Balancing Work and Life

Balancing work and home life is nothing new; we’ve had this challenge for a long time. But in recent months when so many companies are streamlining operations and asking their employees to do more with less, the challenge has gotten noticeably more difficult. I recently interviewed someone who had struggled with this in a mighty way; he’d worked more weekends than not during the past twelve months and had reached a point of burn out.

In addition to the direct work requirements of our jobs, there are also the quasi-work activities of blogging, attending user group meetings, learning new technologies, and volunteering in the community. All of these are good activities, but they take time. And that time has to come from some where.

Priorities

In Cheaper by the Dozen, Steve Martin’s character, Coach Tom Baker, faces this dilemma when his boss, Shake McGuire, demands more time from the Coach despite the pressures at home. Shake is surprised when Tom Baker resigns from his dream job. Tom Baker summarizes his rationale very succinctly. “If I screw up raising my kids. nothing I achieve will matter much.”

Priorities matter. Balancing work and home matters.

So how can we better balance our work life and home life? I suspect you already know the answer to that question. It’s the doing of the answer that’s difficult.

Tips For Balancing

  • Realize That You’ll Never Get Everything Done. I’m a doer. I like checking items off a to-do list. But I’ve learned that my to-do list will never reach zero. There will always be something else to do. I will not be able to finish everything before I go home for the day. Once I made peace with that, some of the self-imposed stress that accompanies open items and drives me stay late at work begins to melt away.
  • Place Your Family Events On The Calendar. I learned a long time ago that if an event is not on my calender, it will not happen. I’m too busy to remember everything that is important to me. So I put family events on my calendar. Boy Scout events? On the calendar. My daughter’s piano recital? On the calendar. You can mark them private if you wish, but staking the claim on the calendar will prevent others from scheduling meetings during important family events.
  • Learn To Say “No”. This is one of my biggest challenges. I want to help with each request that comes to me. And considered in isolation, it’s easy to think that it’ll only take a small amount of time. But all of those little items add up. Learning to say No at work, at home, and at volunteer events will help to add some much needed margin to your life.
  • Make Up Your Mind Ahead Of Time. As Socrates once said “the life which is unexamined is not worth living.” Take the time to know what is important to you before you are put in a situation that challenges you. If I’m asked to attend a SQLSaturday when I have a family commitment, I won’t go. Family is important to me.
  • Time Box Your Activities. I can write a magazine article in four hours or it can take four days. It all depends on how much time I allow. Parkinson’s Law states that “Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” Perfectionists are really susceptible to Parkinson’s Law. Time boxing is the practice of allocating a set amount of time for an activity. When you reach the end of the time, you’re done. This prevents you from revising and revising again and wasting time with only marginal gains in the output (aka the Law of Diminishing Returns).

Beware Of Too Many Good Things.

The challenge in putting these ideas into practice is that most of the time, the things that we are doing are good things. Speaking at conferences, staying late to go the extra mile for a client, teaching a Sunday School Class, leading a Boy Scout troop, are all good things. And all have their place. But too many of them too often can lead to problems.

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The Importance Of Managing Expectations

Have you ever taken a sip of sweet tea only to discover that it was soda instead? Eeww! What an eye-opening experience!

Don’t misunderstand; I like soda. But when I’m expecting sweet tea, the normally pleasant taste of the carbonated beverage is face-wrenchingly awful.

Thus, the importance of expectations.

What To Expect?

When working with your clients, your boss, your spouse, your kids, and everyone else for that matter, it’s critically important to set expectations. Let them know what to expect. Let them know when to expect it. Let them know any caveats that may exist. It gives them a sense of comfort.

As with the beverage example, expectations are important; the same result can be interpreted as good or bad depending on expectations.

If you promise a client that you’ll provide a deliverable in ten business days and you deliver it in seven, they’re very happy. Conversely, if you promise to deliver in five and you don’t have it ready until the seventh day, they’re disappointed. In both cases they receive the deliverable in seven days, yet in one case you’re a hero and in the other case you’ve failed.

How Can You Manage Expectations?

Managing expectations is not difficult. In fact, it’s straightforward.

