Croud of people in surgical masks

Life-Work Balance in the COVID-19 Era

Aug 30, 2021

I am Mack and I am a work-a-holic.

"Hi Mack"

I am not poking fun at Alcoholics Anonymous meeting protocols - - - Just making a point.  Helping operate a small business takes a lot of work.  It can be all-consuming for long stretches of time. 

And relaunching a business like Smooth Projects, to teach Technical CONOPS and project leadership, in today's uber-competitive markets, requires a clear grasp of websites, SEO, social media, email campaigns, blogs like this one, etc. 

Cindy and I have help from wonderful professionals in Australia, South Africa, California and the UK (thanks so much Meg, Gail, Lisa and Sarah) but we are still putting in 10-12 hours each day, 6-7 days a week. 

So it is ironic that I am advising others on work-life balance.  My family members don't even ask Cindy "Where's Dad" anymore, since the answer these days is almost certainly "At the laptop, where else?".  Instead they just ask "How is work going?".

But if long hours are a given (at least for a few more months in my case), let's make them really count for something, right?  I recently read a great interview with outgoing Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David L. Goldfein (28 July 2020 post on ). He talked about, as a military pilot, trying to be worthy of the young people (firefighters, para rescue airmen, etc.) who might someday risk their lives to save his.

He talked about striving to be worthy of other people’s sacrifices on his behalf. And it got me thinking about legacy and life-work balance. It occurred to me that the latter determines the former: What we do (or don’t do) every day demonstrates our life-work balance and that has a direct impact on those around us and, hence, how we will be remembered (our legacy).

And notice I call it Life-Work Balance, not the other way around. Life is more important than work, so it is first.

This God-awful viral COVID 19 disease is horrific. And I don't mean to suggest otherwise. People have died. Others are maimed for life.  The impact on me was minor - - - after being infected I contracted a facial palsy that altered my speech and caused my left eye to not blink fully. 

But a third-order result of the COVID-19 pandemic is that many of us are working from home and spending more time with family. Getting to periodically spend more time with my wife, son and daughter-in-law (and soon, a new grandson!) is wonderful. In fact, in the future, I will work from home more than from the outside office.

But from a work standpoint, I am now always available to colleagues via email and cell phone, so I am working more hours and weekends. Plus, some of my hard-working associates reside in other parts of the US and in those other countries. 

I have noticed that my work ethic has hard-wired me to take care of work-related issues, whenever they occur, in lieu of doing anything else (exercising, enjoying family meals, helping around the house, etc.). If you are also foolishly prioritizing like this, I have some advice: strike a new life-work balance and try to live in the moment, before it is too late. 

Here are the five major changes I am making:

1. Don’t tackle the little rocks before the big rocks (if this “Big Rocks First” concept is unknown to you, search online for a full explanation).  Family should still be first priority, your own health a close second, and your work third. 

Your job(s) should not routinely prevent family meals and conversations. A friend told me yesterday "our family is not the type to get together daily at the dinner table".  I thought that was so sad.  Years from now, nobody will remember the work-related phone call they answered, in lieu of a sandwich with the spouse/mom.

The family would have remembered the tidbit of wisdom or the encouragement you might have provided had you been with them at the table that day, instead of at the computer or on the phone.

So, I am turning the cell phone off during meals now and leaving it in another room, whereas before, I always had this “electronic leash” nearby.

2. In addition to transporting my wonderful wife (and business partner) to medical appointments and out-patient sessions with the physical therapy experts for her knee replacement and lymphedema, I am also going to stop whatever I am doing to help her do the exercise sets here at home.

Those home exercises are hard enough without having to always do them alone, without the encouragement of a “coach” who can gently push her to do her absolute best.  Heck, I may do a round of those exercises myself.  My knees pop and crack too.

3. Because I answer the cell phone from wherever I am in the house, I have little notes from those calls, scattered around. It looks like someone dropped a grenade in a 3M sticky-notes warehouse!

