Defining “personal sustainability” over the years
Finding a job that works for my life hasn’t always been as simple as just making sure the job can be done in X hours per week - here’s how I figured out what works for me.
Lately, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what it means to have a job that works in the context of my life.
As I’ve written this blog post, I’ve started to wonder if “personal sustainability” is the right phrase for the concept I’m trying to capture. There are the obvious things, like does this job require me to work a reasonable number of hours, or does this job give me the flexibility to go to the dentist when I need to (or to pick up my kids from school every day, etc.). However, there is actually a number of other questions and considerations, like does this job leave me with enough mental capacity for my hobbies, or does this job allow me to be the best version of myself after a day at work, when I am with my loved ones?
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At the end of college, I was very anchored to the number of hours a job would demand of me when I thought about if certain jobs would be a good fit. As I’ve spent longer and longer working, I’ve realized that the number of hours worked really doesn’t correlate to this abstract notion of “personal sustainability” (for lack of a better phrase).
Early on in my time at Bain, I experienced two flavours of work.
The first was a high intensity staffing where the team was always very busy. In addition to having jam packed days where I was either in meetings or heads down focused on creating output, there was a lot of activity after hours. That often came in the form of further iterations on the output from the day, along with work-related admin that just couldn’t fit into the day (cleaning out my inbox, scheduling meetings, organizing events for affinity groups or my “class” of consultants at work, etc.). My days were often unpredictable and our focus shifted often based on client input. The evenings were also unpredictable – it wasn’t clear on Monday whether I’d be busy every night that week or if I’d actually have a few free nights. I found this incredibly challenging to manage, not just from an intensity perspective (i.e. being tired from the work) but also from the mental toll that the lack of predictability took on me. At the time, I didn’t realize how much the unpredictability weighed on me until I started a different project.
On the other project, things were still busy. The days were undoubtedly also intense with meetings and many expectations to create output quickly. However, there was a lot less whiplash on this project. We were able to lay out a plan for a few weeks at a time and thus I could actually decide which weeks I wanted to push harder and put in more evening hours to get ahead. As a result, I could look at a week and know which evenings I’d be busy.
In the end, I didn’t work fewer hours, but being in control of my schedule made the job fit into my life better.
As I started working at TestBox, I realized there were a few other dimensions in the equation. In the first few weeks, it felt quite similar to this second project I described above. The days were high intensity and it was necessary to do evening work a few days each week. That said, I was also in control of my schedule and I could balance the busy evenings with days where I didn’t need as much personal time – for example, there were times when I planned to double down on work when my husband was travelling for work or also tackling a big project of his own. On the flip side, if I had plans to visit friends or family and work from their homes, I’d often work extra ahead of time to give myself a lighter work week to allow for more social activities in the evenings. This made things very “sustainable” in the early days and it truly felt like my work was enabling me to live my best life and vice versa.
A few months into my time at TestBox, I started to notice a shift. I noticed that I often dreaded going to work and the days felt longer than ever before. When Sam and I started to talk about this, we realized that I was in way too many meetings. The days felt long because I wasn’t able to focus on my individual work and generate output – I was sitting in meetings and waiting for them to end so I could get to cranking stuff out. We took a very disciplined approach to auditing my calendar and once we carved out more room for focus time during the day, things started to feel good again.
I learned that my personal sustainability isn’t just about hours and control/predictability: it is also dependent on my ability to be productive and generate output.
It wasn’t enough to just measure how many hours I was working – even if I worked less than before, things weren’t balanced. Outside of the work day, while I was supposed to be enjoying my evening, I would feel worried and stressed about things at work. I constantly felt like I needed to get more done and it cast a shadow over me and the rest of my life.
This realization was fascinating and has shaped a lot of how my role has evolved over time. I became acutely aware of the importance of balancing my days between big, nebulous projects (e.g. decision making, strategic thinking, culture building) and tactical, output-focused tasks (e.g. sending out email sequences to our users, providing feedback on others’ work). Often, my meetings were focused on big, nebulous projects where the “payoff” is a lot more gradual and spaced out over a long horizon. When I was just in meetings all the time, I often felt like I didn’t have anything to show for my day’s work in tangible form. Balancing these big projects with small tactical tasks helped me regain a sense of progress on a daily basis, which made me feel better at work, which led to fewer shadows over the rest of my life.
(I will caveat that there are always going to be certain big, nebulous projects that are mission critical that will simply demand patience, but finding a healthy balance between those and smaller tasks can be a huge unlock for anyone like me in a hybrid strategic/operational role.)
Over time, as I noted other trends in my sentiments and behaviour, I uncovered a few other drivers:
Alignment of my work to organizational priorities (i.e. am I working on things that actually matter to the company)
Impact of my work on someone else’s quality of life (i.e. am I helping the team with what I’m doing, or is this substantially helping a customer/user)
My learning and development from doing a given task (i.e. am I learning new skills and feeling challenged)
The demands for my time outside of work (i.e. if there’s something big happening in life outside of work)
These factors are always shifting around and in constant flux. There is no singular, fixed formula for my “personal sustainability” though there are certainly patterns that I’ve identified over time.
To stay attuned to these patterns, these are the questions that I always ask myself:
Am I eating well and exercising enough?
Am I able to get emotional fulfillment outside of work? (Not just whether I have the right amount of quality/social time with my loved ones or doing hobbies/the things that bring me joy, but also do I have energy and excitement for this when my work day is over)
Am I looking forward to going to work?
Do I feel good about what I’ve accomplished at the end of most days?
Am I fully present at work and in my life outside of work?
As soon as the answer to 1-2 of these questions is no, I start probing into the factors above to see if there’s something I can switch up.
I’d love to hear in the comments if there are trends/watchouts that you’ve noticed for yourself, or if anyone has any suggested phrases for “personal sustainability” that better capture this concept 😅
Defining "personal sustainability" has been a journey of figuring out how to make my job fit well into the broader context of my life. I used to think it was just a matter of how many hours worked. However, over time I've come up with an extensive list of drivers behind this notion of "sustainability" as well as some questions I regularly ask myself.
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