work life balance

A desperate question that often surfaces in coaching conversations with new parents within a few months of their return to work is “How can I manage the demands of work on my time with all that’s involved in my family life…and stay sane?!”

A seemingly simplistic response to this question is this – “you can’t increase the number of hours in your day, but you CAN  manage, expand and better focus your energy to manage anxiety, be more productive and feel more content about work and life”.

For me, the concept of ‘Time Management’ conjures up a picture of an exhaustive to-do list. I find that there is nothing more frustrating than running out of time before I have fully ticked the list off. Instead of the satisfaction of having completed everything I had planned to do, I feel depleted, generally judging my performance as “not good enough”.

While I am not proposing you drop your to-do lists, I am suggesting that your focus needs to shift from “how much I can do in less time” to “where best to focus my energy” in this time as a new parent.

Energy management suggests a set of habits you cultivate to conserve and replenish your energy when you are likely to be battling fatigue and adapting to a new way of being. Let me explain my formula:

Get the Basics Right

The first kind of energy we should focus on is physical. To take on the responsibility of a full-time work role AND as a parent, you need to be serious about being well-nourished.

Here are three physical habits to cultivate:

1. A Healthy Diet

A healthy diet should be your number one physical consideration to feel energised and to support your ability to manage your emotions. Isn’t it funny that your baby’s feeding is such a high priority right now, but you often neglect your own? Little thought, time or effort can practically go into preparing a wholesome, well-balanced meal when you are feeling spent. Poor meal choices or irregular eating contributes to fatigue and can put a massive strain on your body and your emotional state. No wonder tears appear at the slightest provocation.

Ideally, outside of the health implications, meal preparation should not lead you to give up the time and space in your evenings that you would like for yourself and for you and your partner to connect.

Some practical tips:

  • Order ready prepared healthy, well-balanced meals or meal kits that are quick to prepare. Many families got good at this by necessity during the pandemic. Keep up this habit a couple of times a week if it is affordable.
  • Keep an online shopping list up to date to always have fresh ingredients and the basics available for quick meal preparation.
  • If family or friends offer help, let them know that you would welcome a ready-made freezer meal. The more, the merrier.
  • Prepare some home-cooked meals in advance that you can freeze.
  • Plan meals for the week on the weekend, so it doesn’t take up headspace during the week.

2. Rest

Notice that I wrote ‘rest’ and not ‘sleep’. By the time parents return to work, sleep deprivation or interrupted sleep has become the order of the day. However, rest is something you can practice deliberately to alleviate the fatigue you experience as a natural consequence of your transition as a working parent.

“When will I ever be able to sit and do nothing?” If this is your hearts cry, here are a few ideas to consider:

  • Block rest time unashamedly in your diary during work hours. Imagine spending just 5 to 10 minutes uninterrupted, away from people and screens, once or twice a day. Imagine the potential for gaining clarity and perspective, or getting some creative thoughts flowing,
  • Find and eliminate (ruthlessly) any home-based activities that you don’t need to take on yourself. Ask yourself what you can extract or delegate to make space for you to ‘be’ rather than do?

3. Exercise

You already know the importance of exercise for managing stress and wellbeing. The question is, “how or when do I fit it in?”

If you enjoyed physical exercise before becoming a parent, it probably isn’t possible to get into the regular rigorous regime you followed previously. It is possible to make a start, albeit more slowly than you may have liked.

The pandemic has helped many people start exercising at home by using online classes or walking the neighbourhood. In the absence of the gym, fresh air and light exercise can do wonders for your soul, let alone your body! And when the sun is shining, you can grab some of the necessary Vitamin D.

  • Decide what a realistic starting point might be for you: 15 minutes a day of stretch or movement? A short run once or twice a week? A couple of yoga classes a week?
  • Contract with your partner or support network to take charge at home to free you up for this.

Set Realistic Standards

If there is any helpful general strategy to apply right now, it would be to use a dose of realism to everything you think about and do.

Whether you regard yourself as a perfectionist or not, don’t let “perfect” get in the way of “good”.

We know that return-to-work parents feel pressure, often self-induced, to prove themselves. I hear women (in particular), before they step back into work, saying, “I want them to see that nothing has changed; I am as committed to my career as I was”. There is significant mental and emotional energy involved when, on return to work, they inevitably compare themselves and their performance with their BC selves (“Before Children”) and find themselves lacking. It is a breeding ground for guilt, self-doubt and insecurity. Judging oneself in this way is a pointless, de-energising exercise, the reality being that you are probably doing a whole lot better than you think you are.

