Work/Life Balance in an Unbalanced World

It always happens gradually. You spend a few years at school, get a good job, meet the right person, get married, and progress in your career. You work hard, with some long hours and periodic travel. It’s hard to balance a meaningful relationship at home with your increasing responsibilities (and their accompanying stress levels) at work, but with some sacrifices here and there, you’re able to make it work most of the time.

Just as your life at work becomes more complex, though, things begin to change at home, too. Maybe you buy a house or adopt a dog, putting demands on your time and on your energy. Perhaps you start a family, adding a whole new set of rewards and challenges. As your children  grow, not only do their demands increase, but your desire to be with them – to coach and guide them, to love them, to enjoy just being with them as they develop into remarkable people – increases with each passing milestone.

Sound familiar? It does to me. 

As a trained and capable professional, I have always tried to give my all to my team, my boss, and my company. Sometimes that has involved long hours of dedicated time when my focus on work needed to be absolute. At other times, that has required long periods of travel on short notice. Late nights at the office became routine, and phone calls and project work at home on nights and weekends were just “part of the job.” But for each hour I spent on work – being at work, doing work, thinking or worrying about work – I lost an hour to be and stay connected with my spouse and children. Sometimes it worked well, but more often I would feel my home life gradually slipping from my grasp. My single biggest fear? How to support what was happening at home each day and still do well at work, while not being left behind in either place. There was only one way to do that. I had to create some space to stay connected and make myself more available to my family.

If you find yourself in a similar position, here’s the good news: You are not alone, and there are steps you can take to help you balance work with the other things in your life.

The first key is to think long and hard about what kind of work you should be doing. So many professionals start along a specific path because they think it will be lucrative or enjoyable, and stay on that path through much of their careers, even when the enjoyment has subsided. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it is very hard to be happy and engaged at home when you are not happy and engaged at work. The answer? Find work that speaks to you, work that you enjoy doing so much that you don’t need to find a way to relax when you come home, or amp up when you go to work.  

My chosen profession is Human Resources. Unfortunately, in difficult economic times the average day of an HR Manager is not always particularly joyful. There were some times in my career when I spent weeks or months preparing for layoffs, facility closures, or other cost saving initiatives. In such times, the hours are long, the work is intense, and it is hard to put aside the emotional aspects of the workday when you walk out the door. At times like this, making the transition from work to home can be particularly difficult. Think about it; you spend your day helping people pack boxes and reviewing exit paperwork as they cry on your shoulder or yell at you, and then you go home and all your kids want to do is show you their new art project or play a game on the Wii or play princess dress-up.

Like any parent who works outside the home, I intuitively knew how hard it was to switch off the work brain and switch on the home brain, and vice versa. With some help from my family, I developed a number of strategies over the years to help us all stay connected during even the most difficult work periods. No single strategy can help keep you in balance – or return you to balance – all by itself. It may take several of these in concert, discussed with your family and your co-workers and practiced over time, before things even out.

Keep reminders in your cube or office of what is important in your non-work life. Change your screen saver to a picture of your family or a shot of your favorite vacation place. Hang the pictures your children draw on your walls, and place their crafts in prominent places on your desk. If they call and leave you a voicemail, save it to replay when things feel like they’re getting out of balance. The important thing here is to have inspiring reminders, right at your fingertips, whenever you need them.

Call home at least once during the day, just to check in and say hello. Sometimes, just a quick chat for a few minutes is all it takes to get and stay connected. Understand their schedule so you can call at a time when they’re free to talk, not just as they’re rushing out the door to their next event.  

Work close to home when possible. There are two schools of thought on this one. On the one hand, having a longer commute to and from work can give you valuable time to decompress from your day. Of course, you probably don’t need that extra time every day, so working close to home can get you back with your family as soon as possible when the work is through – and can help you get away from work and to special school or sporting events that happen during the work day.

Set up a “secret answering system.” When I am at work, I try to answer the phone any time I see that my family is calling me. Sometimes that is just impossible; I could be in a presentation, or meeting with a CEO, or in the middle of a sensitive discussion. In such cases, we have devised our own secret answering system. If my family calls me and I do not answer, they can leave me a message if it’s not urgent. But if they need me right away, they simply skip the message and call back immediately. Two calls in a row means that it’s important enough for me to excuse myself and check in.

Learn, learn, learn. To improve our skill and knowledge, we often devote large blocks of time reading books and articles about work, attending work-related symposiums, or going to work-related trainings. Why not apply the same logic to our home life? Take a cooking class with your child, or a learning vacation as a family. Read a book or do some research about a difficult parenting problem you’re going through. Read about their hobbies and interests so you can talk to them about what they’re doing. Spend the same amount of time on your Parental Development that you do on your Professional Development.

Keep work at work. After several years of giving out my work cell phone number to all of my colleagues and then dealing with calls almost 24/7, I came to the realization that 95% of the calls I was receiving after hours were really not urgent. So I decided to give out my home number instead of my cell. Sound crazy? A bit, admittedly. But in today’s world, people will call your cell for any old reason, but there is still a taboo about calling at home. By giving your home number, you’ll only get calls that are a real emergency – and your home time will be home time, not home-work time.  

Leave your laptop at work.  Most companies have some sort of webmail application that you can access from home, so you could check your email from your home computer if necessary. Ask yourself this simple question: Is it better to have to drive yourself in to work on a weekend for a true emergency, or to have your primary work tool at your ready disposal, potentially tempting you 24/7?  

