Why is work life balance a women’s issue?

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The last time I checked, children are produced by their mother and father. Women have children, and so do men. But why is work life balance usually framed as a women’s issue?

In one of my previous companies, flexible work arrangements were available. Great! How progressive! But it was available only for women. Also, I was recently invited to a seminar to discuss women’s leadership and work life balance. However, all invitees were women.

Let us not forget one of the most successful books on women’s leadership in recent times: Lean In. I admire the author, Sheryl Sandberg, greatly. In fact, she was even my business school commencement speaker. Again, the focus of this book is what women should and can do to rise to leadership positions while balancing work with life.

It seems like we’ve created a gender-based bubble around work life balance. Women talking about what women should do to improve women’s work life balance so we have more women in leadership. This is a pretty lonely conversation.

So, where in the world are the men??? 

Because men have children too, these fathers should have work life balance issues as well. Well, according to this HBS study, many men simply don’t see it as an issue. Society has always casted men as the breadwinner, so if a guy has to work more, then he’s just doing what he’s supposed to be doing. In fact, by working longer and earning more, he is providing a better future for his children.

But men are changing. Men today and tomorrow seem to care more about spending time with their offspring. Since women are now sharing the bread winning responsibility, men are starting to share more of the care-taking responsibility. This isn’t just some feminist cry to turn men into diaper changing machines. This is just good for people. I’d even argue that this is just good for society. A US national survey indicates that more involved fathers are with their children, the children not only have better academic performance but they also have less risk of delinquency.

Until society and companies broaden the work life balance discussion to women and men, it will be difficult for men to spend more time as fathers and for women to spend more time climbing the corporate ladder.

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Why it’s awesome to be a 30 year-old professional

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When I entered the workforce right after college, my age was a constant source of insecurity. Especially in management consulting, I probably looked ridiculous. At 23, I would be tasked to advise 50 year-olds on how they should run their billion dollar business while I had just learned what a balance sheet was. During my first week at work, an executive asked me exactly how many years of work experience I have, and I almost fainted. I didn’t want to admit that I was a newborn employee and probably useless at that point, but my company was still charging you hundreds of dollars per hour for my time. 

Today, I’m a 30 year-old professional. While I still don’t have decades of experience under my belt, I do have some battle scars. And sure, being a 30 year-old professional has its own set of issues as well. Ok, if you haven’t already made it on Forbe’s 30 under 30 list at this point, then you’ll probably never make it. Or, sure, by 30, Steve Jobs had already started Apple Computers, which transformed the world.

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Or, by 23, Jennifer Lawrence has already won at an Oscar and has been nominated for two more.

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But before you start drowning yourself in self-pity, it’s okay. There are also several famous and successful people that started finding success at 30, such as Julia Child, Jon Hamm, or Harrison Ford.

So I’d like to dedicate this post to celebrating why it’s wonderful to be a 30 year-old professional.

1. You’ve gotten to know yourself better 

By 30, you have a better understanding of your likes and dislikes. You hate micro-managing bosses. You should leave office happy hours after 2 drinks. You love a job with some international travel. You minimize the dislikes and maximize the likes to have a more enjoyable time at work and in life.

2. You have some street creds

You are no longer a newborn in the workforce. You’ve built a monster financial model; you’ve presented in front of important people; you’ve launched a new project. Whatever it is you’ve been there and done that, and you can speak about it from experience. All these experiences have created and shaped your wisdom. Yes, you are older, and you are just a bit wiser.

3. You can sense and cut through bullsh*t

One of the best perks about being a 30 year-old professional is your ability sniff out BS from a mile away. At 23, when a manager asked me to submit work by the end of the day, my first response was “Yes. Will do” to all requests. And then I would proceed to slave away until deep into the night, even if it was for something quite trivial. Now, if someone asks me for work by the end of the day, my first response is “Is this truly important and urgent?”. If yes, then I’ll put in the work. If not, then you save yourself some unnecessary sleepless nights. Learning when and how to push back has been incredibly valuable.

