Work in Progress
Work-life balance sounds ideal in theory. But figuring out how to finagle it all is always a challenge, especially when the system is stacked against us. A demanding career makes things even more difficult: Between the deluge of emails, back-to-back meetings, and nonstop deadlines, it’s tricky enough to squeeze in a cappuccino run, let alone carve out time for lunch with your friends, the kids’ school play, or barre class.
Here’s how real women manage to find harmony (or not) between their professional and personal lives.
Meghan Freed, 39, attorney and cofounder of Freed Marcroft, LLC, Hartford, CT
My wife, Kristen, and I started our own law firm in 2012. When it was just the two of us, we’d often spend the entire day together. As our firm grew and we hired additional staff, we lost some of our one-on-one time. We got busier and busier and threw more hours at the business instead of prioritizing our relationship. Our nights were often occupied with networking events, and there was a drive to get to the office increasingly earlier.
We realized that it was as important to nurture our marriage as our business. So two years ago, we decided to make some changes. Now we relax together and reconnect every morning. It’s our sacred time. From 6 to 7:30 am — after I walk the dog and she makes coffee — we sit and talk about our family, the news, vacations we’d like to take, or politics. If we do discuss work, it’s big-picture goals for the firm, not the day-to-day minutiae.
I found that it was tough for me to decompress in the evenings — I need time to come down from the day and separate myself from work. In the morning, we’re both more open. Starting the day this way ensures we keep our focus on being spouses first and business partners second.
Monique Welch, 30, branding and business strategist, Toronto
Balance has always been something I’ve struggled with. In the last six years, I’ve launched a skin care company, smartphone app, and ice-cream shop. Now I’m a consultant who helps other people figure out how to turn their ideas into a viable business, from developing a marketing plan to a growth strategy to branding.
My personality is to keep working until I get the project done, no matter what. Plus, I’m responsible not just for my business but also for my clients’ businesses, which puts a lot of pressure on me. More than once my husband has woken up at 2 am to shut down my laptop and coax me to come to bed.
Two years ago, I finally decided I needed to make a change. I had started to develop tightness in my jaw because of stress. It was no fun running a successful business and living with pain because I wasn’t taking care of myself.
The first thing I did was shift my work hours. I used to start at 8 am and finish at 9 pm or later. I’d grab a bite to eat in the five-minute break I had between meetings. Now I work from 10 am to 4 pm, and I schedule time for breakfast and lunch into my calendar.
Next, I limited the times I met with clients to Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays. On Mondays and Fridays, I focus on a creative project of my own or plan a fun experience outside of work. For example, I recently took a bus tour to a different part of Ontario, and went on a boat ride to the islands. Not only are day trips an opportunity to connect with my husband, but taking a break clears my head and allows me to think of creative solutions to work problems.
I also hired two assistants: one to manage my appointments and emails, another to take on smaller tasks, like updating social media, managing the website, and following up with clients. I realized I was working too long and hard on projects that didn’t need to be done by me.
Finally, I try to meditate a few times a day. I light a candle in my office, turn off my phone, breathe deeply, and sit quietly for two or three minutes. At night, I write in a gratitude journal. This keeps me focused on everything I did well, instead of getting down on myself about what I didn’t have time to complete.
Bethanie Nonami, 41, business consultant, founder and CEO of Memnto, Tampa, FL
I am the primary breadwinner for my family of four, as well as for my mother-in-law. I have a very demanding job in the tech industry, and struggled for a long time with finding any balance at all. Recently I realized that I had mastered running a team and conducting webinars, sales meetings, and strategy sessions, but I couldn’t master being present in my personal life.
My lack of balance came to a head last year. I was overweight, fatigued, and didn’t feel fulfilled or happy. My thyroid wasn’t functioning — essentially, my body had burned out. But I kept pushing. Then one day, my daughter turned to me and said, “Mommy, I have a question. Should I send you an email?” She didn’t have email or a computer; she just figured that since I was always on the computer, maybe I would put more thought and time into responding to her that way than verbally. It made me so sad.
In the past, when my kids would ask me something, I wouldn’t even look at them as I answered; my eyes were glued to the screen. This time I shut my computer, looked right at her, and answered her. Her eyes lit up because she finally felt significant. She looked so surprised that I had actually paid attention to her.
So I started making changes. I used to take client calls 24/7 — I’d get up from the dinner table to help them and answer calls at 10 at night. I thought I had to be constantly on call in order to succeed. I soon saw that all that pressure was self-inflicted.
When clients sought my counsel in the evenings or on the weekends, I started responding that I’d work on it the next morning. At first, I was terrified to see their reply. But everyone was fine with it. The world didn’t explode. My career didn’t screech to a halt.
I now approach my workday in a more efficient manner. I plan my schedule the night before and don’t look at my email until I’ve completed my most important task, which makes me feel like I’m making headway on projects that really matter. I break tasks into hour-long chunks because giving myself deadlines motivates me to finish faster. I reply to emails in batches, instead of every time I hear my inbox ping. I’ve maintained screen-free evenings for our whole household. I set an alarm for myself to make sure that I’m in bed by 11.
Don’t get me wrong — none of this was easy to do. I really struggled for the first couple of weeks, and I’m still very much a work in progress. But I’ve already noticed major changes. My health is back on track, and instead of feeling like a failure if I’m not Superwoman and things are left undone, I’m more accepting of myself. Most importantly, my kids feel valued.
