you really couldn’t have had it all

Earlier today, a friend of mine, also a librarian and an administrator, asked for advice on how to handle a complex personal-job-health situation. And then I saw that Abigail Goben had written about work-life balance and asked “I’m curious what self-care you have implemented in your life that helps you to cope?”. I laughed, gently, as I read those things, thinking, “Well, I have a massage scheduled for 3:30, but that’s me”, and thought I should write something.

Then this evening I read Sarah Glassmeyer’s 2012 in Review post, and got to this part:

Because after my 2012, my resolution for 2013 is to embrace my humanity and imperfections as well as accept it in others.  Because we all like to think that we keep personal life at home and professional life at work, but “business in the front and party in the back” only works for mullets.  We’re all human and have illness, death, birth, marriage, etc going on that are going to be running in the background when we’re “on the clock.”  And no one reading this blog has a job so important that personal well-being should be put aside so that their job can continue.   But of course, this requires communication.  And the bravery to admit to someone – especially your supervisor or anyone that you work on projects with – that you have something going on and may not be 100% for awhile.

And I agreed so fully that I couldn’t quite figure out what to write… until I did. Here’s what I want to write: I want to tell you all to stop trying to keep your life compartmentalized, and to stop trying to do everything. You’re sick? Say so, and earn, demand, and acquire the space to figure out how to heal yourself. You’re overwhelmed? Examine your life and figure out what has to give. You’re exhausted? Sleep more and stop doing the things that prevent that.

I know none of it’s that damned easy — saying it doesn’t make it possible — but I think this point matters: Stop trying to have everything.

We’re always looking for ways to have it all, because the modern American myth tells us we can. Hell, even as I type this, Adele is singing “we could have had it alllllll…” then lamenting about how some douchey dude’s choices mean that now he’s reaping what he sowed. Have it all! Marriage, career, family, friends, hobbies, travel, we could have had it all!

Hell no, you can’t. You can’t have it all. Stop trying.

There are 24 hours in each day. There are 7 days in each week. And you only get as many years on this earth as you do, your number being uniquely yours. You cannot, in fact, have all of those things and live each of them with fullness and passion, because for each thing — relationships, career, family, friends, hobbies, travel, insert your passion here — that fullness and that passion each ask for more than their fair share. At some times, you can choose to give more to some aspects, and live them more fully, and at other times you have to starve some things so you can feed their counterparts. We all go through cycles in these years we’re given, and our priorities and choices change with the cycles. Career, marriage, kids, travel, hobbies, passions: They all cycle us through different phases. But even if you accept that you can’t give each of the pieces everything it’s asking for all the time, even if you accept that life is full of sacrifices, compromises, delayed gratification, and deferred desires, you still have to decide how to balance the things you’ve chosen in whatever cycle you’re in. And so people, understandably struggling, ask each other how they cope.

How do I cope? Well, first, I know I can’t have it all. Your average American works a 5 day week, in which there are 120 hours total. How does mine break down?


  • For me, right now, I spend about 50 hours each week at my day job to just stay afloat with my workload.
  • I also have committed to delivering 14 hours of content, each hour unique, at 6 different conferences this spring, which means adding about 10 hours of work to each of my non-traveling weeks between January and May.
  • I also regularly wish I had a better formal management education, and try to create that by doing my own reading — say, 3 hours a week minimum — of books on management, leadership, and innovation.
  • Then there’s the networking, casual professional development, and current events and trends awareness. I’m going to guess another 10 hours on that.
  • I also spend at least an hour each night and morning at home checking my email tending to work shit, total 5 hours.

That’s the work side. The total is 78 hours.

