One thing I have learned about balancing work and family is that you need to take the long view. Work can take precedent sometimes. Other weeks, family can come to the fore. And it’s ok if you are temporarily out of balance. We need to respect the rhythm of work and family.
In the business world, we call this the difference between Episodic Overwork and Chronic Overwork. It’s ok, and probably necessary for career advancement, to have some weeks in which you burn the midnight oil. Accountants during tax season. Lawyers in the home stretch of a big case. A big client deadline. Passing a certification exam. Promoting a book. Even in nature, high tides and occasional forest fires are good things.
But, if we are going to “lean in” to work for a while, we need to then respect our need for long-term balance and consciously pivot so we spend time on our other priorities. Take that vacation (and fully unplug) after tax season. Carve out a few hours on the weekend for a family outing. Take a walk in the woods to clear your head. Say “no” to the next project. The rhythm of work and family needs to be respected.
I’m really fortunate that my job as a college professor has distinct phases and rhythms. The lead-up to (and beginning of) semesters is a blur of activity. The bulk of the semester is a steady state of full-time work. The end of the semester is another flurry. Then, winter and summer break allow time for renewal and for spending time on other priorities*.
As recently as a few years ago, my summers were devoted to family life- with a dash of academic research on the side. Amy tends to work long hours in the summer- directing youth theater during the day and performing Off-Broadway at night. I can take things more slowly, step up the Nick-care duties, work at a reasonable pace, and enjoy relaxed time with those I love.
This past summer has been a different experience entirely. In case you haven’t heard, I wrote a book. Then came the media tour, the personal appearances and the incessant social media promotion machine. It all culminated a few days ago with the 2-day sale that got me to the #1 spot for Kindle e-books on fatherhood!
(Thankfully, I wrote the bulk of the book over January break, and the book launched a few weeks after final exams. Also, Amy and Nick could not have been more supportive. Amy is very persuasive in insisting I come up for air and take meaningful breaks, like July 4th weekend in the mountains of New Hampshire, two other fun daytrips, and nights at the local minor-league baseball stadium- including Star Wars night!)
I’m not complaining- I actively sought out this extra work, in all of its maddening glory. The successful launch has led to other opportunities, such as paid speaking, freelance writing, and the opportunity to more publically advocate for working dads. My June and July of overwork could, if I’m not careful, become a chronic condition of having too much on my plate. Being fully engaged in “book mode” in addition to my day job at FDU and being an involved dad and husband will be too much if I let it extend through August and beyond.
In short, I’ve been in danger of falling out of rhythm and allowing my overwork to drift from episodic to chronic.
So today, as I write this article, I feel incredibly grateful. I get to spend August as a trailing spouse while Amy performs in Sweeney Todd at the Finger Lakes Musical Theater Festival. This part of Upstate New York is among the most beautiful places in the country during summer. Nick’s at an awesome day camp on Lake Owasco, and I get to spend my days catching my breath, prepping for the fall semester, and walking through the lovely historic town of Auburn- as well as the nature trails that surround it. Not too shabby.
I’ll still work on promoting the book and advancing that part of my career. But for now, I’m leaning in to the rest of my life. Respecting the rhythm of work and family.
Finally, I realize that I am incredibly fortunate and have a career that lends itself to ebbs and flows. It is probably harder for the rest of us to find that elusive long-term balance. Here are a few thoughts that may be helpful to you:
- Think about the flow of your work and identify the peaks and valleys
- When you see a peak time coming, you can make plans to ensure your family will be okay while you hustle at work
- When you anticipate a valley coming, respect it. Work shorter hours, take a long weekend, and spend fallow time at work thinking about your long-term goals (you may even want to pick up a book you’ve been meaning to read)
- Don’t beat yourself up if you miss some family dinners or even bedtimes during a busy stretch. Make it up by carving out time chunks on weekends
- Occasionally play hooky, and let your kids play hooky from school 2 days a year to make memories with you
- Negotiate for more work flexibility or an alternate schedule. Working from home can save wasted commuting time, and flexible hours and third-shifting can open up family time even during busy work days
- Consider solutions such as “Daddy-Daughter Wednesdays.”
- Remember, you have 168 hours in a week. If you spend 50 sleeping and 60 at work, that still leaves 58 for the rest of your life- over 8 hours a day! Plan ahead, and you can carve out enough time for family (and for taking care of yourself).
What do you think about the rhythm of work and family? About episodic vs. chronic overwork? Let’s discuss in the comments.
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* I’ve often said I became a college professor because the rhythms of college life, with all its intensity and freedom, really suited me.