When work-life balance means working more

When I was writing a book on time management several years ago, I had dozens of people keep logs of their time. Paula, a Nashville mom of a preschooler who was also launching her own business, requested a time makeover. Her husband is an airline pilot, so he was often on the road. She was feeling like she wasn’t doing a good job making all the pieces fit together.

She sent me her time log, which looked pretty reasonable to me. She was doing a lot of fun things (going to the pool and the park) with her 3-year-old son, B, plus spending a lot of sheer quantity hours with him. She was working somewhere between 25-30 hours per week. She logged these hours partially when B was in preschool, and in bits and pieces here and there.  She was sleeping enough. She wanted time to exercise, but that appeared to be more a matter of not making time than not having time.

In other words, she had what most people consider a pretty ideal schedule for a mom of a young child: part-time hours, lots of flexibility. A recent Pew Research Center survey found that the percentage of working moms who say part-time work would be ideal for them rose from 48 to 60 percent from 1997 to 2007, while the percentage that said full-time work was best fell from 32 to 21 percent.

I am not surprised by these numbers, but I also think they show a bit of a blind spot, which was coming out in the fact that Paula wasn’t feeling as blissful about her time as her “ideal” situation suggested she should. I asked her why she needed a makeover. Did she feel like her time with her son seemed more like a chore than an opportunity for meaningful interaction? Did she want more hours to work?

Well, it turns out that I was spot-on, or as she put it, “Oh you hit it perfectly! Spending time with my son is not what I’d like it to be– it definitely feels more like a chore than fun. I’m always thinking about work and what needs to be done…it takes away from my fun. Of course, I think a big part of that is also the fact that business is really struggling — the financial strains are a huge part of this.”

So I told her something you are unlikely to hear in other work-life balance or time management literature. I told Paula she needed to work more. There were two reasons for this.

First, we achieve certain economies of scale with work. From talking with hundreds of people about their time, I’ve learned that it is very hard to feel like you’re getting somewhere in your career — making a name for yourself, improving at your craft, achieving a breakthrough — working less than 30 hours per week. This is a lot, because these are real hours. Not sitting-in-meetings-you-didn’t-need-to-attend hours, or lingering-over-take-out-at-8pm hours. These are real hours spent focused on your professional craft, both the substance of your work and the networking and prospecting necessary to get to the next level. When you work more than 30 hours, you tend to reach a tipping point. If you’re running a business, your revenues grow beyond what the additional hours would suggest. If you’re working for someone else, you start seeing new opportunities and landing better projects.

Second, because she did have so much time available to be with her son, she wasn’t being very focused with it. It was the exact opposite problem with her work schedule! People who sit at their offices for 80 hours a week are monstrously inefficient, because they’re always there. Likewise, Paula was just sort of muddling through her hours with B, doing the same things over and over again and, not surprisingly, having the same returns that she would have if she showed up at an office without thinking through her time.

I suspected that if she bumped up her uninterrupted work hours– either by hiring more childcare or having her husband take B on the days he was home — she would feel less panicked about her new business, and she would treat the limited hours she had with B more seriously.

Paula spent some time thinking about this and discussing it with her family. Her husband was open to taking B for 4-6 hours during the days he was in Nashville. I encouraged her to make time for her own interests outside of work, too. There is no need to apologize for having someone else take care of a small child for 3 hours per week (especially in the context of a 168 hour week) so you can exercise. She agreed to give it a try.

So did bumping up her work hours and decreasing her time with B (a bit) help? She wrote me a month later. “I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately especially because of the reversal of instinct that occurred,” she said. “Here I was a mom trying to balance work and time with my toddler — therefore in a downward spiral of decreasing work time while decreasing enjoyment with him. I took your advice and added more hours to my work schedule … and it’s made a HUGE difference!”

She was now spending a strong 35-40 hours a week working again, mostly by doing more at night while her husband traveled (so she wasn’t having to fork out more for childcare). “The result is that I feel much more satisfied with my efforts — and though the pay check hasn’t increased quite yet, the pipeline is and my direction is much more clearly defined with 3 new service platforms I’m offering on my website.” With the pipeline full, “I am now able to ENJOY my time with B and not constantly worrying about having to work more to get caught up.” Put together, this allowed her “to be at peace with where my life is right now.”


5 thoughts on “When work-life balance means working more

  1. At least part of the problem for many parents is that they’re reluctant to admit out loud (and maybe not even to themselves) that they don’t much enjoy spending lots of time with their toddlers. It’s like saying you hate puppies or something.

    For many moms and dads who love new information, dynamic social environments and engaging problems to solve, there’s almost nothing more boring and unsatisfying than keeping a toddler busy. Because this woman also had some anxiety about her work and building her business, more time working might have been good advice, but I suspect that extra time away from her toddler would have made her happier even if she wasn’t working more.

  2. Sad about the last comment saying that people truly do not enjoy time with their toddler. I wonder if that person actually has a toddler. If so, I wonder about the personality of someone who has a toddler and the opportunity to watch their child learn, experience and grow, but someone how IS NOT thankful for it. Children are an incredibly blessing from God. As mothers, we are allowed to be a part of such a miracle and experience the world through our child’s eyes. Between teaching our children, letting them play on their own for a while and be independent, cleaning the house and prepping meals each day…there is MORE than enough to do. I truly believe we are seeing a new narrcistic level in our society where women are becoming more focused on what THEY can GET out of life rather than what they can GIVE and should give. It amazes me to think that anyone could feel they do not want to be apart of such a critically important time in their child’s life.

  3. I did not interpret anything written about Paula or by Jeremy to be declarations that “they do not want to be a part of . . . their child’s life.” In addition to the peace and focus Paula can now bring to the relationship with her son, B is receiving more time with his father as well. The criticism levied by Rebecca (of people, personalities, mothers, society, women, etc) seems rather harsh. After all, why would we be looking at our 168 hours if not to get more out of them? Finally, just for the record, I can’t identify a time in any of my children’s lives that were unimportant. There have been, however, some less rewarding than others.

  4. “mostly by doing more at night while her husband traveled (so she wasn’t having to fork out more for childcare).”

    please clarify this.. i presume it’s not meant to read the way it does.. to my knowledge, someone cannot do more work, while not taking care of the child and while the husband is away, and also not pay for childcare.

    thank you in advance for clearing up what was meant.

    1. I’d guess that when the husband wasn’t out of town, she waited until the baby was asleep. She’d be in the house, but since no one was with her and baby during the day…

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