In 2013, Sheryl Sandberg published her bestselling book Lean In, and gave voice to the discussion of empowering women to lead. For women with professional aspirations, the book encouraged us to jump into the game and take a seat in places where we have not, historically, been welcome.
Yes, the 21st Century is certainly a time of opportunity for women. As a professional woman, I am thankful for the way the landscape has changed even in the time since I was a young girl. But, in an age where women are capable of doing anything and everything, does that mean we need to do everything?
There is one thing about learning to “lean in” we cannot change: there are still only 24 hours in the day. So women now have more to do but no more time to do it. Simply put, it is still just as impossible to do it all. This is the side to female empowerment that we don’t talk about enough. Sandberg attempts to address this in her book by devoting a chapter to “Making your partner a real partner.” But, what if your partner works and also doesn’t have time or you don’t have a partner or you don’t have a capable partner?
What is the solution? How can we deal with the fallout when we lean in too far to one area of our life and the other areas suffer? How can we sustain this constant drive to do more?
First, we need to be honest about our expectations and determine whether they are reasonable or not. As women, we tend to shame ourselves (and each other) into societal norms. So, although we have increased professional and social opportunities, we still feel responsible for doing all other things well at the same time.
Certainly, in a way, we are right. The laundry still needs to be done. I still need to eat. My water bill needs to be paid on time. But we are wrong to think that all things must be prioritized equally and that we’re not taking care of our loved ones or ourselves if we move something inconsequential down the list of priorities.
I’ve begun to question these dysfunctional beliefs about what is acceptable for me to do or not to do. I’m beginning to accept that the expectation to do all things well (and by myself) is unfair and unreasonable. After all, my time is limited and to be one place means not being in another. If I truly value my time, I need to start prioritizing its use. That means learning to say “no” to some new commitments, putting off some things that aren’t urgent or necessary, and being comfortable outsourcing tasks that can just as easily be can done by someone else.
The truth is that it doesn’t matter whether I’m the one who does my laundry or not. It only matters that it gets done. And if instead, I am able to work on a new project for two extra hours or take a much-needed two-hour mental break to read a good book, that time is not wasted and the cost is worth it in the long run.
I have a friend who has a driver to take her to and from work. For her, this is a practical solution and not a luxury. She is a professional woman with two young children and a busy schedule. That travel time between is valuable time that she has decided to claim for herself. When not driving, she can work on billable hours, make phone calls, prepare invoices, or do any of the other dozens of things she needs to get done.
Years ago, our mothers were shamed for serving store-bought cupcakes at our birthday parties. It’s time we let that peer-shaming die. We need to start supporting our friends and colleagues in making these very personal decisions about what they will or will not do with the precious 24 hours they are given each day. If it means my colleague does not meet me after work for drinks, so be it. And if it means I pay my neighbor to water my plants and walk my dog when they get home from work, it’s nothing to be ashamed of.
To move the needle on the important issues, I suggest we need to consistently be doing self-checks:
“Am I still making the right choices about my time? Do I need to make any adjustments?”
“Am I allowing my friends to be my friends by asking for help and admitting where I’m not succeeding?”
“Am I being supportive when friends are having to make tough priority calls on time?”
To truly be the best version of ourselves, we need to embrace there is only so much one person can accomplish on our own. Asking for help is a sign of wisdom, not of failure.