Each weekday, for my own personal health, wellness, and happiness, I generally do the following:

  • I spend an hour every evening cooking dinner and prepping the next day’s breakfast and lunch. [Yes, I have a partner, and yes he can and will and does cook, but it’s also a hobby of mine, and something I take pleasure in. So I often do it.] (5 hours)
  • I spend 45 minutes exercising in an intentional and focused way. I am most certainly not getting any younger… (About 4 hours)
  • I spend 20 minutes meditating for clarity, blood pressure management, and stress relief. (less than 2 hours)
  • Have a massage or a chiropractic appointment as a part of both stress relief and management of my physical health issues, most of which reside in my muscles and joints. (2 hours)
  • I spend at least two hours of every evening actively interacting with my boyfriend, because, seriously, why bother if you’re not going to bother? (10 hours)
  • Each day has about two hours of personal grooming, household cleaning, tasks and chores, running errands, and other miscellaneous stuff in it. Inevitably. (10 hours)
  • I also like to sleep, and have learned that I am only healthy and effective if I get at least 8 hours of sleep each night. I really need 9. (45 hours.)

That totals 78.  (Which is pretty damned coincidental!)

If you add all of that up, it’s 156. I said a workweek has 12o hours in it. You can already see that I have a problem: I’ve come up with 31 hours of stuff to do in 24 hour days. Which side do I steal from, the 78 hours of living, or the 78 hours of working? In practice, I do both. Some weeks I slight my contract work and push deadlines, and don’t do my ‘extra’ professional reading, and bug out of work after 8 hours rather then 10. Some weeks it’s my personal life, and we order pizza, I buy breakfast on campus, I escape into my home office instead of hanging out with Justin, and the laundry just doesn’t get put away. And I didn’t even include any of my hobbies: gaming (board, video, roleplaying, and live action roleplaying), crafting (knitting, crocheting, leatherworking, jewelry making), reading (any one of the 6-10 books I usually have in progress), traveling (I love going new places!), outdoorsness (camping, hiking, rock climbing, kayaking), or writing (here and elsewhere). I should be getting ready for bed right now, in fact… because I’m doing what I often end up doing: stealing from sleep to feed a hobby. Either that or I end up cramming it all into the weekends: 48 hours of intensive something, depending on what’s more behind. Sometimes I work all weekend. Sometimes Justin and I run off somewhere on an adventure. Sometimes I play Skyrim for 14 hours. Sometimes I COOK ALL THE THINGS. Sometimes I sleep til noon trying to play catch-up.

And yet. Most of the time, I think the balance I’ve crafted doesn’t suck. It’s imperfect (check my math!) but it’s what I’ve got. (And I also would clearly note: I don’t have kids, which would change the math like whoa.)

So. Work/life balance, huh? What I just described is clearly deeply personal, because you can’t have these conversations without being deeply personal. At this point, I sort of feel like there’s very little left I’m not willing to share, so have at it. There’s my math. Welcome to my life: it won’t match yours. We’re each going to do our own math. We’re each going to choose our own priorities, and we’re going to offer what we can when and where we can, based on those priorities. But I’ve learned that if I don’t prioritize my personal needs, the rest falls apart. I tried working 60 hour weeks in my office and making my day job my first and absolute priority. Everything fell apart. And so I learned what mattered to me, where I had to put my energy and where I didn’t, and where I could borrow from one to give to the other. My coping tactics are also deeply personal: reading, writing, sleeping, massage, cooking, gaming, crafting, Justin. You can’t have my hobbies, and you can’t have my boyfriend, so you’ll have to find your own tactics. There’s no transferable solution here. Your work and your life and your balance: Find your own, in your own way, and just make sure it works for you.

And stop trying to figure out how to have it all. Figure out what you value most, and make sure you have that, in sustainable and maintainable ways, for this particular cycle of your life. That’s the only thing that matters.

Be well.


  1. Love the post. When I was at the Women’s Leadership Conference in November, this topic came up a lot. What is “all” anyway? I think that each of us needs to figure out what that means to us and then try to accomplish it. My definition of “all” could be to be able to come home from work and not think about work. That makes me happy and lets me relax and deal with life.

    Each of us has our own idea of what “all” means and we are so brainwashed by the media telling us what “all” is supposed to be. No wonder we fail and feel terrible and exhausted.

    Find your all. Make it happen. And don’t be ashamed if your all does not include a career, family, marriage,PTA, soccer practice, volunteering, exercising, etc.


  2. Nice post – in fact I had a chat with my boss on Monday along those lines to let him know that I wasn’t going to be functioning well for a while due to some family stuff. Consequently I’m going to focus more on operational stuff rather than big picture projects for a bit.


