“I planned to hang out with my kids yesterday afternoon. Instead, I let my mom watch them and I went to my desk and replied to emails.”
“I’ve been trying to spend more time with my kids in the afternoons, and I find myself constantly thinking about work while I’m with them, wanting to check my phone incessantly.”
“I really want to cut myself off at the end of the workday, to stop checking email after 6 PM, and have time with my husband making dinner and eating together. But I can’t stop looking at my phone and don’t feel focused on my husband at all.”
These are just three of many examples of things my clients have said to me about trying to draw boundaries around work and spend more time with their families.
I hear it all the time.
A client wants to change the balance in her life. Wants how she spends her time to better reflect what’s most important: her family (or friends, or art).
And she can’t understand why something that is so clearly important feels so hard to do.
Sometimes she comes to me feeling ashamed. She thinks her inability to draw the boundaries she wants means something about her as a partner or mother.
Sometimes she’s angry. She feels like she’s been giving so much to her job for so long that now she doesn’t know how to do anything else.
Sometimes she’s sad. She doesn’t know how to do the thing she so desperately wants to do.
When we want to change a habit or practice, but most especially when we associate that habit or practice with something moral — our values, how we show up as a partner or parent — the tendency is to think that our ability to follow through is a reflection of our true selves, level of commitment, or moral fiber.
If you’ve ever done this, take a deep breath.
The excruciating feeling we sometimes get when newly prioritizing something we want in our hearts means only this: we haven’t practiced.
You may be able to intellectually understand that you’d rather spend unstructured time with your kids for an hour, but faced with the discomfort of learning to engage with them in a meaningful way during that time, of course your brain would rather go do something you know you’re good at — replying to email.
You may really want to spend time with your spouse making dinner, eating together and talking about your day. But if up until now, dinner in your house has looked like eating takeout while working, even being with the person you love is going to feel uncomfortable because it’s new. You haven’t practiced doing it. And working gives you gratification, a sense of accomplishment. You know you can do that, even if you don’t actively want to. It’s less uncomfortable than forming the new habit.
For my clients, I think the biggest disappointment comes from realizing that identifying what they want + prioritizing their time doesn’t, on its own, get them what they want.
Here’s the thing. It’s okay. It’s going to be okay. You just need to know that you’re human, and need to have compassion for yourself + your humanness. Given the choice between doing something we know we’re good at and something new, our brain wants the familiar. No matter how uncomfortable the familiar is in the long run, the brain only sees the short-term discomfort.
So here’s what to do:
Draw clear boundaries + set yourself up for success in following them. Decide on your cutoff point, or define the start + stop time of the break in your workday. Silence your phone. Put it in the other room. Completely shut down your computer.
Focus on why you’re making your choice + the people you’re spending time with. This might sound simple, but remind yourself that you want to get really good at having unstructured time with your kids, or enjoying dinner conversations with your partner, or leaning in to figure out what’s happening emotionally with your daughter. Right before you engage in whatever time you’ve planned, remind yourself of your commitment to the thing in front of you. Choose, powerfully and on purpose, to think about what you are doing, rather than about learning not to do something.
Give yourself a party game. Think of three questions it would be fun to ask your kids. Think of a story you’d like to tell your spouse or one you’d like to ask them to tell you.
Plan to feel uncomfortable. It’s normal. It means your brain is working the way it’s supposed to. Just let yourself feel the desire to work. The crucial part is to just allow it to be there; it’s not a signal that something has gone wrong, it doesn’t mean that your time with your loved ones is now ruined. How many times have you stayed focused in a meeting while you had a headache?
If you try to push it away, it will just stick around longer.
Right now, that signal is so powerful because you usually reward it by answering the urge to work by working. Desire to check email » check email » dopamine hit » ahhh.
With practice, this signal will become weaker and weaker. And, if you’d like to give your brain a different reward, reward yourself for every urge to work that you allow rather than answering. Get a jar and 100 small objects — pennies or marbles work (one of my clients just sent me a photo of her jar that she’s going to drop coffee beans into — genius). Every time you allow the urge without answering it, put a bean in your jar. After 100, you’ll have a completely different brain.
Our actions + the ease we feel in taking them mean nothing about the people we are. We suffer in silence, believing something is wrong with us when really, we are just human. I help women leaders understand their brains so they can stop taking their neurons personally, prioritize their time in line with their values, and redefine what they think is possible for their lives. Ready? Schedule a consultation.