after 4:00 one Thursday a month to make sure you get there on time for the 5:00 meeting.

Boundaries: When someone at work puts a meeting on your calendar for 4:30 on the Thursday before your council meeting, alarm bells go off. Now you have to make a choice. You remember your intentions and muster up the strength to enforce your boundaries. You take a few deep breaths and assume your colleague just didn't check your calendar when she scheduled the meeting. You to go her office and calmly say "I appreciate you making sure we had time to chat about Project X (observation + feeling), but I have a neighborhood council meeting that day and have to leave at 4:00 (need). Would you mind rescheduling it? (request)"

megan leatherman career coach and human resources consultantSelf-compassion: Then, as you walk back to your office, you let yourself feel good, and authentic, and aligned. You let any feelings of guilt or shame move on through, out of your system.

So there they are: the four steps I take to gracefully choose between competing demands. It's a lifelong work in progress, but I've found that this gets much, much easier with practice.

No matter what choices you make, they are graceful when they're in alignment with who you are and what matters to you. We all benefit when you're living out your truth and lovingly asserting your boundaries.

Know someone who needs some help choosing gracefully? Pass this post on!