5 Successful Women on How to Actually Have a Work-Life Balance

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In an old episode of one of my favorite podcasts, “Call Your Girlfriend,” in which hosts Aminatou Sow and Ann Friedman talk about life, politics, feminist issues, friendship, the duo answered a question from a soon-to-be college grad about how to balance life and work, and whether “having it all” is really possible.

Sow’s response: “Can women have it all? No, because that’s a bullshit capitalist construct. Can you have everything you want in life? Maybe, if what you want is realistic.” To which Friedman replies, “Having it all is what happens when market forces combine with powerful, outdated gender norms to say, ‘you should want to fully devote yourself to both of these things completely, and do it without failing, and perfectionism isn’t a lie.’ I see the three words ‘having it all,’ and I’m like, RUN.”

I see the three words ‘having it all,’ and I’m like, RUN.

I second that. The idea of having it all has become, for women, such a loaded and sexist term. (Have you ever heard anyone say, “Can men really have it all?”) So instead of that twisted concept, let’s focus on something we all deal with on a daily basis: The juggling act that is adult life—balancing the demands of work and expenses, the pleasures and obligations of family and friends, the responsibilities of kids, and, last but not at all least, our own health and self-care. There are only so many hours in a day, but some people seem to be better than others at making the most of them, getting things done, but also being present and enjoying life without turning it into a nonstop to-do list.

I talked to five super-successful women about their strategies for staying sane, having self-compassion, and still managing to slay their careers and have plenty of time for the people they love.

I try to be especially good to my body when I’m stressed.

Prioritize Your Health.

“When I’m really busy, I try to be serious about getting enough sleep—even if that means less study or work time. It’s tempting to stay up late or get up extra early to finish stuff, but I find I’m so much more productive if I have at least seven and a half hours of sleep. The same goes for eating well—I know when I’m busy, I’ll likely slip with buying groceries and cooking, so I try to make up for it by eating healthy-ish, which mostly means not skipping meals, not surviving on donuts and pizza, and trying to work in fruits and vegetables when I can. And I try to not go overboard on coffee—I’ll let myself have an extra cup in the afternoons, but not much more than that. I think my body craves structure and I try to remember to be especially good to it when I’m stressed.” –Brooke, 29, Master of Public Policy candidate in Berkeley, CA

I’d rather enjoy life and stress about things that actually deserve my attention.

Let Yourself Off the Hook.

“Over time, I’ve learned not to beat myself up for not being a perfect human who exercises every day and doesn’t drink on weekends and works on a set schedule. I used to be more disciplined and try not to drink on weeknights or go out to dinner because it through off my sense of a schedule, but it sucked—especially since I own my own business and work alone. Now I just don’t care as much. Whereas the 23-year-old me would be stressed that I only worked out once this week and splurged on dinners out, now I’d rather enjoy life and stress about things that actually deserve my attention.” –Delia, 29, owner of Delia Langan Jewelry and Mission + Geneva

It’s inevitable that things will slip sometimes.

Skip Things Strategically.

“It’s inevitable that things will slip sometimes, but it feels better when I’m in control of what’s falling off my plate—rather than missing something because I forgot about it. I keep a hard copy day-planner—love my bright red Moleskine!—and try to stay on top of my inbox, so that even if I won’t have time to tackle everything that comes my way, I’m actively choosing what I do and don’t do. Also, when things start to get out of balance, my advice is to fix something. Focus on what’s most important to you, and then try to get it back in balance, even if it means cutting down on happy hours or sports leagues.” –Brooke

MORE: The New Rules of Workplace Productivity

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What good is a promotion if it’s the only thing you’ve got?

Efficiency is Everything.

“At my first job, I showed up early, stayed late, and got promoted young. On paper, that all sounds great, but I took very few risks, neglected some friendships, and didn’t focus on any self-care. What good is a promotion if it’s the only thing you’ve got? Now, I’m better about speaking up, taking risks, clarifying timelines and deadlines with colleagues, and simply working my ass off when I’m at my desk. Then I go home.” –Katie, 29, literary agent in New York City

I tell myself that one day, my daughter will benefit from watching her mom work hard to succeed.

