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Mariska Hargitay Says Life After Law & Order: SVU (Eventually!) ‘Will Be an Enormous Adjustment’

Mariska Hargitay started playing Olivia Benson on Law & Order: SVU in 1999 — and with the show getting picked up for another three seasons, that won’t be stopping anytime soon.

“I think I was meant to do this,” the actress, 56, tells PEOPLE in the cover story for this week’s Women Changing the World issue. “I was the one who was supposed to play Olivia Benson.”

  • For more from Mariska Hargitay, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday

Hearing from survivors of real-life sex crimes encouraged Hargitay to train as a rape crisis counselor and launch the Joyful Heart Foundation, a nonprofit that supports survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault.

“Every day I marvel at the turn of events that brought me here,’” the Golden Globe winner says. “That I was the one to get this role that led me to this life, to this mission. And every day I say thank you.”

Hargitay recognizes that while her advocacy work will continue, one day the show that gave her a platform will end. “When I finish SVU, as much as it will be an enormous adjustment, I will also be able to look back and say, ‘I gave it my all and maybe even a little more,’ ” she says. “And I’m excited about the next chapter.”

Right now, Hargitay says “there’s not enough hours in the day” to accomplish everything she wants, which includes spending time with her husband Peter Hermann and their three kids.

“I’m on a TV show, and I have a foundation and three children and a husband, and they all need, as anything that you value does, a lot of focus and energy,” Hargitay says. “Time is my most precious commodity now. I’ve had to think smarter to get more done.”

Perhaps that’s a trait she picked up from Olivia Benson.

Law & Order: SVU airs Thursdays (10 p.m. ET) on NBC.

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