Sunday, November 29, 2009

Pick your highlights!

I’ve just emerged from seven hours of end-of-year ballet concerts.

The kids were brilliant (including my gorgeous little Scottish Doll, Carousel Pony and Pre-intermediate Jazz participant, who graced the stage for approximately seven minutes out of four hundred and twenty - and those seven minutes were the magic that made it all worthwhile).

You know what ‘dancing mums’ can be like. (I’m not one, in the traditional sense of the word... I don’t know the steps, don’t have the dancing teacher over for dinner and don’t know how to get lumps out of the bun or apply lipstick to a nine-year-old while she’s talking).

Well, a dancing TEACHER is like a dancing mum, but even more committed to the cause. Which is why I was delighted to read the following line in the concert program, written by the head of the dancing school:

‘With my daughter’s Year Twelve formal on the Friday night of our concert, I must take off my ballet hat and put on my mother one, and watch my gorgeous girl as she takes the last few steps of her schooling, before she moves into the big wide world...'

No matter how much your career or your business might mean to you, there are certain moments in life that only happen once. Choose these over anything else, because despite how significant you think you are – even if you are the boss and the brains behind the entire performance - the show will go on, whether you’re there or not.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Working late tonight?

Today is national 'Go Home on Time' day in one of the most notorious countries in the world for indulging in long working hours and unpaid overtime.  The organisers of the initiative - The Australia Institute - found that a typical Australian full-time worker performs 70 minutes of unpaid overtime per day. 

That's nearly six hours of extra work per week - almost an extra working day - and over one month per year.  According to NSW Union secretary, Mark Lennon, this culture is taking a 'terrible toll on family relationships, health and general community wellbeing'.

Many of my clients reel in astonishment when it occurs to them during our coaching sessions that they are choosing to work long hours, despite not wanting to, and - even more remarkably - not being required to by their employer. 

They can readily see what this self-imposed habit costs their families, health and relationships, but they feel 'stuck' in a competitive culture where everyone is steeling furtive glances at their watches, wishing someone else would pack up and go home so that they don't have to be the first...

They log on from home in the evenings, 'just to check email' and three hours later they crawl into bed, having ignored their sleeping partner again, after failing to unwind or think about anything other than the work project that, this time next year (or earlier), they'll have forgotten about entirely.  They lie awake in the dark, guilt seeping in while they determine to cut back on their working hours 'as soon as things slow down'.

They fear that they're not good enough, or that nobody else can do the work as well as they can. They think they have to 'keep up with the Joneses' or they value 'activity' (looking busy) higher than 'productivity' (achieving the goals) out of a mis-guided sense of guilt. 

In exchange for their pay, they give their employer not just the reasonable execution of their job, but much more than that - physically and mentally.  In the most extreme cases, they offer up not only their time and talents, but their wellbeing, marriages, families, friendships and lives.

These are people who, 'desperately need a holiday' in one sentence, and 'can't possibly take leave' in the next.  They 'want to get off the treadmill', while frantically increasing its speed.

Some use work as an escape from other problems.  Others 'become' their work, losing any sense of identity outside of it.  There are people who stay late to avoid difficult conversations or responsibilities.  Others admit to feeling like 'failed parents' - choosing to retreat to the easy, predictable sanctuary of the office where they know they can get it right. 

Some derive all of their sense of 'significance' through their job, and none of it from their roles outside the professional sphere, becoming increasingly one-dimensional in conversation and thought.  Others are afraid of what lies on the other side of 'slowing down'.  What if they stop, look beside them, and no-one's there?

For some, it's an excuse.  For some, it's a lifeline.  For some, sadly, it's family.  Even when it's a genuine passion, the longer the focus remains on work, the harder it becomes to envisage the 'whole of life' balance that exists within reach.  The harder it is to even want that.

Which could be a life 'half lived'.   

“Imagine life as a game in which you are juggling five balls in the air. You name them – work, family, health, friends and spirit – and you’re keeping all of these in the air. You will soon understand that work is a rubber ball. If you drop it, it will bounce back. But the other four balls – family, health, friends and spirit are made of glass. If you drop one of those, they will be irrevocably scuffed, marked, nicked, damaged or even shattered. They will never be the same. You must understand that and strive for balance in your life.”

Brian Dyson, CEO of Coca Cola Enterprises from 1959-1994

Monday, November 23, 2009

It's drink-o'clock

A fellow coach related to me this week that she met an executive client who avoids drinking water at work because she ‘doesn’t have time to go to the toilet’.

