Stop trying to "have it all" all at once: Try living the "well-lopsided" life instead

Author and entrepreneur Randi Zuckerberg suggests we try her "Pick Three" method

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published May 14, 2018 4:00PM (EDT)

"Pick Three: You Can Have It All (Just Not Every Day)" by Randi Zuckerberg (Ben Arons/Harper Collins)
"Pick Three: You Can Have It All (Just Not Every Day)" by Randi Zuckerberg (Ben Arons/Harper Collins)

Having it all is overrated. Worse, it's damn near impossible. Entrepreneur and author Randi Zuckerberg has a counter offer. On any given day, have just three things instead. You get to pick.

In her career, Zuckerberg worked at Ogilvy & Mather and Facebook before launching Zuckerberg Media and the online community Dot Complicated. The mother of two and author of three previous books (including two children's books) is now advocating for better balance in her new book: "Pick Three: You Can Have It All (Just Not Every Day)."

Salon spoke to Zuckerberg recently about the menu approach to an overwhelming life, and why sleep needs a place on your to-do list.

We are all spread so ridiculously thin. What made you say, "All right, I need to articulate this into five points and then turn it into a book"?

When I first started thinking about this topic, I have to admit I was thinking about it under the guise of how entrepreneurs can handle it. I was sitting in the middle of Silicon Valley. I was in the process of starting my own business, and I was just thinking, "Wow, entrepreneurs are really spread so thin, how do you do it? "

But over time, I became a mom myself. I saw how in the workforce over the past few years, we're all expected to do so many jobs. Most people have their job; they have their side hustle. You're expected to be very entrepreneurial inside your current job. There's just so much expected of all of us, whether we have children or not. There's also so much that's unpredictable. There's so much that happens to us that we have to be extremely resourceful and reactive to.

That led me to feel like now was the right time to open up a discussion on work/life balance. It just felt like, what we aspired to ten years ago was just so outdated and so unattainable today in the new world. In my life, the choice has always been about being a little more lopsided at prioritizing things in order to be well-balanced in the long run. I really wanted to share that with more people who are feeling guilty and feeling spread too thin.

Let's talk about your concept of being lopsided, because that is a key element to this way of looking at how we're using our time. Talk to me a little bit about what it means to be lopsided.

It's interesting because all of the literature that's out there would have us believe that we need to be perfectly balanced in a 24-hour period. Do our work, come home and spend time with our families and do our hobbies.

For me that’s never resonated, even when I was a student in high school. I was always the kind of person who achieved the most success when I was singularly focused on something. I could really dive into something and achieve great results, and then turn my attention to something else and dive into that. I remember around the time of applying to college that a lot of my teachers tried to temper my expectations, saying, "You're not the kind of well-balanced candidate that colleges look for. Don't be disappointed if you don't get into your top choices."

It was only when I went to start looking at a few schools and heard them coin the phrase that they look for people who are "well-lopsided," that this vision articulated for me. I know in my life when I look back at things that I've done that I'm most proud of, that I hope I'm alive to tell my great-grandchildren about, it's definitely not going to be the time that went to work until five and then came home and put dinner on the table. No, it's going to be the times that I would be completely lopsided and I was able to achieve things that I was incredibly proud of. I just want to give people, especially women, the permission to really go for it and not feel like you have to do everything every day. In fact, being lopsided, I think, is more of a key to being successful and happy than trying to have everything.

You talk in the book about the first time you really heard that term, "lopsidedness." The whole idea of juggling is that you're keeping balls in the air perfectly symmetrically at all times. Single tasking has been given tremendously short shrift, and you're really talking about that.

If you try to do everything in one day, what's going to happen is you're going to either do none of those things, or you're just going to be mediocre at all of them. You're not really going to have an outcome you're proud of, especially if you're thinking about this from a work perspective. If you're only able to give 50 or 60 percent, someone else out there, they’re giving 100 percent and you're going to be passed by. If instead, you just pick you the areas of your life, just be able to give a 100 percent to, you are going to achieve success. You're going to be happier. You're going to feel proud of yourself, which is going to bleed into other areas in your life. Living by that philosophy has just completely redefined how I view success. It's enabled me to redefine so much of guilt that I was carrying around of not being the perfect mom and doing everything perfectly all the time.

