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Is Work/Life Balance a Myth? Here Are 10 Tips to Help You Do It All

Written by Mani Ardalan Farhadi, Senior Associate and Thought Leader who recently led an interactive workshop on Work/Life Balance at the Equity by Design (EQxD) Symposium. 

. . .

You know those moments when you wonder just how you’re going to get everything done? It happens to me all the time. Last Wednesday, I got 2 hours of sleep before waking up to finish a client presentation, wrap 4 presents, swing by a bakery, and throw a baby shower for a fellow volunteer, all before starting work at 9am. The day followed with a 2-hour conference call, a mad dash to grab a bite, eating lunch while driving an hour to the client meeting, leading the discussions, then driving back for an hour towards home and catching the end of my son’s volleyball scrimmage. This doesn’t happen every day (thank goodness!), but this kind of busy day is relatively common for working women like myself.

For reasons important to me, I’ve chosen to lead a triple life as a manager, a mother, and a mentor - three people existing in a parallel universe. Choosing to balance all three sides has its share of sacrifices, and it requires staying flexible, but it comes with the satisfaction of knowing I’m filling every moment with what I want to be doing.

Here are ten tricks that allow me to serve those multiple roles:

1. Update Your Calendar Daily

It seems I’ve always led multiple lives. At Wellesley College, I was so busy that the girls on my dorm floor gave me an award for ‘Invisible Woman’ because they never saw me! I juggled both Wellesley and MIT coursework, work-study and off-campus jobs, volunteering, plus my personal life. It was before cell phones and computers, so I hand-wrote everything in a paper organizer in pencil. You can bet things were erased and adjusted, but having one source to refer to kept me on track. These days, I update my iPhone calendar every day as soon as I get notification via email, phone call, snail mail, or outlook. My iPhone is then synchronized with my work calendar and events get inserted automatically, maximizing efficiency. You may choose to organize another way, but regardless of the method, you have to be organized and weigh decisions about your calendar every day.

2. Budget Your Hours

Think of your day as an equation equaling 24 hours. I pick and choose which hours to spend on what tasks at the beginning of each day by setting my intentions, creating to-do lists, and figuring out how long I need for each item. If I allocate 2 hours for a document and end up spending 3 hours, it will take away from my other tasks, either the next project, family, or volunteering. The ‘equation method’ motivates me to stay within my capacity, and helps me determine my choices. If I’m spending too many hours a day on a particular task but not enough on others, I reevaluate and adjust the equation or risk playing catch up the next day. It involves creative math when you have to ‘borrow’ hours from the next day, so work towards getting each day's equation to break even.

Graphing the Work/Life Equation

Graphing the Work/Life Equation


3. Prioritize Value

When juggling involvements, be sure to evaluate them along on a ‘priority scale’ to better understand their value. I like to ask myself: what would I have to give up in order to lead this triple life of manager, mother, and mentor? Something has to give, and, for me, it isn’t going to be my family or my career. Basically, I sacrifice sleep. The myth implied in the word ‘balance’ is that there is harmony, whereas in reality, life is a see-saw, tilting sometimes this way and other times that. In order to enjoy what you love doing most, pick your priorities, and let go of the idea of doing it all, all of the time.

4. Keep Your Eye on the End Goal

Once I began working at Sasaki Associates in Watertown, MA, I volunteered for the Boston Society of Architects, and chaired the Women in Architecture Committee for one year. Shortly thereafter, I began my second degree program at Boston Architectural College, working during the day at Sasaki, and going to school at night for 6 years in one of only two concurrent programs in the country. I juggled work, college, and being married until I finally achieved my Bachelor of Architecture degree in true form – two weeks after giving birth to my first child! It was hard work with sleepless nights and a fatigued body, but the thought of graduation kept me motivated and moving forward. I held a vivid picture in my mind of standing on stage and receiving the diploma, and it was my mission to make that image a reality. Visualizing your goals will keep you focused on moving forward with purpose. (But don't forget to enjoy the journey along the way)

5. Say YES to Help

I was successfully employed in architecture at Sasaki for 14 years and after becoming a mother I chose to continue working part-time. During those tender first 3 years, my mother-in-law lived with us to take care of our son so that I could work with peace of mind. A lot of women take pride in doing everything themselves, and I admire them for doing so. But for me, letting go of total control and allowing someone to help, even if they did it differently than what I would have wanted, gave me the freedom to lead my multi-faceted lifestyle. When we moved away from extended family for career changes, we embraced the help of daycare, after-school programs, and other parents. When the kids got older and more self-sufficient, they could manage on their own, but often my husband stepped in to help out when they needed it. I couldn’t have accomplished this triple life without the understanding and support of my family. It truly takes a village to raise children while working as a professional - embrace it.