Learn When to Say No.

“My eight-year-old daughter, Lina, generally gets the bulk of my attention, but this year was tricky because I had a novel to promote. The book tour, signings, and speaking engagements were beginning to take up a lot of my weekends, so I turned a lot down—and I kept telling myself that one day, Lina will benefit from the lessons she learned, watching her mom work very hard to succeed in a field that she loves. Also, whenever we were together, I really made it count—because of divorced parent guilt, among other things. Thus, we discovered musical.ly and have, to date, filmed roughly forty thousand music videos. I also have a health issue that requires me to slow down and say no sometimes: Chronic migraines mean I’m in nearly constant pain—something I have to pay attention to, no matter what I have going on. If my body is telling me I need to lay down in a dark room and pull myself together, I have to do it.” –Tia Williams, author and Copy Director at Bumble and Bumble in New York City

No one else knows what you need, so you have to tell them.

Be Your Own Best Advocate.

“It’s so, so important to act as your own advocate in work and life, because no one else can do it for you. No one knows what you’re thinking or what you need—whether that’s your partner or your colleagues—so you need to tell them. And yes, that includes telling your boss when you’re feeling burned out or are ready to ask for that raise.” –Kalli, 29, marketing and growth at Maven Clinic in New York City  

I try to keep the dates I’ve set with friends, even if I’m exhausted.

Schedule Time with Loved Ones.

“Relationships are the part of my life I try to invest the most time in—including the elusive one we have with myself! They outlast every job. But, I just started a new gig, one that requires an extra dose of networking outside 9-to-5, so I’ve been putting in extra hours to make a good impression. Because I know how easy it is to get sucked into working nonstop, I’ve made sure to schedule nights that are just for me, just for me and my partner, and just for me and my friends. It can sound forced or unnatural to schedule time to talk with your mom like you would a client, but for me, it’s important to make sure I’m maintaining my relationships when I’m overwhelmed with work—even if that means blocking out that time well in advance. This also means that I try to keep the dates I’ve set with friends, even if I’m exhausted. I never regret seeing them, even if I scoot out early. And when I’m with them, I have some rules—but I try to be kind to myself when I break them: Be present, be open, be forgiving, and be an active listener. The last one’s especially important to me. When we’re so overwhelmed with everything we’re dealing with, it’s sometimes hard to get out of your own head—especially since I work remotely, so I spend every day totally entrenched in my own brain!” –Katie

Figure out what calms you, and do that.

MORE: 5 Expert Strategies for Dealing with Office Drama

Look for Pockets of Zen.

“When you have a million things going on, it pays to find a practice that makes you feel calm—yoga, meditation, journaling, walking, running, pole dance classes, painting, cooking, anything. It can be the smallest thing. I have a girlfriend who colors in adult coloring books whenever her life feels unmanageable. Figure out what calms you, and do that. Whatever works. I was all ambition, all the time, and didn’t take a breath until I was in my late thirties. Don’t make my mistake!” –Tia

I used to beat myself up when I felt like I couldn’t do everything and please everyone.

Be a Multitasking Master—But Don’t Overdo it.

“I used to beat myself up when I felt like I couldn’t do everything and please everyone. Now, one strategy I use is to try to do the things I love—or need to accomplish—with the people I care about. This means going running with my mom and brother to catch up, having post-run or pre-work coffee dates with my boyfriend, and hitting up networking events with coworkers I enjoy spending time with. But at the same time, even if I’m killing two birds with one stone, I try to be as present as possible, as in not getting caught up with email, work IMs, Instagram—a huge challenge! Luckily, I have a partner who has patiently taught me the value of ditching my phone, whether I’m spending time with friends and family or even when spending time on my own. It’s very freeing!” –Kalli

Originally published December 2016. Updated September 2017.