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The BALANCE MYTHRETHINKING WORK-LIFE SUCCESS
By TERESA A. TAYLOR
Greenleaf Book Group PressCopyright © 2013 Teresa A. Taylor
All right reserved.
We all want to be successful at work and at home, but no one can maintain a perfect balance between the two. Regardless of what home is for usa spouse and children, a domestic partner, a roommate, or our petswe all have the desire to be the best at all of it. Yet the moment we think we have achieved balance, something falls out of place or doesn't happen in time and knocks everything else off kilter.
In either case, make your home life a priority. If your personal life is a mess, you'll never be your best at work. I firmly believe that to achieve success at work, you have to create a solid personal life. If problems at home are constantly nagging at your conscience, you will never be able to devote enough energy and talent to a successful career.
You really can't have success in one area of your life without having success in the others. It's all about creating alternatives, options, and backup plans, and it's about asking for help. You can't take the mother out of the career woman or the career out of the mother, so use both to your advantage.
Above all, try not to think of your life as a zero-sum game or as an equation that has to be balanced. I've learned there is not one magical answer to the question of "balance." Society tells us it's acceptable to succeed at work, provided it doesn't impact our home life. Unfortunately, trying to achieve this mythical "balance" simply causes us endless frustration. To minimize my frustration, I use the concept of "layers."
Think of it like layers of clothing. Wearing layers of clothing gives us options: We can add something if we need to, or we can take something away, allowing us to adapt to the changing weather. We wear more layers of clothing when it is cold, just like we need more layers of help when our work life is challenging. We wear fewer layers of clothing when it is warm and our work life is moving along more easily. And, sometimes, we bring an umbrella when we think it may rain, just like sometimes we need an umbrella to shelter ourselves professionally in the office.
Thinking in layers allows you to integrate your work and your personal time to create one life and one family.
Layer #1: Time Management
At an early age, I was introduced to the concept of time management. Each summer I had three jobs, and I had to make sure I could get to each one on time. Before I had a driver's license, that meant riding my bicycle or getting a ride from an older friend or my mom. Even after I could drive myself places, I had the added responsibility of making sure that my brother was where he was supposed to be. When the two of us were in high school, this included getting back and forth to sports and after-school activities. The free calendar from the local insurance company that hung on the wall in our kitchen was the time-management tool for my mom, my brother, and me.
We all have younger, more naïve versions of ourselves. Mine grappled with the idea that most lists were a waste of time. I believed that the time I spent making all those redundant lists would be better spent on doing the things I would be putting on the list. I justified this to myself by saying that I wouldn't forget anything that was important.
I definitely changed my mind, and I perfected my time-management skills out of necessity. My true appreciation for list-making came when I became VP of Product Management at Qwest Communications and my children were in elementary school. At work, I managed a large, growing team and had ever-expanding deliverables. At home, there were always field trips or away games to prepare for, bake sales to support, or parent-teacher conferences to attend. I was determined to be a good parent by staying involved while still accomplishing everything at the office. So I kept lists.
My process was to start with checklists in my head, categorize them, and then jot them down with the first pen and paper I could find. Also, when ink met the paper, my lists often fell into categories, such as grocery shopping, meal ideas, meeting agendas, and phone calls to make, among others.
My lists helped me kill the erroneous idea of multitasking. Instead of spreading myself too thin by working on multiple things at once, I focused on the big picture and broke it into small pieces.
I was also willing to crumple up my lists and start over. It wasn't about having twenty things to do; it was about having three or four. And those three or four would be scheduled, accomplished, and crossed off the list. Whenever the list began to overwhelm me, I knew it needed to be cut down to size. I always made my lists based on prioritizing what needed to get done next. Which item on my list was the wolf at the door?
Because so many things compete for my attention, I scribble thoughts and ideas in order to make lists of them. I do this out of necessity, and everyone who knows me makes fun of my ongoing scribbling, but I don't care. My lists allow me to be efficient and highly effective. They keep me on track and prevent me from getting overwhelmed.
Take the time to make lists, and make the time to complete the tasks on them.
Assign Time Limits for Everything You Do
Just how do you "make the time" to accomplish everything on your list that you set out to do? After all, the list is only effective if the items on it can be realistically completed. If you don't assign a time limit to completing each item, a list is just a paper mirealbeit one that reveals your prioritieswithout any proper results.
Begin by assigning a time limit for completing every item on your list.
Here's an example of how it works. If "wrap Christmas gifts" is on my list, in my head I allot forty minutes to get it done. I'm always aware of the time so as not to go over. After forty minutes is up, I need to be finished and on to the next item on my list. If I haven't finished wrapping, I stop anyway. I don't take another fifteen minutes for the sake of finishing. I have a hard stop, and I almost never go over the time allotted. If there is more wrapping to be done, I have to schedule more time to do it another day.
