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4 ways to cope when your family and work commitments collide


April 27, 2018   by David Gambrill


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Your most important meeting of the year with the brokerage’s biggest client falls on an afternoon when your daughter’s soccer team plays in the city championship game. What do you do?

A standard response is to feel stress and guilt, says time management coach Elizabeth Grace Saunders, writing in a blog for Harvard Business Review.

You feel stress because you cannot be in two places at once, and guilt because no matter which course you decide, someone is going to be disappointed. How do you cope?

“Some people revert too quickly to an all-or-nothing approach, meaning they’re completely engaged in one commitment and disengaged in another,” Saunders writes in her blog, What to Do When Personal and Professional Commitments Compete for Your Time. “But from my vantage point, there are at least four other potential options to consider.”

1. Delegate

At work, this would mean arranging for another colleague to represent your department at a meeting or event. At home, it might mean arranging a carpool with your neighbour to pick up a child after school, for example.

 2. Time split

“Sometimes you can get most of the value even if you show up for just part of the time,” says Saunders. “For example, you could attend the meet-and-greet portion of a professional event but leave before dinner so you can still see most of your son’s game.”

 3, Virtual presence

Sometimes being virtually present is better than being absent. Maybe you attend your daughter’s all-day sports event but call in to meetings when your child isn’t competing. Or call or text your child for updates on the tournament during the breaks in your sales meeting.

 4. Invest in advance

If you know you are facing an all-or-nothing work or family commitment, you can still find a way to have a presence with some forethought. “When you must miss an important work meeting, look over the agenda in advance and email out your thoughts that you want to make as a contribution to the discussion,” Saunders advises. “And if you can’t go to your son’s or daughter’s actual show, go see the dress rehearsal. Making an effort to be present in advance makes a statement that you care.”

More generally, Saunders advises to reflect on guidelines for choosing which comes first in certain instances, your work or your family. Such a self-assessment would consider your:

  • values (what type of employee, spouse, or parent do you want to be?)
  • family culture (what kind of family culture do you want to create? Do you value eating meals together, going to kids’ activities, or spending quality time with my spouse? What decisions would be aligned with that culture?)
  • individual preferences (what matters most to your children, your spouse? Which events are a big deal to your family members and which are not?)
  • job constraints (yes, you have to travel more and put in overtime hours, but what’s truly required? Where is there flexibility?)

This self-assessment is intended to alleviate some of the guilt associated with your decisions, because they will be aligned with your values and not based on how other people will perceive your choices, Saunders says.