Category Archives: work

You Can’t Be Too Complacent At Work

One of the things I hate most about work is the competitive aspect. I’ve always been the type who learn or excel for the sake of personal development.  Recently,  with two different co-workers, I’ve noticed subtle attempts to assert their abilities and credentials above others in the department.   

One always attempts to take ownership of highly visible projects, at least to those outside our department. Doing the work is another story.  S/he is definitely the type that would easily throw others under the bus and take credit for work. 

The other person took over for a colleague who was much more collaborative about projects.  That isn’t necessarily a bad thing but it reflects a different mindset than others in the department.  I feel sort of shoved aside on a major project; whereas before I was involved enough on this project to develop valuable skills and be an equal in the event of absences or vacations.   To top it off, in a recent email, this new colleague wrote that s/he is planning projects while I am “working on” similar projects.  The words “Planning” and “working on” convey very different levels and s/he is quite selective with words.  In fact I actually have more experience planning and on bigger projects, so far at least.  I have seen hints of this so I’m not surprise that s/he chose to word it this way to an outsider.

I’m not naive enough to think that my natural complacency is good.  This individual’s ability to connect with my boss and enthusiasm for bigger projects has already led my boss to pass on more boring projects my way. Certain types tend to get promoted.

Have you dealt with back-stabbing co-workers? How?

168 Hours…Family

This series is intended for those of us not in the top 1%, or even the top 10%, in terms of household earnings.  We’re not at the bottom either but we don’t have the money or flexibility of CEOs and executives. 

I wrote about work and now I’m writing about the other side of the equation: Family, especially those raising young children.  Older children are another story and one that I have zero knowledge of!  I felt that by focusing on two major areas that take time — work and family — I could help more people find time in their busy lives. 

The most important advice I can offer besides the obvious “choose your partner wisely” is to divide your chores equally. If you work full-time and also take on the majority of chores and childcare, the work/life balance will become nearly impossible.  If you work part-time or are the stay-at-home parent, you still need to get your partner to be responsible for some chores and I recommend NOT splitting these along traditional gender lines.   Many couples do an indoor (female) and outdoor (male) work split.  While grass cutting can wait, indoor chores tend to be more repetitive, urgent and time-consuming overall.   See this post about cooking for what I mean.

Compared to friends/family who divide chores by gender, I have a lot more free time.  I don’t have to do extra laundry to make sure my husband has clean underwear.  We can both make a good, healthy dinner.   I put dishes away more often but my husband is very capable and willing to do this too. I guess the main reason I advocate dividing chores in gender-neutral ways is that it gives you more flexibility.

It almost goes without saying that young kids and teenagers can pitch in, too.  Tell them that they don’t live in a hotel and their parents are not their servants!

Also, check out author Laura Vanderkam’s blog…her book “168 Hours” inspired this series.

168 Hours…Working It

As I stated in my original post “168 Hours For The Rest of Us“, this series is intended for those of us not in management, or not very high up in the corporate chain.  We still have work/life demands but don’t have the money or flexibility of CEOs and executives. 

Rather a list of tips about work/life balance, I want to focus on certain crucial aspects of time management — in this case, work.  For most of us, work consumes a large part of our week.  At minimum per week, it’s 45 hours per week (including lunch hour), plus commuting time.

The assumption is that the “rest of us” do not work for companies that offer the average employee any flex-time, work-at-home arrangements or job-sharing, at least not on an official basis.  When you work in a more traditional company with typical work hours, it’s much harder to enjoy a healthy work/life balance and to find time for your non-work needs.

The most important advice I can offer is to make yourself valuable to your immediate supervisor (and company).  You do not have to be a superstar employee, which often entails overtime, but you do have to be reliable and generally make your boss’s life easier.  You have to meet all reasonable deadlines and not drop the ball.  You can’t call in sick too often, unless you’re really sick of course.  Basically, you must figure out what makes your boss happy.  This varies a lot depending on your boss’s managerial style, as well as the company culture.  I’m not saying this is easy but if you figure this out, you and your boss will be much happier.  If you have a hard time figuring this out, look at your colleagues.  Even if your boss doesn’t play favorites, there’s always at least one person who seems to enjoy a little autonomy.   Watch and learn from this person.  Here are some additional tips or what works for me.  

The smarter ones also take care to cultivate a good work reputation by taking on projects that have visibility or prestige outside their departments.  That way, they still may have job security in the event their boss falls out of favor or leaves the company. Note: I’m often not one of the smart ones, but I have seen this work time and time again.

