Work-life balance is the term used to describe the proportion of time we allocate to our careers versus other aspects of our lives such as personal interests, family, social or leisure activities. Whether you are just beginning your career or a seasoned executive, it’s hard to escape the mantra that “finding happiness is all about establishing a good work-life balance.” This is especially true in the fast-paced world of management consulting where we move fast to stay ahead of the industry and deliver real value to clients. It is mentally challenging, physically and emotionally taxing, and is far more a lifestyle than a job.
Defining balance in my career initially started as a “work hard, play hard” approach, resulting in packed weekends filled with friends and social events and travel-filled weeks serving my clients and teams. However, things changed a little over two-and-a-half years ago when my wife and I became the proud parents of two beautiful twin boys, Caleb and Oliver. That’s when I realized my traditional notion of “balance” was a myth: I found out it is more about work-life imbalance and required me to adjust the traditional scales and popular views on balance, and be okay with it.
New Goals. I Got This!
It’s July 2016. At this point, I have been fully dedicated to chasing my decade (plus)-long career goal: to become a partner at my firm. After years of hard work and sacrifice, I was now in position and the goal was in sight. At the same time, a new personal goal was set in motion: to be a father. I knew both goals would be hard work, but I wasn’t going to let anything get in the way. In my mind, I was going to crush this new responsibility of fatherhood without skipping a beat at work. I was going to set the example everyone talked about. I would be there for my wife and sons, support my teams, deliver for my clients and sustain the non-stop consulting lifestyle. Heck, I got to this point by proving I could juggle multiple competing priorities and deliver on all of them without fail, so how much could a couple of tiny new “stakeholders” change my operating rhythm?
No problem, I got this.
Am I Doing This Right?
The babies are born, and I am thrust into my new role as Dad. The hospital, for some reason, feels we are ready and it’s a great idea for us to take the boys home. We oblige.
The alarm went off at 3:00 AM. It’s time to help with feedings, jump in the shower and get out the door by 5:00 AM to tackle the new commute from the burbs to the city. I’m in the office by 6:15 AM, catching up on emails from the night before and getting ready for the day, locking down the schedule, getting the to-do list in order and navigating my way through back-to-back client meetings. I did my best to leave the office by 6:00 PM to get home to help with dinner and feedings, spend quality time with the family, and lead the bath and bedtime ritual for the boys. Of course, this was quickly followed by hours of reviewing deliverables, looking at the schedule for the next day and getting 3-5 hours of sleep myself before the next day began. This continued for a few weeks.
Was this work-life balance? Is this what it meant? Was I just bad at it and needed to give it more time? I didn’t know what to do but I knew it wasn’t sustainable.
I began to question myself, lose my confidence and internalize, focusing on the struggle and minor setbacks rather than all the great things going on in my life. I began to feel very isolated. In retrospect, I wasn’t alone. According to a 2010 study, 16% of U.S. workers reported difficulty balancing work and family. The findings were more prevalent among workers aged 30–44 so I was squarely in the sweet spot. And I was struggling. Hard.
But It Worked for Them
So, I kept at it. Turns out, there wasn’t an online training or anything in my consulting toolkit that provided a strategy and roadmap on managing the demands of my career and excelling as a husband and father. The more adjustments I made to get back “in balance” – that is, equal time and importance given to my work-life and home-life – the less happy I was becoming.
I reached out and solicited solicited advice from a few trusted colleagues and mentors. Their advice was genuine and thoughtful. So, of course I tried to emulate what they did. In my mind, they were all successful so they have to be right. It’s got to work for me too, right?
Wrong. It just didn’t fit my situation.
“Think Different” and Let the Scale Tip
It was time to do something different. Like the infamous 1997 Apple campaign, I needed to “think different.” The feeling of failure and being “stuck” wasn’t for me, so like all good consultants I analyzed it and broke down the problem over the course of several morning commutes.
Balance. What is balance? I imagined gold statue of Lady Justice holding scales and thought balance was, at the simplest level: having a set of “pieces” which weigh equally on both sides. I categorized those pieces on one side as “good” and the other “bad.” Easy enough.
When something is in balance, the differential is zero. Therefore, balance would assume the more good things I add to one side would result in having to add bad things to the other, or remove some good pieces, just to keep the scales equal. Having my children was amazing; it was a gift. Getting promoted and accomplishing a career goal would be great; it is what I had dedicated a career toward up this point. So now, I needed to remove other good things or add “bad” things to my scale to keep the scales in balance, right? The scale was broken.
I shifted my thoughts to be value-centric. I made a list of the non-negotiables: time with my family, fulfillment in my career, daily time with my wife, making a positive impact with my clients. I made a list of the negotiables: administrative tasks, house chores that could be outsourced, and social time. The lists continued on both sides. I started to realize that the scales would never stay exactly balanced at any one point in time. In fact, a point-in-time snapshot of my calendar usually revealed major imbalance. It was less about keeping things in balance at any given moment and more about looking at the balance achieved over time, taking readings along the way. I needed to be okay with imbalance and accept that my definition of it was different than everyone else’s. I needed a new scale, and more of them!
With this realization in place, it was now time to change behaviors to better align with my new agenda. What I was currently doing wasn’t working so I simplified things and focused on three disciplines:
- Keep the big picture in mind and focus on “the now.” Another way to think about this is awareness. Strive to remain present and not get caught up in the fallacy of adhering to someone else’s traditional definition of balance. For me, this is achieved through simple breathing exercises and meditation. I begin each day with breathing as a form of meditation for 5-7 minutes and throughout the day when stress begins to build. Deliberate breathing helps reset and slow things down. When I am home, and my kids are up, they are my focus and if I need to work, I do it from a place I can be present for my clients. Staying focused and mindful of the moment helped me make the most of my time versus always worrying about what’s next.
- Communicate, communicate, communicate. When I was first trying to achieve balance, I fixated frequently on my insecurities of all the things I was missing and people I was letting down. This led to unnecessary self-sacrifice and tremendous guilt that was not based on facts. Communication was the antidote. Both at home and at work I talk about what’s going on, I get things off my chest in a productive way and make sure my needs are known, not just assumed. I found new channels to express myself and make sense of what was going on in my mind; whether it was confiding in a trusted mentor or a quick call with my wife, communication became the conduit to gaining real, fact-based perspective.
- Give yourself permission to not be perfect. Getting it right involves trial and error, which involves making mistakes. Mistakes are okay as long as you learn from them. Real empowerment comes when you accept that you are allowed to fail and you harness the power of your learnings to bounce back quickly and stronger than before. Creating an environment that accepts failure – both at home and at work – is critical because you will inevitably drop some ball in the quest for long-term balance.
My New Balance
Finding this new balance has been a beneficial journey for me. Personally, my wife Rachel and I have a renewed sense of partnership and are having fun while raising our boys. At 2.5 years old, Caleb and Oliver surprise me every day with their curiosity, witty comments and love for each other. I find myself prioritizing more effectively which has enabled me to savor the moments with my family and create new traditions (our favorite right now is movie and pizza Fridays together).
Professionally, work is great. I made Partner a little over a year ago and I am loving the new challenges of my role. I am more conscious about where I spend my time, and therefore, able to better lead my teams, my clients and my firm. Those with whom I interact personally and professionally, have expressed that they can hear the happiness in my voice and feel the change in my outlook – and I love it.
Is my new balance perfect? Not yet. But I’m okay with it and I’m focusing on the moment now, my happiness and continually striving to incrementally better myself, one day at a time.