Updated: Sep 30, 2022
Each of us juggles a multitude of roles in our lives. At work, you might be a colleague, a manager, or perhaps even the CEO. Outside of work, you might be a parent, a caregiver, a sibling, a friend. And each role comes with its own array of responsibilities.
When all the roles we play balance each other out, we feel fulfilled and happy. However, we can also quickly lose our grip when one begins to override the others. In this article, we’re going to better understand the roles we play in life. We’re also going to explore how to juggle our responsibilities without burning ourselves out.
The Psychology of Social Roles
The roles we play in life are also known as social roles (1). They refer to the different behaviors, responsibilities, and expectations we adopt in various situations. These behaviors and expectations are usually further reinforced by society and the people around us.
For instance, Karin begins her mornings as her role of a mother, in which she is expected to get her children ready for school. After dropping her kids off, she heads to the office and shifts to her role of marketing manager, where she professionally manages campaigns at work. During her tea break, she takes on the role of a friend, listening to a colleague’s concerns.
You and I are probably just like Karin, we uphold various roles at home and at work. We shift between them throughout our lives and even throughout each day. More so, failure to fulfill any of our roles comes with its consequences, such as the loss of a relationship or loss of a job.
How Do We Effectively Balance Multiple Roles in Life?
Adults typically must juggle their adulthood with parenting, their job, housework, kinship, and hobbies. This complexity has been seen as creating stress, conflict, and overload.
However, research suggests that it is possible for us to seek meaningful experiences amongst the chaos in our work and family lives (2). It’s not so much about splitting your time evenhandedly between work, home, and leisure. Rather, it’s about being reflexive in terms of our engagement, attention, investment of time and energy, and psychological involvement across all role obligations. Here’s how:
1) Identify your current roles
First, list out all roles and responsibilities you’re currently upholding in your life. You may even utilize tools like the Wheel of Life to chart a visual representation of how much energy you’re devoting to each area (3). For more clarity, do a mental walkthrough of your daily routines and the people you’re taking care of.
By doing this exercise, you begin to see how each role connects with or overrides each other. Which areas are commanding too much of your time and energy? Which areas do you want to nurture more of yourself in? How can you use one role to enhance the other?
Upon identifying your social roles, you’ve cultivated the awareness needed to put things into perspective. The next step is to decide what your priorities are and how to adjust your life accordingly.
Interviewees of a Harvard Business Review survey reported more work-life balance after they’ve reprioritized their time in a way that lined up with their true priorities (4). One interviewee described how he still viewed himself as a professional but redefined that role to be more inclusive of other important roles, such as that of a father.
Here are a couple of prompts to help you determine your priorities:
Where do I want to prioritize my time and energy at the moment?
What am I willing to sacrifice, and for how long?
Why do I feel that it is important to prioritize my life in this way?
You may also use tools like the Action Priority Matrix to identify essential commitments and those that are better off delegated or eliminated (5).
3) Implement changes
Awesome! You’ve now recognized your priorities and assessed the options that could help you improve. Next, we need to take action in order to see meaningful change. Research has found two types of changes to be effective strategies (4):
i. Public change: You do something that explicitly shifts others’ expectations. For example, you apply for a new role that’s less time-demanding or allows a flexible working scheme. You may also seek support from mentors, colleagues, or family whenever you feel like your bandwidth is stretched too thin.
ii. Private change: You informally change your work and lifestyle patterns. This process doesn’t attempt to change your colleagues’ or family’s expectations. This might mean self-imposing boundaries such as choosing not to work on evenings and weekends. You may also turn down extra demands typically associated with your roles, such as new projects or travel requests.
4) Accept the life stage you’re in
There will be times in your life when one role overrides all the others. And that’s okay.
Don’t stress yourself to abide by the perfect plan or schedule. Sometimes you may have to focus more on work and other times your family needs you more. For instance, a sick elderly parent needs caregiving, or perhaps a big project at work takes off. There’s very little we can do to change our circumstances in times like these.
Learning to accept whatever phase you’re at will significantly reduce your stress because you’re not in a state of resistance. You acknowledge that balance is achieved over time, and allow yourself to remain fluid. Accepting, redirecting, and assessing your needs one day at a time is key to finding balance.
Finding balance among all the roles and responsibilities we carry is not a one-time fix. Rather, it’s a continuous cycle of self-awareness and re-prioritization. Especially if we live in a culture of overpowering demands at work and at home. On top of everything, remember that balance means having time for yourself as well. The people you love deserve your best, and you can only give it when both your physical and mental health is well taken care of.
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