Companies & Industries

Assessing Your Work-Life Balance


Harvard blogger Ron Ashkenas discusses how seemingly trivial decisions can affect your relationship with your family

Posted on Harvard Business Review: December 13, 2010 2:26 PM

A number of years ago I did my doctoral research on the balance between professional achievement and successful family life, using academic physicians as my study group. Not surprisingly, the most successful medical professors in my sample group—those with tenure, extensive research, and national awards—also tended to have the most instances of divorce and estrangement from children. Naturally, none of these highly successful people had consciously chosen to sacrifice their families in order to advance their careers. Instead, they had made hundreds of small tradeoffs over the years—such as staying in the lab instead of attending a child's school concert. It was the accumulation of these small choices that seemed to gradually tip their lives one way or the other.

I was reminded of this subject when I heard last week that Jeff Kindler had suddenly resigned as CEO of Pfizer, at least partly because the stresses of the job were affecting his family life. (I admit that there may have been other reasons for Kindler's resignation, although we may never know for sure. For this discussion, let's just assume that job stress was a factor.) By all reports—and gathered from some personal experience—Kindler is very devoted to his family, but also worked hard to achieve the success of becoming a CEO. And after spending more than four years working almost non-stop at the top of Pfizer, Kindler seems to have realized that it is very difficult to have both.

Although not so dramatic or public, we all face a similar dilemma at work. Being a successful professional takes a tremendous amount of time and hard work. In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell suggests that it takes 10,000 hours (or at least ten solid years) of practice to achieve mastery in most fields. Whether this applies to management is open to debate, but intuitively it makes sense. The only problem is that as a manager moves up in the ranks, almost every leadership role is different from the last. Therefore, achieving mastery (in management) means putting in extra hours at every job, since the previous job provided only partial preparation.

However most of us don't consider in advance how much effort, energy, and time we are willing to invest in a particular position—and what balance we want to achieve between professional and personal success. As a result, like the physicians in my study, we make dozens of small, subtle and almost invisible choices about how to spend our time. Do we stay late at the office to finish a memo, or put it off to the next day so that we can have dinner with the family? Do we allow ourselves to be distracted on vacation by constantly checking email, or do we put work aside and enjoy the time away? Do we give up a weekend to handle a crisis, or do we proceed with our previous plans?

With all of these questions, there is no right answer and either choice can be justified. But if the majority of these decisions over time go one way or the other, they may create a pattern that was not consciously chosen—but just "sort of happened." And if you're not creating the pattern that you really wanted, it can yield the same kind of stress and internal soul-searching that may have influenced Jeff Kindler's decision to step down.

If there's a lesson from my research and from the Kindler story, it's that all of us should be more conscious of the tradeoffs that we are willing to make between personal and professional success. Instead of confronting each small "choice-point" as an independent decision, create your own personal context:

What's the balance that you want to strike between personal and professional success?

If you had to honestly choose, is one more important than the other?

What are your goals in each of these spheres, and what can you do to optimize both?

These are tough questions to ask, not only at the beginning of your career, but throughout. But if you don't address them consciously and intentionally you might wake up one day to discover that the choices you've made may not be what you really wanted.

How do you think about the tradeoffs between personal and professional success?

Provided by Harvard Business Review—Copyright © 2010 Harvard Business School Publishing. All rights reserved. Harvard Business Publishing is an affiliate of Harvard Business School.

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