  3. This is something I’ve struggled with my entire career, and that I know will only get harder since I’m about to become a library director for the first time (start next month). One thing I did to remind myself of my priorities is that I purchased a copy of the Holstee Manifesto, framed it, and put it up in my bedroom. It doesn’t always sink in, but about once per week I really notice the words and it helps.

    Thanks for, once again, writing a fantastic post.


  4. Jessica, congratulations! And good luck. It’s a great roller coaster to ride, this director thing.

    The Holstee Manifesto is great. That might need to take a rotation on my door…


  5. Jenica,
    Since I started reading your blog I find I admire and respect you more each day. Thanks for this post. Too often, I try to have it all and it causes much more stress and feelings of failure than it is worth. Keep up the good work and writing!


  6. Yes! I keep thinking about work-life balance, try to do some things about it, but haven’t quite gotten to a point that I’m comfortable with. I like that you’ve broken out your hours — I think I need to that. Thanks!


  7. Part of the problem is phrasing the issue as “work/life balance” as if there’s my job on one end of the see-saw and everything else in my life on the other. That may have been true when I was working factory jobs and to a certain extent early in my library career, but it has certainly not been the case since I first became a director 26 years ago. Being a director is a 24/7 job — I am always responsible for the library and it is never entirely absent from my thoughts. But of course, being a library director isn’t all that I am, either. The greatest thing in my life in the last two decades was the birth of Josie 8 years ago and I am her grandfather 24/7 as well (and since she and her Mom live close, we are very involved in each other’s lives). I’m a husband and a stepfather 24/7. I’m an amateur musician 24/7. And on and on (insert appropriate Walt Whitman quote here). And, as Jenica so rightly points out, there is not nearly enough time in any given day to devote as much as I would like to each of these facets and still keep myself physically healthy and moderately sane.

    But given all of those roles “work/life balance” doesn’t come close to describing the challenge. I seek an integrated life. This requires setting priorities and exercising discipline — and a key part of that discipline is being ruthless about being good to yourself and being sure to find the time to give yourself the things that feed your soul.

    I accept the fact that my work at the library will never all get done and that I (and my crew) will have more good ideas than we can put into practice. So deciding what we are not going to take on is as critical as choosing what we will.

    If Josie’s Mom calls in an emergency for me to pick her up from school, I’ll cancel meetings to do that — I’m at an admin level where I have that kind of control over my schedule so I may as well use it.

    In a couple of weeks I’ll be doing a presentation at a meeting in DC. Since that’s one of my favorite cities I’ll stay an extra two days (at my own expense). I’ll spend a day going to museums, I’ll take in a play at the Shakespeare Theater, I’ll go to a jazz club and a couple of dive bars. My crew will know where I am and that they can call or txt me at any time — but because I’ve built a strong organization and empowered smart people to make good decisions, it is very unlikely that they’ll need me. I’ll keep up with email and probably bring along a project to work on during the flight.

    Communcation technology provides tremendous flexibility and I take maximum advantage of it — today, for example, I had no meetings scheduled so decided to stay home. I can do everything from here that I would’ve done in the office, and if anyone needs me I’m just a click away.

    I am still continually challenged about how I arrange my time on any given day and I chafe at the fact that some things can’t get done, but I understand the necessity of setting those priorities. I understand that if I don’t take care of myself first, then I can’t really live up to the rest of my responsibilities. And I’m grateful to have such a rich multiplicity of 24/7 roles. When I’m at my best, they’re not in conflict — they make me the complicated man that I like to be.


  8. Yanno, I just had a conversation the other day, where we said how it’s amazing what people are willing to put up with (and even be supportive through) if you’re just honest with them about what’s going on in your life. We’re hypercritical of the people who try to be perfect, but those who show their vulnerability and humanity will be forgiven all sorts of sins.


