Parenting and a new perspective on balance

We live and work in a culture where our work defines many of us. Vacation days go unused, parental leave is worse than in most other countries, we are connected to work 24/7 with mobile technology, and the 9-5 is no longer the norm.

I am currently in the final stages of building a house, am still less than a year into a new job, and have a 1 month old. These are, as they say, 3 of the top 5 most stressful things a person can endure during his lifetime, yet I am the least stressed I can ever remember being. Here’s why; it all comes down to perspective.

My perspective on balance changed a month ago when my daughter was born. I quickly have switched from living to work from working to live. My job, though it provides me with tremendous meaning, pales in comparison to the sense of joy, responsibility and meaning I get when I am at home with my family. Parenting as taught me to be selfish. I say no, regularly. If it is outside the scope of my job and/or it takes away from my family, it is not important enough for me to say yes to. You would think this makes me less available and “worse” at my job. However, the opposite appears to be true. I am overall happier, more focused, and better at prioritizing because my time is more precious. I no longer live for my work, which really helps me to see things more clearly, not take things too personally, and to set healthy boundaries. These all make me a better professional and a better dad. I don’t bring my stress and problems from work home the way I used to.

Before I was a parent, I lived for my work. It is what gave me my greatest meaning. Working with college students, I feel that my work matters. The growth and development of my students came before my own needs and caused me many late nights, long weeks, taking things too personally, and lack of sleep. The crazy thing is I did not seem to mind. I was driven by this sense of being a part of something bigger than myself and by playing that important role in the lives of students. I am still driven by this, but it’s different now. I have a new found drive at work. I work with some incredible students who will one day change this world and impact it in profound ways, all of which my daughter will be the beneficiary of. I get out of bed and leave my family every morning to work with these students, so that they can grow and develop into future teachers, psychologists, activists, researchers, doctors, etc. that will make this world a better place. Not only has becoming a dad taught me how to be better balanced, it has also reinvigorated my sense of purpose for working in higher education. The two things (work and home) are mutually beneficial to each other and are firing on all cylinders.

I think working parents are often accused of having a “convenient excuse” and that expectations of parents in terms of balance may be unfair in comparison to those of non-parents. I can’t definitively say that either is or is not true across the board, but I can say this: balance is as much, if not more, about the person and not about the system. You are in control of much of your own balance. Don’t believe me? Look at your calendar right now. How many of the obligations (especially outside of “normal” work hours) are necessary for the successful fulfillment of your job duties? Struggling? Try this question instead: “Will I be fired for not going to this?” I am willing to bet that you can eliminate at least an hour or two of obligations by taking that perspective. It should not take becoming a parent to see this. I should have learned this a long time ago. Being overtired and busy, because I chose to, did not make me better at my job; it made me worse. When we are healthy and balanced, we are our best selves at work.

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What could you eliminate from your schedule and what would you do for yourself with that time?

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Work-Life Balance: Lessons Learned

All too often we are told as young professionals to seek work-life balance.  It is ingrained in our graduate school experiences.  We talk about it at conferences and have discussions with our supervisors and mentors.  How many student affairs professionals can actually claim they have achieved balance?  What does balance mean?  I always thought it was like a UFO; something many look for, few claim they have seen, and most believe it does not actually exist.

I have a few thoughts…

  • Balance does not equal 9-5.  Let’s face it; we all knew coming in that this field requires late nights and weekends.
  • Balance is subjective and means something different to everyone.  This is important when comparing yourself to others and when having discussions with colleagues and especially with your supervisor.  Know what it is you need to achieve a healthy work-life balance.
  • No one will hand you work-life balance or offer a magical solution.  You need to advocate for yourself.
  • Sometimes we are our own worst enemies.  (See below for some steps I have taken that might help)

I would like to share some things I have learned and some steps I have taken to improve my work-life balance that might be helpful for others.

  • Learn how to say no.  How many times are we asked to take on another advisor role for instance?  We are dedicated to our students, so we most often say yes.  I challenge you to think of balance the next time you volunteer for something.  Being an over-committed, hard to reach, always busy advisor is not helpful.  Maybe there is someone else who is able to give that organization the time and attention they need.
  • Decide whether or not you will check email from home.  This could be an entire post.  The subject is still open for debate.  The moment I purchased my first smartphone, balance went out the window.  I checked and responded to emails regularly.  I’ve learned over the last 3.5 years that you can be more effective and efficient with this.  I have stopped notifications from coming to my phone alerting me when a new message comes in.  I check it only when I have time and feel like checking it.  I use the functions afforded to me in gmail that allow me to filter out unimportant or less important emails, so the only ones I read on my phone are important.  Lastly, I ONLY respond to the vitally important emails.  See Ed Cabellon’s helpful blog post on Achieving Inbox Zero for more helpful tips.
  • Set boundaries with students.  I used to have students call, text, and email me at all hours of the day.  I have worked hard to educate my students about the difference of something that would require a phone call or text and something that can wait for an email.  With this, I also set the expectation that emails would not be answered at all hours of the day, so if something is indeed important, to just pick up the phone.  This has been surprisingly helpful and students have respected it and communications with them have improved.
  • Work smarter, not harder.  Find simple ways to make your daily tasks easier, so that you can spend your time and energy on your students and larger, more important projects.
  • Get a life outside of work!  Find hobbies and make time for friends and family.  If you are a calendar fan and schedule every daily event like I do, putting dinner with friends, a concert, date night, etc. into your calendar will help you stick to it.
  • Think about becoming a pet owner.  Pet ownership is not for everyone.  For me, it has done wonders on improving my work-life balance.  Having a dog helps me stay active (via our daily walks), improves my overall stress relief, and sometimes gives me the much needed excuse to escape the office for a little while.  Besides, my students love when she comes to visit as it provides some stress relief for them

Our pup Sadie at her favorite place, the beach!

No one knows better than you, what will work best for you and what work-life balance looks and feels like for you.  I hope what I shared will be helpful.

What do you do to improve your work-life balance?