Perhaps because I've been an entrepreneur since the age of 25, or maybe because I'm now a mom and I work grueling hours, I've been asked this loaded question more times than I can count:
The good news is, I have an emphatic answer. It's a rule I've been inadvertently testing for two decades throughout every phase of my life and career. I've watched it hold true for my friends who have big, high-pressure careers, as well as my friends who are incredible, wildly busy full-time mothers. And yes, even for men (not that anyone's asking them).
The not-so-good: It isn't something people always want to hear.
Because, truthfully, I "manage it all" by ruthlessly editing my life into what I call three baskets. And stopping myself when I'm tempted to see what happens when I try carrying four.
Here's how the theory works: Everyone has a set of priorities, or baskets, that require our time and energy. The first catch? There are four major basket categories—Work, Relationship, Kids, and Self—but if we want to operate at the highest level, we cannot carry more than three of these baskets at once.
Your baskets may be different from mine, except for one: We all have a Self basket. This contains anything that fuels your mind, body and soul. It's the first and easiest one to put down when we have too many baskets, but it's actually non-negotiable. We have to care for ourselves—whether it's with sleep, exercise, meditation, worship, or dinner with friends—or we will eventually, inevitably burn out.
And that's the other catch. Because if you accept that you must put the oxygen mask on yourself, at regular intervals, you're really only left with two baskets. This means that if you have a basket for Self, Work, and Kids…then you may not be able to be the perfect partner, all of the time. If you have baskets for Relationship, Kids, and Self…you may not be able to go full-throttle in your career, right now.
Skeptical? Think about the periods in your life when you've felt the most frazzled or out of control. For me, it's always when I'm sneaking an extra basket—trying to go all in at work, and as a mom, and as a partner, and to somehow also look the part of a CEO in the fashion business and consistently get enough sleep to function.
The hard (and also freeing) truth is that we simply cannot do all of these things, all of the time. But we can pace ourselves and deliberately and strategically carry different baskets throughout different phases of life.
For example, you might decide that for the window while your kids are young, going big as a mom is your top priority, and another basket may have to wait. Or you might be like me, who for many, many years, was deep in the throes of building a business, and has relied on a small village of Amazon, Postmates nannies, and housekeepers so I could devote two whole baskets to Work. Or you may decide that just for the summer, you'll dial it back at the office to be fully present with your partner and on family vacations and know that come fall, you'll shift into high gear again.
Choosing just three baskets isn't easy. In fact, it's really hard. And It's blatantly counterintuitive to a culture that tells women, especially, that we should be the picture of perfection in every domain.
But there are a million ways to arrange your baskets, and a million ways to define success. For me, accepting the limitations of my time and energy forces me to get incredibly clear about what I value most.
Which, if you ask me, is a much better question to ask women we admire.
[This article was previously published on 'Mother.']