If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?
Photo by Mathieu Turle
Would I miss Christmas with my family because of a work policy that says I have not yet earned enough vacation days?
Would I feel guilty for taking a day off on one of my milestone birthdays to relax at a spa even though I had worked a 70-80 hour week the week before?
Would I miss attending a performance, for which I had purchased tickets months in advance, because of a work project?
Would I compromise my health and well-being by working too hard and too long?
Would I be mentally distracted and impatient during bedtime storytime because of the work still needing to be completed that day?
My answer to these questions now is a resounding no. I am ashamed to admit that these are real situations that happened over the course of my professional life where I did not say no. I was most definitely not successful in balancing work and life in these moments.
Over the course of the last two years, I have figured out the best antidote to work stress. Instead of trying to fit my life and family in around work, I decided to flip the process.
Fit work in around my life (not the other way around)
I now try to fit in work around my life. I am there for the important few minutes after school when my son is willing to talk about his day. Our family dines together most evenings and shares what we are grateful for each day. I can go away for the weekend to celebrate my Dad’s 80th birthday. I listen when my body is trying to tell me something in the form of pain, fatigue or illness.
Skills and hobbies that I love are part of my life again. I considered myself a tennis player, but I hadn’t picked up a racquet in almost a decade. What kind of tennis player is that? I took lessons to get my swing back. My skills and love of the game came back to me. I’m now playing competitively on teams. It feels so good to be back on the court and part of a team.
I have loved singing since I was a child, but my shower was my main audience. I now share my love of singing at church. I sang a solo of Oh Holy Night on Christmas Eve service with my family in the pews, which meant a lot to me.
I practice yoga regularly. I read for pleasure and personal development. I am getting to know my neighbors. I am reconnecting with friends. I have rediscovered my love of writing.
Lastly, I am doing meaningful work that best uses my unique skills and talents to serve others.
When we look back on our lives, what truly matters
As I write, I am in a contemplative mood. I recently celebrated my father’s 80th birthday and attended a burial ceremony for a beloved relative. I have also been reading former hospice worker Bronnie Ware’s insights into the regrets of the dying, Todd Henry’s book Die Empty: Unleash your best work every day and watching Candy Chang’s TED talk on “Before I die I want …”.
Bronnie Ware found the following to be the top five regrets of the dying:
- I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
- I wish I didn’t work so hard.
- I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.
- I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
- I wish that I had let myself be happier.
My recently deceased relative, who had an accomplished career as an academic, a loving marriage, and close relationships with his three sons and five grandchildren, inspires me. He even made time to create a peanut butter and martini society with his friends. He did not look back on his life with regrets.
I have definitely been guilty of working too hard and taking things to seriously at the expense of my friendships and happiness. I don’t want to look back on my life and regret that my actions did not reflect my priorities.
I still want to create a meaningful body of work, but not at the expense of friends, family or my health. I need to remind myself daily that my body of work, which Todd Henry defines as the sum total of our focus, assets, time and energy, is not just the paid work that I’ve done.
My body of work can, and should, include my volunteer work, tennis matches, bedtime story times, writing, yoga practices, time with friends, and all aspects of my life.
If I think of it that way, I guess I am finally putting my “work” first.
(This post was originally published on LinkedIn pulse on March 1, 2016.)