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Second Shift

How I Learned To Manage Work And Parenting When The Usual Advice Failed

Toddlers and clients aren't easily pigeonholed into their own neat squares in an appointment book.

How I Learned To Manage Work And Parenting When The Usual Advice Failed
[Photo: Flickr user Kevin Poh]

These days, work-life integration tends to get a better rap than work-life balance. But while the idea of blending those spheres may sound more appealing than trying to balance the two, actually pulling it off is pretty difficult. As the mother of two boys ages 3 and 6, the techniques that have worked for me are those that proved equally handy in the playroom as in the boardroom.

What Didn't Work

Not long after my first son was born, I found myself struggling at work, trying to it give my best in both worlds. At times, it felt like I was bungee jumping from boardroom meetings to bedtime meltdowns. Former mentors advised me to block out time for top-priority tasks. I was even encouraged by some compassionate supervisors to leave work every day at 5:30 and not think about unfinished projects and obstacles until the next morning.

This type of rigid scheduling may work for some people, but it didn’t work for me—in either the emotional or the practical sense. I was at the office worrying about my kids. Then I felt distracted at the dinner table, thinking about what I hadn’t completed at work. I carried around a lot of guilt. It was exhausting.

But the fact of the matter is that toddlers and clients alike refuse to be pigeonholed into their own neat squares in an appointment book. What's more, I realized that it wasn't just their respective needs that I needed to attend do—mine weren't being served any better by this approach to time management than theirs were. I needed a better way.

1. "Love What You Do" Isn’t An Empty Platitude

Many people commit themselves to unfulfilling careers because they want to hold onto salary or status, but that's almost always a recipe for disaster. If you don’t derive satisfaction from your job, you'll soon find yourself burned out.

It goes without saying that you won't love every single moment of your job, but you should enjoy it most of the time. There's a reason why career satisfaction should matter so much, not just to you, but also to your employers: People who are happy in their jobs have been shown to be more productive overall than those who aren't.

Looked at this way, finding joy and purpose at work can be something of a productivity hack for overwhelmed parents.

I recently made an important career change: I became a general manager tasked with opening a new office for a high-growth global business. That wasn't an easy decision to make with two small children at home, but I knew it was the path toward enriching and exciting work with a team I look forward to seeing every day. And having a job I love ensures I’m happy and energized when I’m with my kids, too, rather than bringing undue stress home with me.

2. Learn To Love Being Awake (And Still Get Enough Rest)

As a friend of mine once told me, "Sleep is only a habit." There’s nothing wrong with taking time to relax and unwind, but I’m the kind of person who can hardly close my eyes at night because I can’t wait to get started the next morning. For me, seizing the day starts long before the kids are awake, answering emails and preparing lunches.

Now, not everyone is like that, and I know this is a hair-raising suggestion to many parents who probably don’t get enough shut-eye as it is. But when it comes to sleep, there’s no ideal number of hours that everyone needs in order to recharge. Instead, it’s about finding how much sleep you need as an individual in order to feel well-rested and productive.

As a working parent, developing a healthy sleep regimen has proved more important than booking a solid eight hours each night—which was a holy grail in the first place. You might consider banning electronics from the bedroom or taking power naps on your lunch break.

However you choose to optimize your sleep habits, there are benefits to spending a bit more time out of bed. Adding just one extra hour each morning earns you 365 more hours per year. Add two hours each day, and you’ll quickly start to see why 5 a.m. workouts make more sense than wrestling with your pillow as your fitness regimen.

3. Compartmentalize In Order To Live In The Moment

While I found I couldn't lock my clients or my kids into rigid segments of my schedule, I've managed to compartmentalize each engagement in my mind so that my focus is less fragmented. If you’re reading to your child while worrying about work or thinking about little league games during a board meeting, you’ll come across as distracted.

When your focus isn’t being pulled in multiple directions, you’ll save countless hours because you’re getting things done right the first time. That isn't the same as tuning work out altogether at 5:30 p.m. each day. Maybe you polish off part of a project after you put the kids to sleep, or schedule your their next dental appointment while you're organizing your calendar one morning at work. Sometimes a less rigid structure is actually better at curbing disorder. The tasks you complete correctly are less likely to creep back onto your schedule.

Finally, don't feel guilty about making small compromises. I might miss an occasional school bake sale, but I always manage to be fully present in the conference room or the classroom, focused on the issue of the moment, whenever I'm most needed there.

Being the best parent and successful professional takes a considerable amount of effort, strength, and sacrifice—but it’s not impossible. There's no strategy that fits everyone equally well. But when you finally hit your stride, you'll be able to run with it.

Nancy Roberts is the general manager for glispa, North America, a high-growth mobile advertising technology company, and the ninja mom of two thriving boys in Silicon Valley.

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