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The little things

 Little things mean a lot. We all know this, whether it’s about our products, our relationships, or our lives. It’s the little things that make the difference in what we say, what we accomplish, and who we are.

You may build a fantastic product with innovative technology and experiences, but if a small aspect is missing, confusing, or failing, adoption will suffer. You may believe your customers and partners (internal or external) are important, but just a few words of exasperation or condescension will betray trust and jeopardize your relationship. You may be devoted to your family and your job, but miss a few special moments of either and you risk teetering out of balance.

You can usability test and iterate on your scenarios until they delight. You can have your customer and partner communications reviewed to ensure they are respectful and considerate. But how do you balance work and life so that neither suffers? You don’t. Work-life balance is a deceitful fallacy. What you need are work-life priorities.

You can’t have it all

Let’s start with cold, hard facts. You can’t have it all. Stop it. At best you’re being naïve, and at worst you’re being a self-destructive train wreck.

I don’t care what the blogs, self-help articles, and well-meaning human resource classes say. Yes, you can have a family and job. No, you can’t balance them. One of them wins. Period. Live in denial all you like. One day you’ll wake up and realize that somehow you made a choice, and hopefully you’ll be at peace with that choice. Or you’ll be talking to a therapist.

I’m not sure why people perpetuate the lie of work-life balance. Perhaps everyone likes a good story. After all, people do work and have lives. No one likes being unbalanced. Why not just claim you can balance them? Then you can create a whole industry around advising people who struggle with the impossible and inevitable.

Eric Aside

You can define work-life balance to be whatever state you arrive at after applying your work-life priorities, which is how I think about it for myself, but that definition doesn’t match society’s notion of having the best of both work and life.

What’s the big deal?

“But my manager supports work-life balance! Whenever there’s a family emergency, school play, or big game, my manager always supports me putting family first.” Oh, that’s so nice. What a nice manager you have. Too bad that means nothing.

Balancing the big things is easy, because they are rare. Family emergency? Of course you should miss work. Executive presentation? Of course you should attend. Best friend’s wedding? Of course you should be there. Imminent major release? Of course you should spend extra time at work. These decisions are easy.

The hard decisions are over the little things you must be present for in life. Do I stay late for that meeting, or do I attend little league practice? Do I Skype with coworkers in a different time zone, or do I help the kids with homework? Do I travel to advance my career a little, or do I keep a date with my significant other? We make these small tradeoffs all the time. Our choices matter. Being present matters.

The choice is yours

Technology provides flexibility, which helps quite a bit. You can work from home, accommodate an irregular schedule, and take care of many personal errands online. You can attend meetings via Skype, engage in group chat rooms, and have your files and data follow you wherever you go. But technology is limited.

Meeting and engaging online is not the same as being there, and being there is exclusive. You can’t be there with your coworkers at the same time as you’re being there with your family and friends. You have to choose. Skyping into a meeting while you’re at your kid’s ballgame means you’re not present at either event. Again, the big, rare things are easy, but it’s the little, common things that count, and balance isn’t possible, because the choice is stark.

Work-life choices come down to priorities, not balance. You choose one or the other based on which is more important and urgent to you. You prioritize. The key is to establish your priorities, communicate them, and stick to them.

Conforming reality to our words

As I wrote in Better learn life balance, the steps to maintaining the “balance” that is right for you are:

  • Understand and accept your lifestyle choices. The first step is to know yourself. What are your priorities? Does career come before home? What are your limits? Would you give up a parent-teacher conference, but not the school play, to advance your career? You must understand and accept these choices, even if they seldom arise. This will prepare you to speak with your manager from a position of strength and conviction, one he or she will respect and uphold.
  • Set ground rules with your manager. Every time I begin reporting to a new manager (a common occurrence at Microsoft), I discuss my work expectations: “I see my kids off to school every morning and eat dinner with them every night. If that is unacceptable, I will respectfully seek a different position.” We always agree that there will be occasional exceptions, but the ground rules are clear and established. No manager has turned me down, and sticking to my ground rules has not impacted my advancement. However, jobs that require lots of travel are not for me. Many of my managers have told me that they consider my strong convictions and clear values a strength.
  • Do not compromise quietly. Occasional breaks in the usual routine at work are expected, but a two week trip to Japan would be a big deal for me. When this type of request comes up, I take the opportunity to reassert my constraints. Often an alternative is available; sometimes I just need to go. Either way, my manager is reminded of my priorities and his or her commitment to honoring them. If you compromise too easily, it tells your manager that you don’t really care that much. Your manager will likely continue to ask for more and more of you until you finally do care, establishing a new, less desirable limit.

