Julie Underwood (Twitter & LinkedIn) is the City Manager of Mercer Island, WA. Her husband Todd Fiala is a software engineer for Apple. Together they wrote this article to share some insights and tips for how to try and achieve work-life balance with a family (children ages 14, 10, and 5), demanding careers, and a supportive, loving marriage. Ironically, they wrote this while on family vacation.
Work-life balance is a broad topic. Before we dive into it, let’s take a moment to note what’s in it before spending effort pursuing it. Ultimately, the most precious resource we have in our lives is time: we only have so much of it. Certainly money could be considered scarce, but there are often a number of avenues to earn more of it. Not so with time. Much of work-life balance comes down to allocation of time.
Balancing where we spend our time is like taking the route of the well-diversified investor. In the end, the payoff is that no single area of life is heavily neglected at the expense of deep investment in another. While focusing energy into a career can be very rewarding, expending effort on family, the community and many other volunteer areas can provide a rich payoff over our lifetime. To engage in these other non-career activities with meaningful results requires time, and it needs to come from somewhere.
The reality is that we have areas of our life that don’t get as much attention as we both would like. The area that could use much more time and attention is our health and wellness. Over the last year, we have made this a goal and continue to strive to squeeze 30 minutes of exercise three to four times a week. In addition, a healthy amount of sleep is a goal for us. We buy into all the studies that call for 7-8 hours of sleep (we’re both pretty cranky when we don’t get enough sleep); however, this is extremely difficult to achieve. When we need to trade-off how we spend our time, frankly, we take it from exercise and sleep.
Goals and Planning
Goals play a critical role in our lives. They help us funnel our resources in a direction that is intended to yield tangible results. Studies show that those who bother to formulate and write down goals manage to achieve more in their lifetime than those who do not. As a prominent example, think of America and the goal that was set by JFK in 1961 to put someone on the moon by the end of the decade. Despite numerous setbacks, with hard work, America achieved that goal. We’re always moving in some direction, and having a set of goals helps us determine when to say “yes” and when to say “no” to the many activities that vie for our attention.
As you may have already guessed, we’re both kind of nerdy. We actually do set goals for our family. As we mentioned, we have set exercise and sleep/rest goals for ourselves. Likewise, we set goals for our kids. For example, our son Tanner needed to move from doggy paddle to actually swimming. Once he achieved this, we stopped the swim lessons. So in other words, the goal wasn’t for Tanner to master every single swim stroke, it was for him to learn to swim more effectively.
Taking the time to layout all our goals and think deeply about them can help us adjust when necessary. The key is taking the time to identify the areas of our lives where we want to invest, and setting realistic goals for them. Once we have goals, we can plan around them. Our goals capture the large milestones we want to achieve. The planning is what funnels our time, energy and other resources towards those goals. The planning phase is a great time to communicate on goals and activities that overlap with each other’s activities.
While it is important to plan time and resources towards achieving our goals each week, we don’t need to put energy into every single goal every single week. We’re trying to achieve a dynamic, living balance over the long run, not some formulaic division of time every week and every day that must be divided equally. It is also important not to over-schedule. Often it’s our children who will push back on feeling over-programmed. They have taught us that we need time to allow for the spontaneity of life and the nurturing of relationships that so often cannot be planned in advance.
Communicating is crucial in work-life balance. Talking about goals with each other provides the opportunity to forge a stronger vision for the future. Once on the same page, we communicate our weekly plans, which can help keep things running smoothly day-to-day.
Julie often has night meetings multiple times per month, and sometimes multiple times per week. It helps tremendously that we use a shared online calendar – our communication medium of choice. We know in advance where our partner will be, we have it easily accessible throughout the day, and it helps us work out logistics throughout the week.
Another communication tool is a meal plan. This saves time and communicates in advance what to expect. Instead of spending time aimlessly trying to figure out what to feed our family, there’s a weekly meal plan on the frig communicating to everyone. No more, “What’s for dinner?” (except from our 5-year old since he can’t read). For this, we use a handy app called “MealBoard.”
Prioritization is the concept of ranking alternatives and assigning some kind of value. Prioritizing can help us make better choices among competing choices. Prioritization can be helpful within a given area of our life when trying to figure out the best use for our time. But there is a great trap in prioritization if we see one area of our life as more important than another and then using that justification to apply all energy to just that one area. We all know someone (possibly all too personally) who has put all effort into his/her job or some other area of his/her life, at the expense of all others.
A better metaphor for handling multiple, independent areas of our life, is to think about those areas as a report card. While we may have an area of our life that we definitely want to put A or A+ effort into, few people would be willing to get an A+ in that special area and fail all other subjects. We don’t need to apply A-level effort to all areas of our lives all the time. Realistically, we need to put some energy into each area of our life, and expect to put in more effort if we want to move from a C to a B or, as may be the case, an F to a C+. Likewise, if we choose to take on ten major areas of focus, it will be quite challenging and exhausting to put A-/B+ level effort into all of them.
Ultimately, using the report card metaphor for areas and major goals for our life can help us see where we may need to make some high-level adjustments. It can help bring clarity for setting realistic expectations about how much of our precious resources (time and otherwise) we can apply to the different areas of our life.
One thing we like to do in our home is look at work-life balance over seasons. It helps to look at the collective set of activities a family unit takes on as a series of time commitments that ebb and flow. If we allow balancing across seasonal activities over time — “by season” that is — we can go deeper into some activities now, while throttling back later and allowing other activities to take a more prominent allocation of our scarce resources. We can think seasonally with careers, recurring children activities like sports teams and Cub Scouts, projects at work and volunteer organizations, and other tasks that take significant energy over a period of many weeks or months.
For example, when Julie first became a City Manager (achieving her career goal), her time commitments for work increased significantly. We knew this would be the case, so when it happened, we were prepared for it. Todd held back on taking on a new job during this time period because that would have been too much for the season, overcommitting us as a whole. Todd kept his time commitments lower so that he could absorb more time for managing our three children and their activities. Similarly, later when Todd had the opportunity to take on an excellent job opportunity in the Bay Area, Julie was supportive in having Todd’s career take on a more central role (pursuing his career goals).
The primary benefit of thinking seasonally is that it allows each of us to make some in-depth, highly focused effort into certain areas of our lives in a time-boxed way, without completely ignoring other areas of our lives. We just need to remember that, after that deep dive for the season, we need to be able to throttle back and allow other areas of our lives, or those of other family members, to be able to move to the forefront.
We encourage a culture of always learning at home. The area of time management and effective family living is no different in this regard. There are numerous worthwhile books and websites out there that have great coverage on a number of the topics we discuss here and plenty more we didn’t touch on at all (e.g., Life Matters: Creating a dynamic balance of work, family, time & money, by A. Roger Merrill and Rebecca Merrill). We also love to learn from friends and co-workers to see how they work in date nights, balance two-earner careers without giving up on the family culture and other areas that cross with topics of wise stewardship of our resources. In addition to potentially learning a trick or two, talking to friends about balance is a great way to recognize that we are not alone.
There is a myth that we can have it all: anything and everything we want. While it depends on how we define the word “all”, the reality of basic economics is that we are ultimately limited by scarce resources, time being our most precious. We hope by sharing our stories and perspectives, you’ll take away some helpful tips for achieving work-life balance.