These notes remind me to do important things, but I never seem to get to many of those things because I am also answering emails and texts, and sitting on Zoom calls throughout the day. The tyranny of the urgent is replacing the primacy of the important.

So I took a great course on time management a few months ago and now I am checking business emails every 1-2 hours instead of every few minutes. And once each week I transfer the tasks from all those stickies to a single To Do list that I can prioritize and manage, as I did in my other office before the CCP Wuhan virus hit us and we all hunkered down at home.

4. I am going to use the magic word “no”.  For online meetings, when I have been invited mostly as a courtesy, but I have nothing substantial to contribute, and am not likely to learn anything important for my own projects, I will decline to attend.

That will free up a few hours each week. Yes, it means I won’t be “up” on some issues/topics/situations but I’ll just have to fight my FOMO gene.

5. All of us have this condition known as FOMO (Fear of Missing Out). It is a common human malady like the business-related mental condition of FONKE or Fear of Not Knowing Everything.  OK, I just made-up that last one. 

You probably know some people infected with FONKE. They must know everything about everything, all the time. They are insatiable consumers of information in an organization/group/family.

And the same epidemiological contact-tracing happening worldwide for COVID-19 would show that FONKE syndrome is also highly contagious and is passed almost exclusively downward, from bosses to their direct-reports. 

FONKE-infected people can be identified by their inability to say the phrase "I don't know." They might say “I’m not a hundred percent sure” or something equally weak but they just CANNOT make themselves say "I don't know".

And here is my theory (admittedly supported only by anecdotal data, but I have decades of it) as to the bi-directional nature of this contagion: These people usually have (or have had in the past) similarly-wired bosses who also think they must have an answer ready for any conceivable question from their bosses.

They, too, live in fear their boss might ask a question about some project buried three layers down in the organization, and they might not have an answer! OMG - - - the shame! And this malady propagates vertically, and wildly, in the organization, until the entire culture becomes fear driven.

But I have a preventative measure; a simple, proven, three-word vaccine for FONKE syndrome: Just say “I don’t know”. Do not say "I'm not 100% sure". You probably aren't even zero-percent sure, are you?  So just those three words:  I.  Don't.  Know.

You can then add something helpful, if appropriate, such as “I think Sally [insert person’s name] is working that”.

If the question comes from your boss, again start with “I don’t know” but follow with “I can find out who is working that and get back to you”.

In every situation, the important part of the exchange is the phrase “I don’t know” since it also subtly says “I don’t have the entire planet’s current knowledge base in my brain; we have other people who we pay to be experts (SMEs) on our projects, technologies, schedules, etc.; and we shouldn’t try to look smart/informed/connected by speculating or dabbling in other peoples’ fields of expertise”.

It also puts a stop to the office-politics game of “gotcha” where insecure people try to look stronger by finding weaknesses in others, such as exposing them for not knowing something. Disable that tactic early by admitting that you don’t know everything, you are not at all ashamed, and you don’t expect other people to have all the answers, all the time, either.

6. OK, I lied.  There are SIX things that I am changing:  I am going to assume that other people are attempting some version of the above five changes as they also wrestle with a new COVID-19 life-work balance. So I will cut them some slack:

- I won’t expect people to immediately have the answer to every question I ask

- I won't expect people to answer my emails immediately.

- And I won’t expect colleagues to drop whatever they are doing and pick up their phone the instant it rings (or reply to my text/Teams message within minutes): I didn’t expect 100% first-ring-answering in pre-pandemic times, when I assumed people might be away from their desks and would reply to me in a few hours. So I won’t expect it now.

Instead, I will assume they are on a phone/conference call - - - and we are participating in LOTS of Zoom/WebEx/Teams calls these days, aren’t we?  Or they are taking a break with family or simply giving their tired eyes some respite from the computer screen and are sitting, phoneless, on the patio, having an iced tea.

And I’m going to do the same right now. Me shouting - - - "Honey, I'm on the sun porch. Quit milking that little knee replacement surgery. The Doctor says you need to exercise that knee more. Could you bring me an iced tea, please?"

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