A Work-Life Balance Approach That’s Easy As Pie

It seems only fitting, just after Thanksgiving and with more holidays around the corner, to devote this column to the topic of pies. Fortunately, I’m going to be talking about pies that add value to your career decisions, not the ones that add inches to your waistline.

One of the biggest frustrations I hear from clients is that it’s difficult to achieve the right work-life balance. Many stay-at-home moms appreciate the opportunity to be full-time parents but they miss the stimulation, camaraderie, and, of course, paycheck from their former careers. Plus, they worry that their career break will prevent them from ever being employable again. At the same time, many working parents enjoy the satisfaction, challenge, and salaries they derive from their careers, but they are pressured to work hard and end up feeling guilty about not spending more time with their children. The right fit often feels elusive, and the imbalance means that the choices parents make (to work outside the home or not, how many hours to work a week, how many events after work hours they should attend, etc.) are complicated by doubts and negative feelings.

Which brings us to the pies. A helpful way to gain perspective on your work-life balance is to visualize your life as a pie. Fundamentally, we divide our precious time amongst things that are either necessary (eating, sleeping, household chores) or important to us. The important items vary for each person, but the largest pieces of the pie tend to be family, work, and recreational activities, such as socializing, exercise, hobbies, community interests, and the like. The size of each pie slice differs for everyone, depending on priorities, interests, and life stage.

If you struggle with your work-life balance, and you want to explore whether it’s possible to recalibrate your life, you first need to accurately assess how you spend your time. This is something you may have done in other areas of your life—keeping track of expenses to find ways to save money, for example, or monitoring your calories to compensate for that over-the-top Thanksgiving meal. When it comes to calculating your time, here’s a helpful exercise:

  • Think about the way you actually spend your time during an average one-week period. Start by making a list of all of the major activities in your life: family, commuting, work, sleep, meals, exercise, television, household chores, etc. Then try to calculate as accurately as possible how much time you devote to these activities in a given 7-day (168-hour) time frame. For example, if you sleep 6 hours a night, that adds up to 42 hours per week. Now draw a large pie (a circle) and divide the pie into slices that represent these activities. So, if you sleep 6 hours a night, the piece of pie for sleep should be one quarter of your overall pie. You can draw your pie on a piece of paper, or use an online tool, like this, that will do the calculations for you, or a Facebook app, (but be sure to set your privacy settings).
  • Spend some time thinking about the results. Are they what you predicted? Do they reflect your priorities? Did anything surprise you? Are you satisfied with the way you spend your time? Are there things you would like to change?
  • Now draw a second pie and divide it to reflect how you want to spend your time. This is an opportunity for you to add or expand categories that are important to you, and delete or shrink ones that are not.

At the end of this exercise, if you conclude that work or family occupies too much or too little of your time, you can either embrace the imbalance or recalibrate your time.

Many of the women I work with shift their perspective rather than their schedules after they analyze the way they spend their time. They evolve from feeling out of whack and dissatisfied to accepting that their state of disequilibrium is the result of an important value or priority that they cannot or are not willing to change. For example, someone struggling with career demands can reframe their perspective from “my career is keeping me from seeing my children” to “I want to spend as much time as possible with my children, but right now it’s important for me to advance my career and make money so that I can save for their education.” The shift may seem subtle, but it can change the way you experience both parenting and your career.

Other clients decide to reallocate their time and shape their career plans differently after they study their schedules. A recent client (let’s call her Eve) has young children and wanted to return to work as an architect because she wants more adult interaction and stimulation. She also was concerned that she will not be employable if she stays out of the work force for too long. However, all of the job opportunities that interested her required more time than she felt comfortable committing to, and she was stuck in a vicious cycle of only being attracted to jobs that she would not realistically pursue.

Eve analyzed her pie and decided how much time she could comfortably devote to her career. She then brainstormed about opportunities that would match that amount of time. The result is a compromise. Eve found an opportunity to use her skills in a less demanding setting: teaching. She is making less money than she used to, but she is getting a chance to interact with other adults, use some of her skills, and build her resume. She also retained more time with her children than if she had gone back to work as an architect. By thinking consciously about the allocation of her time and her values, not only did Eve develop a plan to reconcile the imbalance in her life, she also shifted her attitude about her work-life balance.

If you were going to tweak your pie slices, what would you change? How would you go about it? Send me your questions and comments at [email protected].

Barri Waltcher is a New York City-based career advisor who helps women navigate the transition from parenting back to a satisfying career. She is the co-founder of Mind Your Own Business Moms (MYOBmoms.com) and a frequent speaker on career topics. Barri has two teenaged children and, like her clients, she has made her own transitions, from lawyer to full-time parent (with some excessive volunteering on the side), to a career she is passionate about. Please send your career questions and topic suggestions to [email protected].

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