There’s a key skill for balancing work and life, and it’s one that doesn’t come naturally to many of us. Cheryl Richardson, author of Take Time For Your Life and Stand Up For Your Life (among others) calls it “passing up good for great.”
As children, we’re taught the old saw that a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. While that’s a valid saying under some circumstances — when we have something that’s perfectly good but are tempted to get greedy and to try for more — it can also be a limiting belief that actually does us harm. Sometimes, we need to release the bird already in hand so that both hands are free to grab the two in the bush.
It is difficult to hold onto mediocre while reaching for greatness. So, for instance, if you’re applying for new jobs and you get one offer that’s ok but not great and a response from the other potential employer saying that you’re a terrific applicant, you’re on the very shortlist, but they haven’t yet decided… You cannot accept job #1 and have any expectation of later accepting job #2. By the same token, if you’ve been saving for a vacation, you can’t spend your vacation fund to go away for a weekend and still expect to go to Europe as originally planned. Another saying fits: you can’t have your cake and eat it too.
Right. What on earth does this mean for work/life balance in practice?
Work/life balance requires surrender of part of one area — whether it’s time spent on work or time spent on personal matters — in favor of the other. You may choose to work less and play more, or vice versa. You may decide to arrange your children’s school, activities, and transportation so you can be at work between 7 AM and 7 PM. You may decide to forego a vacation this year so you can be on a prestigious trial team. The catch is that whatever decision you make will require you to give up something so you can have something else.
We humans don’t generally like giving up anything we want. We want it all, and we want it all now. Maturity requires us to recognize that perhaps we can have it all (though that too is open to question), but we certainly can’t have it all at the same time. The single most useful skill for deciding how to arrange this work/life balance is the ability to pass up good for great. Learning that skill requires that we be able to recognize what’s good and what’s great, to identify appropriate time frames to help with the good/great evaluation, and to guard our decisions zealously.
Recognize what’s good versus what’s great.
This judgment will be different for each person. I might decide that being able to attend my child’s soccer games regularly is good but having a prestigious position that will pay enough to let me easily pay for their private school is great. I might decide that having a $200K income that requires 70-hour workweeks is good, but having time to volunteer 20 hours a week in my community is great. Each good/great decision informs a life decision, because if I accept good and forego great, I will be unhappy.
When you look at a decision — be it the big ones I’ve mentioned or small ones like whether to go out for dinner or to stay in and relax — you can recognize what’s great by the internal voice that says yes! When you consider an option and get an “eh, that’s fine” gut response, that’s your sign that you haven’t yet found great. Good versus great is more than a pro/con list; it requires you to engage your values, your priorities, and your desires.
Decide what standards will guide you. These standards must honor your values and ensure your integrity. Although these standards are intimately related to your values, they’re more like facilitating principles. For instance, if one of your top values is family, you might have a standard that says that you will not accept any work situation that intrudes on your Sundays.
Identify appropriate time frames when evaluating good versus great.
Sometimes what’s good versus what’s great will depend on duration. For instance, you may decide that the opportunity to chair a bar section for a year is great even though it requires you to cut back on business development activities and to stop singing with your church choir. If your commitment to the bar would be three years, you might decide that it isn’t a great opportunity.
When considering opportunities that are not time-limited by their own terms, good decision-making may require you to put some time limits on them. For instance, you may decide that you’ll accept a demanding position for a year but no longer or that you’ll try a new networking group for 6 months and then reevaluate. The key is to determine the length of time that an option is great, or at what point it may slide back to just being good.
Zealously guard your decisions.
Once you’ve identified good versus great, and especially once you’ve begun to act in conformity with that decision, do whatever you must to put boundaries around your decision. You will have an opportunity to revisit your decision; while reevaluation is often worthwhile, be sure not to fall into the trap of accepting good when you’ve identified great.
When you decide to pass up good for great, you accept quality over quantity; you develop a high degree of selectivity about what you allow into your life and how you choose to spend your time and energy; and you refuse to settle for less than what’s best for you. It takes practice to give up something that’s good, especially when great isn’t immediately in front of you. Practice with small decisions (if you’re tired, is good vegging out in front of the TV, or is it getting extra sleep?) so that you’re well-trained when the big ones present themselves. Spend some time deciding on what your guiding principles are. Finally, think about other areas of your life or your practice where you might pass up good for great. If this skill seems conpletely foreign to you, consider requesting support, whether it’s from colleagues or from a coach. Difficult though it is, the skill will serve you well.