  • Under Promise. Don’t over commit yourself. Examine your workload, your capabilities, your own expectations, and then build in some margin.
  • Over Deliver. This go right along with Under Promise. Going the extra mile and exceeding expectations is a nice way to give them a sense of “wow”.
  • Communicate Clearly. It’s been said that there are four components to communication: the sender, the message, the medium, and the recipient. A breakdown and any of those can lead to a misunderstanding. Make sure that the message that you intend to deliver is the one that is received.
  • Communicate Frequently. Providing timely updates about the progress along the way is just as important as setting the initial expectations. Any delays, any changes to the initial expectations should be communicated early in the process.
  • Be Honest. As the old saying goes, honesty is the best policy. Best honest with others. If you are unsure of the outcome, tell them. It’s better that they know this up front.

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Book Review: The Lazy Project Manager

“There is nothing more uncommon than common sense.” Some attribute the axiom to Frank Lloyd Wright but others are adamant that he’s not the origin of it. Whoever said it had a somewhat elitist or cynical perspective about the general population.

At times, however, the saying has proven itself to be true. That’s why sometimes it’s best to state the obvious, rather than taking it for granted.

In his book “The Lazy Project Manager“, Peter Taylor doesn’t tackle the basics of Project Management as a profession. Do don’t buy the book as a Project Management how-to guide; it’s not intended to be that. Taylor rightly observes that much has already been written on the topic. He even provides list of resources that he’s found helpful in the back of “The Lazy Project Manager”.

Instead Taylor attempts to supplement the purely academic studies of Project Management with practical and actionable approaches.

A Common Sense Approach

“The Lazy Project Manager” focuses on the subtle nuances of how to shepherd a project from its initial phase through to its completion. Taylor concentrates on working with your team to move the project toward success. He advocates using humor to diffuse a situation, evaluating the team personnel, and remembering that communications is more than just the message.

Much of what he shares should be considered common sense, especially to a seasoned professional. However, the advice proffered will likely be helpful to many who are new to the project manager role.

This short book is replete with anecdotes from Taylor’s experiences. He shares some of his successes as well as his miscues over the years. He recounts his missteps and what he’d do differently now that he’s on the other side of the mishaps.

Proper Planning

Despite the intentionally eye-catching title, the book’s premise can be distilled down to the old adage of the 7 P’s: Proper Planning and Preparation Prevents Pitifully Poor Performance.

Taylor contends that most projects require an awful lot of work up front and if done well, the long middle part of the project goes very smoothly. Eventually every project wraps up with a flurry of concluding activities at the end.

The book models this as well. The first portion of the book sets the stage. Then Taylor offers to let the reader skip the middle section and just right to the end of the book where the final two chapters summarize everything that you may have skipped.

Overall

I suspect many who buy the book can easily skip to end without missing anything; I certainly felt as though I could have. Others may find the middle, though it sometimes wanders a bit, to be helpful.

The eight reviewers on Amazon give the book a 4.5 out of 5 stars. I think that’s a bit on the high side. I’d give it a 3 to 3.5 out of 5 stars. But then, I’ve been self-employed 15+ years and I’ve managed hundreds if not thousands of projects.

Whenever there is a hard job to be done I assign it to a lazy man; he is sure to find an easy way of doing it. – Walter Chrysler

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Opportunity Cost versus Real Cost

One of the hardest lessons to learn and put into practice as a self-employed consultant is that of Real Cost versus Opportunity Cost.

Let’s consider an example.

Real Cost

Real Cost is straightforward. If the water pipes in my house freeze and burst due to the cold weather, I can fix the leak myself or I can call a professional plumber. Those are my options. Sure, I could do without running water, but I’m fond of modern conveniences. So, let’s way I want to fix the leak.

Which is the better option – fixing the leak myself or hiring a professional? Assuming I have the know-how, fixing the leak myself sounds less expensive. In terms of Real Cost it is.

When I repair the bursted pipes myself, my only outlay is for the supplies required to stop the water from squirting out. I’ll need to run down to the hardware store to buy some replacement pipe and perhaps a couple of shiny new tools. That’s the extent of my Real Costs. Then I can roll up my sleeves and dive into the repairs.

