There’s a lot of talk about “work life balance”—it even made the cover of the March 2014 issue of Harvard Business Review. People are thirsting for a formula—an algorithm that will tell them the right percentage of time to devote to each area of their lives. Yet no formula will resolve the root cause of the issue: the belief there is a conflict in the first place.
Since my first daughter was born in 2007, I’ve been operating under the assumption that there is a line between my work life and my home life. I took to heart a great piece of advice that I received from a boss and mentor when my daughter was born—that they best way to survive was to “compartmentalize”. Focus on work when at work and home when at home. I’ve found that has been greatly helpful in pushing me to be “mindful” of where I’m at and has helped me enrich both “lives” more fully.
However, I still struggled with the fact that work and home were two opposing pressures that I had to balance. But over the past few years, and thanks to the encouragement of a dear mentor and friend, I’ve spent a lot of time reflecting. I’ve realized something: we need to challenge the assumption that work and life are separate and conflicting.
Here are my suggestions to help break down this assumption:
Take notice of how lessons and talents developed at work help you at home. Write down some of your talents at work. Manage people well? What have you learned in that role? Maybe you’re a great listener. Are you insightful in seeing people’s talents and finding opportunities for them to develop those talents. Are you able to recognize what inspires and motivates people?
Now, think about your role as a parent. Have you applied these skills at home? Have you listened to your kids with the same intensity and focus that you listen to your team? Have you looked for their talents and found ways for them to develop them more? What motivates and inspires them? Now all of a sudden the skills that you have grown and developed at work add value to your home life. If you haven’t applied these talents at home, give it a try and journal the results. Over time, you should see how being a working parent can actually enhance your ability to parent, not conflict with it.
Then take notice of how lessons and talents developed at home help you at work. What may seem harder to see is how the talents you hone as a parent add value to work. I’ve found that there are many. The same questions asked above can actually apply in the reverse. Kids can teach us so much about listening, learning, and the importance of having fun. How many times have you struggled through a toddler’s tantrum, only to realize later that the trigger of it wasn’t the toy s/he couldn’t have but rather a consequence of being tired or pushed too hard? Have you ever had an employee express frustration about something that seemed small on the surface? Apply what you’ve learned at home—consider that that outburst could be a sign of another issue and work to address the root cause.
Have you tried to force your children to do an activity that they weren’t really excited about, only to discover that when you let go of that activity and put them into another one better suited that thrive? Now reflect on your team—is there an opportunity to give someone on your team a new and exciting project that is better suited to his/her interests, enabling him/her to get excited and passionate about their job again?
What about crisis management? Think about how you would handle a work crisis before you had kids? Actually, take that a step further—what did you define as a work crisis before you have kids? There’s nothing like a late night trip to the ER with a sick child to put things in perspective. And in lowering your crisis criteria, you save yourself so much emotional energy and can actually deal with the situation better.
So give yourself permission to gut your guilt. Go ahead and leave your office early to catch your child’s dance class or softball game, because what you learn by participating fully in your child’s life helps you at work.
Next change your self-talk: When you feel the work-life “conflict”, rephrase it as work-life “complements”. At the end of the day, we believe what our self-talk tells us to believe. Thus, the first step in resolving the work-life “conflict” is to tell yourself that one doesn’t actually exist. I prefer the term work-life “complement”, as it reminds me of the enrichment the two areas provide to each other. I would not be the manager that I am if I weren’t a mother. I would not solve problems as creatively if I didn’t exercise that creativity with my kids. And I probably wouldn’t appreciate the value of fun and laughter as much if I didn’t get to experience those special gifts with my girls. So rid yourself of the guilt of conflict! You are a better at work because you’re a parent— and you are a better parent because of what you learn at work.
Don’t forget to celebrate successes—as a team and as a family. Many working parents spend so much time working and planning that they forget to pat themselves on the back. It’s good for your teams and your family to see you celebrate. By taking a moment to enjoy success, you remind yourself and reinforce the philosophy that your work and family lives can complement each other. Yay for you!
For great reads that can help you with this philosophical pivot, visit our Recommended Reading page.