I understand that there are many who are unhappy at their job and it’s all too easy to feel trapped.  I was in that kind of situation for about two years.  A new boss entered the picture and we did not hit it off to say the least.  While I enjoyed a degree of flexibility given my track record at the company, it became harder to leave work early when necessary or to call in sick without suspicion.   The best thing I ever did was to find a better job with a boss that better appreciated my skills and temperment.  Having said this, it is often necessary to continually manage your job reputation and that is tiring for many, including myself.

Another important variable are your colleagues.  I’ve been fortunate to be situations where all of us pull our weight and watch each other’s back.  We are all punctual and conscientious about taking time for doctor appointments etc.. When you are in a good team environment, the boss is even more likely to relax and trust everyone.   If there’s one “bad apple” on the team, say someone who’s chronically late, the boss may take away privileges or become more of a micro-manager. 

You must manage your relationships with colleagues as well as with your boss.  You don’t have to become best friends but you should try to set a good example for other co-workers, especially new ones.  Do your best to help new colleagues fit in so that they can work smarter.  Help them find the right resources.  Set an example in everything you do from how you run meetings to taking your lunch to minimizing office distractions.  

Recently,  a new person joined our department and her work ethic threatened to make the rest of us look like slackers, even though we’re not.  She saw nothing wrong with working late or skipping lunch and even “bragged” about working 10+ hours at her last job.  I understood that she had a lot to prove but I also knew that I should help her work smarter and fit into our more relaxed company culture.   When I saw her eating at her desk again, I mentioned a magazine article that touted the benefits of a work break — to clear your head, reduce mistakes and recharge yourself, etc..  After that, on occasion, I would express concern that she had skipped lunch.  Eventually she started taking lunch breaks (on most days) and leaving on time.  While much of her changed attitude had to do with finding her groove at her new job, I’m 100% sure that if the rest of us routinely skipped lunch and worked late, she would have mimicked that, too, in order to look “good” to the boss.

If you are able to create a good work environment via your relationship with your boss and co-workers, you can earn some degree of flexibility even without having the perks of management.

In every situation where I have earned my boss’s trust, I also enjoyed greater autonomy in terms of setting my work schedule.  I can’t choose to come in at 10 a.m. but I changed my morning arrival time to avoid traffic.  Right now this works well for me because I get home for dinner every night.   If I needed to adjust my schedule, my boss is likely to allow it.  My lunch hour is similarly flexible.  I have my regular lunch hour but I can take it later or earlier if needed.  Because I always make sure I do my job well, I can also occasionally take a longer lunch without consequences.  This has allowed me to do my household / grocery shopping, get my hair cut, get oil changes, and take care of a host of errands during the weekday instead of letting these clog up my valuable weekend hours. 

Your company’s internet policy may vary and I don’t recommend surfing the web over work.  However, I admit to taking internet mini-breaks.*  This lets me refresh my mind a bit and also take care of chores, including paying bills,  refilling prescriptions, doing research on everything from cars to cable/TV packages, and shopping for self or others.   I can do this because my boss doesn’t feel the need to watch over my shoulder.  Note: Even if your company has strict online policies, you can do a lot on your own smartphone, tablet or laptop. 

Some people may do everything right and just not have the kind of boss who trusts his/her employees.  A friend of mine works for a micro-manager and despite her best efforts, neither she nor any other employee has yet to win the boss’s trust.  However, even in that situation, my friend is probably still considered one of the more trusted employees and has a small degree of flexibility over the others.

To sum it up, your work situation is one of the most important factor in terms of work/life balance.  If you can “steal time” during your work hours, you can gain back time for more enjoyable weekends.  The other side of the coin is family, to be addressed next!

* I am sure someone will comment that it is abuse to use company computer for personal stuff. I’m just not sure how I could manage my life if I did zero personal stuff online during work hours.

Also, check out author Laura Vanderkam’s blog…her book “168 Hours” inspired this series.

168 Hours…Who Are The “Rest of Us”?

Before I go into time management advice for “the rest of us“, I thought I should define this group.  The rest of us are not the 1%, which I would define as those in highly successful households with six-figure salaries. These same folks are often profiled in work/life balance articles.

