With only 24 hours in a day, life can seem like a complicated juggling act. Most of us have more balls in the air than we can handle. We drop a ball from time to time – or even many balls, depending on how balanced or unbalanced our life is. But some of the balls are more important than others. Dropping the important ones can be disastrous while dropping the less important ones might not matter at all. The trick is to know which is which.
It helps to think of our responsibilities as glass balls and rubber balls. Family and work responsibilities are like glass balls while many of our other responsibilities are more like rubber balls. A juggler would never want to drop a glass ball because it would surely break. But he would know that it’s not a disaster to drop a rubber ball. Rubber balls won’t break, and he can put one back into rotation after he’s had time to get everything moving again. For example, making after-school snacks for your children’s friends or doing the dishes are rubber balls. They can be dropped for a day or two as you juggle your glass balls. As deadlines for an important work project approaches – glass balls -- you might pass some of the balls on to the next juggler instead of holding onto all of them yourself. Perhaps some emails – rubber balls -- could wait a little longer than usual before you respond to them.
It might appear easy to discern which responsibilities are glass balls and which are rubber, but sometimes it is not. Guidance from the Proclamation on the Family can help: “Successful marriages and families are established and maintained on principles of faith, prayer, repentance, forgiveness, respect, love, compassion, work, and wholesome recreational activities” (¶ 7). These principles tell us that our marriages and families come first. When we make them our top priority, it will be easier to balance the other responsibilities in our lives.
The Proclamation continues, explaining the roles of each parent: “By divine design, fathers are to preside over their families in love and righteousness and are responsible to provide the necessities of life and protection for their families. Mothers are primarily responsible for the nurture of their children. In these sacred responsibilities, fathers and mothers are obligated to help one another as equal partners” (¶ 7). By sharing responsibilities, spouses can help one another balance their lives. Life is much easier when two people juggle all the balls. When one person has too many balls, he or she can pass some of them to the spouse. Dr. E. Jeffrey Hill, work and family scholar at Brigham Young University, compares balancing life to the harmony in an orchestra. When all the instruments are played well, they work together to create a beautiful sound.
Since both family and work are glass balls, neither ball can be dropped without serious consequences. Thus balancing these two areas of responsibility can be particularly challenging. The following suggestions for achieving a good balance are adapted from Dr. Hill’s article, Harmonizing Work and Family Life.
- Create energy. Don’t let work take all your energy, leaving none for your family. At the end of the day, do something at work that energizes you. For example, try doing at least some of the work activities that energize you the most just before you leave work. Then you will carry more energy into your family. In addition, try using your commute time to renew yourself by listening to energizing music or books on tape.
- Seize quality time. Watch carefully for times when your family seems to naturally interact. One father found that his children seemed most eager to talk when they came home from school, and he arranged his work schedule to be home at that time some days. Others find that after children have completed homework or their household chores, they’re receptive to taking a break with one or both parents. Bedtime is also a great time to talk to children. Since most children resist going to bed, they’ll keep talking with you so they can stay up longer.
- Do two things at once. Take your children to work with you on occasion. While you work, have them sort letters or stack papers. You’ll find precious minutes of interaction in this setting. Many fathers enjoy taking children on errands with them or taking a son or daughter to lunch. Use your frequent flier miles to take an older child with you on a business trip.
- Know when to focus on one thing. When you come home, leave work at work. Allow your family to be your focus. When you go on vacation, don’t take work with you. Leave your laptop, palm pilot, and pager at home. Avoid working on Sunday if possible.
- Be flexible in when and where you work. The more flexibility and control you have in your work, the better you’ll be able to balance work and family life. Telecommuting, for example, can save an hour or even two hours a day and give you a break from the stress of traffic. A flexible work schedule allows you to attend your child’s school performance. In many cases, flexibility also helps employees be more focused, energized, and productive.
- Get more and better sleep. If you’re well rested, you’ll be able to accomplish more at work and you’ll be more relaxed with your family. One father found himself working too late into the night on work projects, then wrestling with the project during his sleep and awaking unrefreshed. He started taking a break from work projects to tuck his children into bed and found the routine so peaceful that he often went to bed shortly after his children and woke up more rested. He, his family, and his work life were all better off.
- Simplify your life. If you accumulate fewer possessions and participate in fewer activities, you’ll find your life easier to balance. Material things cost time and money, so choose now to buy less. Stay out of debt. Dr. Hill’s father used to tell him, “Pay 10 percent to the Lord, 10 percent to your own savings plan, and live on the rest.” If you live within your means and spend less than you earn, you’ll be more at peace and more able to enjoy family life.
- Place pictures of your family in your workspace, whether it’s on your desk, on the dashboard of your truck, or on a cubicle wall.
- During breaks, call home to talk to your spouse and children.
- When chatting with co-workers, talk about your family instead of about co-workers, office politics, or sports.
- Help your spouse take care of the children. Take a turn waking up with the baby, even though you might be less rested for your work day. Spend time individually with each child.
- Find a family that you think balances work and family well and talk to them about how they do it.
- If you’re out of town on a business trip, stay in close touch with your family. Call and talk to everyone at once on the speaker phone. Talk to a different child individually each night you’re gone. Have your children fax homework and pictures to your hotel. Send postcards.
- When your work is through, stop. Don’t work more than you need to.
- Don’t be a perfectionist. It’s okay if the house goes longer than you think it should without cleaning or the stove doesn’t get cleaned once a week. Save your energy for family activities.
- Share household jobs with your spouse and children. Men who help out with household tasks stay in touch with the down-to-earth realities of what it takes to make a family work, and they also help their wives balance work and family.
- Take care of your physical health so you can better deal with emotional and physical stresses.
- Work to live, don’t live to work.
Written by Rebekah Olsen, Research Assistant, and edited by Stephen F. Duncan, Professor, School of Family Life, Brigham Young University.
- Hill, E. J. (2001, April). Harmonizing work and family: One man's perspective. Marriage and Families, 5, 3-6.