I used to think a lot about work-life balance and often felt really out of balance.
Call it what you will -- adaptive transitioning or the delayed onset of a more realistic practicality -- but I've come to dismiss the concept. Instead, I embrace work-life imbalance: The simple belief that the only predictable substance of life are shifts and fluctuating priorities.
The holidays are arguably a time of year when work-life balance occupies working women's minds the most. We exceed year-end sales quotas as we carve pumpkins. We host Thanksgiving as we arrange a new customer launch. We buy trees as we board planes, date cross-nationally, and delegate decorating the rest of the house.
So, given the season, I've asked 12 women to share their insights on living well (and realistically), particularly during the holidays. These female entrepreneurs and women in tech are all leading professionals in Silicon Valley, and they offer great sources of inspiration.
I believe you'll find their pragmatism both calming and electrifying, like each of them. Not everything that's shared applies specifically to the holidays, but you'll find each tip to be important as you start to self-assess in preparation for the new year.
1. Be a Woman First
I am a woman first and a sales professional second. My family has always been and will continue to be my priority -- as the person who makes my household tick, as a mother and grandmother, and as a friend to many.
How do I manage during the holidays? Like any other time of year. If I need to work evenings and some weekends in exchange for family time, that's my choice. Life goes by too quickly to miss the magic of children growing up, of spending time with older relatives, and making time to share times with good friends.
Most people wind down during the holidays, but that doesn't mean we stop. My business priority doesn't change: I do what's closest to cash every day. If some things don't get done, then they're just not that important. If business hasn't closed by now, it probably won't. Q4 is the time to build for the next year. Holidays are also the time to reach out to colleagues, prospects, and clients, and say thank you. Get together if possible. Make space for this special time of sharing and giving. Looking for a job? Don't rule out this time of year. I got a job offer on Dec. 28.
-- Joanne Black, Founder: No More Cold Calling®
2. Then, See Superwoman in the Mirror. (Go Ahead; It's All Right)
My days are not always (but typically) packed hour-to-hour from 9:00 a.m. - 5:00 p.m., with the slots ranging from new client appointments to visiting current tenants' locations, while work is being completed at their home. Call me a control freak.
A few days ago, when we had just returned home from an international trip, I was still fighting a bit of jetlag, and my schedule had a meltdown. Luckily, it was a functional one because apparently, I'm superwoman and didn't know I volunteered for that role. In summary:
- 9:00 a.m.: New client appointment, at the same time that the pup had to be dropped off at daycare -- because we're terrible dog parents and can't walk our own dog. My fiancé had his own work appointments at the time, so he was unavailable to help.
- 11:00 a.m.: Coffee with a past client (my third of the day since I've been awake since 5 a.m.). This ends just in time for me to hit the grocery and pick up dinner to have my folks over that evening.
- 2:00 p.m.: Don't forget to snag Pete's dry cleaning for tomorrow's listing appointment. (Sorry for the screeching tires; Mama is in a hurry). Momentary pause: "Have I eaten yet?"
- 2:30 p.m.: Continue on to Bed Bath and Beyond, because it's been so cold that of course we need fleece sheets (not my requirement).
- 3:00 p.m.: How it is now this time, I am not sure. Don't know where the day went, and still can't remember if I had lunch. Snag a latte instead and head for a few property showings. Emails in between.
- 4:30 p.m.: Meet a gal pal for a beer to trade war stories from work and talk about some help she needs at her new house from me. (Ugh, painting.)
- 6:00 p.m.: Make it home in time to cook dinner for loving fiancé and parents. Fiancé spoils me and picks up puppy from daycare, does the dishes, and makes certain my wine glass is never empty. Bless his heart. I am happy, but still trying to figure out if I ever had lunch.
- 9:30 p.m.: Manage to have a little alone time to process my own thoughts... and a hot shower.
-- Kristin Hayes, Broker & Owner: Venture Property
3. Plan -- And Have Systems of Accountability.
The women I mentor discover better work/life balance through inquiry and planning -- in six simple steps:
- Take a realistic inventory. First, make a list of everything you have going on that is top of mind: work, relatives, kids, spouse, exercise...
- Describe your perfect scenario for both your work and personal life. What's the ideal situation and where do you want your life to be?
- Identify what can be changed and what can't. Families need to be fed. Executive needs have to be met. What are the things that can't be changed and aren't worth focusing on?
- Consider modifications. With the items that can be changed, what can you do to make it better? Delegation and better time management are options. So is informing your boss what you are available for, and learning how to say no without limiting your career.
- Get to it. Once you identified what can be addressed, put it into action.