6. Seek Flexible Work Hours

When I interviewed for Steinberg in San Jose, CA I explained that, as a parent of a toddler and a kinder, I’d prefer working part-time. Because they accepted my terms, we began a journey that has lasted 16 years. For a variety of circumstances, I’ve worked anywhere from 8 to 30 to even 60 hours per week. When deadlines and stress become too chaotic, I took a leave of absence. By making the right choices for me, amidst the demands of work, I’ve been able to manage the ups and downs long-term. Like when the boys were young - I’d pick them up from daycare, take them home, make dinner, wait for my husband, then go back to work to meet a deadline. With my flexible schedule I've been able to chaperone field trips, grade math tests, meet their classmates, supervise for lunch duty, take them to their medical/dental appointments and, in general, be there for them. I’m grateful to Steinberg for our arrangement, but keep in mind that flexibility works both ways. On the other side of the coin, I’ve worked on weekends, plugged in remotely while on vacations, come in at 6:00 am or stayed until midnight, attended meetings on unpaid days, and adjusted travel plans. You can (and should) negotiate terms beyond compensation to accommodate your lifestyle; take time to strike a deal that works best for both you and your employer.

7. Ask for the Tools You Need

As time marched on, it became apparent that the balancing act would be more efficient if I didn’t have to come back to the office to finish up projects. When laptops became prevalent in the workforce, I noticed that it helped senior leadership stay connected. So, at my next performance evaluation, I asked for one! They agreed, and while it was at the expense of giving up my desktop, most of my work did not require memory-intensive, complex software, so it worked well. It's much more convenient for me to take work home and connect remotely. Most importantly, it has allowed me the freedom to choose how to allocate my time in my work/life equation. I’ve successfully held repeat clients and gained new ones because the work gets done when it needs to. At the same time, I'm able to manage my home life and make sure that that work also gets done when it needs to. In fact, the #1 reason my equation works is the laptop! So if you know there's a tool you could use to make you both more productive in the workplace and efficient with time management, just ask!

8. Align Your Passions with Your Profession

Having worked with educational institutions, my expertise is in building consensus, and by volunteering for our local schools there is substantial overlap, blurring the lines in my work/life equation. When I served as Chair of the Bond Oversight Committee, I made Board presentations, which I did anyway as part of my work with schools and community colleges. For my role, I received a ‘Citizen Architect’ award from the AIA, and later a promotion at work to Associate level. Subsequently, I was honored to be appointed as Board of Trustee member for the School District. Serving as Trustee was not only a learning experience, but it aligned with my design profession. Through that involvement, I received governance training, and represented a voice for my community, while continuing to work in the industry. I felt the past 30 years of collaborating with schools/colleges had led me to this point. Explore the depth and dimension of your passions, then make wise commitments that are in alignment with each other to maximize fulfillment. 

Mani Ardalan Farhadi’s pledge at EQxD

Mani Ardalan Farhadi’s pledge at EQxD


9. Be a Good Example

For me, being a good example means instilling the importance of hard work in my children. My youngest is graduating high school, while my oldest is graduating from university. They are the products of the public education system that I not only helped design, but also volunteered for. Although I’ll always be their mother, they are now independent, making it easier to dedicate more hours to my career and my community. With that extra time, I volunteer for Women in Architecture Committee, Iranian-American Women’s Foundation, Wellesley College Alumnae Association, and Activism. You might wonder: Do my kids juggle multiple activities? Well, my youngest is taking 6 AP Classes, plays Club Volleyball, is Captain of his Varsity Volleyball Team, and serves on the Board of SafeRides, a volunteer group for teen rides. My oldest is finishing up his Bachelor’s degree, sings in an A Capella group, is in the university Musical, constantly auditions for outside entities, and volunteers for a student film on weekends for his childhood friend. So yes, you could say they have picked up my habits! How did that happen? My father is a professor, designer, planner, writer, researcher, consultant, Harvard fellow and volunteer. My mother has written, edited and translated over 200 books, and obtained her Ph.D. after age 50. They set the example for me, and I've passed it to my children. Whether you have children or not, someone is looking to you to be an example. What habits would you want them to inherit in your image? 

10. Remember: There Is No One-Size Fits All Answer

When I was asked to lead a session at the 2016 Equity by Design symposium (EQxD) along with Patricia Hansen, Joan Price and Ming Thompson, we organized an interactive Workshop where we talked about ways the relationship between work and personal life can be designed. Each of us designs our own unique career path depending on our circumstances. For me, every day shifts flexibly with demands and priorities. But maybe that doesn't work for you, and instead you set a solid 30/30/30 split of family/career/sleep. Whether you are studying for the ARE, coping with an aging parent, acquiring a new pet, have a young child, or packed your schedule with volunteering, each of us is attempting to solve our own equation. Let me tell you, it’s a myth to think there is a ‘magic formula’ or that work/life can achieve a harmonic balance. It is challenging, and while you can learn from others, you must find your own formula. Life continually evolves around significant milestones - focus, find a method that works, and let it grow while you do.  


So, why choose this life as a woman in Architecture?

My house may not be spotless, but it is a home full of memories.
I may not be a partner at my firm, but I have shared in my sons’ treasured moments, from musical theater performances to volleyball tournaments. The income from my career has paid for our mortgage, vacations, and college tuition.
I may not cook dinner every night, but my sons have benefited from seeing a working mother dedicated to her passion, so that someday they can appreciate their wives and daughters.
I may be fatigued, but I’m fully engaged in all aspects of life.

I’m proud to tell you with certainty that achieving work/life “balance” means living life to the fullest (whatever that may mean for you) and it is well worth it.

Do you feel like you’re achieving a work/life balance today? If so, what’s working for you? If not, why not? Please share with us your stories, tips, and thoughts - we'd love to hear from you!