You are the master of your fate (and your outlook calendar)

Two weeks ago I was at a crossroads. I have always prided myself on a semblance of work life balance and feel like I am very effective during the workday. I cross things off my to do list, I don't sit under a mountain of paperwork, I return phone calls (for those of you that are not employed by a foundation, I swear these things are revolutionary). But the last couple weeks were different. My email in box was overflowing (it seemed like every item in there needed about 3 hours of strategic thinking to make a decision), my normally clean office was covered in piles of papers, and I was eating sour cream and cheese chips out of the vending machine for lunch as I was driving to another meeting. The bags under my eyes were making my staff nervous and I think I looked like I was on the edge of a hide under my desk breakdown. So much for balance.

Luckily I have a great coach, who asks common sense questions that I get too busy to ask myself. Her question was "why did I let my schedule get so crazy?". That gentle reminder that my schedule is not the boss of me was all I needed to get back on track. So here are the four things that have given me my sanity back and ensured that my hair does not all fall out:
1) I set aside an hour at the end of each day to clean out my emails and handle all the paper on my desk,
2) I set aside one and a half hour blocks every other day for uninterrupted strategic thinking,
3) I set aside time for lunch each day. I may decide to have a lunch meeting those days but I will always have time to eat, and
4) I am saying no to meetings that I would normally say yes to out of obligation or fear of missing something good.

What do you do to keep your schedule on track?

Leave Me Alone! and other Leadership Development Strategies

For the past few months I have been seeking the advice of established philanthropic leaders from across the country to hear about what they did in their first few months on the job, how they balance work and home, and how to balance local needs with national visibility for our foundation's work. The advice is always amazing and gives me a new thing that I can start doing right away to make my work more effective but there is one topic that comes up in every call and that is finding peace. I know that is an unusual topic, more expected in talks with spiritual leaders and philosophy classes, but it keeps coming up so I thought I should talk about it.

One CEO, who had a very high stress and high visibility position told me that she took time every morning (while exercising) and every evening (while meditating) to be alone with her thoughts. She said that the whole day was spent tending to other people's needs and listening to their thoughts and opinions that she needed to have time where she could regroup and understand what her own priorities were. She also avoided any extra social events (which was very different than before she started the job) because her job was filled with social events and it was no longer relaxing. Another CEO told me that he takes time to mentally congratulate himself after he completes a big project. It is a nice mental break before beginning the next project which is probably bigger and more stressful than the last. 
My favorite piece of advice about peace came from the director of a religious foundation. She said "each of us is called to seek peace in ourselves and in our community, we can't have one without the other." It's easy for me to get wrapped up in the problems in the neighborhoods that our foundation works in and try to think of ways to make those communities more peaceful but its hard to give something to someone else that you don't have yourself. So, I'm starting to take the time and give myself the space to create peace in my own life. I'm giving myself the space to regroup after a long day, I'm saying no to social and work activities that don't support my priorities, and I am staying away from things that stress me out.
What do you do to bring more peace to your life?

Hamburger Helper as a sign of work-life imbalance

I have been busy with work lately, not sleep under my desk busy, but busy enough where I don't have a lot of spare time to think about what to eat at home. It is not like when I have lots of spare time I am a wonderful chef who makes home cooked meals for the neighborhood but I can get a protein, vegetable, and a starch on the table pretty consistently. For the first three weeks of my new job my husband has been handling almost all of the home duties and when it comes to food that means we had eaten a wide variety of fast food for three weeks straight. I was starting to feel like the guy from Supersize Me, so I finally ventured to the grocery store. I have found that when I have a large number of decisions to make at work, facing the infinite number of possibilities at the grocery store makes my head feel like it is going to explode. Instead of picking fresh food that would require me to figure out what to do with it I gravitated towards the dangerous middle aisles, where there are pictures of completed meals on the box and numbered directions on how to make it happen. At 9pm on a Tuesday night at a grocery store, numbered directions start looking pretty attractive. The next night when I cooked my "1-2-3" meal I noticed that it had a very unappetizing grey color and it had a nice chemical aftertaste. That's when I remembered that work-life balance isn't an option, it's a necessity.

I have no false illusions that I will be running a board meeting, speaking at a conference, and then cooking a three course meal for dinner but I can do a better job of using the same strategic planning that I use to decide what I need to accomplish for the week at work, at home. I can set broad goals about the sort of food I would like my family to eat and how we spend our time together. I can also celebrate those successes at home the same way I celebrate those successes at work with staff. The hard thing about being a parent or a partner is that you don't get performance reviews to tell you that you are doing a good job. You need to figure out what let's you know you are doing a good job, is it well adjusted kids, a happy partner who says nice things about you to their friends, or a family without scurvy? Then enjoy those successes.

Hiring a Wife

I'll away at an ABFE convening, so I am posting some of my most requested blog postings. This post is at the top of my mind right now as I take on my new position at the Headwaters Foundation for Justice.

Hiring a Wife- originally posted April 2008

I got some eye opening advice last year when I asked a friend about work-life balance. She said that the only way that she had seen a woman with children succeed at the top levels of an organization, without a stay-at-home husband, was when women hired a wife. I had never heard of hiring a wife (outside of the occasional mail-order bride news story) so I was confused. What she meant was hiring someone who handles the worry and responsibility of managing your home.

Initially I got pretty ticked off. How unfair is it that men just go off to work and don't worry about keeping their home life running smoothly? Is this just another case of the rich getting richer because they can afford to hire the help that allows them to achieve more at work?

Then I realized that I was relieved to find out that there weren't these magical women out there effortlessly hosting a dinner party for 15, after successfully managing a difficult merger at work. Penelope Trunk is a blogger that I admire that seems to be a woman balancing it all, she recently wrote about having to hire a house manager for $50,000 a year in addition to her nanny, cleaning service, and assistant at work. I don't have an extra $50,000 laying around so I have been using the following strategies for the last year or so to spread the wifely duties around:

  • Negotiate up front with my husband about who does what. I spent many years of my marriage assuming that my husband understood that a laundry basket next to the stairs meant that he should bring the basket downstairs and start the laundry. I have tried to stop assuming he is a mind reader and actually ask when I want something done.
  • Teach my children to be responsible for themselves. There is a great book called Parenting with Love and Logic that says only one person can really worry about a problem. If I spend my time worrying if my daughter has started working on her school assignment, she doesn't worry about it at all because she knows I have it covered and will nag her at the appropriate time. Letting her be responsible for her own stuff is great practice for the rest of her life and relieves me of a ton of stress.
  • Buy Time. My husband and I own a dry cleaning and laundry delivery business, despite this fact, we were still arguing about who would do the weekly laundry. We finally decided that it made sense to drop off our own laundry and have it cleaned and folded so that we got that extra time in the day to have fun as a family. There are grocery delivery services, meal assembly stores, and a ton of people that offer housecleaning and yard care on Craigslist. Figure out what things make financial and mental health sense to outsource. I just signed up with a new service Ask Sunday. They handle making appointments, calling around for the best prices, and any other task that can be completed on the phone or online. In the first month of using the service I got through a ton of things on my to do list that had been there for months.
  • Be efficient with your professional work. I have a great but time consuming job at a foundation, write this blog twice a week, and just started a professional development guide business for Gen X and Y. If I spent my days gossiping about American Idol and sending email forwards I would never get anything done. I try to strategize at the beginning of each day to figure out what the most important thing is that I have to complete and then I do that thing right away. I am also working hard on my delegation skills.

So I don't have a hired wife yet but I think I have some pretty good work arounds until Mary Poppins comes into our lives.

If you have tried to outsource part of your life I would love to hear how it is going for you.