How to live your best 70% life (and it's the best thing you can do for your mental health)

It's all about consciously dropping balls.
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Meric Canatan

Boss. Mother of three kids and two pugs. Perfectionist. When GLAMOUR Editor-In-Chief Deborah Joseph realised trying to be a superwoman was bad for her mental health, she started consciously dropping balls and had a life revelation…

It was on a wintry November evening last year – 7.08pm, to be precise – that I reached my tipping point. I opened my front door, after a particularly full-on week at work as Editor-In-Chief of GLAMOUR, ready to lie on my couch and crack open a bottle of rosé (yes, I drink it all year round).

Suddenly, I was hit with a wave of screeching. My two eldest children – then aged seven and five – were fighting hysterically over the TV remote, and my three-year-old was lying on the hallway floor, throwing an almighty tantrum. At that moment, my phone pinged. It was a text from my neighbour: ‘I can hear a lot of screaming. Have you locked one of your children in their bedroom?’ My husband, also harassed after an equally stressful week at work, then asked me, “What should we have for dinner?” I snapped.

Without even looking behind me, I walked right back out of the door, jumped into my car and spent two hours driving aimlessly round north London, Smooth Radio on, trying to calm my frazzled nerves. The truth? I was burnt out. I hadn’t been sleeping well for months. I couldn’t concentrate. My eyesight had become fuzzy. To the outside world, my life looked like one to envy. Friends and colleagues told me: “You’re a superwoman.” Inside, I felt I was failing at everything. And with so much expectation – mine and other people’s – on my shoulders, I just couldn’t cope.

As I sat in my car, not even crying, just in shock, I tried to process everything. The life I was leading was the one I had been taught to aim for: to be successful at my job, a supportive wife, a present and loving mother, a good friend, a homemaker, a devoted sister and daughter, to stay fit in order to wear the clothes that I love and, in recent years, to keep up an interesting social-media presence for work.

From my feminist-leaning school (Emmeline Pankhurst’s daughter went there) to my mother, who told me never to rely on a man and always earn my own money (incredible, I’m aware, to many young millennial women, that this was ever in question), these expectations and messages were subconsciously imprinted on my brain.

Yet, while I was told that I could be anything I wanted to be, nobody ever explained how to become all the things that you want to be, all at the same time.

Finally, that evening, I accepted that the life I’d been striving for was, in fact, a myth. I couldn’t do it all. At least, I couldn’t do it all at once. And, if I was really truthful, I didn’t want to. But the real revelation wasn’t that I had made a mistake in not sacrificing having a family for my career, or my career for having children. I didn’t – and shouldn’t have to – walk away from work, or my family responsibilities. Instead, it was that I was going to live 100% of my life, only 70% of the time. The other 30% would be consciously left by the wayside, to make room for what really matters.

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I promised myself that day that I was going to consciously drop balls. Yes, consciously. This wasn’t about doing everything badly, but making space to do the things that I wanted to, brilliantly. And when I dropped a ball, I wasn’t going to apologise, not to myself or anyone else.

First, I stopped being a perfectionist. I decided that my new mantra would be: ‘better done than perfect.’ I wrote a list in my head of the 70% non-negotiables in my life: my kids, my husband, my extended family, my pet pugs and my work. The other 30% – my fitness, my social life, social media, would have to take a back seat. And then I broke down the non-negotiables; for example, when I was with my kids I’d be there for them 100% and put my phone away, even if it meant that I couldn’t be across absolutely everything at work – I have a great team, after all. Then when I was at work, vice versa.

I made some very practical changes. I asked my boss to give me half a day off a week, so I’d have time to do personal admin and pick up my children from school at least once, which is something that means a huge amount to me and them. I stopped looking at social media and emails at least two hours before I went to bed, so my brain could slow down. My sleep improved instantly. I accepted that I have the body of a woman who’s carried and given birth to three healthy children. Size 12 will have to be my new perfect. Instead of making plans every weekend to see friends, I left whole weekends completely free; turning down invitations without even making excuses. My husband and I started staying in on our own on Saturday nights, ordering food and watching box sets – time just to ourselves, with no rushing around or distractions.

I also started swimming again, something that I love, which really helps my stress levels. And I limited my personal social media to half an hour per day, choosing only one platform – Instagram – to post on. ‘I wish I’d tweeted and Facebooked more,’ said no one on their deathbed, ever.
At work, I stopped worrying about what I hadn’t yet achieved and congratulated myself on what I had. I started saying no to things, and became a more effective delegator.

I started talking to other women – and men – who ostensibly ‘have it all’. I discovered that a lot of men didn’t suffer from this extreme pressure to do everything, especially when it came to the domestic side of their life. If they weren’t a good cook or homemaker, they didn’t care and no one was judging them.

One successful female CEO and mother of four kids said to me, “Just order a takeaway for your next dinner party and pass it off as your own.
No one will know.” I haven’t done that, I enjoy cooking and entertaining sometimes, but I took a new perspective and attitude away from that conversation.

And a male colleague, the CMO of a huge international company (which he and his wife, a full-time lawyer, juggle with three children) told me that once a week he deletes all the emails from the past week that he hasn’t responded to or read. It meant that they weren’t urgent and so didn’t need to clog up his inbox. If it was urgent, they’d email him again.

There were, of course, drawbacks. Some friends fell by the wayside, people I really adore, but I simply couldn’t make them a priority. But on the plus side, I became more willing to make mistakes in my life, because the lack of perfectionism and allowing myself to drop a ball here and there was so liberating. It also made me braver and less scared of trying new things, because instead of worrying about failing, working at 70% meant that I had to accept that I am absolutely going to fail 30% of the time. And I am cool with that. I also accepted that at least 30% of people I meet are not going to like me, don’t want to be my friend or think I’m bad at my job. Accepting that was so liberating – and let’s be honest, I probably feel the same about 30% of people I meet. Unless they’re paying your mortgage, who cares?

I also started talking to friends and younger colleagues about it, and realised I wasn’t alone. This isn’t a problem that just affects
my generation – it’s all of us, irrespective of our age. We are all so busy trying to have a perfect Instagrammable life, to be high achieving at everything and hold it together, that our anxiety levels are off the scale.

But, having found my own perfectly imperfect solution, I feel that I owe it to the next generation, and the one after that, to be more honest. I have two daughters and a son. And while I’ll absolutely tell them that they can do anything and be anything they want to be, that won’t mean that they have to be high achieving at absolutely everything. If they want to be a full-time mum, a stay-at-home dad and live their best 90%, 70% or even 50% life, then I am right behind them championing that. They will not be brought up to be a superwoman, nor marry a superwoman. Because those fairytales don’t exist. And, surely, the 70% reality is where the happy ending really lies.

Follow Deborah’s 70% life @deborah_joseph