Mother’s Day is coming up this Sunday. A while ago, I wrote a post called “The Myth of Indispensability,” which deals with the loss of my mother and how all of us need to spend more time with the people we love, because we never know how many more days we have left with them.
Since that post though, I haven’t really been following my own words. Working for a nonprofit is all-consuming. I know you know what that is like. Our work is often not confined to a 9-to-5. It is often in the evenings, on the weekends, sometimes in the bathroom on the phone (hey, whatever it takes to get that online grant application submitted). Even when we aren’t at the office, we are thinking about work, worrying about clients and payroll and programs and reports. And we never feel that we are doing enough, that we ourselves are enough.
And while we work, the people we love change. Kids grow older, our parents grayer, our friends don’t call or drop by as much anymore. I had to contain my emotions one day when my then-four-year-old held on to my leg as I was leaving for the airport. “Daddy, I don’t want you to go on a work trip.” I didn’t know how it happened that my tiny, sweet little baby who was only eight pounds was now speaking full sentences. It reminded me of what a colleague once said years ago, but whose words I never absorbed until that moment: “Your projects will always be there. But your children will only grow up one time.” That was a difficult ride to the airport.
So in February I asked my board to drop my position down to four days a week. I stay home and write on Monday, instead of spending six to ten hours on Sunday, and this gives me more time with the kids on the weekends. It hasn’t always worked out. Sometimes, when a grant proposal is due, or a meeting or trip has to be scheduled for a Monday, I end up working. But overall, it’s been nice to allow myself to slow down, to have more time to hold the kids’ sticky hands as we cross the street to the playground, kiss their scrapes and bumps when they fall, make wishes on dandelion clocks, and be present during this, their one time growing up.
I encourage you to do the same, to consider working less and spending more time with the people you love. I know this is not always possible. Many of us don’t have the financial stability or the support of our organizations. But even for those who do, we often are our worst enemies. But we would be happier and healthier, and our organizations would be more effective, and society would function better, if we all paradoxically worked less. Here are some suggestions and things to think about:
Flex your time: Chances are you are working way more than the standard 40 hours a week. Those of us who are exempt don’t even count our hours any more. You should. That way, when you see that you worked 58 hours this week, you know you have 18 hours of flex time, or about two days off, that you need to take. I know that legally, being exempt means you work whatever hours it takes to get the work done. But the work is never done; there is always more work, so this is a flawed system that is burning people out. Work diligently during your hours, but when you are over 40 hours a week, take the time you need off to recharge. You’ll be happier, and your work will be higher quality.
Schedule mid-week appointments with friends and family: My partner and I realized that even though we live together, we get few chances to have uninterrupted conversations. So we started scheduling dates in the middle of the week. Sometimes we go to lunch. Once we saw a movie at 2pm. Now that I am off on Mondays, we try to have lunch together then. It has improved our relationship. Your work is not nine-to-five. It cuts into the times when you would normally spend with your loved ones—evenings and weekends—so why not balance it out by visiting the people you care about during the day? Think about your partner, your parents or siblings, or maybe a friend you haven’t seen in a while, and schedule a lunch with them.
Give your teams permission to take time off: Those of you who are in positions of power—board members, senior leadership—be thoughtful about the kind of organizational culture you want to create. Encourage people to take vacations and flextime. They may not be very good at monitoring their overtime, so help them to do it. It goes a long way for morale when supervisors say, “I noticed that you worked a lot this week due to the house party. Can you flex some time this week or next?” Set a good example by taking time off yourself. And do it right by trusting the team and not checking emails, etc. And don’t think you’re just doing this because you’re nice; creating an environment that encourages people to take care of themselves is good for the entire team and organization and even the economy.
Have an equity lens: Pay attention especially to your team members who are women, people of color, LGBTQIA, Muslim, or have a disability, or, as a colleague mentions in the comment section, have parents or children who may have a disability or need extra care. They face more challenges, demands on their time, and unjust expectations (here’s a great post listing 50 ways women are expected to do emotional labor). Also, while it’s good to encourage people to take time off, it’s also critical to create an environment that is not the reason for why people need to take time off. And if you have one or more of these identities, please take care of yourself. It’s been stressful lately, and many of you have been on the front lines. We need you for the long haul, so take the days you need off.
Stop feeling guilty: We have been trained to feel guilty when we are not working. I wrote about this earlier, about how so many of us have been trained by our childhood upbringing to feel bad when we take time off. I never saw my parents take more than a day off—on the weekends they used to wake up at 4am to deliver newspapers—so I always feel bad when I take some down time. You may feel the same way. But as long as you are getting your work done (within reason, as again, it will NEVER really be done), don’t feel guilty. You’ve earned this. And remember, taking care of yourself is not just good for you, but also for your organization, as countless studies have confirmed. Here’s an article on the amazing benefits of sabbaticals.
Be present and engaged when you are off: I am now trying to be very conscientious that when I am with my kids, I don’t pull out my phone, except to take occasional pictures and videos of them. Still, it can be difficult, because we’re addicted to our gadgets and to our work, which can easily be consuming even when we’re supposed to be away from it. An effect of our work is that sometimes we are not mentally there for our friends and family, even when we’re physically there. This is not fair to the people around us. When you are with the people you love and who love you, they deserve your full attention, the same attention you reserve for a colleague, client, donor, funder, or auditor.
Think about what kind of memories you want to create: Whenever new parents ask me foradvice, I always tell them to take pictures of themselves with their kids, not just of their kids. I actually don’t have any pictures of me before I was three years old, because we were poor and access to cameras was rare back then. That’s OK; I am told I was a cute baby. But what I really wish is that I had a single picture of either of my parents holding me. The memories that you make now, and the pictures and videos you take of them, are not just for fun. They will become more and more important over time. So think about what kind of memories you want to create, not just for you, but also for the generations who come after you.
I hope that was helpful, especially if you have been overworking lately. A friend of mine, Erica Mills, said to me once, “Why is it always ‘work-life balance’? Why does work come first? Why isn’t it ‘life-work balance’?” She has a good point. We need to reverse this. But this is easier said than done.
On my last work trip, at the end of my keynote someone asked me what advice I had for people who work too much. I told the room, “Think about the memories that you have with the people you love, and remember that those memories may be all that you may ever have of them, and all that they may ever have of you.”
As Mother’s Day approaches, I wish I had had more time with my mother, that she had been given just a few more years, so she could meet our boys, her grandkids, who sometimes remind me of her. She would love them so much, and probably rub this potent green menthol oil on them, because that’s what grandmothers do in our culture.
None of us can control the past. We can only try to work with whatever time we have left. Your work is critical, but life is shorter than we hope more uncertain than we realize, and the days you have with the people you love, who love you, should not be taken for granted.
Support the maintenance of this website by buying NAF t-shirts and mugs and other stuff.
Make Mondays suck a little less. Get a notice each Monday morning when a new post arrives. Subscribe to NAF by scrolling to the top right of this page (maybe scroll down a little) and enter in your email address (If you’re on the phone, it may be at the bottom). Also, join the NAF Facebook community for daily hilarity.
Also, join Nonprofit Happy Hour, a peer support group on Facebook, and if you are an ED/CEO, join ED Happy Hour. If you’re an ED/CEO of color, join EDOC. These are great forums for when you have a problem and want to get advice from colleagues, or tell nonprofit jokes. Check them out.
Donate, or give a grant, to Vu’s organization, Rainier Valley Corps, which has the mission of bringing more leaders of color into the nonprofit sector and getting diverse communities to work together to address systemic issues