Many women are terrified of dropping the ball: the career ball, the family ball, the friend ball. But often, our expectations of ourselves are simply unrealistic. Here’s how to decide what’s really worthy of your time.
You might for instance return from maternity leave after giving birth to your first child, leaving the house fully expecting to be the perfect powerhouse working-wife-and-mother who had it all and did it all. That illusion might last a few hours. Over the subsequent weeks and months, you might start dropping balls left and right.
The mail piles up. You miss parties. Your to-do list grows larger and so does your anxiety.
The beauty was that you inadvertently discover something unexpected: that no matter how many balls you dropped, your worst fears never materialise. No one ever comes to read you the right act. You don’t lose your job. No one stopped loving you. It might take a few years and a lot of meditation or yoga and personal drama to figure out that all of the pressure you felt to be “everything” to everyone — and to do it flawlessly — was ridiculous. For you, dropping the ball now means letting go of those unrealistic expectations. Here’s how to do it.
Decide What Matters Most
What matters most to you? It’s a big question to answer. But it’s impossible to start letting things go until you understand what needs to stay. To begin, try this visualisation exercise adapted from the book, “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People”:
Imagine three people eulogising you at your funeral. What would they say about you? What do you hope they say about you? Think about all the roles in your life: daughter, manager, friend. Ask yourself, What does a good daughter do? How do I know that’s what a good daughter does?
When most people first did this exercise, their biggest epiphany was that a lot of our definitions of “success” had to do with their parents — and that a lot of their expectations of themselves were rooted in fear. When you strip that away, you are able to focus on what really matters to you- perhaps that’s working to advance the status of women and girls, nurturing a healthy partnership with your husband and raising your children as conscious global citizens.
FINDING BALLS TO DROP
Once you’re clear about what matters most to you, the next question to ask is, “What should I be doing to focus on it?” Too often, we’re so overwhelmed with all the tasks on our plate that we fail to question whether they should even be occupying our time.
Remember, just because you can do something better or faster than the people around you doesn’t mean that it belongs to your to-do list.
Here’s a simple exercise for determining which of your balls are droppable. Write down what matters most to you. Now write down the tasks on your to-do list – and keep them specific. For each task, ask yourself the following questions: Is this an essential task, relative to what matters most to me? Do I do this really well with little effort? Is this something only I can do — or could it be delegated to someone else? Does this task bring me joy? If you answer “yes” to three or more of these questions for any task, it probably represents your best use and you’d be wise to keep it on your list. If you’ve answered “no” three or more times for any task, it’s probably a ball you can drop.
Ask for Help
One of the things we consistently noticed is that even when we have people around us — family, friends, co-workers — offering us their support, we tend to approach our personal and professional lives as solo endeavors, not team sports.
Asking for help requires being vulnerable, and vulnerability is hard.
But once you have clarity about what matters most to you- and which balls you can drop — one of the most powerful things you can do is to ask those around you to help you succeed. How? Helping you helps them. The best way to secure the support you need from those who want to help is by communicating how them helping you will, in turn, help them. If a colleague helps by creating a meeting agenda, a friend introduces you to someone in their network or your partner does the dishes when it isn’t their turn, you want them to know there’s something in it for them, too: They’ll receive a return on their investment through your increased productivity at work or a more happy home.
Asking a manager for help. Often, we’re afraid that asking for assistance from the people we report to will make us seem bothersome or unqualified. But when we ask for help in a way that offers solutions, we position ourselves as mature team players. Here’s a sample script for how to get help from a boss at work. State your commitment to your boss or your company’s priorities, such as: “I believe that we can hit our quarterly goal, and I’m excited about doing my part to make it happen.”
Articulate your strengths or recent success and what’s currently holding you back, like: “I’ve noticed that I exceed my numbers when I’m out in the field interacting with clients, but I’m feeling a lot of pressure to be behind my desk because of everything on my plate.” Offer a solution and invite your boss’s feedback, such as: “I have some ideas for how I can help us hit it out of the ballpark, and how we can provide some leadership opportunities for others on the team. Are you open to this conversation?”
Learn to Say No
There are only 24 hours in a day, but often our to-do list can be endless — because it doesn’t factor in the restraint of time. The reality is, sometimes we need to say “no” to a request. How? Ask follow-ups. Next time someone asks you to complete a task, instead of saying the habitual “yes” and adding it to a to-do list, ask the person a few clarifying questions: How long do you anticipate the [meeting, project, writing, etc.] will take? What unique value or perspective do you feel I can add? Do you have a deadline?
Sometimes simply posing these questions will inspire others to be more thoughtful about how they’re using your time – or they may rescind the ask.
Use your calendar. Don’t simply add tasks to your to-do list or pencil in meetings on a Post-It. Instead, take a pen to your calendar to schedule the time. If you don’t have any open blocks to make a task happen, your choice will be clear. You’ll have to either decline the request or cancel something else you’ve already got scheduled. Consulting your calendar will force you to be realistic about what’s humanly possible.