It's also a learning opportunity: Now I know that gift wrapping X number of gifts takes more than forty minutes, and I need either to schedule a larger block of time or to find some other solution to get the job donelike using gift bags and tissue paper next time.
The same is true at work. If I plan thirty minutes to work on a presentation, I don't spend extra time trying to make it perfect. I don't negotiate with myself! I think to myself, "This is the best I can do with the time that I've allotted." I'm not big on thesaurus searches or tinkering with color schemes, which means I'm a bit of a taskmaster with myself. I give 100 percent in the time allotted so that I can move on to the next task. I just can't afford to let the other items on my list slip.
Watch the Clock
If I have any sort of superpower, it's an awareness of time. I am always watching the clock. Wonder Woman had her bullet-deflecting bracelets. I have my wristwatch. My wristwatch tells me how much time until and how much time since for every meeting, errand, chore, and task I take on.
Without my watch I feel unprotected, and on more than one occasion I've run to the gift shop in the lobby or across the way to a Walgreens to purchase a spare cheap watch. I even have spares in my desk drawer, all for the purpose of not letting others rule my timetable. It's my way of never being held hostage if a meeting has passed its shelf life. And meetings do have a shelf life. Anything over an hour needs to be avoided like food gone bad.
Speaking of meetingswhen you're running one, be focused. Don't pile on too much. Stick to the topic at hand. Only give relevant information. In the rareand I stress rareinstance during a work meeting where an extra fifteen minutes is required to finish up, I always ask if everyone in the room has that extra fifteen minutes to spare. I respect the person who quietly slips out of a meeting unnoticed.
I have happily received the moniker of "time warden" from my peers because I am 100 percent comfortable with cutting someone off in order to keep the meeting on track. I use little checkpoints. Halfway through the meeting, I'll say something like, "Everyone, we have thirty minutes left." Then no one is shocked when I hammer it down with, "Okay, now we have ten minutes left." A final check of my wristwatch and a simple "I understand what you're saying, but we have to stop now" have deflected more long-winded meanderings than Wonder Woman's bracelets have deflected bullets, using the veil of time to cut someone off.
When I wasn't in control of the meetings, I was dealing with others who were, and bosses can be verbose. I've had more than one who was notorious for following streams of consciousness rather than schedules. If I sensed that my boss was stressed or not paying attention, I reprioritized my list of concerns to talk to him about, and I planned to come back to some things later and maybe, just maybe, to eliminate some items altogether.
That's it. Plan a meeting and execute it. And get a wristwatch.
Windows of Time
I didn't think of my workday as one concrete block of time that occurred during set hours, Monday through Friday. If I allowed it, work would keep me at the office long after my sons had gone to bed. I wanted to be home before their eyelids were droopy.
I wanted to eat with my family. I wanted to cook for them. So I did whatever was necessary to leave work at a reasonable hour and go home.
I knew that this couldn't be the end of my workday, but for that short period in the evening, I chiseled out a small chunk of time for my life outside of work. I wouldn't take a conference call or answer an email. My mantra was: Two hours, for goodness' sake. It's not that big a deal in the grand scheme of things.
At home, I gave my family my undivided attention. While I prepared dinner, I would give my kids butter knives, and they would hack away at whatever vegetables we were having. They didn't have to be perfect; it was just an excuse to have them within arm's length. We had the normal family interactions with their normal ups and downs, but I was determined that I would not think of them as a chance for me to air grievances and get irritated. There were times when I did get upset and yelled, but I didn't want to be that yelling mom, that mom who let her kids have it over the dinner table because she was overly sensitive and exhausted from a stressful day at work.
I tried to consciously think: I have a couple of hours to spend with my family. I don't want to be angry.
After I had tucked the boys into bed, I would inevitably get my second wind. With the absence of incoming phone calls and real-time email exchanges at home, I was able to be more effective, often getting four hours of quality work completed in less than two.
Usually I did this work in front of the television with Pete sitting next to me. (Pete and my boys will tell you that I really don't watch TV; I just sit in front of it. However, when asked, I can recite the last two lines of the sitcom or pay-per-view movie.) Our dining room table in the center of the house became my workspace, as well as the spot where my sons, Jack and Joe, completed their school homework. This allowed all four of us to be in the same general area at the same time. Pete's and my bedroom was where Jack, Joe, and I practiced our speeches for presentations, meetings, or class projects. I also learned that during the early morning hours, before everyone else was awake, was my favorite time to work.