Julie Austin, late 40s, founder and CEO of Swiggies, Los Angeles, CA
I own and run four businesses, so I’m the poster child for workaholics. I don’t balance work and life very well — I work 12 to 14 hours a day and haven’t taken a vacation in 10 years. Unsurprisingly, I’m not married and I don’t have any kids.
Because I wasn’t born into money, I knew that if I was ever going to achieve anything I would have to work extremely hard for it. I’ve been working nonstop for so long now that at this point I’m just conditioned to do it.
My social life has taken a hit: I have only one friend, and she always asks me to go out to lunch. But lunch is out of the question, because that’s prime cold-calling time. I eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner at my desk while I’m working.
The last time I had a boyfriend, I would work all week and then he’d come over on Friday evening and I’d be busy assembling my product in the living room. I’d promise him I needed just one more hour, but it always ended up taking much, much longer. Things finally ended because he wanted a family and that was something I couldn’t take the time to do.
The truth is, I would love to have a family and more time for myself, but I find it very difficult to fit that in, considering the pace of my job. I used to take a few vacations a year to a cabin in the middle of the woods with no TV, phone, or Internet, and I found that to be rejuvenating. But since the economy took a nosedive, I can’t afford to do that.
The good news is that I like what I do. My hope is that after years of hard work, I’ll come up with a million-dollar business plan that will earn me a steady, passive income so that I can focus on my life at last.
Susan Griffin-Black, 59, founder and CEO of EO Products, San Rafael, CA
Prior to starting EO Products in 1995, I had a 20-year career in the fast-moving, fickle fashion industry. After decades spent chasing after the next bright shiny thing, I decided to reinvent myself. My then-husband and I launched the company around our desire to live a more integrated life.
I say “integrated life” because I don’t believe in the idea of “work-life balance.” I feel like that whole concept is setting women up to be disappointed in themselves for not spending enough time doing such and such. I take a more fluid approach. I try to spend as much of my life as possible doing what I like with people whose company I enjoy.
That’s why it’s essential that I have a job and staff I love. Of course, there are aspects that aren’t particularly enjoyable — such as reviewing P&L reports — but they don’t feel so burdensome because it’s all contributing to the greater cause of the company that I care about.
One thing that has made a difference is that I learned how to say no. I used to say yes to everything because I was so excited to be included and beholden to wanting people’s approval. But I was overcommitting myself and getting too wrapped up in being liked, rather than focusing on what’s truly important. When my daughter was born in 1996, I knew I couldn’t run around and still honor my role as the mother I wanted to be.
So if I was asked me to do something that I didn’t have the time, resources, or energy for — say, traveling across the country for a meeting — I would brainstorm another way to accomplish it with less impact, like talking via conference call or video instead. I saved a lot of time.
Not only has this approach been good for me, but it’s also been good for the company. We’ve been growing at a rate of 30 percent a year for the past four years. If I hadn’t taken time to nurture myself, I wouldn’t have the strength and focus to be in a position to lead.
Ni’cola Mitchell, 35, Author and CEO of NCM Publishing, Las Vegas
I do it all. I’m a Jamaican-born author, blogger, publisher, and freelance magazine writer. I also run a publishing company, a consulting firm, and a promotions business for independent publishers and authors. I have a team, but I’m the head of everything, so I have an extremely tight, demanding schedule.
I’ve struggled a lot over the years with finding balance. I’m a single mom and had my kids young — I was just 15 when my oldest daughter was born, and now they’re 17 and 21. I worked nonstop to make sure that they would have the same privileges as their peers.
But four years ago, something happened that forced me to reevaluate my hard-driving attitude. My youngest daughter wasn’t feeling well, and doctors found a mass in herbrain. We traveled from state to state to figure out what was going on, and eventually moved across the country for her medical care. She was diagnosed with optic nerve disorder. While she was meeting with ophthalmologists and nerve specialists, I was working the whole time.
I realized then that life is too short. I wanted to give my kids the same amount of time and energy that I had been giving to work. The first thing I did was hire more staff — I now have three assistants. I also learned to turn off my phone. I used to respond to client calls at any time of day. Now, if I’m with my kids, I put my phone away.
When I started going tech free, a lot of the authors I worked with were offended because I’d always been so hands-on. I explained that my office hours were 8 am to 5 pm and that if they needed help outside of that time, they could contact my assistant. Some of them still felt I wasn’t being sensitive to their issues and I lost a couple of clients as a result. It took a full year for clients to get accustomed to the change — but being present for my daughter’s recovery was worth it.
Since I started putting my phone away at home, I’ve noticed a huge difference in my relationship with my daughters. I always thought my kids confided in me, yet I had no idea what was really going on in their lives. Now they open up to me about everything.
I also try to take more time for myself: I wake up early to go to the gym or walk in thepark (I’ve lost 136 pounds). At least a couple of times a month, I’ll plan to dosomething that’s entirely focused on me, like going to the spa or seeing a friend.
But keeping that balance is still a challenge. Recently, I had a miscarriage. I was seven months pregnant, and my blood pressure was high because I was working too much. My son’s heart stopped beating. I’ve learned that your business may be doing great, but you are the most important part of the puzzle. You are the vessel, the queen of your kingdom. And if you don’t take care of yourself, everything else is going to crumble.