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Ask the Marketing Career Coach: How to Manage Work When Your Personal Life Takes Priority

In this series, certified coach and mono Director of Talent Julie Vessel is answering your questions about finding, keeping, and loving your dream marketing job. A career strategist and architect, Julie has more than 20 years of experience helping Fortune 500 companies find their truth, position themselves, and get their story into the world. Read her advice on starting a new job for success, rethinking your annual review, searching for work-life balance, overcoming your inner critic, taking control of your own learning, advancing your career and learning to love being a manager.

Q: I’m a new mom, just back to work after maternity leave. I am happy to be back at work and I like my job, but I am struggling to figure out how to balance the very real demands of being a new mom with the desire to be a success at work.

A: All too often, we try and pretend that life can be scheduled around our day job. The conversation of work-life balance is most often discussed from the perspective of work, encouraging us to find ways to make room for our life. But what about those times when our life balance is chosen for us? The times when life demands center stage, whether we want it to or not?

All of us will have seasons in our lives when life is undeniably the priority. It could be a new baby or taking care of an older parent. It could be an anticipated, public life event, like a wedding, or a more secretive, challenging situation at home with a child or a spouse. Good or bad, these situations force us to accept a new normal, where life must lead.

What doesn’t work in these moments is pretending that it’s business as usual. I’ve seen it so many times — people whose work and life have had a head-on collision, yet they are operating as if nothing has happened. When a new life situation arrives, you can’t continue to play by the old rules. When our lives change, we must also think about how our work must change.

I believe you can take care of your life’s priorities and still feel good about your work. But it requires a different approach, and importantly, different rules.

It’s about quality work, not quantity of work.

Marketers work in a culture of more. More thinking, more effort, more ideas, more passion. We wear exhaustion like a badge of honor. It’s almost impossible to not get swept up in it all. And for many, success is measured by the numbers. Billable hours. Late nights and weekends. Frequent flier miles. Personal sacrifices.

In those moments when life is the priority, measuring yourself based on quantity will be a losing battle. You will inevitably walk out of the office before others do. You might put in very little face time some weeks. Maybe you’ll be unable to raise your hand for the all-weekend new business push. There will be limits to how and how much you work.

But there’s another way to be successful. Instead of feeling defeated that others are putting in “more” than you, think quality, not quantity.

We are hired for the value we bring to our work, not for the hours or quantity we will fulfill. And in an industry where we’re paid for our thinking and ideas, quality is crucial for business success. Quality work and service helps marketing organizations build their reputations, and importantly, client loyalty.

So, focus on the value of your work, not the quantity. Give your all to everything you produce and contribute to. Hold yourself to a new standard, where contribution and impact are the most important measures of success:

  • Are you making things better?

  • Are you moving things forward?

  • Are you contributing to smart, best-in-class work?

If you can answer “yes” to all of those questions, your colleagues will value your work and seek you out, regardless of the hours or ways you work.

Focus your energy on one thing at a time.

Marketing attracts some of the most wonderfully talented multi-taskers ever known to mankind. We not only get ‘er done, we get ‘er all done. Most marketing folks have an enormous capacity to take on numerous things at once.

For folks wired this way, the ability to juggle everything goes beyond work. Often, we’re the multi-taskers of our families, too — the “glue” that keeps everything afloat. All that juggling can easily become a struggle when life takes priority. Guilt can overtake us when we’re at work, worrying about what’s happening (or not happening) at home. Or when we’re at home, we worry about what’s happening (or not happening) at work.

It’s hard for multi-taskers to accept this, but we can’t productively be in two places at once. When the tug-of-war between work and life gets real, we must switch our mindset from focusing on everything to focusing on one thing at a time.

It’s not just me saying this. It’s scientifically proven. Our brains work better, and we are at our most productive state, when we can focus on one thing at a time.

So, if you’re at work, focus on work. Let go of all the things you need to do when you get home, or what you’re going to do tomorrow. Focus on right here, right now. If you’re with somebody on the phone, be there in the conversation. If you’re in a meeting, be present. If you’re writing an email, focus on that. Being present and focused is one of the smartest things you can do to maximize your productivity.

By focusing on one thing at a time, you are also strengthening the connections with the people you work with. Giving others your undivided attention goes a long way in making them feel valued, appreciated, and most importantly, heard.

Do what you say you're going to do (and don't promise what you can't do).

When I talk to people who are going through intense life challenges, the number one worry I hear is that they’ll be seen as less committed at work.

My simple answer to this concern: Actions speak much louder than words. If you really want to show your commitment to your job, then here is the cardinal rule: Do what you say you’re doing to do.

Follow-through is one of the most underrated ways of building your value and showing your commitment to your work. Maybe you can’t work long hours or you need to occasionally work from home. Those factors fade fast if you become a person who consistently does what you say you’re going to do.

So, when you tell someone you’re going to do something, do it. Every time. No matter how small. You can choose to do more, but don’t ever do less. Every time you deliver what you say you’re going to do, you build trust and re-affirm your commitment to your work.

While it’s so tempting to say yes, never agree to anything unless you’re absolutely sure you can do it. You can negotiate the deadline or the deliverables, but don’t say yes if you’re not sure you’ll deliver.

Most importantly, don't compare yourself to others.

Comparing yourself to others is an incredibly dangerous habit. If you look hard enough, you’ll always (always) find someone who is doing better. In my coaching work, I call this “compare and despair.”

I’ve found that we’re most tempted to compare ourselves to others when we’re in a vulnerable state. I hear it all the time in those moments where life overshadows work:

“I’m leaving earlier than everyone else.”
“Everyone went to the company happy hour except me.”
“I’m one of the few new moms at work.”

You can choose to focus on the ways your workstyle, lifestyle, or performance differs from the rest of the pack, but you’ll only succeed in making yourself feel more guilty and more insecure.

Instead of comparing yourself to others, accept yourself for where and who you are. And importantly, accept yourself for what you uniquely bring to your company.

Focus on your own success. Define your own value and contribution. Research shows that the happiest people don’t compare but hold themselves to their own standards.

And if you’re really curious about how you’re doing at work, ask the person whose opinion really matters. Go to your manager and check in. Have a conversation about their expectations and your contributions. And if it feels good to have these conversations, suggest a monthly or bi-monthly check in.

Life happens. And sometimes it happens in really big, hard and fast ways. In those moments where life is undeniably the priority, you can still be successful, confident and proud of the work you do. Reframe what success is. Focus on the value you bring to the table. Run your own race and let others run theirs. And if you are so brave, encourage others to do the same.

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Antenna is a leader in delivering top marketing professionals to corporations of all sizes for project-based consulting, interim leadership assignments, and contract staffing engagements. With headquarters in Minneapolis, Antenna draws from its private community of experienced marketing talent to help clients balance the flexibility and expertise modern marketing organizations demand.