By Elizabeth Grace Saunders // This article was originally posted on hbr.org.
You’re double booked.
It’s not just one meeting scheduled over another. It’s something for your family at odds with a work commitment. These situations can trigger guilt and stress. Guilt because you feel like you’re letting others down — no matter what you decide, you will lose. And stress because you can’t literally be in two places at once.
As a time management coach, I help working parents navigate these challenges on a daily basis. I’ve found that there are two different components that you must address to minimize both guilt and stress.
The first is to define how you want to prioritize your time when professional and personal commitments collide. Each person must determine this prioritization for themselves because dramatic differences exist between individuals’ preferences, especially across cultures.
I recommend putting time in your calendar to think about what seems right for you and your family. That way you’ve done some thoughtful reflection in advance of a potentially intense decision. As you think about your general guidelines for when to choose for work versus family commitments, explore these facets:
- Values. To feel successful, you need to live according to your values. Ask yourself: What are my values in terms of the type of spouse, parent, and employee I want to be? What choices will I be happy that I made five years from now?
- Family culture. Every family has a different flavor in terms of what matters to them. Ask yourself: What kind of family culture do I want to create? Do I 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. To some children, having you show up at certain events may be a big deal whereas to others, it’s not. Ask them when it’s most important to them that you show up. The same is true with your spouse. Find out what they need to feel supported and connected with you. The key question is, What matters most to the people in my family?
- Job constraints. Certain positions require more travel or more work outside of normal business hours. Ask yourself: What’s truly required? Where do I have flexibility?
Once you’ve determined a general working model for how you want to make decisions, then you can make choices with less — or even potentially no — guilt. Your sense of “rightness” will be determined by being congruent with your internal values system, not with how other people react to you for working or spending time with family.
After you’ve thought through an overall strategy for how you want to address work and family time conflicts, expand your thinking on the number of options available to you in situations where you wish you could bi-locate but can’t.
Some people revert too quickly to an all-or-nothing approach, meaning they’re completely engaged in one commitment and disengaged in another. But from my vantage point, there are at least four other potential options to consider:
- Delegate. Although you can’t be two places at once, someone else may be able to go in your place. At work, perhaps another colleague could represent your department at a meeting or event. At home, you could potentially work out a carpool situation with a neighbor if after-school pickup is an issue.
- Time split. Sometimes you can get most of the value even if you show up for just part of the time. 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.
- Virtual presence. Being virtually present at key times can make a huge difference in how supported people feel. For instance, maybe you attend your son’s speech tournament, but you call in to meetings that happen when your son isn’t competing. Or perhaps you must be at a sales meeting, but you call your daughter before her gymnastics meet to see how she’s doing, get updates via text throughout, and call after to let her talk through how she feels about how it went.
- Invest in advance. Finally, for the times that you really do need to be all-in for work or all-in for family commitments, 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. 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.
No matter how well you plan, times will come up where work and family commitments come head-to-head. These situations rarely feel easy. But with some reflection, you can reduce the guilt around your decisions and decrease stress by finding ways to make your presence and support felt in both worlds, even when you can’t literally be two places at once.
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