To Have a Happier Home Life, Treat It a Little More Like Work

Executive Summary

Many people hope that their home lives will be a relaxing refuge from work. But for people with busy spouses and children, that rarely happens. In fact, their professional lives often seem to run more smoothly than their personal ones. The solution is to bring a little of that business mojo home with you. Managing household and parenting tasks is not rocket science. But it’s still work. And we need to employ many of the same tactics we use at the office: planning and scheduling, thoughtful decision-making, and putting people first.

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Not long ago, I spent almost three weeks on the road, doing meetings and talks in multiple countries and a couple of U.S. cities, too. I enjoyed the travel and the work, but it was with relief that I returned home. I was ready to relax.

But I didn’t find the refuge I’d hoped for. I was confronted by not only all the business matters I’d neglected while away but also a myriad of tasks and errands I needed to do for my family, friends, and church congregation. Eager as I was to reengage with all of them, home didn’t feel restful. It felt busy, demanding and a little chaotic.

I articulated my frustration in a weekly newsletter and was surprised by the response. Many people seem to find, as I do, that their life at work runs more smoothly than their life at home does.

I should take a step back here and note that I’ve been a primary breadwinner since my husband and I moved to New York City shortly after I finished my BA in music. He completed a PhD and then did post-doctoral work at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, and I began an unexpected journey on Wall Street. Eventually we moved to Boston, where I continued my career in finance, and he started his academic career at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. After a few years, he off-ramped and became a stay-at-home parent. I recognize that this is a luxury that not every family wants or can afford.

But in those years I worked long hours and traveled even more for business, and I’ll admit that I became accustomed to an arrangement in which all routine household and childcare tasks were well-managed by my spouse. It wasn’t exactly a role reversal of the classic 1950s dad coming home from the office and putting his feet up to watch TV, but it was close. In many ways I didn’t have to get involved; most of my family time was fun time.

A few years ago, however, my husband returned to full-time employment in academia. These days, he handles his challenging professional and community responsibilities and keeps the home fires burning when I’m on the road. He’s working on two fronts — at his university and in our household. And, though it’s taken me a while to realize it, that means that I now need to up my domestic game and do the same.

For a house and family to operate smoothly, we need to employ many of the same tactics we use at the office: planning and scheduling, thoughtful decision-making, and putting people first.

When I’m on the job, I keep to a detailed schedule. Everything is accounted for, and time is incorporated to allow for unexpected surprises. I’m now trying to run my home life in the same way, so I can get everything done efficiently and effectively and have free time leftover to create meaningful experiences with my family and rejuvenate myself. I haven’t yet mastered it (I have an assistant who helps me stay organized at work!) but that doesn’t mean I can’t try.

You and Your Team Series

Working Parents

When I need to make a big decision at work, I consult with my team. The final call might be mine, but I want to hear everyone’s considered opinions first. At home, it’s historically been so much easier to just decide, sometimes consulting with my family, sometimes not. This is changing, though. We’re currently in the process of moving and, rather than managing by fiat, something that would never happen at the office, we are consciously taking all views into account. Our kids are 18 and 22, which helps. But, as I’ve discovered at work, the most junior people (or children) often provide valuable, even crucial, input.

In my professional life, I also think carefully about developing the people on my team — about where they are on their learning curve, how they add value, and what they can do to apply and hone those skills. We recently administered the Clifton Strengths Finder throughout the organization to identify strengths so that we can play to them. Of course, most parents are constantly working to help their children grow into successful adults. But we can be even more deliberate about it. Over the holidays, each member of our family also took the strengths test then read the results aloud and discussed how we might help one another better leverage those assets.

Perhaps the most important thing I do as a boss and business owner is try to treat every person with whom I work as the most important person in the world. I want to apply this ideal at home as well. At work, I wouldn’t dream of not turning toward the person I’m talking to and giving them my full attention, whether client or coworker. And yet, too many times to count, I idly check my phone while my husband or children are speaking. With a little prodding from our high-school-senior daughter, I’ve started to focus more on face time (and not the Apple variety). When we spend more time chatting like this, it leaves me not depleted but invigorated — feeling better-connected to the people who matter most to me.

When you’re a parent with a full-time job, much of the work of home is compressed into a few hours a day, the same hours in which you’d like to relax. But we can’t feel entitled to the latter. Entitlement, which I have called the sneaky saboteur of our career aspirations, doesn’t serve us well at home, either. It takes planning and effort to make a household and family run smoothly. If I want to chill out, I have to earn it.

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