I was sitting across from an HR exec at Walmart a few years ago. His hand was outstretched, and on the desk in front of us was a crisp sheet of paper spelling out all the terms of my new promotion. I shook his hand and left doing mental cartwheels down the hall.
This was it! The dream job: More money, bigger team, fancier title, more interesting work.
And more total work, too. A few more meetings. A few more hours. A few more business trips. A bigger job means bigger responsibilities, which would probably mean dedicating more time and effort overall–that’s just how promotions work, I inwardly shrugged.
Promotion letter in hand, I popped my head into the office of one of my mentors at the company: “Guess what! I got the big promotion.”
“Congratulations!” he said. “Are you going to accept it?”
What did he mean, was I going to accept it?
“Well, it feels like a slam dunk,” I replied, wondering what he was getting at. “Everything improves here–salary, benefits, title. Great for future employability, too. If I get turfed I have a nice top line on my resume,” I pointed out, adding, “I feel like I should sign this right now and head straight back to the SVP’s office.”
“Go ahead and sign it,” he said with smile. “But it’s a big job! You’ll be leading a large team and on the road a lot. So before you hand it back in, make sure you take the contract home, share it with your wife, and write up another contract, too–a family contract. One between you and her. The company is changing all your terms, aren’t they? So make sure you revisit all your home terms, too.”
He had a point. Many of us have contracts with our employers, but few of us have contracts with our partners.
So, strange as it sounds, I went home that night and pitched the idea to my wife, Leslie. We both agreed it was a smart move to think deliberately about how changes in either of our careers might affect work-life balance for both of us. So we sat down and spent a long time that night discussing things. At the end, we arrived at a short contract with four key bullet points whose terms are still in force today:
1. Nights Away
As a parent, it breaks my heart to miss bath time. Combing my son’s wet hair. Reading books under the covers. Goodnight kisses. Knowing there’s a finite number of these nights in our lives, Leslie weighed approximately how many nights per year I might have to be away in the new role. We came up with a number that we could both live with. The we began tracking it.
The nights-away cap we’d agreed to was easy to break down per month, so if I had a really busy month (say, a conference out of town) then I knew I’d need to cut back on travel the next month to make up for it. No, I never actually told my boss, “Sorry, I’ve hit my quota, send someone else!” In fact, just tracking things helped me stop sweating every business trip. I simply counted them toward an annual number. Plus, if I ever fumbled this bullet point, I knew I’d have to make it up on one of the subsequent three (there’s only so much control you have when you’re working for someone else). And when I left Walmart to work for myself, it simply meant planning to miss certain out-of-town opportunities.
Can this hamper your career? Absolutely. Let’s not pretend you can have everything. Come up with a number that works for your family and stick with it.
2. Family Day
We decided it was important for us to have one family day every weekend–a full day with no cell phones, no extended family, no friends, nothing. Just me, my wife, our two little kids, and zero interruptions all day.
Before setting this down in writing, so many weekends would rush past in a blur of gymnastics, birthday parties, and extended family dinners. They were fun! But there was no deep family time for just us four. To be honest, sticking to this bullet-point has been really tough. Sometimes you feel terrible declining an invitation to an outing or get-together you know will be really special. But prioritizing one family day every weekend creates energy, and it helps you be choosier about your commitments. After all, there’s a real risk in saying “yes” to things reflexively.
3. Nights Out
The third item in our contract reads “NNO/LNO”: Neil’s Night Out/Leslie’s Night Out. This is a fun one. Once a week, we each get one night to do whatever we feel like. That can mean dinner with a friend, catching some live music by myself, spinning around in circles in empty parking lots–hey, who cares, it’s my night off! Leslie gets her own each week, too.
Again, energy is the priceless commodity here. It’s too easy to collapse on the couch in a Netflix coma once the kids are in bed: “Oh, look, we have only three Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidts left!” These regular night-out appointments help us plan to prioritize ourselves and maintain our other relationships, too. I feel like a great father and husband both before and after I go away on business, because I get energy from those nights to carry me through the time I’m away.
Plus, I get my own stories and experiences to bring back into the home while continuing to develop my life as an individual. The best part is there’s no guilt, since my wife and I both practice this habit in equal proportion (so in a way our two nights “pay for” each other. She can go to a yoga class, work on her pictures in a coffee shop, try my spinning-around-in-a-parking-lot thing, whatever! The two nights end up feeling like a gift to each other–even when we (admittedly) need to push one another to actually take them during a tiring week.
4. Vacation Days
I know work contracts generally have a number of vacation days spelled out. But most of us aren’t taking real vacation. We either don’t take all our days–by some recent estimates most Americans leave paid time-off that they’re entitled to on the table–or we work while we’re away. It’s also worth noting that some companies have policies where you can either buy additional vacation days or take unpaid personal days. What’s my point? Simply that it’s one thing for your employer to tell you what you get and another for you and your family to decide what you want to take.
After all, vacation time is one of the things many people don’t bother to negotiate when they’re considering a new job offer or weighing a promotion. In fact, you might even be able to swap out something smaller, like a bonus, for more vacation time if you ask for it. After finalizing our contract, I took advantage each year of a policy at Walmart that let me apply for an extra couple weeks of unpaid leave, and then took the 5% annual hit to my salary. It was a worthwhile tradeoff for the extra time with my family, and I never noticed the funds that were being skimmed off the top.
That’s it! Four bullet points–but they couldn’t be more important. Everybody will have a different set of terms that matter to them and their partner, of course. Maybe yours will involve school drop-off and pickup, or whether or not you work from home certain days of the week. In any case, you don’t have to march into work and share this work-life contract with your boss. The point is simply to help you articulate your values, then actually express them in how you live.
I’ve actually found this helps me make smarter, speedier decisions about the way I’m spending my time. For instance, if I can’t avoid traveling on a weekend and miss a family day, then I automatically know I need to book two back-to-back family days on an upcoming weekend. Good excuse for a road trip! As you think about a contract that works with you and your partner, remember that the goal is never to be perfect. It’s simply to be a little better–and more balanced–than before.