Keep Your Home Life Sane When Work Gets Crazy
When you’re going through a phase that compels you to put in more time, effort, brainpower, and heart into your job, how do you work it out with your family and others who matter in your life? And how do you make sure this spike in your focus on work doesn’t become a “new normal” that extends indefinitely into the future? The short answer: Dialogue about what matters most – to you and to them.
First, forget balance, which is a misguided metaphor for what success looks like in the different parts of life. It’s not possible to have perfect equilibrium among the four domains of life – work, home, community, and self – every day, every week, or even every year. Naturally, there are times when any one of these aspects of your life has to take center stage.
When a spike in work-related activities is having a deleterious effect on your family or on some other part of your life, then it’s time for what I call “stakeholder dialogues” – conversations with the people who matter most about your mutual expectations and how best to meet them, now and in the long run.
Here are five steps to take in such conversations:
- Provide context by letting people at home (or in your community) know why your work temporarily demands your attention to an extraordinary degree. As in “Let me give you a bit of background about what’s happening…” Keep it short. This is not an excuse; just a brief explanation to set the stage for dialogue.
- Explain the purpose of what you’re doing at work and why you believe it’s important, not solely for your own growth but for the positive impact you hope to have on others. As in, “By my devoting this effort now I’ll be able to ____, which is important to us because it’ll help us to ____.”
- Ask about the consequences they believe will result from this shift in your attention toward work. Learn more about what this adjustment means for them. As in, “Can you tell me how this will make things harder for you?” and then follow up with “Can you give me an example?” Do not try to minimize the difficulties they report; instead, compassionately inquire.
- Express genuine remorse for disappointments or hurt you might be causing, being specific about your understanding of how your actions are creating stresses and strains. As in “I’m sorry that my being unavailable is hurting you.” Own it.
- Explore possible alternatives for how you might minimize these negative effects. As in “I’m not sure what might help, but do you have ideas for what I can do to try to make this better for us, our family, our relationship?” And ask again, as in “What other thoughts do you have about what I can do, either now or sometime in the future?”
You’re likely to discover possibilities for actions you can take that won’t cost you much, but will help to minimize any damage caused by your work spike. You might even improve the quality of your relationships with your family, friends, and others in your life.
Assuming that if you’re not home for dinner that your family is losing out, or that you’re losing out, may not be an accurate read. Maybe driving your daughter to school is more important to her than your being home for dinner. Your spouse might be happy to meet you in town for dinner, even if you have to return to the office while he or she heads home afterward. Maybe they don’t care so much if your travel increases or the length of your workday increases, as long as they have your undivided attention when you are at home. You won’t know until you ask.
What I’ve found is that what others expect of you is usually a bit less than, and somewhat different from, what you think they expect of you. And unless you know what’s essential and meaningful to them, now and in the future, you can’t generate creative solutions that make sense to you and to them.
Once you’ve navigated your way through an especially tumultuous episode at work and managed to keep your domestic ship of state on course, it’s useful to again be deliberate in choosing a path forward that suits all parties. You might want to mark the end of that period as a special occasion with a celebratory dinner, as a way of closing the book on it.
Then, keep your stakeholder dialogues going as you return to a normal workload. Take a bit of time to review which of the strategies you employed worked well and which did not. The key is remaining open to discovering new ways of adjusting – either at work or at home—that let you pursue what you care about most, no matter what the world throws at you.