If I call a plumber to come to my house and do the job for me, I don’t have to go to the hardware store. I don’t have to buy the materials myself. And I don’t have to find and fix the leak. But I do have to pay him to do these things for me. I have to pay for his time plus the materials he uses to remedy the problem.

So, calling a professional costs me time and materials whereas doing it myself costs only materials.

But that’s not really a complete picture. There’s an Opportunity Cost associated with the project.

Opportunity Cost

If I spend three hours repairing the ruptured pipes, that’s three hours that I’m not doing something else like working for my clients or spending time with my family. The things that I give up by not choosing them are the Opportunity Costs.

There are Opportunity Costs associated with every decision you make. Choosing one thing, by definition, will come at the expense of another.

In this case, the Opportunity Cost of fixing the burst pipes is the time I spend doing the work myself. A professional plumber can probably do the job in half that time. So from an economic perspective, I’m spending time doing something that I’m only marginally skilled at instead of focusing on areas where I’m more skilled. That’s underutilizing my effectiveness.

So in effect, I am paying for time and materials even when I do the job myself. I’m paying with my time rather than buying the plumber’s time. So the question becomes: how much is my time worth to me?

Unless the plumber charges twice my hourly rate or I don’t actually have the client work to do instead of fixing the broken pipes, it actually costs me less to pay someone else to do the job.

Applying The Calculation To Business

Real Costs versus Opportunity Costs apply to business as well. For example, should I outsource part of a project to another consultant?

Let’s say I’m a database consultant and I’m somewhat skilled in application development. I can do the application development work, but my area of expertise is in the database. Spending time developing the front end application is not a good use of my time. Someone else can do it better and faster than me. I should focus on the things that I do well.

The same goes for bookkeeping, web site development, and making reservations.

The concept also applies to managers and their team. If a manager does something that he could have delegated to a team member, it’s actually costing the organization. He could have delegated the task and had someone else do it, allowing him to focus on the things that only he can do.

There’s More To The Story

We must remember, however, that not all decisions are solely based on finances. Spending time with my family, working on the fence in the pasture, and volunteering as a Scout Leader all have Opportunity Costs associated with them. Despite being intangible, the results are well worth it. I’m not going to outsource some things.

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Book Review: The Prince by Niccolo Machiavelli

“If I were two-faced, would I be wearing this one?” Abraham Lincoln was reported to have said once when accused of playing both sides of an issue. It’s good to see a politician with a self deprecating since of humor.

Scott Adams of Dilbert fame and the writers of The Office have some hysterical views on corporate politics. They poke fun at the corporate incompetence and the silly politics to which many in the business world can relate.

Et tu, Brute?

Unfortunately there’s very little funny that’s to those who find themselves in a back-stabbing, alliance-building, sell-your-own-mother-if-it-wins-points-with-the-boss world of office politics.

As a consultant, I’ve worked with thousands of people at all levels of an organization and across most every industry. I’ve seen corporate politics in action. I’ve witnessed some of its brutality and the carnage it leaves in its wake. It’s painful to watch someone trample another as he protects his own little fiefdom.

Fortunately as an “outsider”, I’m seldom the target of such attacks. Nevertheless, I thought it would be good to do a bit of research into the topic. So, I turned to the grand daddy of all books on politics: Niccolo Machiavelli’s The Prince.

Applying Princely Advice To Office Politics

Much like Sun Tzu’s The Art Of War, The Prince is considered by many to be a timeless classic that’s as applicable today in business as it was to governance in the period that it was originally written. When read with a discerning eye, it’s chock full of savvy advice for leaders.

For example, when you notice a subtle, slowly escalating issue, Machiavelli advocates confronting the issue sooner rather than later. There’s no sense in ignoring the issue and allowing it to gain momentum.

Therefore, the Romans, foreseeing troubles, dealt with them at once, and, even to avoid a war, would not let them come to a head…

Likewise, Machiavelli proposes that the wise Prince will seek counsel from those around him albeit under very restricted conditions.

