My dad was recently admitted to the hospital. He’s better now, but it was a rough few weeks for my family and me. As he was recovering, we began sharing stories from my childhood, funny moments involving my brother and me. From baseball games to spelling bees and family trips, my father spent over two hours sharing memories.
After reminiscing, he paused and reflected, “You know what I’m most proud of in my life? The amount of time I spent watching my kids grow up.” This surprised me as my father is also extremely proud of his career with the same company for over 30 years. Yet, when I pointed out that he hadn’t shared any memories from work, he said that while that part of his life is important, family is everything.
This is a mantra I practice every day and a life lesson I owe to my father. But striking that work-life balance between can be difficult. Here are a few tips I’ve found useful for achieving a healthy blend.
1. Stop Searching for Balance. It Doesn’t Exist!
Recently, I was having coffee with a coworker who just had a newborn. She looked exhausted and when I asked how she was doing, she started to cry. She admitted how hard it had been to find work-life balance as a new mom. My advice: Stop trying to find balance. It doesn’t exist.
It doesn’t exist because family responsibilities don’t stop when you’re at work, as work doesn’t always stop when you’re at home.
The reality is that sometimes, I have to take work calls or be connected to work while at home, just as there are times during work that I need to leave for family obligations. The lines have blurred between home and the office and that’s why I say that it’s more about a work-life blend than a balance.
I recognize that this blend won’t, and can’t, work for everyone. Some people cannot step away during the day and come back in the evening. I think the key point, no matter what kind of role you have, is to stop being so hard on yourself about not being able to be at two places at once. Do your best and forget the rest.
2. Set Boundaries for Yourself and Keep Yourself in Check
To find a true work-life blend, I’ve had to set boundaries at work and at home. I have a 90-minute commute, so I need to leave the office at 5 pm or I will miss eating dinner with my family. Since my kids wake up early, I wake up with them, eat breakfast, and get to the office by 8 am. This is the routine I stick to barring a critical meeting or emergency.
Combining my family calendar and work calendar has also helped me stick to my boundaries. Every Tuesday night, my son has a soccer game, so it’s marked in my work calendar that I leave a bit earlier on game days to make it there. He’s played since he was five years old and I haven’t missed a game yet. The smile on my son’s face when he sees me in the bleachers is worth the extra effort to be there.
And, it’s important to remember that professional success is a marathon not a sprint. It’s achieved over years of successful moments; not from an all-nighter or one meeting.
So when a meeting comes up that is outside of my boundary, I politely decline and may ask for it be rescheduled or for a colleague to attend.
At home during weekends, I stick to a no work boundary. Of course, there will be the occasional exceptions, like a big presentation approaching. But, even then, I try to wait until my family is asleep to focus on work. Again, I recognize that my schedule won’t work for everyone. But big picture, it’s important to be proactive where you can to make yourself available for both aspects of your life when needed.
3. Narrow Your Daily To-Do List to Five Things
No one is perfect (my wife reminds me of that every day) and no one can do it all. So, rather, focus your daily to-do list on the quality of items instead of the quantity of items.
Every morning, my wife and I have two sticky notes we put on our refrigerator. She calls them our “WORIFE” list — a blend of “work” and “life.” We list the top items we want to achieve for that day. Work on a presentation, watch a movie with the kids, finish budget reviews. It’s a blended list of no more than five items. Any more than that and we we’re stretched too thin.
4. Make Time for Yourself
An important part of the work-life blend that gets de-prioritized, is time for yourself. This can come in different forms depending on what’s important to you.
For me, it’s critical to get to the gym three to four times a week. My workouts help me recharge so I can tackle the challenges that come my way. I schedule time during my lunch break or early in the morning so my workouts don’t get in the way of other priorities. Doing something for yourself can be as simple as going for a walk to collect your thoughts. No matter what you do, it’s vital to make time to recharge, to be your best at both work and in your personal life.
5. Look at Your Life Holistically. What Do You Want to Be Remembered For?
I recently lost a good friend who ran his own business and was wildly successful in his career. He was also a great family man. We remembered him and shared his life stories with his family and friends. Many accolades were mentioned that day. “Great dad. Great husband. Great friend. Great son.” Notably, no one mentioned what a great worker he was.
It’s easy to get wrapped up in the day-to-day grind, but it’s important to stop and analyze your life holistically. One way I do this is with monthly reflection meeting with myself. I take time at a coffee shop with no distractions, phone turned off. All I bring is a piece of paper and a pen. On one side of the page, I list the things I want to be remembered for by my loved ones. On the other side, what actions I am taking to get there. For me, being remembered as a great father, husband, son, and friend matter the most.
While my dad was hospitalized, I had a work conference scheduled in Milwaukee. He told me not to worry and go to the conference, but even though he was in recovery, I knew he needed me there emotionally. I didn’t go to the conference, and fortunately I work for a company that is very understanding puts family first.
I was able to spend quality time with my dad that week, which meant a lot to both of us. He told me how proud and happy he is to have such a great son (which he had never told me before, as a man who he rarely shows his emotions). I knew I made the right decision.
Finding that work-life blend takes discipline, self-reflection and a lot of focus. It’s also dependent on your workplace culture. With all the technology and tools now available, it’s easier than ever to pick up and go when commitments arise or to work from home when necessary. At Northwestern Mutual, we utilize tools like Slack, Skype, our mobile phones and more — which enables us to untether ourselves from our desks.
Setting this example, as my father has for me, teaches a valuable lesson to those around us.
My work team knows that they don’t need to worry if “life” happens and they need to miss an occasional meeting. I trust that they give our company their all and leaving early once in a while will never make me think they are not working hard enough.
And now my son is taking cue, too. He recently had a huge soccer tournament that happened to be scheduled the same weekend as his sister’s birthday. My wife and I discussed how we can make both work by dividing and conquering — I handle the tournament and she handles the birthday activities. We approached my son with the plan and he turned to us and said, “Mom and dad, I’m skipping the tournament. While it’s important, family is everything.” I couldn’t be prouder.