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A winter Friday

Cleaning up rocket ship debris

From the bed

Hidden among the crumbs

Endless rain falls outside

As we trample

From room to room

Trying to entertain, and engage, and play, and referee

 

I finish the last bits

Of work for the year

and then

I finally shower at 4

We all have those things that we work on that, for one reason or another, always get pushed aside. Currently, I’ve got two  items on my to do list that seem to never get crossed off.

Today, I’m going to accomplish both of them. But to do so, I knew I needed a change in venue. So I’m writing from the local coffee shop. I’ve treated myself to a latte and I’m not leaving until I make concrete progress on both items.

A break in routine or a new environment can be just the physical change you need to change your mental frame around accomplishing a daunting task (or two). Now, I’m off to accomplish my goals. Just as soon as I finish blogging.

Lessons from the NYT

I was a bit surprised to see an article about working and parenting in the Openers Section of this Sunday’s NYT Business section. I’ll admit, I thought there would be more pressing things to write about. But I appreciate the coverage of a topic that is, of course, close to my heart. There are three key issues that the article brought up for me.

1) Being highly involved with your kids and your career means that you sometimes have to temper your ambitions.
I read Baby Makes Three (and Book Makes Four), the story of Alexandra Levit’s joyful birth of her first baby and her latest book in the same month, with interest and empathy. I freqently find myself in situations were I feel I need to temper my career ambitions so that I can protect my time with my monkeys. And I’m frequently unsure if I’m doing the right thing. But, like Levit, most of the time I feel lucky to have a career I enjoy and a pair of loving monkeys who I get to raise. 

2) It is possible to create a good situation for juggling family and work before you have kids. But it’s about demonstrating your value, not setting a schedule.
Levit writes that the advice from her mentors was to not worry about juggling family and work until her children were born. Only then, according to the advice, would she know what she wanted. She ignored that advice and is grateful that she did. I think that the advice was partly right and that ignoring it was partly right.

It is true that you don’t really know how you’ll feel about working vs. staying at home until you’re a parent. I’d even go as far as to say that even once your kids are born, you may change your mind a few times over the course of several years.

Which is why it is good to partially ignore that advice. Clearly establishing your value to employers, clients, or anyone else who who matters before you have children will most likely buy you the flexibility you need to figure things out after you have kids. It doesn’t mean you’ll know what works. It just means you’ll be more likely to be able to figure out an arrangement that works.

3) It’s easy to focus all your energy on your work and your kids. But if you don’t spend time on yourself, you won’t be the only one to suffer.
I did start to get a little worried about Levit, though, as I finished the article. She writes that with limited time to spend with her son and limited time to work, she has to maximize every moment. That includes not going to the gym or grabbing a coffee. This worries me because what I’m reading between the lines is that Levit is making time for work and for her family, but not for herself. I think that’s an unsustainable bargain, and one that’s likely to leave her depleted. Instead, I’d recommend that she make time to also do things just for herself. And I’d bet that they’ll somehow end up energizing her work and her interactions with her son.

Flat is the new up

I write a lot about managing expectations in part because I believe that happiness is not dependent on our external circumstances but is instead dependant on how similar our external circumstances are to what we expect them to be.

 

If I see life as a bumpy road, with happiness and satisfaction coming from how well I weather the bumps, those bumps aren’t disturbing in and of themselves. How well I handle them is what matters. If I see life as a path to navigate smoothly, and define my success by how calm and uncluttered my ride is, every bump becomes a major roadblock for happiness and satisfaction.

 

One of my favorite mantras of the new (read, crappy) economy is ‘flat is the new up.’

 

It’s all about managing expectations. As a business, no one expects the kind of growth we’ve come to depend on over the past 10 years to take hold next year. In fact, it may be several years before 10-20% year on year growth is the norm again. Instead, if you can see maintaining the status quo or a flat growth curve as the acceptable goal to shoot for, you might find yourself ‘successful’ in the coming year. Holding ground is success. Gaining ground is phenomenal success.

 

We go through phases of ‘flat growth’ with the monkeys as well. Monkey #2 has been in an especially hard phase lately. When I’m interacting with him, ‘not ready to kill him’ is the new ‘enjoying our time together’. I’ve come to count any time that he’s not screaming or whining incessantly as quality time together. Mr. Daddy hasn’t yet come to this conclusion and is often frustrated by his interactions with this monkey.