Beware the Crackberry. I love being able to get email when I am at work, especially if I’m in a building far away from my computer. The power of having connection to what is happening during the work day is important and, in an odd way, soothing to me. The danger comes when we continue to get emails on our way home, during dinner, while our kids are asking us to play with them, and when we need some quiet time with our spouses. Consider setting up an out-of-office reply when it’s after hours, directing people to someone else on your team in an emergency. They can always call you at home if they really need you. If you need to be connected, commit to checking only at specific times on evenings and weekends. I know of one company that has established a code system for internal emails. Each subject line begins with a number from 1 to 4. A “1” indicates an urgent email that needs to be read immediately, a “2” indicates an issue that requires attention within 12 hours, and so on. It is a simple system, is easy to understand, and has given the people who use it a good reminder that email is a work tool, not a tether.

Delegate. No other single tactic will yield you better long-term results. There are many familiar reasons why managers don’t delegate, ranging from the time it takes to train others to fundamental issues of trust. To be sure, no manager should – or could – delegate all of their responsibilities. But you could develop members of your team to replace you for small tasks, to triage emergencies, or to be “on call” for an evening or weekend. Not only will you be able to protect more of your family time, you’ll also be developing your team members and allowing them to grow from your trust.

Set a good example. We’ve all seen the boss who talks about the importance of family, yet routinely schedules team meetings on Friday afternoons or send emails and tasks and 11:00pm on a Saturday night. If you want your team to have a good balance between their personal and professional lives, help them see how it’s done by modeling it in your own life.

If you must connect, plan it as a team. I remember one specific long-term work project that simply required long hours in order to meet our goal. Rather than stay at work until 9:00pm every night and go home tethered to our laptops, the project team agreed to leave work by 6:00pm, go home, have dinner and spend time with our families for a few hours, and then log back in to connect on-line at 9:00pm. That simple three-hour break was a refreshing siesta for us; for our families, it was a welcome period of connection during a stressful time.  

Don’t treat your family members like employees. I have spent most of the past 20 years stressing the importance of performance management, setting goals and objectives, measuring performance, providing feedback, and coaching for success. Anyone who has done those things successfully at work knows how effective they can be in developing individuals and teams. Anyone who has tried similar strategies at home knows how effective they can be at ensuring that your family feels alienated and judged. Your family expects you to be authentic and real and in the moment, so leave the work tools at work. Your spouse neither wants nor needs a quarterly performance review.

Stay available while you’re home. As our children grow and their interests change, it seems like they need us less and less. They will not always want us or need us, and there are days, even weeks, in which they don't ask us for much of anything and don't want to interact with us. But even though they may not want us right now, that could change on a dime - and we need to be there, available and engaged, ready to go, when they do change. When we are unavailable to them, we miss out on the privilege of experiencing our children. That not only robs them of all of the benefits of true and deep connectedness, it robs you of it as well. So feel free to pursue your own interests, watch a movie, play a round of golf, and surf Facebook while you’re home. But be sure to drop those things quickly so you can be available to your children when you sense they’re ready to connect.

Align your expectations to the reality. When my kids were younger and my work day was chaotic, all I wanted was to be able to come home and relax in a place of peace, quiet, and order. Of course, that was rarely possible; my children were curious and active, and the way my house looked was evidence of just how much fun they had during the day. Expecting order and finding chaos was very hard on me, but it was also hard on my kids because they really just wanted me to come home and play with them so they could show me all of the cool things they had done. Over time, I came to view it through their eyes and realized that our home was their domain to explore all day. We were all happier when I was able to come home and immediately get on the floor and play for half an hour, and then clean up later – together.

Allow for smooth transitions on difficult days. Every day, I call home late in the afternoon to see what I’ll be walking into: Is everyone okay? Has it been a good day overall? What are our plans for the evening? Is anyone sad, or bored, or sick? This quick check-in can help ensure that we’re all pulling in the same direction when I get home, so no one has unmet expectations. On particularly difficult work days, I just knew that the transition from work to home would be hard for all of us if I could not find a way to relax a little bit. Sometimes, I took a long route home, listening to some of my favorite music on the CD player. Other times, I would go out for a quick bite to eat or a cup of coffee. Once in a while, I would go to the gym or go bowling, perhaps to the bookstore. That extra hour was time away from my family, but it was an investment that helped ensure that when I did get home I was ready and willing to engage in a positive, loving way.

Communicate, communicate, communicate. With any family, things tend to move quickly at home and at work, so it’s important to avoid surprises. My wife and I have a large wall calendar that we review each weekend, and we have access to each other’s online calendars as an additional checkpoint. We talk at least once each day so we know what to expect of each other and are aware of any late schedule changes. When I’m getting ready to embark on a difficult work project, we talk about it as a family so everyone knows that I might be a bit more distracted or may be working long hours. This level of communication – in which we all talk together about our needs and wants – has been the most important strategy for us. It’s the single best way we have found to get connected, stay connected, and work together to balance our life as a family with our outside demands and pressures.


  1. Wonderful Blog! Every working parent should read this.

  2. I've worked in technology consulting for 9 years. Crazy schedule. Random travel. Lots of competing demands. Our company went out and herd Lawler Kang, author of "passion at work." He argues that the idea of work life balance is inherently flawed - balance suggests equality of treatment. He suggests you just need to simply prioritize things. With a 5-year old we are unschooling and a 3-year old as well - this advice has served me well. Here's a link to the talk he gave at google a few years ago: