I was a few weeks into my maternity leave when I heard that my company named a new CEO. Several of my colleagues emailed me saying, “You’d better get in here; she’s developing relationships with the key people, and you’re missing out.” Anxious and fearful of missing out on making a connection with the new CEO, I cut my maternity leave short and went back to work. Several months later, I found myself operating on “Transactional Mode.” I so badly wanted to feel accomplished by checking things off my to-do list that I spent all my time attacking small tasks and let the big ones slide.
When I talked to a mentor about my hectic but unproductive days, she was very blunt with me. She said, “You need to choose the things that really matter to you.” I realized that I was failing to set boundaries. I’d fallen into this trap earlier in my career, only to find myself frustrated, anxious, and resentful later on. I knew that I needed to impose a structure to force myself to create and maintain those boundaries. I needed to take an objective and honest look at where I wanted to focus my time and energy. Once I had that figured out, I could devise a plan to cut down on the commitments that didn’t align with my priorities.
Here’s what I came up with:
Step 1. Determine My Non-Negotiables In Every Area Of My life
I sat down at my desk, and on a big piece of paper I drew two lines–one vertical and one horizontal. In each of the four squares, I wrote down an area of my life that was important to me–“Me,” “Friends/Family,” “Career,” and “World.” In each square, I wrote my top priorities related to that part of my life, limiting myself to a maximum of three priorities per square. I knew this would force me to say no to things to maintain my boundaries. My goal was to allow these priorities to take up the majority of my time (ideally around 80%) and to allocate the rest of my time to administrative tasks that needed to be taken care of.
Step 2. Adjust My Calendar And To-Do Lists Accordingly
Right away, it was clear to me that my calendar and to-do list were not consistent with the priorities I had identified. I began shifting my schedule and commitments by saying no, and delegating some of the requests that didn’t move me forward toward my goals.
Step 3. I Checked In Regularly To Tweak Priorities
Over time, this four-square model has become an essential tool in helping me create boundaries and stick with them. Since I started using it, the amount of time I devote to each square has shifted from month to month. Some months are more weighted toward my career, while I fill other months with family obligations. I do a check-in every two weeks to make sure that my calendar is mapping back to my stated priorities. And on a quarterly basis, I also completely revisit my chart to determine if I need to shift any priorities. After all, your priorities right now might not be your priorities later. The key is to allow them to change without allowing them to pile up endlessly (if everything’s a priority, nothing is).
Of course, these are just my four squares. Yours will be different. Think about the areas of your life that are most important right now. Career (or school if you’re still in college or graduate school) will almost always be one of the four. The others may be the same as mine, or you might fill them with one or more of the following: a hobby, side hustle, a passion project; travel; social or political advocacy; continuing your education; or a particular relationship.
Even with this model, it’s still a constant struggle to balance my time among all of my responsibilities and passions, especially as a working mom. I’m often asked in interviews how I manage to “balance everything,” or how I “do it all,” and my honest answer is that I don’t. Instead, I try to do my best at those priorities that really matter to me–knowing full well that what matters most can, and should, change every now and then.