What on earth? I simply do not accept that any job is too important to take precedence over basic human functioning. I’m sure that even the remarkable neurosurgeons Wirginia Maixner and Alison Wray, who worked for over 27 hours to perform the miraculous separation of conjoined twins Trishna and Krishna in Melbourne last week would have factored this into their schedule. (I can tell you now that if someone was operating on my brain, and needed to go to the toilet, I’d rather they take a break and avail themselves of the facilities in order to concentrate!)

We occasionally read stories about employers timing toilet breaks, or asking workers to clock off to use the bathroom, and thankfully such Dickensian employment practices are rare. When a policy like this is self-inflicted, though – when workers choose to deprive themselves of hydration because they ‘haven’t got time’ for the process of cleansing their system, regulating their body temperature and providing the means for nutrients to travel to their organs - there is something seriously amiss, either with their workload, their time management and productivity or their perspective.

Start today:

• Drink 6 – 8 glasses of water today – not just for what it provides your body, but as a reminder to take regular breaks. Rather than having a bottle of water on your desk, set an alarm to remind you to get up and go and refill your glass every hour. If your job is sedentary, this will get your circulation going and give you a break from screen-based work.

• Have lunch! If you’re ‘in meetings all day’, ask yourself why you accepted this schedule, knowing that it did not provide time for lunch. Be responsible for your health at work and assertive in protecting the provisions that you establish in this regard.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Wits' End Flashback

I was ankle-deep in pizza boxes and seventeen squealing six-year-olds at Matilda’s ‘pyjama and pizza non-sleepover’ birthday party when the commissioning editor of Lothian Books phoned.

‘Guess what?’ she yelled (she had to – the kids were playing musical statues to Nikki Webster’s ‘Strawberry Kisses’).

‘Sorry Teresa, I can’t hear you ... hang on, I’m wading through the family room ... I’ve strung silver cardboard stars from the ceiling with fishing line – it’s like running the gauntlet...’

‘Gosh, Emma – you don’t exaggerate, do you?’

Unfortunately not, most of the time. I closed the door of the study to muffle the noise. ‘That’s better. Sorry about that! You were saying?’

‘We want to publish your book!’

The door burst open. ‘Mummy! Jasmine just spilled red creaming soda all over your brand new rug!’

‘That’s fantastic!...’ I squealed.

‘And now she’s tramping in it!’

‘Are you serious? I can’t tell you how wonderful this is!’

‘But Mummy, you love that rug! And Ashleigh just threw the fit-ball at the piano ...’

‘Ah – Emma,’ Teresa interrupted, ‘do you think you should get back to the party?’

The what?

I floated back into the family room and presided over affairs like the elated person I’d suddenly morphed into because of six simple words: We want to publish your book!

Work-at-home tips

I've been asked for some 'work from home' tips about how to draw the line between work and family.  Here's what I do:
  •  I don't have my own study or office at home, but I have established a distinct area of the house for my desk and filing cabinet, and don't use this area for 'non-work' activities. When I'm sitting at my desk, I'm working.
  • If I want to 'surf the net', get on facebook with my friends or send some personal emails, I'll unplug the laptop and sit on the lounge and do this so that it 'feels' different.
  • I use 'school hours' for work. I break for the afternoon and spend time with my daughters, then may do some more work in the evening, particularly if my husband has some papers to mark (he's an academic, so we both work from home and get to spend time together during the day, at lunch time etc).
  • I don't do any housework during 'work hours', despite the temptation of the washing baskets etc. I will go to the local gym for half an hour to break up the day instead. I figure that, when I worked in an office, I used to exercise at lunch time, so this is a great habit to keep (rather than neglect exercise in favour of housework).
  • I've educated my children that, while I'm at home, I'm working - this means that I can volunteer in their classrooms once a week and attend special assemblies, but doesn't mean I can be serving in the school canteen each day (like they thought!)
  • We have Friday 'date night' each week, and we ban ourselves from any work - whether we go out or stay in for our date.
  • I try to establish weekends as family time, so that they do feel different and we can truly wind down.
  • While I don't do this myself, I know that some people find it useful to change into 'work clothes' at home during working hours, and to establish set hours. In my case, I prefer to be comfortable at my desk and to have a flexible schedule - this is pure individual choice.
  • I don't hold meetings or conduct coaching appointments in my home - I always meet clients and colleagues somewhere else. This keeps the home as our family sanctuary.
  • I confine my work 'stuff' to the desk area, rather than spreading it all over the house/kitchen bench etc. That way, we can all enjoy these areas of the house as a family, rather than viewing the home as one giant office!
  • I'll do something, like take the dog for a walk, if I feel the need to wind down from work before the family shift begins. I'll also consciously switch off my conversation from work matters (even if my mind is still racing) and think of other things to talk about (so that my time in the house doesn't start to feel one-dimensional).
  • I'll schedule some actitivies, appointments and meetings out of the house so as not to feel 'trapped' at home.
If you have other suggestions, please add them in the comments field.  I'd love to hear them!