The fact is, there is never enough time in the day for everything you want to accomplish either at the office or at home. Either setting always has too much to do, which is one of the major contributors to feeling like you don't have "balance." I am suggesting that instead of worrying about finding "balance" between work and home, as if spending time on one necessarily drains time from the other, you think more simply. If you have a time-management technique that works for you at the office, bring it home as well. And while at home, don't feel bad about the time you're not spending with your family: Instead, use your time well to make the best of the time you do have and enjoy them.
Layer #2: One Calendar
In the beginning, I kept two separate calendars: one for work and one for home. I thought it was necessary to keep two very separate schedules in order to be in control of both facets of my life.
I wasn't working with any men who were open about what they were dealing with outside the office, so I followed their lead and never talked about my mothering dilemmas or about being a wife. I wanted to show a hard Teflon surface that would resonate with them and my boss. I didn't bring up my children. I would never have brought up the fact that I was having a problem with my son's teacher. What kind of weaknesses would I be exposing if I told them that an elementary school teacher was getting under my skin? Nor did I want to think about what might cross my boss's mind if he saw an entry for a second-grade Halloween party scrawled across my Tuesday morning calendar.
My calendar became a microcosm for what I felt I was battling in the rest of the world.
Keeping two calendars meant that I bifurcated my life, and as a consequence I felt bifurcated. This was not pleasant. Meeting and appointment overlaps occurred, and I dropped the ball and missed a few things because it was almost impossible to live without those overlaps.
But once I began to identify and hold sacred those hours outside the office, both to spend time with my husband and sons and, after dinner, to catch up or get ahead on projects, my original feelings of being overwhelmed and timid began to dissipate, and I became more productive. Because I was able to give 100 percent to whatever I was focused onmanaging my blocks of time without multitaskingI was more effective at my job than I had ever been before.
"Because I was able to give 100 percent to whatever I was focused onmanaging my blocks of time without multitaskingI was more effective at my job than I had ever been before."
I was becoming a better wife and mother in the process. It was a great confidence boost. The layers of time management were working!
The funny thing was that as I learned to use these layers in my work, I also craved eliminating other needless layers in my life. Maintaining two calendars was one such unnecessary layer, and so I stopped sawing myself in half and shucked the two calendars for one. I put everything personal and everything professional on one calendar and lived my life as one life.
As a consequence, I stopped feeling so segmented, and it felt increasingly comfortable to intertwine my two lives. At work, I mentioned my kids. I talked about my family. As I did this, my relationships improved at the office as well. I discovered that other people have family issues, too, and I became a mentor, someone people with families sought out for advice and perspective.
I realized that there wasn't a prejudice toward families at work; it was more of a sense of apathy. I realized my boss wasn't thinking less of me for having a family; he was just concentrating on my performance as an employee, as he should. As I became more and more industrious, he recognized and praised the projects I completed and every sales quota I met. And it wasn't as offensive that my boss took more than two years to learn my boys' names, since he began to be okay with me leaving work early to make a three o'clock appointmenteven if that three o'clock appointment was my son's soccer game.
Layer #3: Weekends
While we all hope for a limited, forty-hour workweek, I have never had that luxury, and therefore I needed to create another layerthe weekend.
Work weekends. It's that plain, even if it's not simple.
We found that we had a huge advantage in Pete's fixed days and shifts. He volunteered to work Saturdays and Sundays so he could take care of the boys for three days during the week, which meant I would cover the weekends alone.
Saturday was my day to run errands with the boys in tow. I let the boys choose an inexpensive toy or treat as I pushed a cart through the stores. They bounced in the backseat as I picked up dry cleaning or dropped envelopes into the slot at the post office. We spent the day doing chores or going to soccer games.
I chose Saturday as my day to get priority household tasks out of the way because Sunday was my secret weapon.
Nobody likes to work on Sundays. This meant that on Sundays I had an empty office, a floor, and possibly the whole building at my disposal. I could take Jack and Joe in to work with me without disrupting anyone.
When my sons were little, I'd pack games, stickers, and dry erase markers, and they'd set up in the conference room adjacent to my office. In addition, in that wasteland of unoccupied offices, they were able to run freely down the halls. My idea was to keep them busy and content and myself productive.
I took them with me on those Sundays with the attitude that I would make it fun for them. I didn't know how much fun they were going to make it for me as well. For instance, when Joe was seven, after playing hide and seek under empty desks, he ran into my office to comment: "Hey, I thought you worked with people! Where are they?" I laughed. It was like that. I learned to see my environment in new ways through their eyes.
Excerpted from The BALANCE MYTH by TERESA A. TAYLOR Copyright © 2013 by Teresa A. Taylor. Excerpted by permission of Greenleaf Book Group Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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