Written by life coach Marybeth Cale
Several years ago, I experienced the game-changer I needed to better define “work-life balance”, the elusive but high-in-demand goal that mystifies most of us working parents on a daily basis.
At four years of age, my youngest son came home with a colorful painting representing his home life. Despite countless visits to sophisticated museums and galleries, I had never been so profoundly impacted by a piece of art. I will never forget how I felt when I saw his depiction of our family, and the powerful emotions it evoked that resonate today.
He, of course, smiled ear to ear as he presented the painting to me. To him, it was the perfect reflection of life in our happy home, and he was so very proud to share it. In the piece, he and his brother played happily on the kitchen floor while Daddy stood inches away making their favorite pizza for dinner.
Also pictured, though, was a mop of curly hair surrounding a laptop screen. There was no face. The screen covered the eyes and smile that would connect one to a human being, but I knew it was me. Yep, in his painting of his home life, I was seated at my desk, just a few feet away from the three wonderful guys in my life. While I was indeed in the same room, I can only imagine that my mind was a world away from them, lost somewhere in cyberspace, in a galaxy far away from dinnertime with my family.
Oddly enough, up until that day, I thought I had mastered the concept of “work-life balance.” I felt like a rock star; I had it all – a great career, a caring family, and exciting days full of cool projects and people. By working from our house, I could be “totally available” to our beautiful children. I only wore the power-suits for client meetings that were meticulously scheduled during school hours, and in the evenings, I could easily fire off emails before and after dinner, respond to texts while the rest of my family threw the football around in the yard, and answer calls as the kids were getting ready for bed.
I was present, and yet, much of the time, really very absent.
Every day, women and men from all over the world strive to figure out how to simultaneously fulfill the demands of personal and professional lives. For me, working from home seemed a perfect solution, but the poignant messages in my adoring four-year-old’s painting spoke loud and clear: I was failing on some level, quite miserably.
In the months that followed, I studied up on work-life balance and ended up making some transformative changes. I had heart-to-heart discussions with my husband, my children, my friends, my supervisor, and myself to determine what I could do to change that picture my son had of me. I then made a major career change, and while not perfect, strive toward a healthier balance between personal and professional life.
Like every working parent though, the work-life balance, five years later, is still a work in progress – and likely always will be. But I have learned a few key things that have made all of us far more joyful (and, ironically, have made my productivity at work grow exponentially.)
1. Use quiet time wisely. I am, by nature, an early riser. I have learned to use that time to get work done before the sun (or my children) rise for the day. It’s peaceful, and it’s incredibly productive for me. My husband is the total opposite, a complete “night owl.” He has learned to save some of his projects for those hours when all is quiet in our home and he can tackle his work without distraction. What are your natural biorhythms? When do you accomplish the most? When can you work without getting sidetracked? Take those times of day to maximize your own success by knocking out projects that might otherwise take twice as long.
2. Complete the most important tasks of the day first. For me, developing a to-do list before I begin each workday allows me to prioritize my projects. It’s not always easy, but I do follow a ritual now that has helped me immensely, which is that I spend the first two hours of my day getting one of the most intense, challenging projects done before I begin anything else. By doing this, I get to feel total gratification before I have even had lunch and that productivity tends to breed more productivity. Typically the to-do list is done before my kids return home from school, and I feel like I can be present to them because the most overwhelming tasks are behind me. The evenings can then be spent on more of the “mindless” maintenance-type activities, which allows me to relax and enjoy family life more during that time of day.
3. Exercise your ability to work from home, but set very clear start and stop times. Working from home is, simply put, pretty awesome. Throw in a load of laundry while on a conference call, print out the kids’ permission slips from the school parent portal while developing a strategic plan – there’s no question you can do it all, and do it well. That said, though – give yourself a real work schedule, whatever the hours might be (even if they incorporate those blocks of time in the wee small hours of the morning or after midnight.) If you are working on projects that allow you to multi-task, great – head to the laundry room and do some ironing too. If not, though, keep your bottom planted in the chair at your desk for the hours you are officially working –and get the job done – so that when the children come running to you after school, you can embrace them fully.
4. Unplug completely. Every day. Figure out what times of day you will set the devices aside. Walk away. Trust me, everyone who is trying to reach you will be okay while you enjoy dinner with your family and a bike ride in the neighborhood. And you will be better for it; you need that time to refresh and rejuvenate, and your family needs you to look them in the eyes when they are sharing stories from their own lives with you. Let’s face it - so long as there is a device in hand, it’s difficult to focus on the human beings in our midst.
5. Go for a walk. I am big on walking. Walk alone, walk with a colleague if you need to meet with him or her to discuss something – just get away from the office (whether at home or in a cubicle) and breathe in the fresh air that makes everything right with the world again. I feel far more balance in my life when I carve out some time for the great outdoors – and I believe that is a fairly universal experience. Walk daily. It can make a world of difference in your life and can put everything into perspective, thus making you feel a little more centered than you felt before.
As technology evolves, our kids grow up, and our professional responsibilities change, so too will our interpretations of what it means to achieve ‘work-life balance.’ It’s not a destination – it really is a journey of constant self-evaluation. But if we listen to our children, and really consider their responses to us at different points in time, we can usually keep ourselves in check, redesigning our lives as needed along the way.
Most importantly, though, in order to stay balanced, we all need to be gentle with ourselves. As working parents, we are doing our best each and every day.
I am sure he still sees the cellphone as an appendage to my body sometimes, but my hope is that the picture my son has of me will be one of me outside playing football with him, laughing as he tells his jokes and radiating the joy that comes from being a mom who is present to the wonder of her children.
Marybeth Cale is a life coach and speaker who lives in her hometown of Rhinebeck, New York. She conducts workshops on work-life balance and a number of other topics, in addition to offering one-on-one personal and executive coaching for clients nationwide. You can learn more by visiting her website: marybethcale.com. Copyright 2014, all rights reserved.