Now that you have expanded priorities, a more realistic mindset is to recognise that you are crafting a new identity as a career parent. How you manage your day, and your workload will look and feel different and that’s OK. You are developing a new ‘operating system’, which is a work-in-progress. It will take some figuring out before it will start to feel like you are in a comfortable rhythm.

Some helpful best practice tips to get to “good” (not perfect!) are:

  • Apply the “Do, Delegate, Dump” philosophy to your workload: ruthlessly extract anything that is not worthy of your time, attention, talents and influence. Decide what you must do yourself, what you can delegate and what you can dump for the time being.
  • Know what you are good at and focus here. Playing to your strengths will energise you.
    Accept the things you cannot change. Have you ever heard of the Serenity Prayer? Print this out and put it where you can see it:
  • Value your own time. When you fixate on getting something perfect, there is a risk of losing perspective and energy in the process. Learn to catch yourself before it gets to this. When you place a value on your own time, you will be more strategic in sensing when to stop and when the product is good-to-go.

“Grant me the SERENITY to accept the things I cannot change, the COURAGE to change the things I can, and the WISDOM to know the difference”. This is the best lesson I can offer in ‘letting go.’

What About Being A So-called ‘Perfect Parent’?

No child wants a perfect parent. Why? Because it would put far too much pressure on the child! A realistic standard is to do and be the BEST you can. The BEST parents let their children learn from their imperfections. If only we could see ourselves through the eyes of our children: how might this change our view of what the BEST means and give us peace that we are doing more than OK?

Fill Your Tank

Have you ever read Marie Kondo’s book about “de-cluttering”? In a sense, this is what we have been talking about here. I love her concept of “living in a space that sparks joy”. With this in mind, let’s look for a few minutes at how we can replenish energy in this season of life by giving attention to those things that spark joy.

Energy can burn up very quickly when you are in a negative emotional state. The more upbeat and hopeful you are, the more energy you will preserve. Some activities can even replenish energy at a time when we need as much as we can get. We have seen during the epidemic how people have embraced certain intentional practices to help them manage the impact of lockdown.

Here are a few ideas to add to those joy-sparking habits you may already have embraced:

Celebrate Victories and Successes

Beating yourself up about mess-ups and setbacks will drain your energy which is why focusing on your victories, big and small is worthwhile.

Keep a journal of the small wins, successes and contributions you add each day or week, however minor or straightforward you may consider them. It isn’t only good for self-validation as you track your progress, but these notes will be a helpful reference when you do a review or check in with your line manager later in the year.

Find reasons to celebrate at home too. My husband and I have made it a habit in our long marriage to always have a bottle of wine or something bubbly in the fridge, ever prepared to celebrate something – any excuse!

Reward Yourself

There is power in optimistic anticipation. I have heard “anticipation” described as “the stepping-stone to hope”. As human beings, we need to be excited about things in the future. I have always found that having something to look forward to has energised me to get through the tough times. Think about different scales of reward you could plan into your day, week, month or year that would help you have a sense of accomplishment and refresh you.

Depending on what sparks joy for you, a reward could include time alone to read or take a bath (without an audience!), watching a movie, social time with a friend, a weekend away as a family. I often encourage the parents I coach to plan events, mini-breaks and holidays into the year well in advance, which we will hopefully be able to do once again post-Covid!

Exercise Your Sense of Humour

Some attribute laughter as the best medicine. To endorse this, here’s a quote that helps remind me of the value of a good giggle and not to take any phase of life so seriously that you lose your sense of humour.

“Laughter strengthens your immune system, boosts mood, diminishes pain, and protects you from the damaging effects of stress. Nothing works faster or more dependably to bring your mind and body back into balance than a good laugh.” 

If you could wake up tomorrow with a significantly more positive, focused energy to invest in work and with your family, how would that change your life for the better? I think I know what your answer is likely to be. There is a saying that “people who feel good about themselves do good work”. I believe the reverse is also true. I am convinced that giving attention to the right things in this season of transition is the secret to “doing good work” both as an employee and as a parent and consequently “feeling good about yourself”.  So, follow these guidelines to manage your energy, not your time.