4. You are not broke

You’re a 30 year-old professional and not a broke college grad. You’ve managed to save some money and upgrade your lifestyle. You no longer wear cheap suits, which have been passed down from your overweight uncle. You can afford clothes that fit and look nice. You don’t need to milk that expense account or binge on free office food. You can afford your own. In fact, you can afford to go to a nice restaurant and recommend some to your co-workers. You seem more polished and cultured at this age.

5. Your network is more powerful

Networks are the lifeblood of business. It’s all about who you know and what they know. When I just graduated from college, most of my friends were broke college grads, trying desperately not to get fired in their first jobs at the bottom of the totem pole. Now, at 30, my network includes people that have launched and scale successful businesses, corporate vice presidents, big shot investors, surgeons, and high-flying lawyers. It’s amazing how a few years can make a huge difference not only in your professional development but also that of your network’s.

6. You still have so much to look forward to! 

You’re 30 and not a dinosaur!  You know enough to not put up with silly things, but you are young enough to learn new things. You can develop new skills, insights, and experiences to accomplish more. You have time to fail and get back up…many times. You have so much more potential to unlock and contribute, and that’s why being a 30-year old professional is nothing short of awesome.

For those of you in your late 20’s, I’d highly encourage you to read actress Olivia Wilde’s advice on turning 30. It’s hilarious and fun. Enjoy!

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Long Work Hours: Perception and Consequences

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I’m no stranger to long work hours. When I was a management consultant, my life was work. I was either working or resting to work. A day ended when I would physically collapse on my laptop. I left consulting because I knew that lifestyle was not only unsustainable but would also shorten my lifespan.

In an industry (aka. non-consulting) job, I struggle to strike the right balance. Am I working too little? Am I working too much? What time should I leave work? Should I take my laptop home?

In consulting, you had very tight deadlines, so you knew you had to finish a piece of work within a few weeks / months. When the project is finished, you’re done and on to the next one. However, in an industry job, you may have some projects and urgent deadlines, but for the most part the work is business as usual. At any given time, there is always work to do.

Sadly, determining the right amount of working hours is more than just about doing your job. It is about branding yourself. I sit next to a guy that I like to call the Hour Police. He comments on the comings and goings of our co-workers. “How is this guy identified as a high potential talent? He leaves work every day at 6:30pm.” or “She arrives at 9:30am and leaves at 6pm every day. She doesn’t seem very motivated.”. 

For the Hour Police and perhaps others, your work hours are a reflection of how diligent and ambitious you are and maybe even how good you are at your job. A 2010 research shows that many managers have this attitude. The more you work, the better you are perceived, and the more bragging rights you have. Yes. You’re a hero for working all those hours.

However, let’s examine the other side of the coin. The Hour Police himself works every from 8am to 9pm. I’ve heard others ponder: “Does he really need to work 13-hour days? Is he just working longer and not necessarily smarter?” or “Does he live in the office? When does he ever spend time with his wife?”.

Given his 65 to 70 hour work-weeks, the Hour Police is perceived as inefficient, unproductive, and even uncaring. This Economist article seems to suggest that working less may mean we’re more productive. After all, as the graph below demonstrates, the less hours worked per person, the higher their GDP per hours work, meaning the higher their productivity. Correlation? Causation? Unsure, but it does show that Germans work less than the Greeks, and we know which one has the more productive economy.

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Also, from a longer-term perspective, longer hours may cause you to be perceived negatively in other ways. As research on white collar workers shows, working long hours can double your odds of depression, and of course being overworked leads to greater stress levels. When you’re stressed and / or depressed, you’re less likely to seem on top of your game. You may bark at your co-workers, dress sloppily, and even develop creepy-looking, stress-induced eye twitches (yup…been there).

Perceptions aside, studies also show that spending long hours at the office can actually kill you. You have a 40 to 80% greater chance of getting heart disease. If accelerated death is the cost, then you better make sure your work and its rewards would be worth it.

Therefore, it seems that the Goldilocks approach may be the most appropriate. Don’t work too much, don’t work too little. Work enough that’s just right.

