Posts Tagged ‘work/life’

As I reflected on the past year over my long staycation, what struck me most was that I’m entering 2009 in the same work/life situation as I entered 2008. I was a little surprised. At first, I worried that I’d made no progress in the past year. But after thinking about it for a while, I realized that things aren’t exactly the same. While technically my situation is the same, my attitude about it has changed, and that does make a difference.

As someone who agitates for things to look and feel different, it’s a big deal to shift to a mindset where growth doesn’t always mean that you’ve changed a situation, but it can mean that you’ve changed your response to the situation.

Happy New Year, readers! More soon.


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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.

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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.

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One of the drawbacks of working from home is that you’re not bumping into people in the kitchen, in the bathrooms, or in the elevators for random conversations. This often means that you don’t have casual conversations with folks, and if you don’t have a specific reason to talk to someone, you probably never actually talk.

Since business runs on relationships, this lack of conversation can actually get in your way. To stay connected to the people that you work with, make a point of calling people just to talk.

I keep a list of other people on our leadership team and make sure I’m calling them at least once every two weeks. I check off their names when we’ve spoken to give myself visual reminders of when calls need to happen. I’m not as good at just reaching out to other folks in the office, and as the office grows beyond 50 people, staying in touch gets increasingly difficult. But I try to make calls when an email would do, and I try to take time in a phone call to talk about what’s going on in people’s lives and what they’re up to.

Shooting the shit can feel like a waste of time, when you’re trying to stay productive and make time for other parts of your life, but maintaining your relationships in the workplace will ultimately pay off.

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It’s critical for your sanity and for the sake of work actually getting done to establish clear boundaries for the home office. This pertains to space – where is your workspace and who is allowed access to it – and to when you’re ‘at the office’ and when you’re ‘at home.’

I’ve highly recommend having a dedicated workspace, whether it’s a desk, an alcove, or an actual room. Right now, I’m lucky enough to have a room, with a door that closes. The monkeys, Mr. Daddy, and our former nannies all know that if the door to my office was closed, they should act like I’m not home. Even when I didn’t have a door to close, I made it clear to everyone in the house that when I was ‘at work’ – sitting at my desk – I was unavailable.

I never really have had auditory privacy, which means I know what’s going on in the house even when I’m at work.  Sometimes I would hear stuff going on and help out, especially when the monkeys were tiny babies. But I found that as they got older, it became really hard for them to see me pop in and out of their day but not have me to play with. So it was better for them and for me that when I’m working, I’m working and when I’m done, I’m done. When they’re home while I’m at work, I keep water and snacks nearby so they don’t have to see me while I’m working.

One thing I’m less good at is evening boundaries for when I’m at home. It’s almost impossible not to dip in and out of email in the evenings to see what’s up in my West Coast office. Ideally, I’d cut that out and make the boundaries even more sharp – perhaps by setting aside 15-20 min to check and respond to email once in the evening so I can have some regular down time. But I haven’t quite gotten there yet. It’s a work in progress.

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I’ve been reading Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die by Chip and Dan Heath. The book is about how to make your ideas sticky, so that people immediately get them, remember them, and act on them. The Heaths describe 6 ways make your ideas more sticky: simplicity, unexpectedness, concreteness, credibility, emotion, and stories.

I was reading about their principles as I was preparing for a couple of presentations, thinking about how I can frame things so that a business audience immediately relates to and embraces my ideas. But of course, I’m also constantly conveying new ideas to the monkeys, and it’s equally important that those ideas are sticky.

In fact, the ideas that I’m sharing with the monkeys are even more critical than then ones I share with businesses – they are ideas about how to be in the world: how to be good people, how to get along with others, how to avoid getting hurt, and how to accomplish new tasks. Stickiness is critical if I’m going to get a couple of 2.5 year olds to learn new ideas.

So I’ve been asking myself – what are some things that I do that make ideas sticky for my kids? And how can I do more of it? Over the next few days, I’ll be diving into each of the six ways to make ideas stick, providing examples of how I do it at home, and drawing lessons for work as well.

Lesson 1: SIMPLICITY: Distill your message down into the most basic principles, and reinforce that message over and over and over.

