By Ellie Hearne

"How do you do it all?" "How can I establish a good work-life balance?" "How do you manage work and home stuff without letting things slip?"

I get asked these questions a lot. As a leadership coach, queries about "doing stuff better" are pretty commonplace. But these particular ones are more often asked by friends, new acquaintances, and extended family members.

Let me explain. I run a business with multiple Fortune 200 clients. I have a child, a partner, a dog, and an extended family a few thousand miles away (i.e., outside of reliable-source-of-childcare range). I'm also a woman.* And I value downtime more than most people do, partly having experienced what life without it is like. I've learned that if I can't accommodate some downtime, I'm less effective in my other roles.

I'm not alone in that - one doesn't have to look far for empirical evidence of downtime and self-care paying dividends in work and life

Here's something else I've learned though: work-life balance is an elusive goal and a life's work. Rare is the week I attain "inbox zero," do the school run, and find time for enough self-care, but making the effort to achieve the latter helps me be more effective in all of the above. I'll go further than that: it makes me a better boss to my team, a better partner to my clients, and a better parent/partner to my family. 

With every late-night visit to our email inbox or simple "no" to a work request, we make a decision about our personal-professional persona that impacts coworkers and loved ones alike.

Culture starts with people, after all. A company I used to work for, while stellar in many ways, kicked its employees' non-work lives to the curb in order to fit in more work. No out-of-office email responses allowed. No vacation policy (which, unless done sensitively, typically means no vacation). And no "saying no" to the customers. Needless to say, people burnt out. Again and again.

In the years I worked there, many friendships fell by the wayside in the wake of missed birthday parties and personal engagements. Parental leave was overshadowed by work requests and client engagements. And clients didn't exactly thrive, serviced as they were by overworked employees. But I have to own my involvement in that culture - by responding to the late-night emails and failing to put my foot down about things like working-during-maternity-leave, I was part of the problem. I was signaling to my team that you can't really unplug when you're on vacation or leave. People see you. And they follow the example you set.

Are we the type to respond to a midnight work email within minutes? Or the person who leaves early to collect their kids from school? Do we brag about returning early from maternity (thus eroding its value for other aspiring parents - as a few former colleagues of mine did)? Or are we the lone employee to take paternity leave, despite some ribbing from our peers?

A lot implications are wrapped up in these decisions, big and small. And while I dislike putting people in boxes, everybody's doing it. When people hear I'm a mum with a business they make a least a couple of the following assumptions:

  • "You hardly do any actual work!"

  • "You probably work from home and spend most of your days among toddlers and other moms!"

  • "You can't be a fully present mom."

  • "You're comfortable leaving your child with strangers!"

  • "You must never travel for work!" or "You're away too much and never with your family!"

(None of these is accurate. Why not ask me about it sometime?)

Anyway. Part of why I started my own company was to establish a strong work-life balance, model it for others, and ultimately provide a great workplace for future employees. 

I'd say I'm about half-way there.

In the coming days, I'll begin sharing pointers on making better decisions - on defining, establishing, and maintaining a good balance of work and life. And what that means when the two worlds are more closely entwined than ever.

More to come...



*I wouldn't mention that, only men with similar demands on their time don't seem to get asked about "having it all" quite as much. Except this guy.


Ellie Hearne is a leadership-communications expert and founder of Pencil or Ink. Over the years she has coached leaders at Apple, Google, Kate Spade, Starbucks, Spotify, Marriott, Pfizer, Piaget, and numerous small businesses and startups. Ellie can be reached herehere, and here.