Think about the experience of attending a dinner party. As you mingle with new people and engage in conversations, what is the first question most of your new colleagues ask you? My guess: what do you do for work?  In most cases, people start any inquisition by determining your professional life first, and then working downward from there.  And I’d also bet you that you identify yourself based on your profession and what you have chosen to do for a living.  That is quite common, especially because we spend so much of our time fulfilling that role.

But in recent article by Ximena Vengoechea, she stresses just how crucial what we do outside of work is to our very existence and feeling of self-worth. She says, “People say we are the average of the five people we spend the most time with. I’d say that we’re the average of the five activities we spend the most time on, too.”  There is a great deal of truth to this statement. She continues: “If who we surround ourselves with informs who we are and who we become, so too does how we spend our solo time. Hobbies, side projects, our day to day activities: these are reflections of our selves that add up to form our life experiences over time. If how we spend our time says a lot about who we are, would you be happy with what that says about you?”

I find tremendous value in her thoughts, and it gives me pause to reflect on my life and daily decisions. I work with women who work.  The type of women who are constantly thriving in the workplace, but also the type of women who had a great deal of trouble disconnecting from these responsibilities and feel constantly challenged by the work/life balance.  But Vengoechea offers some helpful advice, including:

  • Look for pre-existing pockets of time you can convert into dedicated project time. I dedicate my daily commute (1 hour each way) to personal project time. Many of my co-workers work on the shuttle to and from the office, but my shuttle ride is strictly Me time.
  • Decide when you are consuming and when you are creating, and do not mix the two. That means jotting down ideas in a spark file while consuming content, but saving creation for a more focused time later.
  • Set simple, achievable deadlines and goals. Don’t try to do everything at once: aim for reasonable. For me that’s one publishable sketch or blog post a week. I alternate between the two because some weeks are busier than others, but I can always get one of the two out.
  • Don’t push it: know when you work best on which types of projects, and honor your natural productivity cycle. I’ve learned that mornings my mind is freshest for creative, strategic thinking. My mornings are great for writing. Evenings I’m worn from the day and have less mental energy, so it’s the perfect time to wrap up sketches already in progress. Find what works for you and focus efforts there.
  • Most importantly, pick projects that energize you. For me it’s creative projects that keep me motivated and fulfilled. For someone else it might be starting a family or building a business, exercising or undertaking culinary pursuits. Whatever it is, don’t force it if you don’t like it: it’s supposed to be fun. If it isn’t, switch gears.

This is great guidance to help each of us focus on the work we do outside of work.  Sure, we might still get asked that same question at cocktail party after cocktail party. But the truth is that we should really be focused on what we do outside of work, and not allowing our actual work to define us.