The heights by great men reached and kept / Were not attained by sudden flight / But they, while their companions slept / Were toiling upward in the night.  Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

A man may be very industrious, and yet not spend his time well. There is no more fatal blunderer than he who consumes the greater part of life getting his living.  Henry David Thoreau 

I’ve never been the “work smarter, not harder” type.  The secret to any success I’ve earned has been my work ethic.  Of course, I look for process improvements where I can, but in general my response to daunting tasks or increasing workloads has always been to buckle down and clock longer hours until the job is done, “toiling while my companions slept.” This has a cyclic nature to it:  I am fulfilled by success at my job.  Such success requires long hours.  Once success is achieved, greater responsibilities are given, requiring even harder work to gain fulfillment.  

That was all well and good when I was in my twenties. Like a professional athlete or a young doctor, my job absorbed 90 percent of my life, and I loved it.  When I wasn’t at the squadron flying, I was at the officer’s club talking about flying. Weekends were often spent on cross-country flights to gain more hours, or in the tactics space studying and refining mission libraries as part of my ground job. There was goodness in all of that in terms of honing my skills, fostering a network of relationships, and building a professional reputation.

Now that I have a family, I often say that being a father is the most important job I will ever have.  And yet true priorities are demonstrated by how you spend your time. The majority of my waking hours are not spent with my family.  It’s nowhere even close to a reasonable balance.

It’s important to have a job that fulfills you.  But it shouldn’t consume you.   Otherwise, when it chews you up and spits you out, there’s not much left for your family at the end of the day (or the end of your career).

I don’t have great answers to this.   All I can humbly offer are some thoughts that I occasionally attempt to put into practice:

You’re not as essential as you think.  A mentor of mine used to always reference the famous quote, “Graveyards are full of indispensable men.”   Your organization can get along just fine without you for a day, or even a week.  And if they can’t, it means you haven’t done a good enough job training your deputy or counterpart.  

Find ways to work less hours. Easier said than done, I realize. But there are things that can be done through delegation and process-improvement to stream-line and automate tasks.  If you are a leader and your hours dictate your subordinates’ hours, then find the discipline to leave at a consistent time every day to assist their own work-life balance.  Your team will thank you for it.

Learn to say no.   It might be a project that is not a core task of your team.  Perhaps it’s a new duty assignment that means even more time away from your family.   Either way, have the confidence that you provide high value to the organization for the many things you do accomplish, and gain the freedom to politely decline.  Greg McKeown’s Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Lessprovides an extremely useful discussion of how to say no. 

Maximize time with family.  There will be times you need to work a longer hours in a week than normal, or need to get work done while the office is relatively quiet. Instead of staying late and missing dinner with your family, or coming in to the office on the weekend, try to get to the office early on the weekday while your spouse and kids are asleep.

-Make every minute count.  When you are home, find hobbies, games and projects that you can enjoy with one or more of your family members.  If you find your weekend inundated with errands or chores, grab one of your children to help out.   You might even fit in a meaningful conversation while you’re out back painting the fence.  (Plus, you’ll both learn karate!)

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