For high-achievers, striving to be the best is part of the job description. Pushing your limits can be exhilarating, accomplishing things you’ve set your sights on can be motivating. It’s thrilling to see your career aspirations come to life when you hit a major milestone, land a new client, or launch a new project.
If your career’s important to you, you also know that making your dreams a reality requires sacrifice. At times, work may become your number one priority, leaving your personal life to fall by the wayside. Trading quality time with loved ones for long hours at the office becomes the norm.
Finding the right work-life balance is a struggle that every ambitious person faces. Crazy-busy periods at work are inevitable—and while they may be temporary, if you don’t manage them properly, they can hurt your relationships and well-being. It’s one thing to communicate about your stress with your boss and co-workers during demanding times in the office, but explaining to family and friends that you’re going to be spending more and more time at work can be challenging.
Gone are the weekly happy hours, trips back home, phone calls with buddies. The irony is that although a chaotic work schedule means you have less time for those closest to you, it’s precisely when you need them the most. How then do you handle this catch-22 of ambition and rally your support system to get through busy periods?
Addressing the situation directly is the best way to deal with these conflicting priorities. Take the following steps to negotiate a positive balance, without pushing away those who care for you (or coming off as a workaholic). Here are three ways to save your relationships and keep your career and personal life on track.
1. Be Clear About How You Can Be Supported
While you’re all too aware of the projects you’re juggling and your growing to-do list at the office, it can be hard to remember that your friends and family are in the dark about the details of your work day. Your mind may be consumed by work, but your loved ones know nothing about the supplier who messed up your order or the five meetings you have to prepare for.
When you come home from work tired and preoccupied, all they see is your closed body language and emotional cues. Noticing that you’re stressed, your partner or roommate may do his or her best to be there for you, making misguided attempts to help by offering suggestions that only end up frustrating you (you should really take a mental health day! Why don’t you try yoga?). Are they even listening? Do they not know how urgent work is right now?
Rather than getting defensive or shutting down, share the details of your current workload and get specific about how he or she can best help you manage the demands you’re facing. For example, be direct and let your mother know it would more helpful if she just listened when you talk about work. If you’re typically in charge of chores, delegate specific tasks to someone else and let this person know how much his or her efforts would help you out this week—or month. That’s much more effective than griping about how no one’s helping out around here.
Clear communication gives your loved ones insight into your stress, empowering you to tackle it in a collaborative, constructive way.
2. Lay Ground Rules
Defining boundaries is essential to creating space to accomplish your professional goals, especially when work conflicts with your personal life. To successfully focus during busy periods, you have to know when to set limits—even with the people closest to you.
The key to asserting boundaries is to do so firmly, but compassionately. During a product launch, you may let your partner know you’ll have to forego your weekly lunch date for a month. Explain why you need the extra time in your schedule, how it will help you focus, and then be future-focused: Specify a date when you can revisit getting your lunches back on the calendar. Or, if you usually spend the day in constant communication with your best friend, lay down boundaries around when you’ll be free to talk, so you can give your undivided attention to them during those breaks and to work projects the rest of the time.
Boundaries become all the more significant if you’re going to be working from home. Be sure to implement rules on when it’s OK or not OK to interrupt you and commit to stop working at a certain hour to transition to downtime.
3. Channel Stress the Right Way
At home, after a particularly long work day, you and your partner are debating your nightly Netflix pick. You suggest a comedy. Your partner groans. You fly into a rage. How dare she disregard your suggestion! Why do you always have to watch what she wants? But, wait—why are you getting so worked up over a TV show?
What’s really at play here is a defense mechanism called displacement. It gets triggered when we try to deal with stress. Displacement is when your mind redirects a negative reaction away from the true source of your upset to a person or object that’s less threatening. In other words, to save you from work stress (which feels huge and overwhelming), you may become disproportionately outraged at an easier target—often a spouse, sibling, roommate, or parent. Displacement can happen when you’re not channeling stress in other healthy, constructive ways. And if you have a lot of work anxiety, displacing it could lead to a momentous fight at home.
If you’re noticing this defense mechanism rear its ugly head, ask yourself the following questions:
- Is this really worth a battle over?
- Will bringing this up now benefit me and the relationship?
- How would I react if they said the same to me?
Create a plan to channel your anxieties appropriately through a healthy outlet like meditation, exercise, or even art.
4. Be Mindful of What Really Matters
Even if you’re consciously choosing to make work a priority at the moment, keep room in your life for honoring your social commitments. So, while it might be tempting to bail on lunch with a friend to tend to important work, resist the temptation. Your word is important in your personal life just as it is at the office.
When you’re in the midst of a busy time at work, do a quick perspective check: Why are you working so hard, if not to create a life that you love? It’s important to find meaning and purpose in your career, but it’s only one part of living a balance life. Don’t neglect the importance personal relationships have on your long-term emotional health and wellbeing. It’s often worth it to make certain sacrifices to achieve what you want in your career—but not to the detriment of your happiness. It’s fine if you need to lighten your social calendar a little during a busy work period, but don’t drop all your friends and cancel all of your plans in favor of more hours glued to your computer.
Busy periods are inevitable, but they’re most often temporary. Managing them correctly will ensure that you stay balanced. Ambition does not have to lead to loneliness. Be sure to take the above steps, and let your friends and family know they’re the support you need, not those you’ve left behind.
Photo of couple having a serious conversation courtesy of Tetra Images/Getty Images.