Managing work during stressful times

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For the last couple of months, work has been killer. My former boss moved onto a new position and took a long leave before the new boss arrived. During these transitional times, I not only inherited work from my old boss, but also continued with my primary responsibilities while on-boarding my new boss.

All of a sudden, more emails, deadlines, and meetings all started charging my way. People from all sides needed decisions / recommendations / input while I was still trying to figure out what was the issue at hand. Meanwhile, a large, hot spotlight was on my back as I had to continue running our group before my new boss was fully onboard.

My first reaction was to bang my head against the desk…repeatedly. After discovering that head-banging did not resolve any issues, I then proceeded to take deep breaths…until my desk neighbor thought I was becoming asthmatic. Finally, I took some more sensible steps to manage (and attempt to reduce) my stress.

  • Prioritize: I turned to my tried and true method for dealing with “ALOT of stuff.” I listed all of my work tasks and prioritized each item based on urgency and importance. What do I need to do NOW? What can I push back on? What can I delegate? What can I ignore? I think this is critical from transforming a large blob of work to manageable tasks. 
  • Focus: My inbox has been overflowing with emails. While sometimes I find it irresistible to check every single email that comes through, the key to getting things done is to focus on what you are doing. I started scheduling specific times to check email. I’d tell myself, “OK. You will work on this for 45 mins and check your email for 15 mins.”
  • Negotiate: I find many times what people request in emails can be very different than what they actually want. Investing in a 5 to 10 minute phone conversation to figure out what they really need can be such a time saver. A request can go from “I need every competitor product sales for the last 5 years” to “I just need these 3 product sales for the last 5 years”.
  • Decide: Indecision can generate more workload. A decision may be held up because more information, analysis, and stakeholder buy-in are needed. However, the longer a decision is stalled, the greater the ripple effect on other people’s work. When time runs out, the indecision manifests itself into a series of painful fire drills. Therefore, I find that action generally trumps inaction when running a business. Sound and efficient decision-making can save yourself and others a tremendous amount of work later on.
  • Step Out: Sometimes, you find out that the sky is falling and then more bad news follow, pushing you to the brink of a heart attack. When this happened to me recently, I shoved my computer away and went for a walk (without my phone). It turned out to be a great move. The walk allowed me to not only calm down but also helped me put the situation into perspective.
  • Celebrate small wins: I relish the feeling I get when crossing out an item on my to-do list. I can actually feel a small rock removed from my shoulders. Crossing out items also signifies that you’ve made progress. You set out to do something and you did it. I think it’s important to celebrate these small wins to encourage yourself to keep moving and progressing.
  • Stay Healthy: The automatic reaction to stress tends to be sleep less, consume more caffeine and carbs, and cut out exercise. However, I find myself utterly useless when I’m sleep, nutrition, and exercise-deprived. Forcing yourself to sleep, exercise, and eat vegetables are actually better for your productivity.

Completely cutting stress out of your life is near impossible. Instead, I think the key is how to manage stress and perhaps even turn it into a positive trigger.

2013 Resolution Reflection: Juggling Work vs. Fitness

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Before making my 2014 New Year’s resolution this year, I took a hard look at my 2013 New Year’s resolutions I set exactly one year ago.  I had five resolutions which were a mix of performing well at work, calling mom, dating my husband, keeping in touch with old friends, and staying healthy (specifically, exercising 4 -5 times a week).

For most of the resolutions, I made a commendable effort with room for improvement. However, I really knocked the staying healthy one out of the park! For almost every single week in 2013, I exercised at least 30 mins 5 times a week. At the beginning of last year, I was a bit nervous about this resolution since I had just started my job, traveled for business about 25-30% of the time, and worked 60+ hours a week.

So for 2014, I’m definitely renewing this resolution and would like to reflect on what worked well to juggle work with working out.

1. Plan Ahead: My goal was simply to exercise 4 – 5 times a week, but it didn’t matter on which days (e.g., Monday or Friday). Given this slight flexibility, I would examine my calendar in the week ahead to identify which days would be difficult to work out and designate 2-3 of them as rest days. For example, if I were traveling to rural Indonesia on Thursday and Friday, then I would designate those days as rest days and workout Monday through Wednesday and the weekend.

