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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work-Life Balance

Real Work-Life Balance: Lessons From the Trenches

mother and child
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When I was young, I’d come home from preschool every day to a lunch of SpaghettiOs and Sesame Street. I remember in particular one of the skits I used to watch: Picture 20 or so girl Muppets dressed in clothes of various occupations—firefighter, astronaut, banker—singing “we can be truck drivers, we can be lawyers—there’s nothing we women can’t be!” The sky was the limit.

Cut to today: I’ve been in the workforce for almost 20 years, got married, had children, and somewhere along the way, I morphed that Sesame Street message from “you can be anything” to “you can be everything.”

In my pursuit of “everything,” I’ve read more books, articles, and research papers on the attainment of work-life balance than I care to admit. I found that the women who were most visible on the topic largely fell into two camps: Either they were subject matter experts studying the topic from research centers, like Sylvia Ann Hewlett, or they were in the upper echelons of their fields, like Sheryl Sandberg or Anne-Marie Slaughter. And while I greatly appreciated the visibility they brought to the topic—I struggled to directly apply their recommendations.

As I grew my career and looked to senior women around me, they seemed to have so many support structures I didn’t have: cooks, nannies, housekeepers, stay-at-home husbands, teams of people working for them. I wasn’t sure what that meant for my ability to succeed in having both a family and career. Both my husband and I have always worked full-time. We’ve had those debates about who was responsible for drop-off and pick-up, showed up at the grocery store at the same time (actually, that made me feel good), and ordered more takeout than we’d like to admit. And even though most people are in a similar boat, I really haven’t seen broadly recognized work-life commentary written by someone from this perspective.

So, in the spirit of being part of the solution, I took some time to compile some of the fundamental lessons I’ve learned to date as well as the best of the advice I’ve gotten from managers, role models, and yes, those experts. These lessons are not rules or absolutes—they’re a snapshot of what’s worked for me so far and food for thought.

Lesson 1: Make a Plan

Planning a life with multiple, sometimes competing, commitments requires structure, and the most game-changing advice I’ve gotten is this: If you’re truly going to act on your priorities, you need to dedicate time to them (Julie Morgenstern has a great model to follow).

So, I took a weekly calendar and some crayons, and mapped out my priorities to create a “typical” week, with time dedicated to each of my priorities: exercise, work, family time, and so forth. I started with the “big rocks:” the most important and least flexible responsibilities (I learned this trick from Stephen Covey). For me, these were work and my children’s sports schedules. Then, I decided when I get my best work done. For example, I knew that my job required time for “deep-thinking” work, so I dedicated one day per week to be meeting-free.

I drew this out on a schedule, tried it out for a couple of weeks, and then adjusted. It took a few iterations—and retraining of others around me—but it helped me clarify my priorities, and actually put my precious time against the things I cared most about.

Lesson 2: Be Prepared to Change Your Plan

Once I developed my plan, I proudly posted it on the wall in the kitchen for my family to see. I quickly learned, however, not everyone appreciated this approach—and not everyone fit nicely into my grid.

My favorite example of learning to flex my plan came when my kids got serious about sports. Nightly family dinners had been a priority to keep us connected, and I had them nicely scheduled into my “plan.” Then my daughters got into softball, joined multiple teams, and we were lucky if we were eating dinner together one night a week.

After the initial denial and blame dissipated (“Whose side was my family on? Didn’t they see I had a plan?”), I relaxed my plan—and sports actually turned out to be a great connecting force for our family and a growing experience for our girls. That one night a week became really special. We also still found a way to spend a lot of time together, not at the dinner table, but on the road, traveling to games and making new friends.

Did the new approach fit neatly into my original plan? No. But did it achieve my priority? Absolutely.

Lesson 3: Look for Examples Rather Than Role Models

I ended up being the only one of five friends who went back to work after we had our first babies. And at first, I thought there might be something wrong with me.

How was I going to be both a mother and a professional? For a long time, I looked to external forces: the right job, the right boss, a more understanding husband, the right therapist. These forces—work, family, advisors—certainly have influenced me, but inevitably the advice I got from them wasn’t what I really needed.

After a few frustrating attempts at following the advice of others, I finally decided to start trusting my instinct—and I’m quite frankly embarrassed at how long it took me to get there. Here is one example: My husband and I both wanted to be involved in our kids school lives, which meant sharing pick-up duty, knowing their teachers, volunteering. In fact, my husband sat on the Parent Teacher Student Association board before I did. And, to be honest, at first I felt some conflict—wasn’t that my job? But where did I get that idea?

I realized I was trying to follow in my parents’ footsteps. My parents had drawn nice, clean lines: School was my mom’s territory; my dad had other responsibilities. But for my husband and I, that wasn’t what we wanted. And trying to be just like my mom—or even trying to follow all her advice—wasn’t realistic. As I’ve come to my own solutions and watched others come to theirs, I realize that every person has unique circumstances that lead to different outcomes. And that’s okay.

So, quit comparing yourself to your parents, friends, colleagues, the leadership at your office, or even those public role models. Instead, consider them examples. You are the only one who goes to bed in your bed and wakes up in your house the next morning—and you know what’s best for you. Figure out what that is, and give yourself permission to do it.

Lesson 4: Simplify and Focus

One of my most favorite managers told me once, “Simplify and focus.” At the time, I thought she just didn’t appreciate “big thinkers” like myself. I eventually realized she was trying to help me get to a level of work that was attainable—and I’ve since applied that advice to every level of my life.

While he doesn’t call it by the same name, David Allen has a similar idea, which has helped me move to actually taking action. He simply calls it “getting things done.” The approach is to focus not on the enormity of your vision for your life, career, or even that next project, but instead to focus on figuring out the next action to take.

For example, instead of telling myself “I have to lose X pounds,” I clarified that my priority was “be in good shape.” Then, I recognized that “lose X pounds” isn’t really actionable. But scheduling time to go to the gym with a friend? That’s an action. So I schedule that time, and move on. And after that? Figure out the next action, say, going for a run with my daughter. Tackle priorities one action at a time, and the results will come.

Lesson 5: Know That You’re Not Alone

Finally, one of the most important lessons I’ve learned came from a mistake I made: not sharing my struggles along the way. Because friends and colleagues regularly told to me they didn’t know how I managed the whole work-family equation, I felt I had to keep up appearances as if I were managing it well, even when I was really struggling.

A few months ago, I got myself in a situation where I double-booked myself between a work and personal commitment. A colleague came by and I was so frustrated at the time that I found myself sharing my struggles her—and, to my surprise, she started sharing with me. Even though we had totally different situations, we were both trying to “figure it all out,” and knowing that has helped me lighten the load, laugh more often than not, and strengthens my resolve. You don’t have to have it all figured out to share—just share!

Over time, I’ve realized that all the talk out there about whether women can “have it all” or attain “work-life balance” isn’t actually productive. “Having it all”—I’m not even sure what that means. In reality, I don’t want “it all;” I just want what I want. I don’t think there’s any one lesson or answer—here or anywhere—that’s going to be a silver bullet. But for me, putting all these lessons together is where some magic has happened.

Is my life perfect? Of course not! But I continue to grow during this process. And just as significantly, I’m building a positive and real role model for my daughters. By doing that, I’m contributing to the world in an even better way than I first envisioned during those salad days of Sesame Street and SpaghettiOs.