The only way for a prince to guard himself from flattering adulation is to make it understood that he will not be offended if he is told the truth.

and,

…this is an axiom which never fails: that a prince who is not wise himself will never take good advice…

A warning against complacency is also made.

Princes who give more thought to luxury than to arms often lose their principality.  In fact, the quickest way to lose a principality is to neglect the art of war, and the best way of acquiring one is to be a master in this art.

Take Some Advice With A Grain Of Salt

Not all advice proffered by Machiavelli is beneficial in my opinion and it should be measured against your own moral compass.

At times, Machiavelli’s advice can be calculating and callous. He seems to be of the opinion that the ends justifies the means no matter the cost. For example, when assuming power over a principality,

Upon this, one has to remark that men ought either to be well treated or crushed, because they can avenge themselves of lighter injuries, of more serious ones they cannot; therefore the injury that is to be done to a man ought to be of such a kind that one does not stand in fear of revenge.

Additionally according to The Prince, we should not grow colleagues and direct reports.

From this a general rule is drawn which never or rarely fails: that he who is the cause of another becoming powerful is ruined; because that predominancy has been brought about either by astuteness or else by force, and both are distrusted by him who has been raised to power.

In Summary

I’m glad to have read The Prince. It’s a classic in every sense of the word. I must say, though, that it’s not an easy read. The sentence structures used can be rather complex at times even though the tone is fairly conversational.

Even some 500 years after its writing, it has some good insights into politics. Just being aware of these issues is good, even if you choose not to follow them.

Getting Started With Consulting Webcast Recording Now Available

If you missed my PASS Professional Development Virtual Chapter Webcast “Getting Started With Consulting” last week, it’s now available online.

I haven’t watched it yet just in case Doc in Back to the Future, Part II was right.

I foresee two possibilities. One, coming face to face with herself 30 years older would put her into shock and she’d simply pass out. Or two, the encounter could create a time paradox, the results of which could cause a chain reaction that would unravel the very fabric of the space time continuum, and destroy the entire universe! Granted, that’s a worse case scenario. The destruction might in fact be very localized, limited to merely our own galaxy.

If you watch it, please let me know what you think; feel free to send me any questions or comments you may have.

Keeping Perspective: What Are You Building?

Think about your responsibilities at work for a minute. How many do you have? Can you even name them all?

As technical professionals, we have a myriad of responsibilities This is especially true in today’s economy when so many of us are being asked to do more with less. It’s easy to get caught up in our daily tasks and projects. We must improve the response time of a report and gently slap the hand of the guy who designed it so inefficiently. We must crank out more code to meet an arbitrary deadline promised by a salesman.

It’s easy to lose heart and to think of ourselves as just another cog in the underbelly of a faceless, heartless organization.

At least one-third of each business day is spent at work. For some if us, it’s much more than that. When we are discontented with our jobs, it affects the other areas of our lives. That’s why it’s important to keep a healthy perspective on life.

The Power of Perspective

I’m reminded of the story a man who was waking down the street in old England many years ago when he happened upon a construction site. As he approached, he saw a laborer. The man stopped and asked the laborer what he was doing. The laborer gave a sneering look and replied “I’m laying bricks. What does it look like I’m doing?” and continued about the business of laying bricks.

A few minutes later, the man came to another laborer who was wielding a trowel and slathering mortar onto a granite block. The man asked the second laborer what he was doing. “I’m raising this wall.” replied the laborer as he continued working.

Another few minutes passed and the man came to a third laborer with trowel in hand. The man asked the laborer the same question posed to the first two laborers “What are you doing?” The laborer looked at the man and replied “I’m building a magnificent and grand Cathedral where generations of believers will be able to come to worship God Almighty.”

That’s the difference perspective can make. All three laborers were doing the same thing from an outsiders vantage point, yet each viewed their activities differently.

What Are You Doing?

So, let me ask you: what are you are doing? Are you creating maintenance plans? Or are you ensuring the medical staff have the information they need to help treat patients effectively? Are you going through your daily check list on the servers? Or are you working on something much more important, much bigger than yourself?

How is your perspective?

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