  9. Amen and hallelujah. Thank you for the voicing the struggle we all have in making choices, prioritizing, and letting things go. I cycle through acceptance of this and fighting back the feeling that I should be moving faster, doing more. My daughter is 18 months old. The first 8-9 months were hard at home, so my expectations for work were low. Once things at home got easier, my expectations for progress at work got a little…unrealistic. I’m still trying to find the daily balance between work, family, home, health, and personal things. I used to think there was an answer, a process, or method that would make it easier. Maybe it’s an ongoing question that I answer a little differently every day.


  10. People sometimes ask me how I manage to get all the stuff done that I get done, and I tell them seriously “I do not have a family. I live in a small easy-to-maintain apartment and my beloved boyfriend and I live a few hours apart from each other and see each other every few weeks. My commute is either 15 seconds or 5 minutes depending on which job I am going to. I don’t mind eating the same thing for meals over and over again.” I was still stressed last year so I cut out presenting and travel entirely for six months and was surprised not just how much time I got back, but how much psychic energy returned to me. It was amazing.

    There was a trade off, of course, in how much energy I didn’t get from getting to rub elbows with colleagues, travel to interesting places and have stories to tell my neighbors when I got home. It’s all about choices and it’s really important to understand what choices you’re making on a nearly day by day basis. Very nice wrap-up here. Living intentionally is challenging and sometimes fraught with peril.


  11. You are so right. There simply is not enough time to have it all, and we make choices that sometimes have long-term consequences or impact and that changes the landscape from which you make your next set of choices. It’s an ongoing process.

    I struggle with this all the time. I have good momentum in my career and want to take advantage of the opportunities that come my way, and I have a tendency to want to have my hands in every cool project that comes up. But I also have two young children that I love and want to actually SEE on a regular basis. I want to be present in their lives and help them grow into confident and capable kids and adults. I want to have quality time with my husband. I want to have a social life. I want to travel for both business and pleasure. I want to read more and have time for writing and thinking and planning, and so on and so on and so on…

    Since I don’t have time to do everything I want all the time, I just try to keep the pendulum swinging, so that no one area suffers for too long. There are weeks when I’m staying up until midnight every night because I’m reading or writing or prepping for a conference, and there are weeks when I’m crashing by 9:00 because my body has said “no more, please.”

    I have to admit that there’s a part of me that goes to the ugly place when I have to pass up a fun event or a potential job that won’t work with my family situation. I feel jealous sometimes of people who have more freedom. But I constantly come back to the choices I made, to the realization that THIS is my priority for now, by my own design, and that there WILL be other opportunities, which I will be able to more thoroughly enjoy when the circumstances are right.

    It’s no fun to feel pulled in 15 different directions. I’ve had to make peace with missing out on something of value in order to do something else of value.

    And I’ve also had to make peace with the idea that sometimes I will fail. Sometimes I won’t keep the pendulum swinging and part of my life will start to atrophy and it will take a lot of extra effort to bring it back to health.

    I think when we are fighting and failing to make it all work we look around us and everyone else seems to have their shit together and we get caught in that trap of thinking that it IS possible to have it all; I’m just not doing it right. So I find it encouraging to read this post and the other comments and get a really good reminder of just how common this struggle is.

    Thank you!


  12. You’re right, and the commenters are right, and many thanks to all of you.

    I have only two things to add.

    First, I try to look at not having time and energy for everything as a *positive* thing, not just an inescapable fact of life. One person can’t have it all, but families and social circles and communities and societies and worlds pretty much can. Dividing up the “work” of that means we get to appreciate each other more, *and* it’s harder for individuals to dominate every last thing. My loss is not just someone else’s gain, but my gain too.

    Second, I’ve just recently started to realize how, for myself, money is a multiplier. I am deeply connected to my faith communities–but when I can make a significant financial contribution, I feel less internal pressure to DO ALL THE VOLUNTEERING, which makes those relationships healthier. I like preparing yummy meals when I can take a long time to do it, but a big part of that satisfaction is providing yummy food to people I care about–which I can obtain quickly with money, from local small business owners, contributing to better quality of life for themselves and their employees. Sometimes more time at work can improve the other aspects of my life more than devoting more time directly to those aspects. It’s been counterintuitive for me and hard to shake the feeling that it’s materialistic. But it’s not. It’s knowing myself and my life and what the right tool at the right time is.


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