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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work-Life Balance

How to Climb the Ladder Without Sacrificing Everything Else That Matters

What do you do?

It’s a question as common in introductions as sweaty handshakes and awkward small talk. It also sends an underlying message: Your identity’s inextricably linked to your professional role.

We receive so many subtle messages that we are what we do. It’s no wonder the temptation to immerse yourself entirely in your career can be immense, particularly if you're truly passionate about your career. While there’s no doubt pride, enthusiasm and a willingness to go above and beyond will certainly help you professionally, burnout, rigidity, and lost relationships won’t. And those are just some of the risks of losing yourself in what you do.

I get it if you love what you do, if it doesn’t feel like work. Seriously, go ahead and pour your heart and soul into your job. Just bear in mind that your heart and soul can and should stretch farther than the office door, because you are so much more than your title and you owe it to yourself to treat your life that way.

Here are a few suggestions to keep you from losing yourself along the way to success:

1. Give Yourself a Break

Fact: You only have a finite amount of energy. While you might have more than others, you will eventually run out. So when you spend most of it working, you will inevitably find yourself exhausted and unproductive, even in the best of circumstances. Tearing yourself away protects that finite energy level, your mind, and your efficacy. You don’t have to fly halfway across the world to avoid burnout. Instead, you can take small measures on a regular basis to keep some balance in your life.

For example, work out, watch your favorite show, read a great book, take a class, spend time with a friend or loved one, or use your lunch break to eat a real lunch. You don’t have to do all of these (and certainly not all at once), but by choosing to treat yourself once a day to one non-work related activity, you’re allowing your mind to leave work mode. And doing that allows you to engage different parts of your mind and body than you use when you’re sitting in the office for most of the day.

2. Be Open to Change

My spouse worked for many years as an engineer with a manufacturing firm. An opportunity presented itself to start a business, but it meant a significant role change for him. Instead of designing and building machines, he now primarily handles invoices, taxes, payroll, and other accounting-related tasks. Despite the change, he loves it. What if he only saw himself as an engineer? Would he have tried a different role? 

Think of all of the times you’ve heard someone say, “Well, I’m a (insert career of choice here)” with so much pride you can’t imagine him or her doing anything else. While there’s obviously nothing wrong with pride (you work hard for your success, you should be proud!), you can’t let it limit you. Fortunately, my spouse’s career change happened by choice, but that’s not always the case. What if you get fired, laid off, or find out the company you work for is bankrupt? If you’re so immersed in your position that you can’t see beyond a very narrow definition of that role, it’s going to be difficult to adapt to changes beyond your control.

To break yourself out of this mold, consider creating a “life resume” with no job titles that you use just for yourself. Instead, just write about your skills, abilities, and interests. Include things outside of work, such as volunteer activities, roles in civic organizations, even hobbies. Now look for some common themes. Are you analytical? Do you have a lot of experience leading people? Have you been involved in or responsible for multiple projects? Now, what can you do with that experience? You can certainly do more than one thing.

You may not need that document right now—and you won’t ever send it out—but creating it could open your eyes to new possibilities, help you adapt to unexpected situations, and most importantly, remind you of everything you have going for you outside of your professional identity.

3. Savor the Relationships That Matter

We aren’t meant to be solitary beings. When you shut yourself away in your office cranking out awesomeness, life carries on around you, without you. Friends gather, children grow, families grow, and you miss moments you can’t reclaim. 

Maybe you’re thinking your work isn’t solitary. You’re frequently wooing clients over five-star meals and you never turn down drinks with your boss. Or maybe your rockstar job’s introduced you to the “in” crowd, and you’re out with them all the time. OK, but clients aren’t friends, and while your colleagues may feel like it, they aren’t family. The first time they have to choose between you and the bottom line, well, you aren’t going to win that competition. 

Despite what you may be expecting, this is not the point at which I tell you to forgo these fleeting relationships for “real” connections. Only you know what’s right for you and your career. But I certainly encourage you to think hard about who cares deeply for you versus who you spend time with to further your own career.

You don’t have to give up networking (I mean, you definitely shouldn’t), but make some room for the folks who like you just for you.

Giving your entire self to your work doesn’t help you personally or professionally—no matter how good it may feel in the short run. Rather, making an effort to create experiences you value outside your job will help you have both a career and a life you love.

Photo of hard worker courtesy of Jetta Productions/Getty Images.