I was sitting in a meeting the other day and suddenly recognized out of the blue that I change the toilet paper roll at work if it’s empty, but never at home. At home, it seemed to never run out. Diving into this deeper, I realized I never refill our soap dispensers at home either. And I don’t have a maid or nanny. In the blink of an eye, the care that my husband takes in loving our household came into full focus. And he does it so well, I hadn’t even noticed.
In that moment of realization that my needs are fully supported at home, I was thrust into a mental game of pinball — *bam* calendar alerts for school events I can’t attend, *whap* booking a big speaking engagement, *ching* missing date night, *ding* missing an important conference call, *thwap* being there for my daughter’s fifth grade graduation…
The tug-of-war emotionally and physically between my career and family crystalized in that poignant yet pedestrian toilet-paper-roll moment.
I may have been winning at work. But was I even present at home?
As the president and CMO of a successful consulting firm, I am extremely dedicated to my career. I love the work, I love the challenge, and I love the opportunities it has provided for travel, networking, and speaking. However, as any road warrior knows, the cost of professional success and opportunity is often at the cost of something else—relationships, experiences, and toilet-paper changing at home, to name a few.
“It may be too late to change a negative impact that’s happened in your home life or professional life, but the great news is that it’s never too late to change yourself moving forward,” said nationally renowned cosmetic dentist and international speaker Dr. Bruce B. Baird.
Based on my conversations with other working parents in airports and at professional events, I know I’m not alone in this struggle. In fact, the concept of “work-life balance” is nothing new. But to me, what’s fascinating is the way we road warriors, work-our-way-to-the-toppers, and C-level managers navigate the tension.
How do you decide if you’re going to your daughter’s dance recital or if you’re going to dinner with the big client and her husband? Where do you want to be? Where do you need to be? Where are you supposed to be?
Over the years, I’ve listened closely to my mentors to develop a series of criteria through which I weigh my decisions to commit to a work-related event. While it isn’t an exact science, it has been helpful to have a mental matrix to filter requests and events that might pull me away from my family.
The first filter is home support. This is both physical and emotional. It includes things like my husband’s work schedule, the physical health of my children and husband, extra support from babysitters or family members, my husband’s understanding of the logistics of the trip, and my husband’s ability to cover all the home and childcare requirements without me.
This criterion is weighted heavily in my decision-making process. If I have high home support for an event, I am more likely to easily decide “yes” to a work engagement. A study in Current Psychology is clear on this as well. Having a supportive family and partner helps you be more effective in your work domain and in your family domain.
Obligation Versus Opportunity
The next criterion is obligation versus opportunity.
There are some events that simply cannot be missed without risk of hurting my job, a big client, or the trust of the board of directors. These are events like the once-a-year budget meeting with the board, or an event that I have planned. The good news is that these types of events typically have a longer lead time, and my husband and I can plan.
Opportunities are events that I’d love to attend for my own professional development but are less urgent. If I want to attend a conference, but it falls on my daughter’s birthday, I’ll look at another conference or plan to attend the next year. The same goes for family non-negotiables.
In Chapter 8 of Frustration: The Breakfast of Champions by award-winning dental industry icon Victoria Peterson, Peterson asks the reader to take stock in the wheel of life. Draw a circle, and create spokes from the center to the edge. Each spoke represents a facet in your life. Now rank that spoke from 1 (poor) to 10 (exceptional) and indicate it along the line of the spoke, with one being in the center and 10 being at the edge.
“The goal is to get as close as you can to 10 in all facets of your life that you deem critical, such as health and finances,” Peterson said. “Just like a wheel, if you are falling at less than an 8 in some areas of your life, chances are you’ll feel wobbly in the real life you’re living every day, just like the wheel would perform if you were to roll it down the street.”
One of the greatest realizations personally and professionally has been in the power of management support. And, as a manager myself, I have begun to understand my role in the work-life balance of my team. A survey done by Harvard Business Review reported:
“Supervisors—regardless of how close they are to the C-suite—represent the organization at large in the eyes of their teams. They have the power to encourage (or discourage) employees from using family-friendly policies through their attitudes and behaviors, which can signal (or not signal) that there will be consequences for those who prioritize or provide equal importance to family and work responsibilities. A supervisor who has expectations that are at odds with the personal goals of their employee can have a detrimental impact on their work-life balance.”
For those visual thinkers, here is a sample of how one might weigh these three criteria and come up with a decision (see the table). Regarding three potential trips I have coming up, I determine how much each criterion comes into play. If the total score is low, I will likely rethink attendance. If it’s high, then I know I’ve got great support and the event ranks high for “need to be there” versus “want to be there.” Of course, this is a simplified matrix, but I find it helpful sometimes when I’m really struggling with a decision.
If you’ve ever felt yourself uttering the phrase, “My family will always be there,” this tool is for you. You likely will feel awkward at first, filling out a table for a decision that you usually make in your head in a matter of seconds. But this tool will support you in making the appropriate behavioral changes so you can give equal weight to both your work life and your home life.
The Truth Is
The term work-life balance is on its way out. And if it’s not, it should be. For me, my work is part of who I am. And like Libby Morris says, “Work is a large part of who I am; I cannot put it on and take it off like a jacket.” If you’re a business owner, you probably feel this way straight to your bones.
I’m emailing and texting while watching a family movie in the evening. I bring my 4-year-old into the office when he doesn’t feel well, but I have an important conference call. I bring my husband on work trips if the situation allows. I have friends at work, and we go for drinks.
My point is that the dichotomy we have set up between “work” and “life” is a misnomer. While I do need to make decisions about where my time is spent, my work life isn’t the opposite of my home life. I think it may be more beneficial to think about overall life harmony.
Is the time I’m spending at both work and home providing me a meaningful, fulfilling life? Or, are there ways I can shift my focus to be happier? I find “balance” to be an impossible place to be. Personally, the time and energy fluctuations feel more like a dance than piling stones on opposite sides of a scale. But when a hard decision needs to be made, I’ve test-driven this three-filter approach to decision-making and have found the guidance helpful on more than one occasion.
While there’s never a black and white answer to things like time management, family responsibility, and work-related expectations, I know from experience it’s possible to find a rhythm that works for me, my family, and my job. The dance isn’t always pretty, and sometimes we trip and fall. But with good home and management support, I know we’ll be okay.
Ms. Robertson is the president and CMO of the Productive Dentist Academy, a national consulting company that has helped thousands of dentists increase productivity and decrease stress since 2004 through business development, team building, and marketing. A multi-year honoree on the Inc. 5000 list, Productive Dentist Academy is recognized as one of America’s fastest growing private companies. She can be reached at Regan@ProductiveDentist.com or (800) 757-6077.