The Illusory Work-Family Equation

Quit trying for that ever-shifting, impossible-to-find balance between office and home. Instead, divide your time and stick to the plan -- always

By Michelle Nichols

Balancing work and family is a hot topic these days, but let me tell you something that anyone who has tried to pull off that feat probably already knows: The idea of being able to get those two sides of our lives in equilibrium is crazy. Who would even try to put their work on one side of a scale and equalize it with their family on the other? It's impossible. Each is important, but for vastly different and totally incompatible reasons.

For business owners and those in sales, juggling home and office is especially challenging because we have so much flexibility in our schedules. Theoretically, that sounds like an advantage. Why shouldn't we be able to work late or come in early when need arises, perhaps freeing up the time for soccer coaching or the Dads & Donuts gathering at Junior's school?

There is a dark side to this flexibility, however. With one eye forever on the very same bottom line that underwrites our families' security, we are tempted to work both early and late, because there is always one more prospect to pursue, another letter to write, one more sale to be won. The economy is tough and we need every sale we can score. Inevitably, it is the family side of the equation that loses out when we strive for that mythical "balance."


  As many of you know, my family endured a terrible tragedy five years ago, when our son, 8½-year-old Mark, died suddenly. The doctors thought it was the flu, but 11 days later, he died of brain cancer. This is my annual column in memory of him and the tough lessons I've learned about work and family since his death.

There's no doubt about it: Work is important, since it provides for the daily necessities, like getting the car fixed and paying for Billy's braces. If you have a family to support, the value of your work is multiplied. But work is more than a source of a paycheck. Work gives you an identity and a purpose. It helps to connect us with the rest of humanity and expand our social circles, and it is an opportunity to amass the achievements that lead to the satisfying recognition of our unique talents and skills. The value of meaningful, bill-paying work is hard to overestimate, and therefore, useless to try to balance.

The value of our families is also hard to overstate, regardless of whether it is the demographic "average" of a spouse and 2.3 children waiting for us to come home, or just a loyal pet panting by the door. Nobody ever said on their deathbed, "I wish I'd stayed longer at the office." Spending time with our families restores us. It even helps us to sell better because it gives us a source of stories and experiences we can use to connect with our customers, many of whom have families of their own.


  So, what's the answer to this "balance" question? One way to approach it might be to imagine you have two main customers: Company W demands 40 hours of your time a week and contributes 45% of your sales and profits. Company F only requires 10 hours, but also contributes 45% of your sales and profits. Together, they provide the lion's share of your business and pretty much dominate your entire business. Company F, with its smaller time demands, is easier to overlook, but you do so at great risk -- i.e.., almost half your cash flow.

As readers have probably figured out, Company W is your work and Company F is your family. Depending on your circumstances, the proportions may vary, but the basic need never does: It's vital to make sure both companies are satisfied.

The key to success is deciding which blocks of time throughout your week you want to devote to each "company" -- and then stick to your plan like glue. The alternative, which too many of us choose by default, is to give full attention to one side of our lives while devoting nothing but scrap time -- the few spare minutes left over -- to the other.


  It's so easy to say to our families, "I'll be home when everything on my To Do list checked off." Easy to say, devilishly hard to accomplish. No matter how you try, no matter how many promises you make to yourself and others, you will probably never check off everything on that darn list. which is always growing and changing.

So, while it may sound like heresy, here's my solution: Focus at work on the items that will give you the most selling impact -- and then delegate or ignore the rest. Yes, that's right, ignore them. It may be the way, the only way, you will be able to make the free time you can schedule to spend with your family. Here are some suggestions:

Keep your word: If you say you'll be at your children's events, be there. If you say you'll take them to the movies or to Disneyland, follow through. Honoring the promises you make to your children is no less important than fulfilling those you make to your customers.

Patience Is a Virtue: Accept that you may have to endure long hours at boring events to experience those few, priceless moments. I remember the first time my son made a basket during an official basketball match. He was so proud, his face lit up the whole gym. I wouldn't trade the biggest sale in the world for the memory of that moment.

The right focus at the right time. Wherever you are, be there mentally and emotionally. Nobody wins when you spend time at work thinking about your home life, or when your thoughts at home are dominated by work. My children hate it when I rush them and say, "Come on. I have 47 things to do today!" They know I'm not mentally present and, young as they are, they understand that I'm treating them like chopped liver.

Schedule time for family fun -- now! Don't wait for the perfect opportunity, because it will never come. Families change, our kids grow up, and we all eventually lose our health and vigor. I know a woman who put off buying a plush vacation retreat until she could afford it. Now, she regrets not buying a smaller unit ten years earlier. By now, her kids are teenagers and don't want to go with her because they have their own interests and schedules.

Forget trying to balance two of life's most rewarding experiences -- your work and your family. Instead, schedule your time and attention to satisfy each of them. There's no single answer that will suit everyone, but the rewards of living a life with no regrets are unlimited and universal. Happy Selling!

Michelle Nichols is a sales speaker, trainer, and consultant based in Houston, Tex. She welcomes your questions and comments. You can visit her web site at or contact her at

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal. LEARN MORE