Consider the “typical” work/life profile on Yolanda Edwards, Executive Editor of Martha Stewart Living magazine, and Emily Kalanithi, an attorney.  (This is a great series from the blog “A Cup Of Jo” which I’m not singling out as criticism, just that these “types” of women are often the same ones profiles in Working Women-type magazine, i.e. women who “have it all”):

Yolanda Edwards:

  1. Work schedule: I work five days a week at Martha Stewart Living from 9:30 to 6 or 6:30. I work on Momfilter from about 6:10 to 7am, which is when Clara wakes up; and I work on it at night, but not more than a half hour, because I’ve had a couple of glasses of wine with dinner, so I’m a little too sloppy. I usually get a chunk of work done on Momfilter on weekends. And I try to do a post on my travel blog around once a week.
  2. Childcare: We have a great babysitter who comes three days a week and picks her up. On the fourth day she has after-school activities, and on the fifth day, her dad gets her. I try to pick her up at least one Friday a month”

Emily Kalanithi:

  1. Work schedule:  I work in the office full-time, Monday through Friday. My actual hours in the office are pretty reasonable—9-6ish. But I frequently check in on email at night and on weekends during naps and after bedtime.
  2. Childcare: We have an amazing nanny who comes to our house five days a week. Our nanny feeds Eve at an astoundingly early hour (4:30 or 5). After I come home from work around 6, I play with Eve until she goes to bed at 7:30. Then, if Jeevan is home, I’ll cook an easy dinner (maybe 3-4 nights a week). Or we’ll order Chinese or Thai or Indian.
  3. Balance:  My husband has a very busy job as well…When we’re too busy or tired for real date nights with a sitter, we have devised something called “internal date nights” where we put the baby to bed and have a date at home. Even if it’s just ordering food and watching a movie, it at least means we’ve set aside the time to be together without email-checking and other distractions.

The above are just snippets and I encourage you to read the series of posts.  Getting glimpses into the lives of very successful/elite made me realize that there is an entirely different world out there and that if you’re not in the top 1% or even top 15% in terms of income, your choices are so very different. 

Our vision of balance is very different.  People in power and/or who love their jobs really don’t want a break from their work.  They call it a balance if they get home at a reasonable hour, put the kids to bed, and have another hour or so doing work-related things.  For the rest of us, the 40 hour work week is just fine.  That’s not to say that in a recession and stagnant hiring practices, we’re not over-worked as well.  It’s just that we’re not expected to be “on call” or resent being on call since that seems above the scope of our responsiblities and pay scale.

They can buy flexibility.  When you read the typical work/balance article, there is much reliance on paid help from cleaning to nannies to personal assistants.  These are luxuries that are out-of-reach for most people.  I call this buying time because you make enough to outsource many chores and afford a nanny, which offers more flexibility than daycare since there aren’ts pick-up or drop-off times.  Secondly, those in power have  the ability to set their hours. This depends on company culture, of course, and if the person wants to do this.  Some hard-charging personalities probably prefer to work 60 hours per week.    Still, I do believe that if an executive needs to work from home for some reason, few people would question it.  If you’re lower on the totem pole, however, it’s harder to justify working from home.  This is based on observations and my personal experience, but the only time I can work from home is if I put in my regular hours and then work from home on a special project.  There’s no way my boss, or most bosses, would let me leave earlier with the promise that I’ll finish up in the evenings. 

Part 3 of this series will address the challenges facing those of us who cannot afford to buy help/flexibility.  I’ve written many posts with tips for simple living that could be applicable but I also want to delve into bigger issues regarding work/career and family.  I know I have my notes somewhere…

How do you envision balance?  What are your biggest challenges? How does paid help factor into your balance, if any? 

Also, check out author Laura Vanderkam’s blog…her book “168 Hours” inspired this series.

My Imbalance

If you read enough work/life balance posts or articles, someone will point out that it’s not really about choosing career over family.  Over the course of a lifetime, you focus more or less on different things.  That balance even changes daily.  Some days, career takes precedence.  Some days you focus more on family.  At the end of the road or at retirement, you will probably have carved out enough time for work, family, self, friends and hobbies.

Right now, I’m experiencing the classic tug and pull between career and family.  I do not have much time for myself, friends, hobbies or exercise.   I know that.  Recently, a friend of mine questioned my lack of alone time.  I told her that my alone time is lunchtime at work reading a book or magazine or an exercise class on the weekends.  In a good week, I eat lunch alone 3 times a week and work out once a week.  I often run errands during lunchtime, too.  On a hectic week, I may take shorter lunches or even work through lunch.   Anyway, my friend basically told me that I don’t have enough alone time.   In a way, she’s right.  Everyone tells mothers to take care of themselves first.  I’m not doing that because I really don’t have that much extra time.

Years ago, I remember telling an older friend, a first-time mother, the exact same thing. She was sort of bragging that she didn’t need friends anymore because she only wanted to spend time with her kids.  Strange that she would tell that to a friend!  Anyway I remember questioning her single-minded devotion to motherhood.  Now I get it, sort of.  I don’t think I’m in that same category of self-sacrificing all-encompassing motherhood, but I get the pull.  I could spend hours playing and cuddling with my kids.  Notes: This may not be so true if I stayed home but it is true for my evenings and weekends! Also, spending time with kids actually means a lot of diaper changes, dealing with tantrums, cleaning sticky stuff out of hair and less glamorous “duties” (just a reality check for those who imagine otherwise!)

