I am regularly asked “how do you do it?” It is usually a young professional considering having a family, or a parent trying to imagine adding an out-of-the-home full time job to his or her already demanding schedule. Men and women approach me about this topic weekly.
Until recently, I didn’t take this all that seriously. I’ve candidly shared that parenting and balancing personal/family life while advancing a career is challenging but worth it. I’ve accepted the occasional praise for making it look easy as excessively generous flattery — surely the result of what must be a massive misunderstanding regarding how I live, operate, and experience my life.
Then, I realized maybe I should listen to this question and have a thoughtful response. Thinking about it, I have spent years trying to figure out the right formula for balancing my roles as mother, executive, wife, advisor, daughter, professor, friend, mentor, volunteer, boss, sister, and so on. I still am. Yes, I occasionally fear that I will regret the choices I have made. Will I look back in my old age and wish we had given up our expensive Northern California lifestyle for a more affordable one? Will I regret not leaving my demanding start-up tech executive job for a more modest one with less challenge and income but more free time and head-space to dedicate to my family? Was I just too busy to really think things through and ensure my actions were aligned with my priorities?
I certainly hope not. This is the life I have chosen, and I love it. Our family time is quality time. Professionally, I feel blessed to work with brilliant, kind and creative people daily — for a company characterized by not only excellence and vigor, but integrity and trust that has allowed me to shape my life and live in harmony with my priorities. And, I realized this morning that there just might be a reason people are coming to me for practical tips on “how to do it all.”
I started making a list. What have I learned in my years as a full-time working parent? What rules do I follow to ensure deliberate “spend” of time, to thrive professionally, to take care of myself, to bring consistent and appropriate energy to work, nurture my relationships, invest in new interests, and show up the way I want to in my other roles?
1. Do What You Are Doing
Age Quod Agis
It is increasingly easy to multitask. At one point or another most of us have taken care of an online errand while on the phone, checked emails from the playground, taken a work call from the car with an otherwise engaged child in the backseat. I consciously do my best to not multitask like this and do what I am doing. Be present. This means occasionally scheduling time in a work day to spend thirty minutes taking care of a few personal matters — or texting my boss that I’ll return that time-sensitive evening/weekend call shortly, when I have wrapped up the current craft project with the kids — or tell my family I’ll be in the office for a few hours on a Saturday, then back with them 100% when an urgent task is complete. We are better in all moments when we are present and focused. Cross-pollinating energy and time rarely yields the best result for either effort. Allow the potency of the moment to be, then move on with your whole self and your complete attention to the next.
2. Empower Your Calendar
Time Is Currency
This short video (The Time You Have (in Jelly Beans)) had a huge impact on me in the early days of intently focusing my attention to how I spend my time. It still does. I try to monitor how I spend each hour of every single day with deliberate care. This means being thoughtful about all time commitments — meeting creep, social engagements, email, volunteer work, time spent commuting, mentorship, and other meetings. One way to do this is via crafty use of a tool most of us already use: a digital calendar. Empowered it can help us live better. Examples of how to empower your calendar include:
Use One Calendar for Personal and Professional Commitments
Unlike bank accounts that might serve different purposes (savings/checking/long term/etc.), we don’t have more than one single allotment of our “life-time” (personal and professional, for example). We have a finite number of minutes, hours and days. If we can afford to, we should consciously try to use each with care. For that reason, I use a single calendar for my life — there is no separate work and a personal one.
With the now-standard “open” work calendars that allow for scheduling by others of any “available” time, I put important school dates and other personal commitments in my calendar as far ahead as possible. For me, that means that when the annual school calendar is released, I sit down and block out my availability for key dates: holidays, graduations, music performances, important assemblies, fundraisers, periodic volunteering commitments, and so on. Similarly, I try to get a set of field trips, special classroom events, and other class-specific dates from my kids’ teachers at the outset of the school year so that I know they are safe from other less important conflicts. Of course these often get trumped by important work commitments, but not all. At least I then have a chance to weigh competing demands on my time if I am aware of what is at stake.
Review The Calendar Regularly
The same way I regularly monitor the way money is spent based on needs, priorities and availability, I review my calendar regularly to ensure my upcoming time commitments are not only manageable, but reflect my priorities. Do I have too much work travel in the upcoming quarter? Did I block off enough time during the work week to actually do some of the work generated in those meetings. Can I get some minimum amount of exercise in? Can I make that in-person meeting at 6pm a call so that I can take it from the road on my way home for dinner? I often come to the office on Monday morning with a set of adjustments to make before the week even starts. I do this at home too. Do we have at least some of our weekends free for downtime? Can we hold a day or more a quarter for the occasional spontaneous road trip? Did we commit to too many social commitments over the holidays? With awareness of where time is going, we can steer it to ensure no single area of energy and attention is getting “too much of us.”
Would I Do It Tomorrow?
Related, it is often challenging to manage exactly how to spend those hours. As a working parent this is magnified. Weekday evenings are a great example. We want to finish our work at the office, make it home in time for family dinner, accept the invitation for drinks out with the new colleague, say yes to the invitation to the ball game (great seats!), stay in the office later than usual for the important meeting, see a friend for a drink, take advantage of off-hours networking, education, social and other opportunities. In fact, if you are doing your job well, demand for your time off-hours will only increase as the years go by. Intimate industry dinners. Speaking on or moderating panels. Meet and greets with clients or firms with whom we work. If we agreed to it all there would be something to do every night (and yes, many people live just fine that way).