This is one of the hardest principles to follow at work, because the more information that you have, the more you feel that you need to share. We have a hard time letting go of data and information, even if it obscures an argument instead of making it clearer. Moreover, simplicity at work is hard to achieve because it can’t just be about making something rock dumb. It has to be about clarifying the idea, conveying richness and nuance, and still making something easy to understand. No small task.

Simplicity is actually one of the easiest principles to employ with your kids, though. Little people don’t really understand complicated concepts. And they won’t sit still to listen to a 40 page PowerPoint presentation. Kids force you to get mind-numbingly simple if you want to get your point across.

Recently, for example, we had a little incident with scissors. One monkey cut the other monkey’s finger, deeply, with a pair of scissors, resulting in an emergency dash first to the doctor’s office and then to the children’s hospital to see if he needed stitches. Luckily, he didn’t, and he’s just fine now. But the monkeys still beg to use the scissors on a regular basis. And since sitting at the table cutting paper and catalogs can keep them busy for almost half an hour, I really want them to be able to use the scissors.

In order to safely resume cutting with scissors, I had to get a message across. The idea: Scissors can be dangerous if used for the wrong purpose. Cutting people can cause some real damage.  If we’re going to be able to play with scissors, we have to use them safely. It’s not super complicated, but it is a bit nuanced. Instead of having a long conversation, I’ve created this mantra that the monkeys and I repeat on a regular basis: What are scissors for? Paper. What are scissors not for? People. Simple. They get it, and no one’s been cut since we started using it.

For work, it doesn’t make sense to try and think, how would I make this simple enough for a 2 year old to understand. That’s going to far. But it does make sense to think about making an idea so simple that someone outside of the field or outside of the industry can understand it. Although my mom is very bright, she’s a museum educator, not a business person or an innovation strategist. So for simplicity’s sake, I’m going to work on making my ideas so simple and clear that my mom can understand what I’m talking about, the first time I explain it. Simple.


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My company is in the business of helping our clients generate insights and ideas. Finding out what really matters to people in the world, recognizing what it is and how it can impact the creation of new products, services, new businesses or new directions for a brand, and identifying what those new ideas and directions are is really powerful.

Often, the role I play on teams is helping them realize which of our insights and ideas are good, and which are not. People often say really smart things without recognizing how smart they are. I help them realize what’s smart, and articulate why it’s smart. And when people are saying things that aren’t quite smart enough, I help them tease apart what’s really significant in their idea, and express that more articulately. It’s a lot of fun.

Being able to recognize when an idea or an insight is good is a skill that can be developed over time. It requires being attuned to what’s going on in the world, recognizing patterns, and having a gut feel for when a break in a pattern is noise and when it’s worth paying attention to. It also requires building your intuition.

The folks who manage Springwise, a site that collects and publishes new business ideas, have great instincts for what is good. Not only can they recognize what’s smart about an idea, they can frame it it in such a way that other people can 1) see how cool it is and 2) connect with the nugget of insight that underpins the idea. If you think that you have a talent for recognizing good, new ideas when you see them, try signing up to be a Springspotter, it’s a great way to build your instincts.

While I’ve become pretty good at recognizing good insights and ideas at work, I’m not always great at recognizing what’s good at home.

The other day, I was lying in bed with the monkeys, singing them to sleep. We were cuddling and relaxing, and enjoying each others company. This is so nice, I thought to myself. And then, of course, my mind wandered. To work. Wouldn’t it be great, I thought, if I could do this all the time? That’s what I need, a job that lets me do this. And then it hit me: I have a job that lets me do this. That’s why I’m doing it right now.

Recognizing when what you have is good at home, for me, is even more difficult than recognizing when what you have is good at work. We’re so used to thinking about how our jobs can be better suited to our lives, how we could be better parents, how our kids can be better at… For me, it often translates into an endless loop of ‘how can I make things better,’ even when it should include a healthy dose of ‘hey, this is pretty good.’

So here’s what I think. Recognizing what’s good at home requires being attuned to what’s going on in the world, recognizing patterns, and having a gut feel for when a break in a pattern is noise and when it’s worth paying attention to. It also requires building your intuition.

I’m working on it.


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