They say Work-Life Balance is hard. I used to really suck at it, but now I think I have it figured out. For me, anyway. This is my personal story of work-life balance. I hope you can learn from my struggle.
Early in my career, I was very bad at work life balance. I would work endless hours until I made myself physically ill. Then I would have to take time off – a few days in bed – until I was well enough to start the cycle all over again.
One time I was the producer, director and interviewer for a video production that involved multiple locations from Pennsylvania through New England. I had a high fever and slept in the back of the van from location to location. The crew woke me up at each location to do my bit, then I’d go back to shivering, shaking, and sleeping in the van. Ultimately, I went home, got antibiotics, and spent a few days in bed. Again.
Another time I was asked to be part of a special task force working on some rather intense crisis communications. The project, unfortunately, spanned right through the week that I had planned to spend with my family at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. Because my family really needed my income, and because I was at a point of my career where I needed to grow and shine, I chose to work while my family went on to the Olympics without me.
Weighing Personal Sacrifices for Career Rewards
In these cases, the personal sacrifices were huge, but the career benefits were significant. In the first instance, while some colleagues turned down overtime and special projects, I accepted them, got valuable experience, and made a name for myself. In the second instance, I learned how to do effective crisis communications, which was the key to later landing my dream job which paid quite well and provided a very good lifestyle that carried my family through our key growing years. The tradeoffs were hard, and I still consider them to have been rewarding. But, could I have been successful without making myself physically ill?
As time and family marched on, life forced me to do a better job with work life balance. My life always skewed toward a lot of work, because I have always liked what I do. My wife was supportive. She kept our home life going, and I provided most of the financial support. We took some awesome family vacations and lived in a very nice home. I made it a point to have quality experiences with my children, such as one-on-one vacations, early morning breakfasts before work and active attendance at their sporting events.
Working through Personal Tragedy
Sometimes life would absolutely have to win out over work, and not always with the best of career outcomes.
In 1993, work life balance went out the window for a while when my father was killed in a traffic crash caused by another driver. My employer was great. They were 100 percent behind me, and let me take as much time off as I needed. I did, and it was greatly appreciated. I had the space to focus completely on my family before returning to work. I then jumped back into work quickly and continued to be a top performer.
Another time that work-life balance went out the window was when my sister was dying of an aggressive form of cancer. My boss assured me that I should take all the time I needed to be with my family, because that was what was important.
From March through September, I took most of my vacation and personal time. I worked from home when I could. I worked “legal” short days in the office, not my normal 10 to 12 hour days. After my sister passed away, I returned to my hard-driving, long days, but there was a mountain to climb because I had done the minimum for much of the year.
Reality hit me when I got my performance review. My boss put in black and white that my performance was below expectations because of my sister’s terminal illness and death. Even though I felt my performance was as good or better than that of some of my colleagues, there was no disputing that my high performance of the previous year was not matched by the current year. I had not even met expectations. While it hurt to be judged that way, I knew in my heart of hearts that the time I spent with my sister and my entire family was the most important. I took my lumps and moved on.
Finding My Balance as an Entrepreneur
In 2007, I went out on my own. While my income initially dropped, my quality of life greatly improved and I finally had found the entrepreneurial work like balance that I so cherish today. I work out of my home, travel as needed for business, and make my own hours. While I may have a Sunday afternoon call with a client, or may be working on something until 2 in the morning, I also can eat lunch in the middle of the day with my wife, and take time off to read a book or sneak in a nap at 3 pm. It works for me.
Last year, my wife and I made a decision to revamp our lives. We sold our large home in Bucks County PA and moved to a smaller home in a somewhat rural area Southeast of Atlanta. Much lower cost of living, nice wooded lot, driving distance to my wife’s parents, and plenty of business opportunities in Atlanta – less than an hour away. We knew this would be a significant disruption to our business, but we figured we could survive three months of less business / more family stuff with the move – two months getting ready to move and one month to get settled into the new house. As it turned out, it was more like six months of disruption – three months of less business to get ready to move and then three months of getting settled and starting to get business traction.
Just about the time that I was getting business traction in Atlanta, my wife was diagnosed with cancer. This was really hard. Both of us had enjoyed good health, and had never had a stopper like this. It was serious – not a quick “treat and be done” cancer. (Not as if any cancer is easy!) Her cancer was not one of the “popular ones,” so we did a lot of research, and made numerous visits for consultations, scans, lab work etc. Then she had a month of radiation treatments, followed by a month of recovery, followed by surgery, followed by more recovery. We now have a great prognosis – cancer free, with quarterly scans and follow ups.
Through all of this, never once did I regret the time that I was spending with my wife for her cancer treatment. We had multiple midday “dates” to drive to Emory University Hospital. Some of these dates lasted 4 or 5 hours. In the middle of the day. And insurance paid for them! Sure, hospital waiting room décor is not very romantic. But how lucky were we to get this time together on weekdays? “Work days!” It would not have been possible if I were not in my own business with the flexibility in my work-life balance.
Benefits and Consequences
As we started down the path of my wife’s healing from cancer, I realized that there would be benefits and consequences to the lost work time. Our time on this earth with our loved ones is finite and way too short. I realized that no matter what happened with my wife’s cancer, I would never regret the time that I would spend with her. If the worst had happened, I didn’t want to look back and realize that I had focused too much on business at the expense of our time together.
Yes, my business suffered. I stopped prospecting for new clients, I focused on those I had, and I did my best to meet my commitments. My income dropped substantially – to a five-year low. And that hurt. But not as much as if I had lost precious time with my wife. I am happy with the work-life tradeoff. Our balance.
With my wife’s clean bill of health only a few weeks old now, I am moving forward with business. Kicking butt. Taking names. Gaining new clients. It’s all good. I am confident that I’ve finally got a handle on this work-life balance thing. Perhaps we do well to think of it as “Life-Work Balance.”
Life is too short to drink bad wine. Whatever you do, make sure life wins.