- Be held accountable. Check in with someone on a bi-weekly or monthly basis so they can see how you've progressed. This step makes all the difference.
-- Joan Sherlock, Vice President of Marketing Programs: SAP
4. ... Which Is Another Way of Saying: Keep A Notebook.
When I think about work-life balance and how it all gets managed, I immediately envision my notebook. (Yes, I still take handwritten notes).
Several years ago, when my life transitioned from "single, junior PR girl" to "married, manager at Google, homeowner and aspiring mom," my notebook took on a similar flavor. My to-do list has morphed into a word cloud that combines competitive analysis with ingredients for pesto, SoulCycle playlists and names of fertility doctors.
Call it unorganized, but I no longer fight the urge to compartmentalize. This is life, and my notebook and I have surrendered to it. Because, as a mentor shared with me many years ago, "life happens."
-- Jennifer Garcia, Head of Product Communication: Google for Work
5. Because All You Need Is To Do A Few Things Well.
My mantra for work-life balance is the same one that drives Polyvore's company philosophy: "Do a few things well." What really matters in my personal life is spending quality time with my family and friends. I prioritize that over everything else. For example, I make sure I'm home to eat dinner with my husband every night.
Outside of that, I try to minimize any time spent on non-critical tasks and decisions. I live a few blocks from our office, so I don't spend time commuting. I use a cleaning service, so I don't have to spend time tidying the house. I purposefully limit the number of color choices in my wardrobe, so everything matches and I don't have to spend much time getting dressed. These tiny optimizations free up time to spend with my friends and family.
For Thanksgiving, we hosted 22 people at our house. I'd never actually hosted Thanksgiving before, so there was a non-zero chance that it would have some element of disaster somewhere. Rather than trying to wow everyone with my (non-existent) cooking skills, we opted for simple, no-fuss recipes that took less time -- a spatchcocked turkey (45 minutes of cooking instead of 3 hours), a simple pork loin, and some boiled lobster. I also had no problem with buying mashed potatoes from Costco.
-- Jess Lee, Co-Founder & CEO: Polyvore
6. ... And Master Multitasking.
For me, it's about finding the time and the moments to multitask, and then doing it. Integrating work and life gracefully takes mindfulness and effort!
I've started calling my sister and brother in the morning as I drive to the office. I often open my computer to tweak a presentation or answer a few emails as I watch sports on TV with my boyfriend. I take a daily walk around the block at lunch and listen to podcasts, music, or call a friend or family member.
I've also developed real friendships from professional relationships, which I think is crucial for trying to achieve any sort of work-life integration. These "work-friends" will understand when you're having a bad day or might know why you're not quite "on" today -- and can give much-needed pep talks, support, or advice when others make assumptions.
-- Sarah Manning, Sr. Specialist of Social Media Marketing: ServiceNow
7. Of Course, It's Important to Also Make Time for Some Bow Wow.
As an entrepreneur, it used to be a daily challenge for me to differentiate between work and personal life.
A great example: One day, I had such back-to-back meetings that I had to bring my dog along so I could walk and feed him in between meetings. As I was picking up my husband from work, I realized a critical new business call was coming in. I pulled the car over, let my husband take the wheel, squished myself into the backseat with Kendra (see below) and my dog (yes he's still there). I put the call on speaker and Kendra took notes. Soon following, we did a quick wardrobe change in the car and like magic, were ready to enjoy a lovely night with friends.
As these kinds of days have become my life, while I learn to run a business, I've learned that the work and personal can converge. Sometimes, it can get overwhelming, but I remind myself that I can enjoy the chaotic ride with ones I love.
-- Ennie Lim, Co-Founder & CEO: Obébé Organic
8. ... And Embrace Pajama Chic.
One time, all of my worlds completely collided in my 600 sq/ft. apartment. My sister had just moved in. My boyfriend was over. And I had gotten maybe three hours of sleep, before my buzzer went off, and my business partner Ennie was outside with her dog. (Yes, the dog again).
In walked Ennie and the dog, a photographer, two baby models with their mothers, then my neighbor (and friend). A client from my marketing consultancy came by shortly after. Each stopped by for entirely different reasons -- everyone needed something from me at the same time -- and all before I even had a chance to change out of my sleepwear!
Sometimes managing "it all" feels like herding bees with a tiny stick. In those moments, you've just got to throw your hair up, give up control (yes, even during the holidays) and just let the bees do their thing -- because bees are amazing little workers, and they keep everything growing and beautiful.