When raising kids, or trying to balance professional growth/demands with the other areas of life, it can be very difficult to prioritize these things. Inspired by this Slate article in 2014, I now consider all extracurricular/optional attendance invitations with this question in mind: “Would I do it tomorrow?” If the answer is no, or some extended hesitation, it probably isn’t worth it. By employing this rule I know what lands on my calendar is a priority — it will be worth the hassle to prepare, hire a sitter, travel, whatever it is. Try it. It works. Pass it on.
Schedule Date Nights, Exercise, and Self-Care
At a certain point, if it isn’t on the calendar, it won’t happen, especially when other people have access to booking your time and can schedule meetings and other commitments without your input. Because of this, I use my calendar to defend space for other important things.
Date night is a great example. Working parents tend to spend a fair amount of time thinking and talking about balancing work and parenthood — frankly, this applies regardless of whether you are a parent. It was actually my own father hearing me on some related rant a few years ago who called me out for not including my marriage in this exercise of “balance.” It is easy for some of us to take our relationships, particularly the closest, unconditional ones for granted. I try really hard not to do this. If I am making sure I have time for work and for the kids, I also give my most important relationships some similar level of TLC.
I’ll admit there are often evenings when I come home after a long day at the office (or a business trip out of town) when all I want to do is lounge around and watch a movie with the kids. If I have a social plan with a loved one, I resist the temptation to cancel. In our case, the kids have their time too. If we have a sitter and a date on the calendar I make myself get into the spirit and go out to that local dinner, night hike, movie, whatever it is.
A similar rule goes for exercise. After a while we all know what form of regular exercise works for us, but finding time and sticking to the commitment can be a challenge. I’ve found that a weekly class or hike, on the calendar, actually makes me more likely to do it. My body, sleep, family, and sanity thank me for it.
Self care is another one. When we get busy it is so easy to put off the doctor/dentist appointment — the haircut, manicure, facial — whatever it is that makes us feel good. Make the time. Make the appointments. Try to not cancel them, but know you can if you must — we can always reschedule.
3. Plan Vacations
Recharging is Key
It sounds simple, but it can be hard to do for some people. I’ve found that knowing we have some break from our routine on the horizon is great for everybody in our family. It does not need to be fancy or expensive. A long weekend camping, a week or weekend at a friend’s out of town home, a road trip, whatever it is, knowing these family-intensive and “off the grid” moments are coming up does a lot to make us all stay calm and together through days or weeks of routine. (It’s also great to include the kids in the planning and teach them how to envision and structure adventures away from work and school routines.)
4. Make Sure to Get 1:1 Time with the Kid(s)
Create the Space for Magic to Happen
We learned this from my brother-in-law. There is something very special about one on one time with the kid(s). For us this means at least one day and one night away with each child at least once a year. Something special happens when you have this kind of dedicated and special time, without the conversation and other distractions of other parents and kids around. It sends them a message that this is their time. We talk about things we don’t talk about in between chores, meals, homework, and baseball practice. “How did grandma die?” “What was I like when I was a baby?” “If you could live at any other time in history when would you live?” “Who was your best friend when you were my age?” We always return from these mini-trips or overnights with a new level of connection and awareness among us that last for weeks, likely a lifetime.
4. Love Your Tribe
Treat Relationships Like the Treasures They Are
We all have our people, our dear friends, our community. It is far too easy to take these relationships for granted. We need our friends. They need us. I try to reflect regularly on how fortunate I am to have the beautiful tapestry of relationships I do and then take time weekly to reach out, plan a visit, schedule a walk or a dinner, whatever it is. For so many years before we became parents our friends were part of our families. I try to keep that in mind and in heart and prioritize maintaining those connections in whatever way works. For two dear old friends that means staying a night when I have a business trip to their city so we can have a dinner (only once or twice a year, but a magical time — always!). For another old friend who lives a good drive away, that means meeting at a midpoint restaurant when we can make it work.
Loving your tribe also means just showing up. Don’t ask what you can do to help when they are having a hard time of some kind, just make that meal and deliver it— or take their kid for an afternoon and book them a massage. Take them out to breakfast and listen fully. Check in. Cherish this time.
5. It Won’t All Be Done
Be Kind and Forgiving of Yourself
It is impossible to do everything exactly the way you want it done. I try to not beat myself up over it. I still have a post-it on my desk at home with a list of names of kids and the gift their family gave my oldest son for his birthday — nine months ago. Awful. And I am someone who is actually fairly meticulous about thank you cards. I can’t do it now because too much time has passed, but I also can’t quite bring myself to throw that list away (never too late to say thank you, right…?). There are many things like this that we just have to forgive ourselves for. We can. We do. It’s okay. A lot does get done.
6. Be Open to Spontaneous Fun
Be Conscious of Time but Leave Space for Unscheduled Play Too
Last but not least, with all of this planning and awareness and consciousness we can lose spontaneity. Don’t. We need it. Our kids need it. I give myself permission to take at least a day a year and clear the day for some spontaneous fun. Take a child out of school and take a long bus ride, visit an arcade, eat ice cream before lunch. Skip a soccer practice, run around in muddy puddles, go to a movie. Have a day date with a loved one. We need this and our kids sure need it too. It is in these spaces in between when we can put it all into perspective. We are doing a lot. We each have something to be grateful for. More than anything else, we have the moment that is right now — and it is precious. Be it.
I’ll continue to be a student of how to live the best possible life for my family and me. I’ll definitely still make mistakes and fear regret over decisions made. I’ll also continue to adapt as my chapters unfold. Would love to hear your reactions and ideas in the comments.
Thanks for reading.