Why is work life balance a women’s issue?

work life balance

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.

Managing work during stressful times

working cat

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

stronger than excuses

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.