Our eldest child’s godmother used to say, “You can stand in the gap for about three months, but you can’t do it forever.” A parent of three, she was referring to the times she and her husband worked at a crazed pace to earn income and participate in community activities. We all know there are limits to what we can do, and it’s helpful to try to anticipate these seasons in life. I’ve just come off one of these times myself.
2013 has been a challenging year overall, but I trace severe intensity back to the final day of HIMSS13 in New Orleans. Like many, I was listening to Farzad Mostashari give a barn-burner speech on our nation’s progress with Meaningful Use. When I noticed my mom calling, I ignored it, thinking, “Mom knows I’m introducing the closing keynote, so she’s probably just calling to wish me well.”
Fifteen minutes later, I received a call from my brother. I was pretty sure I knew what the issue was. My almost 92 year-old father, who was diagnosed with melanoma in 2009 and had been asymptomatic in recent years, had taken a noticeable turn for the worse in December. I visited him a number of times and said my goodbyes. Before leaving for New Orleans, I told my mom that I would come back early if needed. I spoke with dad on the opening day of the conference, which was my birthday. Alas, mom was calling to say that he passed away early that Thursday morning.
News traveled quickly and the HIMSS staff was terrific in offering assistance to get me back to Boston. Unfortunately, there was a large snowstorm impacting the northeast, and I was unable to get out until the next day. I resolved to participate in the closing keynote of the conference, which was great fun, and would have been what my dad wanted. He would have got a particular kick out of the fact that I got to introduce Karl Rove — and James Carville.
Throughout the conference, I had been trying to keep up with work, but I dropped everything to plan the funeral and to celebrate my dad’s life with my family the following week. If you’re like me, two weeks away from work can leave you feeling pretty behind, even if it’s for the most important reasons. From this, I’ve noticed some unhealthy patterns about me.
I’ll start out having a reasonable work/life equilibrium during which I work hard but also carve out time to engage with my wife and children on evenings and weekends. I actually feel “balanced.” Then I’ll be out of the regular work environment for some legitimate reason — a family funeral, a child’s music recital, a HIMSS Board meeting, or a medical procedure — and I’ll start to lose balance. My boss is great; he always encourages me to take care of family first, and he is supportive of my HIMSS involvement. But because I oversee Operations, and because I have some sort of hyper-responsibility gene, I’ll start working at night and on weekends to “make up” for being out.
Not only does this affect my family interactions, but because I’m feeling stressed out, I project that onto others. I’ll assume something is off-track or that we’ve left something undone because I feel off-kilter myself.
Fortunately, when I do get my bearings and listen to my staff and peers, they have a very calming influence on me. “We’ve got this, don’t worry.” I need to learn to pace myself while I’m out and take time to catch up with reading and listening before drawing conclusions during these times.
I expect many of us have found it more and more difficult to disconnect from work as our responsibilities have increased. I can remember a time when I didn’t have trouble turning it off nights and weekends. I certainly didn’t have a problem leaving work behind while on vacation, and I never woke up and was unable to go back to sleep because of work. That was some time ago now.
Still, finding ways to disconnect is vital. One can’t stand in the gap forever without becoming exhausted and ineffective.
If you know the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, I’m an ISTJ, so the pathway to disconnecting requires introversion and physical order. I’m not able to leave work physically and mentally if I’m not reasonably prepared for responsibilities upon my return. I travel between locations, so while I no longer have an office, I like to make sure I’ve coordinated with my assistant and I have my papers and folders in the right place.
I know now that I need time alone to decompress. My wife knows it doesn’t work well for me to head right into a social event on Friday night, so we do low-key things or I opt out.
I also try to run three miles almost every day. In addition to helping me stay physically fit and reduce stress, it’s also the time that I collect my thoughts and develop my focus for the day. On weekends, I’ll often take a longer run and process things with a trusted friend.
I also have some less healthy escapes. I’ve seen every episode of 24. I’m almost up to date on Mad Men. I’ve seen the first season of Homeland and I await season two on DVD. Like many of us, I’ve seen too many episodes of Law and Order. Two or three times a year I need a longer break away. I enjoy taking “retreats of silence” at a local Anglican monastery. It’s quiet and provides lots of time for sleep, eating, prayer, and planning. Since it’s on the Charles River, I can also take long runs and enjoy the Boston scenery. Finally, once a year, I take a vacation where I truly disconnect. I sign out my pager and don’t check email. I have to keep up with my fantasy baseball emails, so I only look at my Gmail account during that time.
We all know that it’s critical to disconnect; that the true joys in life can’t be found only in work. I believe that taking oneself out of the work environment at regular intervals can actually make us better leaders.
For the past several years, I’ve been fortunate to have the regular cadence of attending HIMSS Board meetings each quarter. These trips are stimulating, not just because I’m able to interact with other industry leaders, but also because the time spent traveling allows me to do reading I wouldn’t otherwise get to. I have time to think, evaluate, and adjust.
However, although personal work-life balance is critical, as leaders, it’s also important that we take care of our staff. My colleagues know that these principles are important to me. Even if there is a season where I’m “out of balance,” I try to open all of my direct report meetings by checking in about their personal lives. I ask about their own work/life balance and listen to stories they have about their families and interests outside of work. I tell them when I’m standing in the gap, and emphasize that they need to keep their balance, even if I am not. If I need to catch up on email on a Saturday night, I’ll say, “No need to respond till next week; I’m just catching up.”
I’m guessing work/life balance is a challenge for all of us. And although I feel like I’ve been standing in the gap too long in my latest role, I’m optimistic that I will continue to learn and get tips from others at each life stage. I hope to make room for that with my leaders and staff, and to share as I learn.