By Alexa Boer Kimball, MD, MPH, July 01, 2011
First, despite the title of this section, “balance” is a fairly passive way to talk about managing the trade-offs between work and home life responsibilities, commitments, and desires. Because life is complicated and sometimes challenging, navigating is rarely full of tiny adjustments, it’s full of action. In my world, that’s meant keeping close track of what’s important, desirable, and fun, and embarking on those activities that achieve as many of the three as possible. There are some things that aren’t fun that you have to do, but there are some that you don’t have to do — and figuring those out can be liberating.
So, I have developed a list of top pieces of advice, several of which I will share with you.
- 1. Know yourself. The first and most important thing is understanding what motivates you and what makes you happy. For example, if you, at base, are an introvert who needs “alone” time, you can build in the time to make sure you recharge. Others thrive on people and activity and rarely need to plan that in. It’s hard to make good decisions or prioritize unless you have some awareness of how you think and ultimately what you will find satisfying.
- 2. You have to be bold enough to make decisions that fit your needs even if they don’t conform to norms. In our house, I virtually never cook. I don’t enjoy it — but fortunately, my husband does. Once our youngest child, then a toddler, said to me, on an evening when it was just the two of us — “Mommy, do you know how to cook dinner?” I laughed and reassured him he would be fed. But the tables were turned the next time when we were talking. When I asked him what he wanted to do when he grew up, I mentioned, “Do you think you might want to be a doctor?” “Oh, no Mommy — only girls can be doctors,” he replied. Not traditional but it works for us![pagebreak]
- 3. You can have it all, but you don’t have to do it all. I can’t claim to have come up with that line myself, but I do believe it. You need a team to get everything done and you also have to give yourself permission to let them participate. Frosting every last cupcake isn’t necessary to be a good parent. You do, however, need to treat your team respectfully and generously, just like you do your office staff. There’s a passage in The Nanny Diaries about how nannies prefer to work for people with careers, because they also treat them more professionally. That one line really changed how I thought about the people who help me at home. For example, I make sure I am on time coming home and I realize that just like being on call, moving my schedule around affects hers. Have confidence that the people around you will also do a great job — and they will.
- 4. Get help from family. Some people have the great advantage of having family nearby. We don’t, but have developed creative ways to get people together and generate wonderful opportunities. My parents love to travel, so whenever I go to an interesting city somewhere in the world for work, I take one of my children. Usually, my mother will meet us there — getting there a day early to get things organized. Then, while I work, she pals around with her grandson. And when I’m done, we meet back up and have more adventures. My son has had fabulous experiences, and he gets to really know his grandmother. And I get travel companions and turn what might be tedious travel into a family activity.
- 5. Think carefully about marginal time and how to build in a buffer to decrease anxiety. Nothing stresses parents more than being late. Leaving or dropping off your children in the morning as you go to work can be unpredictable, as is finishing up clinic so you can pick them up. The secret to decreasing the stress is to give yourself enough transition time to decrease the pressure. Schedule your last patient a little earlier and arrange for your child care transition in the morning to be earlier, too. If you end up having a little extra time, a moment to sit down is okay! Similarly, manage your commute. Time spent in the car never shortens your work day; it only decreases your time at home.[pagebreak]
- 6. Organization and throughput processing also helps me get my work tucked in before I get home. I set myself a daily goal to only have a certain number of things on my (multiple) to-do lists before I leave the office. I do this because I’ve learned that if I have more than that amount on my list I can’t keep it straight; I lose track of priorities and things start falling through the cracks. If I can’t get into that range, I will try to schedule or steal some extra time to catch back up.
- 7. Take inventory every once in a while. Quit things that you don’t enjoy and ones that aren’t enriching. I periodically make a list of the things that I found most annoying in a given week and then determine which of those I really have to do and which I really don’t. Quitting something takes activation energy and sometimes doesn’t feel very good — but usually I look back with relief that I realized it was time to move on to other things. It’s rare for people to say, “I quit that too early;” it’s much more common that they realized they stopped too late. Similarly I also take stock of things I am doing to see if there is someone else in my orbit who could do them for me or if I could do without. Every once in a while I find another half-hour here or there that can be reclaimed.
There’s no magic formula, but being organized, optimistic, and unafraid to do things unconventionally can help. Most of all have confidence that you are in charge of your decisions and can make the choices that make it all come together.