Friday, November 20, 2009

Take a mini-break for your mind

My husband and I went to see the newly-released disaster flick, ‘2012’ last weekend.

What an amazing epic! It was as far-fetched as they come, and packed with incredible special effects – California breaking up and sliding into the Pacific, tectonic plates and magnetic poles in uproar, quakes, floods, fires, tsunamis washing over Everest – the works. It was ridiculous. I cried at least four times, and was completely absorbed, to the point of being almost disoriented when we emerged from the theatre at the end of the movie. After a busy week, it felt terrific to shelve ‘real life’ for a couple of hours and utterly escape, mentally.

When was the last time you allowed yourself to escape into a fantasy world?

What activities work best for you in engaging your thoughts to the point of blotting other things out? Movies, books, music, dancing, meditation, exercise, time with friends or something else?

We’re heading into one of the busiest times of the year for many people, and it’s easy to allow stress to creep up on us. Protect yourself from this by building in a few ‘buffers’ between now and Christmas that will allow you to escape, unwind and give yourself a mental ‘mini-break’. Schedule them in your diary today.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

What makes a real mother?

Here's a piece that I wrote pre-WorkLifeBliss, five years ago.  Things have changed a lot in my life since then (my new career is much more flexible) but the thoughts encapsulated here still mean a lot to me as a mum and as a daughter:
Mention childcare and sooner or later someone asks what makes a real mother.

My mum was a real mother. She still is. More than that, she’s a real grandmother. So much so, that she’s forgoing a funeral on Friday to cart my kids to swimming lessons, because I’ve returned to work after a month off and can’t possibly take another moment’s leave. Not even to see my five-year-old put her face under water for the first time and emerge from the experience triumphant. Looking for me – and finding Nanna.

Mum was chairman of the school board, before it was politically correct to be a chairperson. She was badge secretary of the Girl Guides. Convener of the cake stall. Stalwart of the canteen committee.

I can’t remember an afternoon when she wasn’t waiting at the school gates. She baked apple teacake and looked interested when we offloaded the mind-numbing minutiae of school-life. She helped with our assignments, pre-Google, when this involved a library.

She was never ‘too busy’, even when she was.

I, on the other hand, missed the moment my firstborn walked. I was minute-taking for a committee judging grant applications for research into the First World War – a conflict that ended precisely eighty-one years before the morning my daughter took her first steps. A missed moment for which I will never forgive myself. A moment I try to imagine sometimes, usually when red traffic lights rob me of what we’ve come to call ‘quality time’, but give me a minute to think.

I am a bad mother. Or so it seems from the window of my air-conditioned office at two o’clock in the afternoon when other mums are battling to the bitter end of school holidays, like martyrs in the Inquisition.

By the time I get home, I’m the one conducting the inquisition: ‘Why do you make such a mess? Will you ever stop squabbling?’

‘Why are you so childish?’

And that’s the point, isn’t it, when the logic falls apart? That’s the line you step over, before you remind yourself that they are, in fact, children. Little people – who, in my day, were digging Smurf houses under poplars and being catered for properly by mothers who didn’t stand in front of the freezer every night and sigh. Or maybe they did sigh, but quietly.

I want to put in more than the odd appearance in my child’s life. I work to pay school fees. I go to each assembly. I roster on for literacy groups. I Google homework. I sell Freddos. I read Enid Blyton until the words are swimming on the page.

My boss expects budget forecasts while I worry whether morning tea was meant to be in a labeled paper bag because kindergarten is going to the National Zoo and Aquarium.

Where mum will be, of course. She’s having her second motherhood, while I have my first one, once removed.

Working mums don’t need other people to make us feel guilty. We do a good job of that ourselves.

We do a good job, full stop.

Thursday, November 5, 2009


I'm writing a workshop about time management at the moment. 

So, I Google something about beating procrastination and notice an interesting link.  I read that, do a self-test about internet addiction, check email, update facebook about my time-management progress, do a quiz on which 80s song describes my life (Girls' Just Wanna Have Fun) then look through 117 photos posted by a girl I went to school with, with whom I can't be sure I ever exchanged a word in real life.  I check the news and weather, take the dog for a walk as it might rain, then I read an e-newsletter my friend sent me from her work which includes the 'interesting fact of the day' that some people have the ability to read and detect colours through their hands and feet, and next thing you know I'm on a virtual goose-chase of scientific and paranormal websites about extraocular vision.

Which brings me to this blog post about procrastination...