2. Convenience Matters ALOT: I am lazy. I hate packing a small suitcase to travel to a faraway gym. The less work I have to do, the more I likely I’ll actually do it. Therefore, I try to make it as easy as possible for me to work out.

  • Clothes: My pajamas are workout clothes. That way, I can wake up in the morning and immediately start exercising. It saves time and effort.
  • Workout Activity: Running is my go-to activity. It’s so convenient because you can do it almost anywhere. Wake up, put your running shoes on, and head out the door. Another activity that I’m absolutely addicted to is these Insanity DVD’s. (If you haven’t heard of this program, then you need to drop everything and get them. These are a series of interval training workouts. Think exercises like jumping jacks, squats, and push ups for a minute each at 3-4 minute intervals for a total of 45 to 60 minutes.) They tone you up in no time. You can pop in one of these DVD’s and start jumping around like a mad man. The best part is that you can take these videos with you anywhere, including business trips.

3. Designate time: During week days, I work out only in the mornings. My workday and workload can be quite unpredictable, so evening workouts are hard to keep. I also keep morning workouts during business travel as evenings may be occupied by lengthy business dinners. It’s important to figure out what works for you and your commitments and then designate specific times for exercise.

4. Keep going: On some weeks, hell just breaks loose. Your inbox explodes, all deadlines under the sun converge at one point, and your mother and mother-in-law visit you at the same time. If you’re not able to meet your goal that week, then the inclination is to quit altogether. What really helped me was to have a “keep going” mentality. If I screwed up 1 week, it’s okay because next week is a brand new one!

5. Remember how good you feel: Waking up at 6am to run for 45 mins is excruciating, but I found it super helpful to remind myself of how good it feels after the workout. At work, I find my mind thinks more clearly and a whole lot quicker (even without coffee!). I also feel stronger, energized, and more confident. Therefore, the next time I wake up feeling like a zombie, I just need to think 45 mins of agony in return for a day feeling like superman.

3 conversations to re-energize yourself at work

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I had been getting bogged down at work. It happens almost without you noticing. You attend one too many meetings (with questionable value add). You juggle more office politics than usual because someone’s ego issues (aka. insecurity). You have to work with negative people (with little rainy clouds over their heads). You spend hours on tedious work (also with some questionable value add and that could be outsourced to monkeys). It happens.

However, in the past 1-2 weeks, I engaged in 3 conversations that remarkably renewed my sense of purpose at work.

1. Talk to your customers

This could be the easiest way to lift you out of a work rut (unless you have really terrible customers or your organization provides a really terrible product or service). Since I work in agriculture, speaking to my customers (who are mostly smallholder farmers) reminds me how I am able to help them increase their incomes. With higher incomes, they are able to keep their children in school, provide them with more opportunities, and break the cycle of poverty.  For me, that is incredibly motivating.

For people without customer-facing jobs, this is particularly critical because it puts into context the purpose of your role which may not always be obvious. For example, if your job is packaging in supply chain, then visiting a customer’s warehouse makes you realize that good packaging could really make a difference as your company’s boxes would stand out next to those of competitors, or your products are easier to move because they have handles on the side, or different products are easily identifiable so the customer doesn’t pull the wrong box, etc.

For people with customer-facing roles, it’s meaningful to engage your customers on a more personal level. Shelf the normal business talk (e.g., sales next quarter) to truly listen and learn about the way they use your products / service and what they think about it. Negative feedback can also provide good motivation for you to do something about it.

2. Talk to people that want to work at your organization

Through alumni networks, LinkedIn or other references, I get pinged by people that are interested in working at my company. I find it refreshing to talk to them because it reminds me what it was like when I was in that position — how excited I was to get an interview, how eager I was to get an offer letter, how I visualized myself walking around the office. Most importantly, it reminds me why I wanted this job in the first place.

Therefore, go ahead and chat with those eager beavers that want your job! They can help you take a step back, realize what you take for granted, and re-inject a sense of purpose.

