Another late night at the office. You dial home: “Hi honey, I’m sorry. I’m running behind schedule here so I’m not going to make it home for dinner.” Sound familiar?
OK, how about this scenario: The late-day meeting is dragging on. You interrupt a colleague to say, “Sorry, but I have family dinner at 6 p.m. I need to leave in 10 minutes, so let’s wrap things up.”
If the latter scene plays out less frequently in your life, you’re not alone. Most of us say family and close relationships are our highest priority, yet in reality those relationships often get short shrift when competing against daily workplace commitments and longer-range career goals.
We may tell ourselves it’s “just for now,” but relegating these relationships to a low-on-the-totem-pole position can easily become habit forming. Over time, a tendency to put work first can erode our most important intimate connections, undermine our quality of life and even hamper our ability to reach the career goals we prioritized in the first place.
It all starts with taking for granted people and relationships we should not. “We assume that our partner will understand that we had to stay late for a meeting in a way that we don’t assume our coworker or boss will understand that we need to skip that meeting because we haven’t been home lately,” says University of Minnesota social scientist William Doherty, PhD, coauthor of Take Back Your Marriage (Guilford, 2000). “We borrow on our partners’ goodwill and patience.”
When we do this long enough, says Doherty, our families “start to feel depleted of our time and attention.” This can kick off a downward spiral of resentment and emotional withholding, which further compounds the already significant challenges of sustaining healthy family relationships.
Increased conflict and resentment — or a simple lack of intimacy — can then spill over in other parts of our lives, augmenting our stress levels and undermining our happiness, self-esteem and productivity.
Really, our professional ambitions are just another good reason to put family first. Because when our home lives are solid, we’re better able to pursue all our goals.
The Family-Health Connection
When people invest time and energy into building and maintaining strong personal relationships, they enjoy a protective buffer from adversities and challenges in life, and they’re also more productive, happier and healthier, Doherty says.
For example, married men with risk factors for angina, including high blood pressure and EKG abnormalities, who answered yes to the question, “Does your wife show you her love?” had fewer episodes of chest pain than those who felt more isolated from their partners, according to a 2004 study at Case Western Reserve University in Detroit.
A 2008 Gallup poll noted a direct correlation between the days of the year when most Americans experience happiness and the days they report spending more time with friends and family.
That emotional boost helps people succeed in many areas of life, says Jenet Jacob, PhD, assistant professor in the School of Family Life at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah. In a recent study, Jacob concluded that employees who made time for regular family dinners felt more successful in their personal life, family life and overall well-being.
They also perceived their workplace as being more emotionally healthy, a view that correlates with higher productivity and lower employee turnover, Jacob notes. “Healthy family relationships really do impact our ability to work successfully in all dimensions of life.”
How to Put Family First
The first step in prioritizing family is awareness. “If family is what you value, then look at your life structure and ask yourself how much time you have for relationships versus your job, both in terms of quantity and quality of time,” says Doherty. Ask yourself if you’re physically and psychologically present for your relationships, or if you’re fitting them into leftover windows of time and engaging people with lackluster energy.
If a loved one expresses concern about how little time you have together or the way you’re spending that time, take the concerns seriously, he says. If you’re focused on the TV or laptop from the moment you get home, you might be physically present but emotionally disengaged.
One way to start reprioritizing, says Patrick Lencioni, author of The 3 Big Questions for a Frantic Family (Jossey-Bass, 2008), is to take some of the tools used to bolster success in the workplace and apply them to family. Like all organizations, families need leadership, a plan and constant communication to succeed. Lencioni offers a three-step process that borrows from his business models:
- Ask yourself what makes your family unique. Write two or three sentences describing what’s special about your family. This will give you a basis for making decisions about how to spend time together — and it will remind you of what draws you to your family when life gets busy and you’re tempted to shunt loved ones aside.
- Discuss what your top family priority is right now. Choose one single area to focus on for the next three to six months. For example, maybe it’s, “Between now and this fall, we’d like to simplify our lives.” Then write down a handful of things that will help you achieve this. For example: “Pare down the kids’ activities to one per season.”
- Make a plan to talk regularly about how the family is doing and whether you’re moving forward on the stated priority. This could be as simple as gathering for a 15-minute family meeting after dinner once a week.
As you think about how you spend your time, find room for compromises, Doherty suggests. Could you attend just one less conference each year? Could you limit weekend events or decide that you’ll travel only within a certain region for work? Could you set aside two evenings a week as sacred and not take meetings after 3 p.m. on those days?
Try to establish some routines within relationships, Doherty adds. For example, make 9 p.m. the time you stop everything and share a cup of tea with your spouse. Stick to these plans until they become habits, while also allowing some flexibility, he says. Rigid enforcement of “quality time” can quash the very joy you’re working to build.
You might also try scheduling your calendar with unstructured quality time with your loved ones, suggests Cecile Andrews, author of Slow Is Beautiful: New Visions of Community, Leisure, and Joie de Vivre (New Society Publishers, 2006). However you choose to do it, you’ll probably find that restructuring your life so that relationships take center stage has big payoffs: Your most meaningful relationships get stronger — and you bolster your health, happiness and chances for success.