-- Kendra McPhee, Co-Founder & CMO: Obébé Organic
9. Be Sure to Learn When Life Happens, And Prioritize Family.
I learned how to maintain a work/life balance when life threw me the biggest curveball I've ever received. I was right out of college and very focused on my career, so maintaining a work/life balance was not a big priority. Several months before I was about to start grad school, my Mom had an aneurysm.
Nobody really prepares for things like this to happen, and being only 22 at the time I had no idea how to navigate through this hurdle except to force balance between work and life. I dropped out of my graduate program and went straight into the working world. I worked long and hard for hours at the office and then went straight to the hospital to take care of my Mom.
Surviving the hardest thing in my life so far literally saved my life because it helped me to slow down and take control. It helped me prioritize what was most important to me: Finding a job that I love, surrounding myself with people that I love, and doing things that make me happy. Once I figured that out, attaining balance came pretty naturally.
-- Alex Hisaka, Content Marketing Manager: LinkedIn
10. ... Because, When You Do, You Might Close 6-Figure Deals.
For me, the key to professional success is having an incredible support system at home, planning, and communication. September is one of the busiest months for working moms. This last September, I had two teens going into two different high schools, a child going into preschool, an infant hitting the terrible two stage early, and a newly hired nanny. The first week of September was also my company's largest and most important conference of the year. Crazy, right?
Knowing how this could wreak havoc for my family and cause me not to focus at the conference, I created a plan in mid-August. I had assignments and tasks written out in detail for my husband, the teens, and our new nanny. All emergency information was put on the fridge and I let all teachers know I was MIA for that week.
Communication ahead of time and during the week was very important. I called home every morning and evening (even if it was midnight). During the day, we'd communicate via text. I also had emails from my kids teachers letting me know how my kids were transitioning into the new school year.
As a result, I closed a six figure deal for my company during the conference in 24 hours. And my family was totally okay, other than missing Mom.
-- Kim Soth, VP of Brand Partnerships, Healthcare & Non-Profits: Skyword
11. It's Realistic to Strive for Episodic Balance, to Achieve It Over the Long Haul.
I would prefer to quote one of my favorite business school professors, and one of the world's most eloquent feminists in my answer:
Joel Peterson (Chairman of jetBlue) provided the following perspective on "work-life balance" that rang true for me as a second year MBA candidate at Stanford's Graduate School of Business as it does 10 years later as a lecturer in management at the same institution.
Greatly paraphrased, he said that life is not about daily balance, but episodic balance. The key is not expecting to have a perfectly balanced day, seven days a week -- but to recognize that for some periods you will necessarily over-index on work, some on family, some on other responsibilities in your life that you choose, and perhaps some on others that you don't. I interpreted these words of wisdom to mean that the goal is to achieve balance over the long-haul, recognizing when it's time to shift in order to not lose the possibility for balance altogether.
Said differently, per Gloria Steinem, "I have yet to hear a man ask for advice on how to combine marriage and a career."
-- Alyssa Rapp, Founder & CEO: Bottlenotes
12. ... And Re-Envision Work-Life Balance As Work-Life Integration.
I've never been able to relate to the life versus work mentality. "Work" shouldn't be the antithesis of "life", such that they need to be balanced against each other.
When I worked at my last two law firms, I wasn't adding enough value to my life, so there was tension between work and the things that did add value to my life. Of course, that failed spectacularly: I ruined my health, damaged my relationships, and ended up quitting. Since I've made some strategic changes, I'm much happier.
These days, I get the sense that I'm doing okay with work/life integration -- because the weekdays and weekends feel seamless. Not seamless in the sense that I don't have ups and downs, but seamless in the sense that I perceive that I have purpose: Whether I'm working with the Ravel team to build a legal research database lawyers actually like; or at home painting or snuggling with my dog, Luna.
Recently, I've struggled to maintain energy and momentum after a difficult breakup. Going to work reminds me that there are other ways that my life can feel full. When I spend the day collaborating with my colleagues and making progress for our company, I feel valuable. The same goes for exercise or making plans with friends. All that stuff, together, adds up to "life."
-- Lily Robinton, Legal Developer & Counsel: Ravel Law
The lines between work and life have blurred for everyone, especially for women in business. Chances are, you navigate a schedule that's far more fluid than a traditional 9-5. Is it more possible for you to love what you do so much that you're simultaneously working to live... and living to work?
Sit with that question. Be ruthless. (It's what makes it possible for us to be happy.) Then, ask yourself these three questions:
1) How do I define work-life balance? The best solutions often start by settling on simple, personal definitions.
2) Where does my work end and my life start?
3) What's easy for me to be excited about doing differently?
What small changes can you make to be more present and happy this holiday season?