I have two kids and, if I'm being honest, I'm tired all the time.
Of course, children are a gift, the miracle of life, blah blah blah. But they are also little energy vampires that demand your attention and affection at all times regardless of how you feel and reflect all of your bad habits back at you like some backward version of the Mirror of Erised.
Don't get me wrong, I love being a dad, but don't ever let anybody tell you that it isn't hard work. When you are responsible for bringing life into this world, you're also responsible for everything that life is responsible for. It's not just about keeping them alive; you actually have to do things like talk to them, spend time with them, and teach them how to be Not-Bad Adults™.
That shit is hard, and to do it right, you have to throw your whole self into it every day, and you know what also has a reputation of requiring your whole self every day?
I've worked almost exclusively for pre-Series A startups for my entire career (which basically means I'm perpetually busy and broke). But what startups lack in money and free time, they make up for in variety. You see, I've always considered myself to be a generalist. I get bored easily, so I like to wear a lot of different hats and put my hands in a lot of different pots—and probably some other metaphors I can't think of.
Startups offer more opportunities to learn than you could possibly imagine, and when I was in my 20s that bargain was easy to maintain. Work never stopped, because learning never stopped. There was always something to do. New problems to solve, new technologies to learn, new experiments to run.
And then I had kids.
There is nothing quite so humbling as being completely responsible for the well-being of another person. Your time is no longer completely our own, and if you want to survive the Parenthood Game, it's no longer your company's either.
I found pretty quickly that the startup life I had been living wasn't sustainable as a dad. Late nights and early mornings are hard to maintain between feedings, diaper changes, preschool drop-offs, and school bus schedules—never mind all that quality time kids (probably) need.
So, for the first time in my life, I had to find balance—the "work/life" kind, not the "man on a wire" kind—and, let me tell you, it was freaking hard.
As every book about adulting tells us, bad habits are hard to break because they are so easy to engage in; and what's easier than simply staying on the computer or not leaving the office?
When your time is wholly your own, it is incredibly easy to slack off at work. Coffee walks, long lunches, internet spelunking... there's time for it all because if you waste the day, you can always make up for it at home.
Not as a parent.
When you are working, you have to get shit done. If you want to maintain your sanity (and the precious few hours of sleep you are able to carve out), you don't have the luxury of doing the work later. Get it done now because once you get home you need to take off the employee hat and doff the 'ole dad hat.
There are a thousand techniques to be more efficient at work (and just about as many books), but at the end of the day, you just need to take responsibility for your time. Learn to time block, find your flow state, say "no" to unnecessary distractions, and have a clear understanding of what your goals are for the day.
You don't have to become a productivity robot—what's the point of work if you can't find any enjoyment in it?—but you should be mindful of how you use your time, and how your choices might affect you later on.
Like many dads, I struggle with this one. After all, the "dad bod" is a thing for a reason: once you have kids, it can be so easy to let yourself go because you're juggling so many other balls.
But an unhealthy lifestyle is incompatible with both parenthood and startup life. Startups can be both mentally and physically demanding, and kids have all of the energy in the world, so if you don't take care of yourself, you'll never be able to give either what they need.
Trust me, I'm not a health expert (just ask my scale), but if there's one thing I've learned it's that not taking care of my health has a negative effect on everything in my life. You can't be your best self if you feel like shit all the time; so do something about it.
Get a standing desk. Take scheduled walks. Eat some green stuff. Meditate. There's no silver bullet, but the effects of making an effort are cumulative, and the more you make an effort, the better you will be able to manage it all.
The hardest lesson I've had to learn is that the work ends when the work day ends. When you've packed your bag and walked out of the building—or, in today's "I work from home so I'm always at work" world, when you shut off your computer—nothing short of a true emergency should bring you back into work-brain until you log back in the next morning.
Kids learn boundaries not by what we say, but by what we do. The behaviors we reward and reject demonstrate what our true limits are.
It's easy to say that you value work-life balance, but when you check in code at 7 pm or send an email after midnight, it makes it clear that your words are just that: words.
I'm not saying that you can't work after "work hours." At a startup, that is impractical. What I am saying, though, is that you need to clearly define your limitations and then live them. Whether it's not responding to Slack messages after a certain time, or only dealing with email first thing in the morning, you must figure out what your boundaries are, and hold them as your life depends on them.
This tip can be tough to swallow, but you work for a startup, not your phone. Know a good way to enforce those boundaries you set above?
Delete all the work apps off your phone.
Email? Bye. Slack? Gone. Jira? See ya.
When I'm off the clock, I'm off the clock. Slack, Email, Jira, whatever other apps we've integrated into every facet of our lives... those things are for work, so I leave them there. By allowing work apps on your phone, you are allowing work into your personal life. We live in a world where we are often asked to leave our personal "problems" at the door when coming into the office, so it's only fair to ask the same thing in return.
Worried about emergencies? In my experience, there are vanishingly few real emergencies, but if there is one, my team has my phone number and knows how to get ahold of me.
Prefer the phone apps to the computer ones? I don't get it, but I recognize that everyone has their own preferences, so dig out one of the old phones you have floating around a drawer and throw your work apps on that. Give yourself the opportunity to lock work away. If you can't do that, then you're never really "off."
I know it should go without saying, but you have to put your kids first; and if it feels like I'm flogging the whole "set boundaries" thing a bunch, it's because I am. Work is important, I'm not arguing against that. But my kids?
It's no competition.
My oldest daughter gets on the bus at 8:12 in the morning, and she gets off it at 3:28 in the afternoon. My youngest needs to be dropped off at her school by 8:30 and picked up by 3:30. Dance class is on Wednesday nights. Spaghetti Night is Monday, and Game Night is as often as humanly possible. Parent-teacher conferences, dance recitals, girl scout meetings, daddy-daughter dates,
Everyone has a life outside of work, and in mine my kids need my wife and I to show up for them at least as well as I show up for work. I will make every standup and retro, hit every deadline, and when the shit hits the fan, I'll be the first one to sacrifice some sleep to keep the product on the rails.
But I'll also be there for my kids when they need me—and how they need me—because in the end (if I do things right), they will be in my life a hell of a lot longer than any startup possibly could.
It felt appropriate to conclude this with a quote from a Disney movie. Or is it Pixar? Is Finding Nemo one of those Disney-Pixar things? I dunno. Doesn't matter...
It's a lot easier to be Employee of the Month than Dad of the Year. Being a parent is ambiguous. There are no sprints, no backlogs, no retrospectives, and no 1:1s. You never know quite how you are doing, and even if you did, there's no way to measure it. All you can do is just keep swimming (or, if startup parlance is more your speed, keep chopping wood).
My oldest daughter is turning 8 this year, and if I've learned anything in her near-decade of life it's that there are a ton of startups out there that I could join that will respect my boundaries, but only one her. Finding balance is hard—and maintaining that balance even more so—but it's a hell of a lot easier when you know what you truly value.
Also published at flower.codes.