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The elusive work-life balance

Recently in our office an email was circulated titled “Struggling to Cope?” it offered free and confidential consultation by a work-life coach. In a time when people are stressed out from uncertainties at the office, it was sobering to realize that in our Asian culture, this consultation and coaching is not something that people take to easily. While many do struggle to cope with official and domestic demands, very few are likely to seek professional help. In this culture, it is considered to be an admission of weakness or mental instability to go see a psychologist, counselor or mental health professional.

Funnily enough while this was on my mind, I received a phone call from a friend who is struggling to cope with the domestic demands of running a household while keeping up with her kid and the demands of parenthood. I couldn’t tell her how to run her life more smoothly but what I could do was to tell her how I cope.

Before I had kids, I indulged my workaholic characteristics completely. Given my devotion to work, one thing that I realized early on is that I could not be bothered to spend time or energy after work fixing the house or even dinner. I hired help who would take care of these details for me. Grocery shopping and errands were something that I would keep for the first day of the weekend.

Post kid, my routine changed. Instead of one, I kept two maids, but I was still determined not to waste my precious time on inane activities that numb the mind and eat away at the precious little time that I get with my son. Grocery shopping, running errands, maintaining the car were also something that I delegated as much as possible. I developed a network of people who did home-delivery of different kinds of services and I took full advantage of these.

I roped in and took advantage of having two sets of grandparents. I became better friends with people who had kids of the same age. It was the easiest way to schedule play dates, swap toys and still have some adult interaction during the weekend.

I love my work and give it my hundred percent. However, when my kid gets sick, work takes a backseat. I take advantage of having internet connection at home and the ability to securely log-in to the office network to continue my work from home. I stay available on the phone but encourage my office people to text me instead. While my son is up and about, I am with him, when he takes his naps or turns in for the night, I take care of work so it wouldn’t fall behind or get piled up.

In the age of technology, ready made food, mobile phones and even mundane things like the washing machine and micro-wave oven, I fail to see why some women struggle so much. Lower the bar for yourself women. The house doesn’t have to be spotless. You don’t have to serve freshly cooked meals every day. Kids thrive on attention, not on force feeding them nutritious food that you slave over for hours.

I don’t care if my house is not spotless. I don’t care if my cat leaves her fur on the sofa. I don’t care if the spilled drinks had left a spot on my dining table covers because I put them through the washing machine instead of hand washing it. I don’t care if I am heating up yesterday’s chicken curry in the micro-wave instead of cooking again today.

Here’s what I do care about. I care about whether my son feels like he’s getting enough attention. I care about whether I have the time to sing, dance, color with crayons and play on the PS2 with him. I care about whether my son’s hair is getting long and shaggy or if his nails need to be trimmed. I care about how he’s coping with school and ensuring that I attend every single event in which he participates. And all these take priorities over my OCD tendency kicking in and demanding that the cleaning be taken care of immediately.

At the end of the day before you allocate and spend time on an activity, ask yourself this, how important is it for you to do it yourself? Are you even going to remember doing this one month from now?

Decide on your priorities and stick to them. Allocate time to things that are more important to you. Be that your kid, your pets, your hobbies or just the simple pleasure of taking care of yourself by exercising or preparing a good meal. Do what feels right to you.

If more people took the time to do what is right for them, when and as it is right for them, I believe that they would find that elusive work-life balance. Take care of yourself and your needs before you aspire to be the Martha Stewart of your office, social circle, friends or family… and watch that stress melt away 🙂

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Uncertainty

There’s something funny about uncertainty. In some people it brings out the worst and some just seem to thrive on it. Right now my organization is going through global reorganization. The aim is to have a flatter organization in place that can respond faster to customer requests and changes in the market. While the intention behind the change has been communicated and reinforced in all sorts of ways, when I look around me, I find it intriguing to see a workforce that is becoming increasingly stressed from this impending change.

I should be stressed. There’s a very high chance that my boss is going to change, which in itself is not so bad, apart from the fact that in my 3+ years in Ericsson, the next boss would be my 6th one. I should probably also be worried about the fact that while most of the technical people are clearly mapped into new roles, its general people who do fluffy jobs like me that are not so clearly aligned in the new organizations blueprint. I am sure the guys at the top has already thought this through but people at my level and those below still don’t have a clear concept of where we are going to be parked.

All this uncertainty has brought out different sides to the people around me. There’s the gossip mongers, for whom gossip/rumor rules the day. There are the pessimistic ones who are convinced that they are going to find themselves out of a job soon. And then there are the optimistic one’s who are hoping that a flatter organization and a bigger region consisting of countries like Australia, New Zealand, Malaysia and Vietnam would mean a bigger pool of career opportunities.

As for me, I am actually enjoying this. I am hoping that in the process of becoming flatter, we’ll have more fun with work, be more in close contact with the people who make the decisions that ultimately affect our careers. In other words, instead of worry I am thriving at this opportunity to bring about change faster in the organization. As I find myself in this unusual stance of actually enjoying this ride, I can’t help but examine the reasons why.

I learned how to thrive in uncertainty from two of my ex-bosses. One was a Pakistani who had worked all over the world and been through more than his share of uncertainty. The other was a Parsi of Indian origin, a hard working man for whom everything had to be done yesterday. These two men, Jak and Karl, influenced me and my outlook in more ways than I can possibly ever articulate.

Javid Ali Khan (JAK) was the marketing director at Beximco Textiles division. He was there to market the fledgling company and bring in business that would help it to break even. Before that he had started up projects in Kenya, England and Dubai. Long before that he taught at a Karachi university and then went on to serve as the youngest foreign diplomat under Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. The youngest son of the last Nawab of Delhi, Jak had an ingrained sense of quiet dignity and style about him.

Karl Munshi was the Managing Director & Chairman of the Bangladesh unit of AP Moller Maersk when I met him. I first dealt with him as a business partner and later on decided to go work for him when he casually hinted at his interest to hire me on. Karl was legendary for his work ethic, his quirky sense of humor, his quick temper and straight forward dealing with people.

I learned a lot about corporate life watching these two men. I soaked up their work ethic, their style of working, their impatience for achievement, the way they couldn’t wait to get on to the next project, their anal persistence on perfection. No matter how much I say it’ll never be enough, personalities that big, that charismatic can never be explained in words.

I was lucky in that I not only worked under them, giving me the perfect opportunity to learn from them directly, but I was blessed and lucky in that I got both of them as life long friends. We kept in touch through the years long after I stopped working for them. We corresponded, talked on the phone, planned and visited each other when we happened to be in the same country at the same time. I asked for advice and they would indulge my eccentricities while gently guiding me back towards my goals when I lost my way. They believed in me when I lost faith in myself.

Jak had an interesting saying that he would repeat to his team often in times of high stress and fast paced changes – “when rape becomes inevitable, you might as well lie back and enjoy it”. No use worrying about something that you can’t help anyway. So take a chill pill, sit back, breathe and continue doing what you are doing, or better yet, find a more interesting challenge to take on.

Like I said, I learned life from these two guys. I learned about uncertainty and how to handle uncertainties. Stress and how to manage stress to a large degree J If I try to sum it up than I would probably have to say – uncertainty is just another opportunity in disguise. It’s the opportunity to branch out, to take a different road, to try a new approach, to test and see if the existing system works or needs an overhaul. In short, uncertainty is exciting, not stressful. Meanwhile just remember “Breathe…. This too shall pass”  🙂

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