What you're saying is yes, you can be that person who is giving a 100 percent to her job or 100 percent to her family, but you can't do that every day.

That’s exactly right. I’m not saying to take only three things and then you're stuck with them until the end of time. No, I'm saying just in any 24-hour period, give yourself permission to just do three things really, really well, so when you reach the end of the day you're like, "I chose three things, I did them really well. Tomorrow, I'm either going to choose the same three or a different three and look at balance as something to be achieved in the long run rather than in a one-day period."

It reminds me also of that concept of fasting for two days. You break up your week and you have five days where you do this and two days where you do that, and that's how you achieve balance. It seems lopsided, but ultimately for the people that it works for, you get this balanced perspective of how you're living your life. Let's talk about the five, how you came up with the five and what those five are.

To your point about fasting, really what "Pick Three" is about is setting intent and being mindful about how you spend your time, just like fasting is about being mindful of what you put into your body. I'm a big fan of anything that gets you thinking and being really thoughtful about how you are spending your time or your nutrition.

The five categories are work, sleep, family, friends and fitness. They're purposely very broad categories that can encompass anything. For example, family. Not everyone has a biological family. Family could apply to you, a community, a religious group, a group of people with whom we feel you belong. Friends is anything brings you fun, so that can apply to hobbies and activities. Fitness applies to all areas, not just pumping iron at Gold's gym. That’s your emotional and mental fitness as well.

One of the things that I really love is putting sleep on that list. Sleep is such an unsexy thing to talk about. It's sexy to talk about work. It's sexy to talk about fitness. But sleep, what are we going to say? 

I think you're right, unfortunately. We have a culture that celebrates overworking. If you say, "I was up all night working," we celebrate that. I think that's dangerous as a culture to celebrate. I believe of all the other categories, if you don't pick them for a while, it takes a long time to really feel the effects of not picking them. When I had my babies, I went a long time without thinking about friends. You could go a while before you start to realize, "Oh hey, people aren't inviting me to things." But sleep — if you miss it one night or two nights, you can feel it right away. You feel the effects on your body and feel it on your mental clarity in your performance. When you do get a good night's sleep and you wake up, I feel like I discovered the elixir of life. Like I’m in on this secret of the universe, but no one else knows.

It was interesting to dive more into the research of sleep. The psychology, the performance aspects of how it affects the rest of your day and your mental clarity. It was pretty shocking to me, the research I uncovered about how one night of being sleep deprived increases your risk of cancer and heart disease. How during daylight savings, when we fall back an hour and everyone gets an extra hour to sleep, the rate of heart attacks goes down the next day significantly. It's amazing and immediate and wild. It was one of the things where, the more you know about sleep, the more you're going to prioritize it.

It seems like the most obvious thing in the world, because when you have small children and you watch them just melt down when they haven't gotten enough sleep, you see it so physically and visibly.

I don't think I've cried over something little when I was well rested. That being said, I also really want to approach this book as a thing in the real world because I know that not all of us are in a position to get seven hours of sleep every night. We all go through phases in our lives where we just can't get that; that's not attainable. Maybe you're on a difficult work project. Maybe you have a child who is having sleeping issues. I also want to give people some coping mechanisms and tools for those periods in your life where you can't pick sleep, even if you really want to, and how to make it through those times until you can pick it again.

As you said, maybe if it's even just hopping in the shower and getting some cold water on you.

Exactly, hopping in a shower, going outside for moment. Doing two minutes of jumping jacks. There are a lot of things that you can do to kind of fake alertness. I spoke to many people for the book who for their jobs routinely do not sleep, like doctors on call. I spoke to a doctor who does organ transplants on children. He was telling me that even if he was actually to own a wedding, if his pager went off, he would leave and go do a transplant on a child to save a life. These are people that, even if he wants to pick sleep one night, that's not always a choice. I wanted to acknowledge that I understand that we don't all live in a perfect world, where we can perfectly pick the things that we want every day.

Let's speak to that in a broader way, because there are days when I feel like you can't pick three. You have to pick everything and you feel like you're still going to fall short. What do you say to the person who says, "I can't possibly pick three?"

