A few years ago, my employer graciously paid $1500 for me to attend a day-long women’s leadership conference. It was there, in the shadow of a step and repeat and amidst a sea of branded tote bags, that a panelist offered some of the most memorable career advice of all time:
“Everyone needs to breathe. Practice that. Build it into your day! You know how you look at your phone several times an hour to check the time? Change your screen to say Breathe! I did and it’s life-changing!”
Look. I didn’t say it was good advice. I just said it was memorable. As totally ridiculous things often are.
Make no mistake, I have no problem with practicing mindfulness. But I do take issue with that fact that someone tried to pass off swapping out a cell phone graphic as “life-changing” advice. And I find it even harder to believe that a panel of men would ever say such a thing to a group of their peers – but that’s a topic for another article.
This one is about women who already do too much and the people who helpfully try to point out how they can do even more. The ones who think that the best thing to do when feeling overwhelmed is to treat even the simple act of checking the time as an opportunity to multitask.
That person doesn’t need to breathe. She needs to nap.
I’ve been to plenty of women’s conferences in the past 15 years and they’re all the same. They go like this:
Three hundred women show up at a hotel ballroom at 8 a.m. Half of them are wearing a slight variation of the same outfit and the rest of them have on what the first group wore the year before. They all drink impossibly bad coffee and snack on mini muffins and mini bagels and mini parfaits because somewhere along the way, caterers realized that they can serve women half as much, but charge them double. After breakfast, everyone spends several hours listening to panel after panel of other women talk about how coming in early “when it’s still quiet” or breaking up big tasks into “snackable” to-dos is the secret to success. By 3 p.m. at least one person has stood on the main stage and offered a metaphor about how a working mom is like a duck – silently gliding across placid water but furiously pedaling below the surface. This is the highlight of the day – and everyone talks about it during the cocktail hour where the caterers serve wine that’s so bad it makes people long for the coffee. At 5 p.m., they all go home, the ultimate irony being that everyone’s to-do list is now twice as long as it was the day before.
I, for one, am tired of hearing about that duck. But not as tired as I am of hearing speakers imply that if we keeping adding more to our days – networking events and special projects and mentorship meetings – that we could someday hope to “have it all.”
We won’t. No one will. And even the women on the stage who are implying that we can – the ones who we in the audience are led to believe already do – would probably tell you as much once the microphone is turned off.
Usually when women talk about “having it all,” they mean building a high-powered career and raising a beautiful family. My version is getting a book deal and being able to do reverse pull-ups on a trapeze. That might seem frivolous by comparison, but I don’t care. The beauty of living in 2016 is that no one has to put “career” or “family” at the top of their list unless they actually want it there.
But even with my relatively unambitious interpretation of “having it all,” I still can’t make it happen. Yesterday, when I went to the aerial studio for the first time in six months, I realized how weak and out of practice I was. As much as I love those classes, I don’t have time to spend on getting my skills back, let alone honing them once I do. Sadly, I can’t travel and practice the trapeze. At least not if I want to work and write a book too.
It’s time to choose between my professional ambition and my personal interests – and I pick the former.
Right now, everything in my life is organized around the goal of getting published. And that makes it easy to decide how to spend my time. If the activity isn’t putting words on a page – if it isn’t contributing to the storyline or helping pay my expenses in the meantime – then I don’t do it. Because there’s no value-add.
Adopting that mindset had been far more helpful than any piece of advice I ever heard at a conference. It simplifies and prioritizes my to-do list it in a way that I never could before. In fact, if I ever find myself addressing a group of women at a conference, that’s what I’d tell them: Find your book.
Figure out the thing that you want most and focus on that. Add whatever else you want to the agenda – a job, kids, side hustle, half marathon, million dollar wedding – but don’t over-service bolt-ons and don’t get distracted by them. If one of those items overtakes the original goal, then stop and rebuild everything around that new priority. Because most people can do two things at once, but hardly anyone can do both well.
Find your focus. Once you do, it’ll be a whole lot easier to breathe.
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