It’s been twelve years since I first wrote those three steps, and my kids are now adults, but the guidance is just as relevant today. In July, I started reporting to a new manager, and during our first one-on-one, I discussed my work expectations, just as I had with my first Microsoft manager in 1995. Not once have my expectations been questioned or unmet.

Big time

And now we reach the uncomfortable portion of the conversation. The part about career and personal tradeoffs and sacrifices. The part where “you can’t have it all” hits the ego, the home, and the bank.

You can work part-time at just about any business, including Microsoft. You can regularly go to little league practices instead of late meetings. You can take time off to care for your family. Doing so will impact your career (at least temporarily), regardless of where you work. Not because your employer is evil (though I’m sure some are), not because you’re unappreciated, and not because your managers are heartless bigots. Your career will be impacted because there’s always someone else willing to prioritize work over home; willing to work mornings, nights, and weekends; and willing to travel at a moment’s notice. It’s not fair and it’s not “right.” Life’s not fair and not always “right.”

Work-life priorities are a personal choice. You choose the life you wish to live. And remember, these choices aren’t forever. You can be devoted to work at first, slow down your career for several years, and then rededicate yourself to your career once more. What’s important is that you live the life you choose, not the life others choose for you.

Eric Aside

It would be better if Microsoft scheduled its meetings at times when everyone could attend, including part-time employees. As a corporation that spans time zones, this isn’t really feasible, but we could do better. The next best thing is getting fluent at Skype-only meetings where everyone is on equal footing. Perhaps someday.

We also need to adjust to the decreased opportunity for impact of people who work part-time or take any form of leave. While we may acknowledge less time on the job, we don’t always acknowledge the probabilities. A full-time person may get 10 opportunities a year to do something truly impactful and only needs to deliver on two or three of them to have a great impact story that year. For a part-time person, half of two or three is just one. To make a fair comparison, we should consider a longer trend for part-timers.

Do the right thing

You may reject the idea that you can’t have it all. You may believe that a balanced life enhances your effectiveness at work and at home. I agree with you. However, little things mean a lot, and you can’t be in two places at once. Your choice of where to be can’t help but impact your career and your home.

Instead of fretting over the dilemma of work-life balance, consider your aspirations, your values, and your happiness, and set priorities based on what’s right for you. You can change those priorities as your life changes, but at each moment you should own them and uphold them.

The people around you may judge your choices, but it’s your life to live, and you’ve got only one chance at it. Know what’s in your heart and soul, and be the person that makes you proud, happy, and fulfilled. Make every day abundant with the little things you love.

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One Comment

  1. Sam Wenker Sam Wenker

    Well, I’ve never, literally NEVER, been asked to do something at work (in the ten years I’ve spent on my current team at MS) which conflicted with something in my home life such as working extra hours, missing work for an appointment, etc – I’ve never been asked to be in two places at once. It happened on my previous team all-too-often, but on my current team it hasn’t hurt my career and it obviously hasn’t hurt me at home. Perhaps you CAN have it all, but only if your management really does care about (and do a good job with) things like planning ( accepting engineering estimates without pressing for unreasonable deadlines (, and so forth, so they don’t even consider asking you to compromise. It probably only applies up to a certain level at the company, but I’m not interested in getting to those levels – not because of balance concerns but because I’m simply not interested in doing that kind of work. I don’t stay late for meetings because there aren’t any; I don’t have coworkers in other time-zones to skype with (small team); I get all my work done while still keeping every appointment because my team budgets schedules with enough buffer to absorb them. Don’t get me wrong, this is always subject to change, and I have clear priorities should such a conflict arise. For the moment, however, I’m going to continue enjoying having it all: no conflicts, no need to be in two places at once, and no need to compromise.

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