I think that there are certainly times in our lives that we have to superhero up and we all have the odd day where we have to pick four or even try to pick five. I think the key, though, is understanding that that is a very short-term strategy. That’s not a long-term strategy to try to pick more than three. If you do, you’re headed for almost certain burnout or failure or that feeling of treading water rather than them getting closer to either side of the pool. Of course, there are times that we all have to do that, but I think that we can be mindful.

Maybe you give yourself the permission to say, "You know what, exercise is just something that's going to wait until the summer for me and I'm not going to beat myself up about that." Or maybe that means you're not going to see your friends as much. I think planning ahead and understanding the seasonality and the phases of our lives gives us a lot of opportunity to prepare in advance and say, "Okay, I know I'm going to be really lopsided for the next two months. How can I put it back in the other direction later?"

Another thing that you point out in the book is that sometimes making that choice doesn't mean that you have to go all in. You can say, "I can't do a full workout. I can't go for a long run, but I can do five minutes of something. I can't get a full night's sleep, but I know that I can take five minutes to meditate." Choosing things doesn't always have to mean I have to put this one thing on the shelf for three months. I have to figure out a way to maybe get it in smaller doses.

That's exactly right. If there was something that you used to do every other day, maybe for next two months, you're really only going to be able to choose it once a week, twice a week. Part of that is if being OK with that, being OK with prioritizing, giving ourselves permission, feeling like we're not bad people or bad at our lives if we have to prioritize a few things over other things. It's okay.

That's a real shift for a lot of women. There is a garbage amount of guilt that we that we are fed. It is not just internal, but extremely externalized towards working mothers, towards women in general for trying to work, for trying to have children, for trying to have anything at all. There's just this pushback that you can't, because you have to do every single thing and you have to do it perfectly.

Absolutely. It's almost taboo for moms to admit that they will love their careers and that they sometimes want to prioritize it over their family. The few times that women have admitted that to me, it’s like they're telling me a secret, but they can't admit. It's troubling because we spend so many years getting educated, investing in our careers and bettering ourselves. It’s okay prioritize that incredibly expensive and long investment that we've made it ourselves.

And there is no evidence that enjoying our work makes us hate our kids or makes us not good at being a mom. No one ever says this to dads.

I'm on the road probably a hundred days a year away from my children. I can’t tell you that the guilt that I feel over it, but I also feel lucky because I don't have that same stress to juggle everything every day that other working moms have. I know when today is my travel day that I'm going to be focused on work, and then I'm going to come home and I'm going to be focused on my family.

The beauty of getting older is you do start to say, "I'm drawing my own lines in the sand." I think as women we have to realize no one is going to draw those lines for us.

That being said, one of the stories that I share in the book is about how I was a traveling abroad to India. My nanny had a question and called me, even though I was halfway across the world and my husband was one flight upstairs. I was like, wow, isn’t this just really a statement?

Another piece of the puzzle is that if you are partnered, then you are not doing your partner any favors by trying to do everything. You're not doing your children any favors by not letting their other parent actually parent.

I agree with that wholeheartedly. I actually think like when you do prioritize those boundaries, the rest of the people in your life around you actually benefit from it.

And then they get to set their priorities too. If this is my day to be really 100 percent for work, then it's going to be your day to be 100 percent for parenting. That's how we're going to work this out, and together it takes a village. We'll all figure out how to get our jobs done and raise our kids to be somewhat competent humans.

Let me ask you one more question. If you are feeling really overwhelmed and you're feeling super stressed and the idea of picking three seems crazy, what will be your first step for someone to start implementing these kinds of goal settings and boundary settings?

When we're drowning, living the moment like, "Oh my God, I have all of these things that I have to do right now," the first thing would be to maybe take a look at the week that lies ahead of you. Does everything really need happen in the next 24 hours, or is there anything that can be spread out over week? The odds are if you're going to try to do everything today, you're not going to do any of it well. You're much better off putting a few things off until tomorrow or a little bit later at the week where you can really focus on them. The other thing that I'm bringing up a lot the book is the notion of leaning on people in our lives for help. There area lot of times you just can't get to everything. We have people in our lives who want to help us who are there and ready to get that call. [Don't] be too proud or too afraid to ask for it.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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