I guess what I’m saying is that my life is very imbalanced right now and I’m mostly OK with that.   In my 20s, I spent more time with friends than family.  I went back to school  in my 30s and worked on my career, although that was never my sole focus.  My husband and I did all the things that couples without kids can do, from traveling with only carry-on luggage to waking up late almost every weekend.  I do want to find more couple-time again but that’s another story.   As for me-time?  I had a lot of me-time in my 20s and 30s.  For now, I have to count exercise and lunch hour at work as my alone time.  Will I emerge years from now without a sense of identity?  I don’t think so. By the time I had kids, I think I nailed down my identity.  Identity is fluid on some levels but I don’t think I’ll lose myself in motherhood, as I might have if I had kids earlier.

I’m sure that as the kids get older, I will have more free time again.   So despite my friend’s concern, I am not making any plans to find more me-time.  For now, I just want to enjoy this time and getting lost in their childhoods.

168 Hours…For The Rest of Us

“168 Hours” is a time management book by Laura Vanderkam.  The basic premise of the book is that we all have 168 hours in the week and most people don’t manage that time very well.  From some reviews on Amazon,  I gathered that many of the “solutions” for managing time better require money and a lot of flexibility.  While I doubt the author blithely assumes that everyone can afford cleaning help or good daycare, the media does tend to focus on high-powered women when addressing the issue of time and work/life balance.  See Atlantic’s recent “Women Can’t Have It All” article or any issue of Working Women magazine. 

The focus on high-powered executives and especially on successful women makes sense on some level.  Women are still expected to deal more with the juggling of household chores, childcare and work.   Even if the chore and/or childcare split is 50/50, it seems that women devote more time thinking and managing these chores.   The assumption is that if CEOs university professors and magazine editors can make it work, the average women can certainly learn time management tricks from them. 

The problem is that this trickle-down theory is often not applicable to those lower in the ranks.  For example, a magazine’s Editor-In-Chief has to answer to the publisher and certainly has high demands placed upon her.  However, it’s unlikely that she has to ask permission for leaving early or for vacation time.  She has more influence over company culture than those beneath her.  She can work after the kids are in bed.  If the average employee wanted to do that, he/she would have to convince the boss that they are actually working after work hours.  Good luck with that…

My normal tendency is to write a short post and include a list of tips geared toward people in the middle-class.  However, I wanted to explain the origins for this post and also acknowledge my own privilege.  While I can’t really set my own schedule, work from home or easily pay for cleaning help, I am a white-collar professional working in an office setting and I do enjoy more flexibility than the average retail store or restaurant employee.  For this, I’m lucky.  Before you say that it’s also your ability, education and hard work, I know many who work just as hard with just as much ability who just happen to have less understanding bosses or a more nose-to-the-grind corporate culture to contend with. 

How can you carve out valuable time if you’re not the 1% (or top 10%) with money and flexibility? How can you manage if you really don’t have the resources to outsource? I’ll try to answer this in Part 2 (coming soon).

Why I Am Not A Work Superstar

Recently I had the opportunity to take on a highly visible project at work, one that most people would jump at and one that two others are actively fighting over now to control.  There’s only a slight chance that this project would lead to a promotion or raise but it would definitely lead to valuable new skills.  The fact that I turned this down is the reason I’ve never been the work superstar.  Note: I am taking on another project that would take just as much time and hard work but is simply less exciting and with less in-fighting over responsibilities.

After making this decision, I realized that I have often make “bad” decisions in terms of career because I don’t go for the highly visible projects or positions.  This is not always a bad thing.  I still find ways to challenge myself.  I do lead interesting and valuable projects and I’m not the one saddled with grunt work while everyone else gets the high-profile projects.   However, I don’t invest enough in my career to make that superstar impression and that’s the reason I continue to be the “valued yet despensible” employee rather than the true star with management potential. 

I would be lying if I said that this doesn’t bother me on some level.  It might have been good if I had planned out my career path in my late 20s or early 30s.  At the same time,  I try not to dwell on regrets.  I am a professional with many valuable skills, enjoy my job for the most part, and have always balanced work with life.

If you’re looking for ways to be a superstar at work, you’re at the wrong blog.  I do give advice about enjoying your work and career, but I admit that it has never been my top priority.

What qualities do you think make someone a “star” at work? Are you a work superstar?