 

Part of the reason I’m ok with it, is that I know it’s a phase, and that soon, ‘having a good time together’ will be the new ‘enjoying our time together’. And I’ve learned (finally) not to hold out for my ideal of what should be happening, but to calibrate what a good day looks like based on what’s going on in our lives right now.

OK, this is very sad. I’ve been forgetting to post on Tuesdays with my Home Office Tips. Guess that’s what a few weeks of traveling followed by a few weeks of sick kids will do to you.

 

But it’s a great set up for today’s tip: create a routine. Flexibility has tremendous benefits. But it also has challenges. There are those days where it’s so hard to sit down and get to work. And so easy to do everything else.

 

So create a ‘getting to work routine’ that mimics what people do in offices. Mine is simple. After I come home from taking the monkeys to school, I put my coat away, reheat my cold coffee, fill a glass with water, and then head directly into my office. No stopping to do the laundry or tidy the kitchen – those are dangerous distractions for first thing in the morning. Simple is good, because it’s easy to repeat every day. But maybe it’s too simple.

 

Anyone else have a good morning routine that helps you work from home? Please share it in the comments.

Specific feedback

If you’ve ever read anything about giving feedback at work, you know that we all should be giving more of it. In particular, we should all be giving more positive feedback. And we should be giving more concrete feedback, to help people really understand what they’re good at and know exactly what they can do to get better.

But if you’re a regular person, while you most likely try to give more and better feedback, you probably don’t always hit the mark. Why is it so much easier to give specific comments when someone has messed up than when they’ve succeeded? I say, ‘the title of this slide doesn’t work for me, it doesn’t capture the main point?’ or, even better, ‘this diagram is confusing because of these three things.’ And when I like someones work, what are they likely to hear? ‘Great job! I love this!’

It’s no wonder our people aren’t growing as fast as we’d like, or aren’t as satisfied in their jobs as they’d like to be.

Yesterday, Monkey #2 gave me some very specific feedback. He was sitting on the potty, deep in thought, when he announced, ‘Mommy, I love it when you take us a bath.’  Tired, responding to the spirit of the comment if not his exact words, I replied, ‘I love you too, honey.’ ‘No, Mommy,’ he insisted, ‘I love it when you take us a bath.’

So there. This was not some general ‘great job’ but a concrete, specific piece of feedback intended, I’m sure, to make sure that I continue giving him his baths. And guess who ‘took’ him a bath tonight?

woman-juggling
I finally had the chance to chat with a fellow preschool mom who I’ve been wanting to get to know better. We’ve talked about work a couple of times at pick-up and drop-off, and have been trying to have coffee for oh, about a year. Her work schedule makes mine look like, well, a part-timer who works from home most of the time. But today, on a fluke, because she missed her flight to China, she had a few extra hours. So we had coffee.

We talked about the usual stuff: kids, husbands, office politics, the juggle. And then she brought up one of my favorite theories ‘the big job theory.’ The idea is that even when two parents work outside the home, and even with a great nanny, it’s difficult for both spouses to have big jobs. If one partner has a demanding job, the other needs to cut back, or pursue promotions less aggressively, so that he/she can pick up the slack at home. If both partners are career oriented, what seems to happen is that the big job shifts, from person to person, as each partner’s career develops. Sometimes couples do this on purpose. And sometimes it just seems to happen over time. But I can’t think of one family I know where both partners have a ‘big job’.

So, my friend was telling me that her prior job, the one where she had line responsibility for a very big and very public part of a public company, was such a big job that she can’t believe she did it for so long with small children. And she did it with her husband’s support, because his job was less demanding. Now, she’s shifted to what she calls a ‘less demanding role.’ No P&L. Just a bit of travel: 10 days in Asia this month, 10 days in South America next month, 5 days of travel in January and February. And her husband is free to pursue his career goals more aggressively. At the time, I agreed, and we discussed how nice it was to be able to trade that role back and forth. But later, as I thought about it, I almost laughed out loud.

Most people, who hadn’t had her prior job, would think of my friend’s current job as a big job. And her former job, well, I don’t know how they would think of it. Impossible? I think of her current job as a big job. But that doesn’t really matter, because it’s all relative. And if it feels manageable to her, well then, it’s managable.  Secretly, though, I’m still impressed.