MFW: How I took back control of my work / life balance
What does “work / life balance” really mean? We are all so connected to everything via our various mobile devices, how do you really balance?
I know many of us struggle with having multiple streams of content coming at us from all directions in all phases of our lives. Last year, I reached a critical point for myself and realized that it was time for me to regain control. In the end, I feel ALL phases of my life have improved. I would like to share some of the ideas and changes I implemented to get me there. This is my story and your mileage may vary, but hopefully you can find some inspiration if you are feeling some extra weight on your shoulders.
As a quick introduction, I am a Director of Software Engineering at BigCommerce in our office in downtown Austin, TX. I’ve been with BigCommerce for 3 years. I have been married to my wife, Sheila for 15 years this May and have 2 children, Ellie (6) and Cooper (3). I also have a dog, Scout, who is 14. We adopted her at 8 weeks old from a local shelter.
Work / life balance
What does “work / life balance” really mean? We are all so connected to everything via our various mobile devices, how do you really balance? For me, this required an understanding of what “things” actually needed balancing. It felt like there was more than just “work” and “life”. “Life” encompasses so much more. This is where the acronym MFW comes in. There are three things in my life which I must balance, not just two...Me → Family → Work. The acronym represents a simple prioritization which can help guide me through my daily decision making. I need to give credit for this acronym to Sheila. This is how she defined her New Year’s resolution for 2019 and when she described it to me, I realized that is what I had started doing in early 2018.
MFW: There are three things in my life which I must balance, not just two...Me → Family → Work.
By normal definition, you would think about balancing work and non-work but I have realized that I am no good to my family and no good to my job if I am not taking care of myself. This seems selfish on the surface but it is actually the opposite. My ultimate goal is to improve the other 2 aspects of my life. You have to figure out what it means to “take care of yourself,” but in my case this fell into a few categories:
Health / wellness
I’m not alone here, but trying to remain healthy requires a lot of mental and physical strength. But most importantly it requires time. With 2 young kids at home and a full-time job, finding that time can be hard. If this is important to you, you have to be firm and carve out time that will allow you to focus on this. Depending on your normal workday, this may mean some hard decisions. More on that later.
Our office had a timely introduction of weekly yoga classes in the office just as I was starting to look into yoga as a means of keeping myself limber as I grow older...and stiffer. I can't always make it to classes but have been able to carve enough time to feel the benefits. Additionally, I have found other exercise opportunities which work into my schedule a little better than what I had previously been doing and I make sure to carve time out for that.
Something fun to look forward to outside of work and family. For me, this has been playing around with smart home automation and, in the fall, college football. Hook ‘em, Horns! As with health / wellness, if this is important to you, you must hold firm and make time for these. Luckily, for me, Sheila is also a huge fan so this is a fun thing we get to do together and have been for 20 years.
Getting some "wins"
Sometimes what hurts you most when so many things are bearing down on you is not truly accomplishing anything – because you are trying to impact everything. A favorite phrase of mine is “if everyone owns something, no one owns it,” and that applies here. Finding ways to get “wins”, or truly accomplishing something, can go a long way. This may have to start with the low-hanging fruit. I started by always making sure the dishes were taken care of and that clean laundry (it never stops with 2 kids!) is put away. This turned into keeping the kitchen island clean and then all the common areas tidy. These were tasks that Sheila had no interest in taking on, while I was not thrilled with giving the kids baths. Previously, we were trying to share all tasks which was terribly inefficient and many times meant she was doing most of them. By actively splitting these duties, I was feeling great about my contributions at home...getting some wins where it matters most to me.
If I’m not taking care of myself then I am not going to be as happy as I can be, if I am not my happiest, then I am less likely to give my all for my family and my work.
Most everything I do is for my family. They are the most important thing to me. It is very important that I am able to spend time and be involved in the things happening with my kids. There is still a balance, however. For example, I can’t go to every family lunch offered at my son’s day care but I can block off time to be a guest reader for my daughter’s elementary school class. I can say no to later meetings if they conflict with allowing my daughter to participate in after-school gymnastics. I can find ways to make up for the content from those meetings. If you can miss meetings for PTO, you can miss them for family events as well.
Sheila also works and is building a career of her own. I strive to make sure that we are truly splitting the parental duties right down the middle and take on extra when her job requires me to and she does the same. A big thing I focus on is controlling how often my face is buried in my phone when I’m at home. From 6pm until ~8pm is dinner, homework, bath, and bedtime. During dinner, the phone goes dark and the focus is on how the day went for my kids and Sheila. During bath, I’m doing dishes and cleaning the mess from dinner. Because family is so important to me, if I wasn’t pulling what I felt to be my proper weight, that would cause this aspect of my life to be in a suffering state which will, in turn, carry into my work. Gotta get family right.
Do you live to work or do you work to live? There is not one right answer to that question. Many people are able to devote their lives to their work. As long as that is their choice, more power to them! For me, I work to live. This means that I do need to work for the life I want to provide for myself and my family, but the end goal is the quality of my life outside of work. In the sections above, I call out being firm about taking the time for the things that will get me and my family taken care of but, as with everything, there is a balance.
Your time is precious and valuable and no one is going to protect it for you.
If your daily work routine consists mostly of meetings, as mine does, these may feel like immovable barriers! But ask yourself this: “will the team / company fail to meet its goals if I don’t attend the X meeting?” In most cases, the answer is probably “no”. Another question, depending on your role: “Can I rely on someone else to attend that meeting for me?” In some cases this may be “yes”. Can a meeting's agenda/goals be addressed asynchronously? Maybe using a Google Doc to collect comments on an idea or plan. Your time is precious and valuable and no one is going to protect it for you.
Additionally, be open with your manager about your stress levels and what you feel may relieve those stresses. If you have a supportive manager, they will work with you to find the right balance. While you do have obligations that come with your paycheck, there is usually some flexibility in how you meet those obligations.
Where am I now?
Once I went through the exercise of eliminating (read: declining) or handing off some of my “obligations” where it made sense, I started seeing more open blocks on my calendar. I started filling these open blocks of time with work that has resulted in newly defined Engineering Roles and an Engineering Mentorship program among a few other things. It’s freed me up to spend some time learning and researching other topics which I now feel I will be able to tackle. It has also freed my mind up so that when I am home, I am not stressing about all the things I wanted to make progress on that day but just couldn’t find the time to. It’s made me more present at home so that when I’m back at work, I’m not distracted by all the things I’m not doing at home.
Every time I start feeling anxiety or stress or other negative feelings creep in, I revisit my priority list -- Me → Family → Work -- and ensure I’m adhering to that and it always gets me back right. How are you taking control of your work / life balance? You are the only one who can make sure it’s got the right balance to suit you.