How To Work Hard Without Sacrificing Health Or Family

By Kevin on July 5, 2013 in career

A reader recently emailed to share that he is going through a particularly tough time balancing his busy career, his executive MBA program, and his home life. He was wondering how he can make sure that his spouse and physical health don’t suffer along the way. This is going to be a long post, because it’s such an important topic.

Let me start by saying I consider myself a lifelong struggling student on this topic, not the master-teacher. The worst of my struggles was a decade ago, when I was in the early years of my startup and had a toddler kids at home. But even now I find myself juggling work, investments, non-profit ventures, writing, and speaking—while of course trying to be a decent Dad, partner, brother, son, friend.

First, let’s talk about staying healthy. This should be your first priority; if you are sick you won’t be making your boss, teachers, or spouse happy. Now ideally, you put a healthy diet and exercise at the top of your list. Let me admit up front, this is the one I struggle with the most. If I’m behind on a deadline, I tend to skip the workout and just work instead.

I know plenty of successful super-busy folks who set the alarm at 5am every morning to get in an hour of exercise (jogging, weights, yoga, whatever). They swear that it starts their day off right, gives them more energy, reduces stress and they love it. Yeah, no. I’m not one of those people. If you can pull this off great. If not, keep reading…

To me, diet is 80% of health. And even if I’m too busy to make it to the gym—even if I’m working at my desk through lunch—I can eat relatively healthy. It’s a willpower thing, not a time thing. I won’t make this a post all about nutrition, but I’ve been able to stay at a healthy weight and low cholesterol primarily by eating reasonable portions of protein, veggies/fruits, and low or slow-carbs. Stop with the donuts and bagels for breakfast; start with a protein shake (can drink it in the car!) Pack a lunch instead of going out. Eat almonds instead of chips. Save the beer for the weekends. If you really want to focus on health I’ve had good success with the Body for Life approach and hardcore execs should check out Corporate Athlete.

Second, when it comes to your boss and colleagues, you can only try to be more efficient. Hopefully they respect that your ex-MBA program is making you a better executive and that give you some flexibility when it comes time to study, or write big papers, etc. Also, hyper-busy times are the best times to develop your delegation skills and to realize that 80-90% is usually good enough. Don’t’ be a perfectionist. For other work-related tips check out my article, 14 Secrets to Expanding Time.

Third, when it comes to making your spouse and family not suffer, again I’ve had mixed success. I can only share what’s worked for me:

  1. Block out, and agree to family time. Trying to “find” time for your spouse and kids doesn’t always happen, and leaves them wondering whether you’re only just going to work all the time. When I started my third company, my wife was very concerned about what it would do to our family. So I agreed that I’d be home for the kids every night from 6pm to 9pm, and once they were in bed, 9-11pm was for her. I also agreed that I wouldn’t work on Sunday. Now I have to say this worked great for all them. Not so much for me. I was going back to work at 11pm most nights and not finishing until 2am, then getting up at 6am to go into the office. I definitely physically felt terrible, and ended up with a lot of resentment towards the wife. So be careful with this one. The approach is right, just make sure the time allotment is reasonable.
  2. Date nights. Easier to pull off and more obvious than number one above. Pick a date night and stick to it. EVERY couple needs to do this no matter the cost, etc. Even if date night is 2 hours alone at the pizzeria while the neighbors watch the kids, this can really help the odds of a marriage staying together.
  3. Focus on your family; put the smartphone aside. One thing I’ve always been good at—not sure why—is being present in the moment. If you are having dinner with your spouse, have dinner with your spouse. Leave your phone in another room or shut it off. You don’t need to be reading every text and email that pops in.
  4. Let your family know that you are thinking about them when you aren’t around. As busy as you are at work, try to find the time to make a quick call or text to your spouse just to say Hi and see how they’re doing. When you are traveling for work, do silly things like leave hand written notes behind, or mail an actual postcard from the hotel. Of course, these days of Skype and Facetime make it easier than ever to stay connected “face-to-face” with your kids and loved ones.
  5. Schedule and pay for a vacation far in advance. Future vision is a powerful thing. For most people, getting through the hectic nature of today—getting through the loneliness of today—is a lot easier if you see a light at the end of the tunnel (perhaps, a reward at the end of the maze?). Reserve that house at the shore or buy those plane tickets for 6 months from now. Talk about the trip, put up a picture of destination in the kitchen, whatever…keep the eyes on the prize and know that a great trip will be had soon enough.
  6. Can your spouse get busier? I don’t mean this to sound so mean, but when my wife was working on her MBA—studying at the kitchen table all weekend—she really didn’t care that I was working on the weekend, too. When my girlfriend is busy responding to emails from the couch at night, she doesn’t care if I’m writing blog posts from my computer, too. So, if YOU are investing extra time (in an MBA program, etc.) maybe it’s a good time for your spouse to do something they always wanted to do. Whether it’s going back to school, going back to work, or spending more time with their favorite charity, it could help.

One epic article was written by the wife of famed venture capitalist, Mark Suster. She gives the spouse’s perspective on “making it work”; advice to spouses. You can read the full post here, but her main points are:

  • Respect and develop a positive relationship with his co-workers
  • Don’t barrage him with emails
  • Have a date night
  • Respect that he needs his own “down” time
  • Don’t be a martyr
  • Pick your battle times
  • Realize that work travel isn’t fun
  • Remember that he is working to make our life better
  • Take vacations

This is such a tough issue for everyone these days. We live in a hypercompetitive, global marketplace with exponential change. Those who are going to succeed aren’t going to achieve work-life balance, but rather work-life blend. Good luck!



Check out Kevin’s new book, Employee Engagement for Everyone: 4 Keys to Happiness and Fulfillment at Work.

Kevin Kruse is a NY Times bestselling author and entrepreneur.

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