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How can I show I’m ambitious at work while holding onto my free time?

by Christine Yu

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When I look back on 2017, I worked my butt off. I pitched more stories than ever before. I networked and cultivated relationships with editors. I nearly doubled the number of articles I wrote, entered into dream publications, and wrote longer-form, meatier articles on topics about which I care deeply.

I was ambitious and checked off several markers and milestones that signify my perceived success as a writer.

Still, my accomplishments came at a cost too. The truth? I prioritized work over personal and family life. Our always-on, always-available work culture didn’t help matters either. And quite simply, I’m burnt out.

You can jump on and off the treadmill of work. You don't have to run continuously.

According to Michele Vancour, professor of public health at Southern Connecticut State University and work-life issues expert, it’s no surprise I feel this way. “Society acts as though we can achieve work-life balance without the acknowledgment that life is messy and chaotic and hard to control,” says Vancour. When we struggle with that elusive balance, we may feel guilty, responsible, or a host of other emotions.

Ambition isn’t just about doing more things

“Don’t get caught in the trap of doing more equals better outcomes,” says Josh Klapow, licensed clinical psychologist and behavioral scientist. It doesn’t mean working yourself to the bone 24/7. “I can be ambitious in 30 minutes or in 8 hours. I can be ambitious by taking on 27 tasks or taking on six strategic tasks,” he says.

Klapow describes ambition as a state of mind. “Ambitious means action, energized, going after something. You can will yourself to be persistent. You can will yourself to dedicate your actions, but ambitious is an emotional experience,” he says. “If someone has to tell you to be ambitious at work, then something’s not working.”

It may be useful to consider your own levels of ambition as well as the factors behind them. This may provide some clear insight into your priorities and values, and offer hints as to how to best allocate your time.

How can you show you’re ambitious at work while holding on your free time?

Hot tip: you can jump on and off the treadmill of work. While you might miss one opportunity, another one awaits. You don’t have to run continuously.

“If you’re tired or burnt out and don’t feel like being on that treadmill, you’re less likely to have a good outcome. Constantly hustling is great if you are in a place where you can constantly hustle,” says Klapow.

Klapow encourages us to avoid the trap of compartmentalizing work life from home life. “One of the biggest fallacies is that we can create two schedules and juggle home and work. We believe that if we are more logistically efficient, we’ll be able to squeeze more things into the day, but it’s all one schedule,” because there is only one you.

If you work 12 hours then that day was dedicated to work, not your personal well-being, spiritual well-being, spouse, or kids. Today, you made a decision to work more,” Klapow says. He encourages his patients to acknowledge (and own) these statements. “Ultimately, you’re the one who’s dictating this,” he says.

Flipping the script can help, too. “The more we think we can’t achieve balance, we’re doomed to fail because it seems so impossible,” says Vancour. “You can be successful, but there are good days and bad days.”

Pay attention to the things you do well. “Look at how you’re moving through the day with a new pair of eyes and notice what you did accomplish,” she says, whether that’s going to sleep earlier, sparking a conversation with a colleague or old friend, or taking a break from staring at the computer.

What matters most is how we define ambition and balance for ourselves. “You are in control of that definition,” says Vancour. “I have all that I set out that I want at this point—a healthy family, a good career, good colleagues, and friends. Some days I may wish I had a little less chaos but that doesn’t change what I actually have,”

While I did focus on my work and career this past year, I haven’t fully acknowledged my many successes. I work for myself. I have a flexible schedule that allows me to drop-off and pick-up my kids from school most days and volunteer in the classroom or chaperone class trips. Technically, I can work anywhere. However, I need to shift some things in my life so that my days not only reflect my internal priority list but also allow me to feel ambitious.

“Work-life balance isn’t about juggling the external world. It’s about creating the optimal formula that makes you feel like your life is in line with your priorities and the expectations from the outside, like your job,” says Klapow. “Work-Life balance is your balance, not anyone else’s.”

Christine Yu

Christine Yu is a freelance writer based in New York City. She’s written about health, wellness and lifestyle for publications including The Washington Post, Runner’s World, Women’s Health and Redbook. Find her on Twitter @cyu888.

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