3. Talk to a stranger about your job

2 weeks ago, I attended a networking event, where people inevitably trade name cards and ask about what you do. At first, I felt like a broken tape recorder saying, “My name is…. and I work at ….. as a …….”. However, I ran into a few people that were somehow genuinely curious about my work. I started explaining in more detail about the purpose of my company and my job as well as industry trends. Before long, I was really getting into it. I almost felt bad for taking up so much air time.

Talking to a stranger about your job forces you to strip out the monotonous work involving pointless reports or pre-pre-pre-meetings and forces you to focus on the important parts of your work.

Next time, when you find yourself in a deep dark rut, where you’re about to stab yourself in the eye. Go out and talk to people. They will help you re-focus and strip out the noise. If you’re still grumpy after these conversations, then perhaps it’s time for a new job. As Mother Teresa astutely once said:

Work without love is slavery.

Powerful life lessons from the movie Gravity

SPOILER ALERT: If you have yet to see Gravityplease drop whatever you are doing and go watch it now. Otherwise, please feel free to proceed reading.

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Unexpectedly, this movie blew me away. I went in so skeptical as I couldn’t separate Sandra Bullock’s voice from something disastrously funny like the movie title: Miss Congeniality 2: Armed and Fabulous. While the visual and 3D effects were arresting, my heart bleeds for this movie because of how it inspires and challenges me. Here, I would like to share with you the lessons I learned from Gravity applied to life and work.

1. Bad Things Happen: Bad things happen often and often for no reason. In the movie, the story is set into motion when a series of large debris hits Dr. Stone’s (Sandra Bullock) space shuttle and sends her tumbling through space. After this catastrophe, a series of unfortunate events continue to challenge our protagonist as she struggles to survive in the most inhospitable environment for humans.

Accept what you cannot control

While we’re not all astronauts spiraling through space, we’re all familiar with days or weeks or months when the little black rainy cloud keeps pouring on our heads. You get a bad performance review; the coffee machine breaks down; you get rejected from your dream grad school; you have to fire someone; the love of your life doesn’t love you. So much of this movie reminds me that we must recognize and accept that there are certain things we cannot control.

Put bad things in perspective

This movie also helps me put things in perspective. The next time I get a Monday morning deadline on a Friday evening, I should think: “Hey! At least, I am not tumbling uncontrollably into the deep dark space utterly alone. It could be worse…”

2. Mindset Shift is Powerful: My favorite scene was the pivot point, when Stone transforms from the victim to a fighter. One minute, she is in the darkest place in the movie where she has given up all hope and begins committing suicide. But she reaches deep within and garners the last bits of strength, giving her the motivation to survive and return to earth.

On the surface it seems that nothing changed. Stone is still Stone with the same body, environment, and equipment. However, everything had changed.

We’ve all been in situation when there’s nothing but you and despair. During the recent recession, many of my friends and colleagues were mercilessly laid off. While some were very depressed, others saw it as an opportunity to work on a start-up or travel the world.

I think this pivotal scene beautifully illustrates how we can pull ourselves out of dark situations with nothing but the power of our minds.

3. Rebuilding is painful: Whether it’s a death of a close one, career set back, or relationship break-up, rebuilding is hard. In the movie, we learn that prior to her space mission, Stone suffered the most painful experience a parent could have — the untimely death of her young daughter. Somehow, she never rebuilt her life on earth and spent years doing nothing but working and mourning. When she decided to fight for her survival in space, she had to go through hell and more to return to earth. (The fireball space shuttle seemed pretty hellish.)

Stone’s extremely challenging journey back reminds me that it’s so much easier to fall into a dark place than to climb out of it. It also reminds me how strong we are as humans. Someone once told me that his grandmother, who survived the holocaust, had lost her eye sight because she lived underground in complete darkness for 7+ years. Since I heard that story, I’ve wondered what her first experiences were like when she stepped outside: Did the sunlight hurt her eyes? Did the open air irritate her skin?

Setbacks are inevitable in life, so we just need to remind ourselves that we need to fight so much harder to come back up.

I hope this beautiful and powerful movie can remind you how to approach challenges in work and life as much as it has reminded me.