I’ve been working for probably somewhere north of 10 years now without a proper vacation. Ten years. Sure, my wife and I travel, but I can’t remember a time when I traveled, even for a day trip, without my notebook, Excel and some sort of messaging & task management app.
My wife and I travel on the same boat. We both have busy, stressful and mentally draining jobs that carry a tremendous amount of responsibility. We’ve got two great boys full of wonder and imagination and live in the storybook house in suburban Chicago. We are healthy, the boys are happy, and both of us have an insatiable drive towards building something (whatever that may be) remarkable for ourselves and for our family. Basically, we work our asses off. Some work more. Some work less. I just know that we work a lot.
I’ve now taken a proper vacation during the slowest time for our business at Swap.com, with the thought being that my time out of the office will not cause some sort of disastrous, wheels-fall-off-the-bus scenario.
I’ve allocated December 21 through January 5th for vacation, a total of 16 calendar days, which actually breaks down to only 10 working days when including the holidays and weekends. Sounds wonderful, and while I’m aware that many people would envy vacation and flexibility like this, I now ask myself, Is this enough?
I’m right now on day two of my vacation and, up until I started working on this article, have put in about 13 hours of work over the past 32 hours. I slept around 6 hours last night and have worked a total of 13. My vacation has started off with nearly 41% of my time working, 19% of my time sleeping, and 40% of my time split between hanging out with my family and wrestling my boys. This has to stop.
Something happened to me yesterday that’s given me a new perspective on life, and while unfortunate it has taken me 30 years to realize this, I now have a very clear understanding of what it means to have a work-life balance.
When we moved from Seattle to Chicagoland, I had offloaded a company, my wife had taken a demanding promotion in a new city, we had a new son in our family, and our five year old had to leave his friends and grandparents. Life changed quite a lot for myself and my family. For the first 5-6 months after we moved, I wasn’t interested in finding something to do. I was interested in raising our boys and spending as much time as possible with them, acclimating them to their new environment and community. Then I’d seek something out.
Our oldest son, Jude, is now in the first grade. He started kindergarten here, and before I took my current position at Swap.com, I walked Jude to school every morning with my wife and our youngest, and I picked him up everyday after school. In between his start and end times, I was at home with our baby, Jonah, who slept most of the day. While sleeping, the only work I did was some consulting I’d drum up but that would bore me quickly, and some maintenance and projects around our new house. No other dad in the neighborhood was home, they were out working.
This was the best time of my life, and I forgot how important this period was for our family and for myself.
Jude and I made a deal recently. After school, he takes a bus to his after-school care until either my wife or I pick him up around 5 – 5:30. Our deal was that whenever I work from home, or have a day off, I’d pick him up from school and he can spend the rest of his day with me. He proposed this deal and I of course accepted.
So yesterday, the first day of my vacation, I picked Jude up from school. The truth is that I almost missed the time because I was working and I almost called the school to ask them to have Jude ride the bus like normal. Why? I was working on the following:
- Reviewing Q1 budget stuff for a board meeting
- Reviewing my team’s OKRs for Q1
- Reviewing an upcoming contract to sign
- Reviewing the next 10 days of email campaigns
- Answering emails & organizing multiple projects
I had somehow justified with myself that the work I was doing was more important than a deal I had made with my son. This isn’t the fault of my company, our board, our investors, my colleagues, or Jude. It’s purely poor decision making on my end, and I didn’t realize it until I picked him up and saw his reaction.
As I waited outside the doors for him, he came busting out of school the most excited I had seen him in a long time. He came running, “Daddy, Daddy!!” and jumped into my arms nearly knocking me over. He then introduced me to about 6-8 other kids as his dad, and broke into frantic conversation / description of things we’ve done and where I work (it’s a giant toy store and I make Nerf guns according to him) and the things I build in my garage. He also had to sneak things in about his brother and even his cat and dog.
We spent the entire afternoon together, shopping for mom and his cat for Christmas, talking about Pokémon and Minecraft, and then put together a kitchen set for his little brother. Then we played some Roblox together on his tablet and made some dinner.
To think, I nearly passed up this time so that I could review. I still had to work, however. I stepped away from 4:00 – 4:45 for a call that, at the end of the day, was already resolved via email and could rather have been taken by a colleague of mine instead.
This was an amazing and proud day for Jude, and it was a moment of reflection for me. Work Can Wait. I love work, I really do. I love my company, the challenges we’re solving, and the colleagues I work with. It’s easy to allow work to suffocate and control our lives, and it takes an extremely strong will to alter that course.
Seeing how Jude reacted and realizing what I put ahead of him prompted immediate action on my part. I Googled work-life balance and success and came across a great Ted talk from 2010 by Nigel Marsh on How to Make Work-Life Balance Work 1. Again, I am almost 6 years behind and wish I’d seen this in 2010, but it’s worth a watch now and still just as relevant.
The first step in achieving a greater and more acceptable balance is to fit work into life, not the other way around. We, as a society, need to radically alter how we define success. It’s currently a game of “he or she with the most money or the biggest company wins”. And that’s just stupid. Living a balanced life is about doing the things we love with the people we love.
I’ve initiated a new law in our house, it’s the Work Can Wait law. There is nothing so important in our work, in anyone’s work, that trumps family and personal time. From now on, from the hours of 5:00 pm – 8:30 am the next morning, there is no work in our home. There are no emails, there are no metrics to review, there are no dashboards to glaze over, no contracts to sign and no phone calls to take.
I’ve also setup my work life so that this new direction can actually work. I spent about an hour today better organizing my inbox2 for more focused priority during the work hours.
I also activated a great app called Rescue Time3 that I’ve used in the past.
I’ve also removed email and company chat from my cellphone and tablet, and set my do not disturb feature on my phone so the thing can’t even ring once I leave the office.
This is a trial, and we’ll see how it goes. This won’t and can’t work for everyone, but it must work for me and my family. If what we’re working towards is taken over by whom we’re working for, then we need to reset and adjust our priorities in life. Work can wait, and it can still be meaningful. It just needs to be balanced.
“It is inevitable that life will be not just very short but very miserable for those who acquire by great toil what they must keep by greater toil. They achieve what they want laboriously; they possess what they have achieved anxiously; and meanwhile they take no account of time that will never more return…”
- TEDxSydney talk from Nigel Marsh: How to make work-life balance work is a good primer for re-evaluating your own work-life balance. ↩
- Instead of me taking the time to lay out how I did this, Andreas Klinger has a simple article for how to better manage email. My setup is similar so just start here. ↩
- I recommend Rescue Time’s premium plan if your the nerdy data type like me. Or, you can go the free route and just monitor your usage. ↩