The Productive Family

Scaling Life Back to Get More Done
April 20, 2009

Patrick Lencioni, his wife, Laura, and their three boys were a frantic family. They'd outgrown their first house, retired their first minivan, and were struggling to get their 3-year-old out of diapers and teach the 7-year-old twins to make their own breakfasts before school. After a full day of hustle and bustle, Patrick and Laura fell into bed exhausted, thankful for making it through another day.

“We’d go to bed and think, ‘Oh gosh, I survived,’ ” Patrick Lencioni says. “That’s not very fulfilling. I was watching my kids grow up and thinking, ‘Am I supposed to be rooting for this to be over?’ Our lives were too crazy, hectic and frantic.”

Then, they discovered Baby No. 4 was on the way. “We were a mess, our house was a mess and we were struggling,” says Lencioni, a best-selling author and owner of a management consulting firm specializing in executive team development. “We realized if we didn’t prepare for Baby No. 4, we couldn’t do anything.”

For many families like the Lencionis, survival is the goal. Even after work and school, the hectic pace doesn’t stop, with soccer, ballet, homework and chores heaping up amid a buzzing BlackBerry. How does a family get it all done and still have quality family time? As the Lencionis found out, achieving goals as a family often means not “doing it all.”

Live in the Moment
Consider a word psychologists have tossed around for the past few years: presenteeism. You’re in attendance, but you’re struggling to focus, much less provide intelligent insight. “People are getting an hour’s worth of productivity in a three-hour period,” says David Ballard with the American Psychological Association.

A good way to combat presenteeism is to tune in to how you operate, Ballard says. Skipping lunch often doesn’t save you time in the long run, because you might feel significantly more lethargic at the end of the day. If your energy typically is high in the morning, that may be the time to get things done—finish that report for work or do a load of laundry—so your evenings can be more relaxed and focused on family. Understanding your tendencies will help you develop a plan that leaves you more energized—more present— at work and home.

Entrepreneur Kim Lim certainly knows the importance of being focused on the task at hand. As owner of two companies and the single mother of two boys, Lim knows her time is precious. That’s why she spends just six hours a day at her job as owner of Ultimate Labs, a contract microbiology lab, before picking up her boys and leaving work completely behind. “I really have a focus on what’s important to me and when it’s important to me,” says Lim, of San Diego. She then picks up tasks for her second company, a toddler T-shirt business, during some evenings after the kids are asleep.

When Lim was at home with her newborn son, Simon, she went through a painful divorce. She didn’t have a job at the time or a clear view of how she would “do it all.” But Lim is an innovator. She set a solid plan for what she wanted her future to look like, and she never strayed. “Thinking about how to spend my time is always on my mind,” Lim says. “I know what needs to be done, and everything falls into place.”

In just a few years, she started two very different companies and adopted a little boy, Sam. She also completed a teaching degree, in case she wants to pursue a third career. Her single goal, however, was being a good mom. “I want my sons to grow up and be good men. I hope to be a role model for them.”

“I’m a single mom, but I know what I want. And I do it,” Lim says. “Delegation is the biggest thing in my life. You have to have qualified people you trust. If someone is great at their job, let them do it. It’s about knowing when to let go.”

Focus on the Important First
Prioritizing is often one of the simplest ways to get your life in order, Ballard says. Two lists are important: First, what do you have to do today? And second, what’s your bigger picture?

Business owner Fran Biderman-Gross, mother of three in New York City, says she survives by knowing her personal strengths: She doesn’t enjoy talking on the phone while she’s multitasking at work, but she’s always got her eye on her BlackBerry. Kept in silent mode, it’s the lifeline during the workday between her and her oldest children, ages 20 and 16.

Biderman-Gross also updates her Twitter feed constantly so her friends and family can keep tabs on her. After crazy workdays, Biderman-Gross’s family is her calming influence.

“Spontaneity doesn’t really happen in my house,” she says. “Planning is big.”

“We’d go to bed and think,
‘Oh Gosh, I survived.’
That’s not very fulfilling.”

Her marketing company, Advantages Printing Inc., began as a partnership with her late husband, who died from liposarcoma in 2001 while they were growing their business and their two children were young. Biderman- Gross learned quickly to be a business owner, a mom and a caregiver all at the same time. “When you have all three of those jobs, you just have to find the strength to do them,” she says.

She was still in survival stage at that time, as Lencioni calls it. “I was always running,” she says. It took years for her to find the confidence to get past the hectic stage and become more efficient, she says. She attributes much of her success to encouragement she received from the Entrepreneurs’ Organization, which boosted her self-confidence, enabling her to delegate and prioritize.

Today, Biderman-Gross is remarried and has a 1-year-old daughter. She says having “cardinal rules” for every home is essential. As Modern Orthodox Jews, Friday nights are sacred, and every member of the family is required to stay home and observe Shabbat. “Everyone needs to recharge,” she says. “This gives the family time to connect, rest and play.”

She also makes sure to spend time with her children after work. Rules and structure give her and her children confidence to go about their busy days and reconvene in the evening when mom provides her undivided attention. “I learned it is OK to grow your business,” she says. “But you need to learn what’s urgent and what’s important. My kids are always important.”

Play to Your Strengths
Every family, like every business, should focus on its most important task at hand, says Lencioni. Best known for best-sellers including The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, Lencioni wrote The 3 Big Questions for a Frantic Family just after Baby No. 4 arrived. He realized that if his family didn’t have it all together, others probably didn’t either.

Lencioni recommends that families first find out what makes them unique. “If you don’t know what your family stands for and what your life situation is, you’re in trouble,” he says.

Next, it’s important for families to ask what their rallying cry is, Lencioni says. In early 2006, the Lencioni rallying cry was: How do we prepare for Baby No. 4? He had a list of things he wanted to do: “I wanted to take a new Pilates class because I can’t touch my toes,” he says. “I wanted to re-landscape the backyard. But nope. We were crazy if we signed up for new projects. We had to decide what we were going to do to prepare for Baby No. 4.”

And finally, families have to decide how to take action. The Lencionis, residents of the San Francisco Bay area, sat down with their children to discuss their challenges and possible solutions. A time-consuming model to “fix” their chaotic life wouldn’t stick. So they decided to spend 10-15 minutes a week revisiting their rallying cry and the five sub-objectives to help them meet that goal. While the Lencionis prepared for Baby No. 4, some of their sub-objectives included finishing their cumbersome kitchen remodeling project, cleaning out their closets, and hiring someone to clean the house and mow the lawn. “To some people, doing the yardwork is a family activity,” he says. “For us, the opportunity cost of doing the yard was losing time with our kids.”

“I’m a single mom, but I know what I want. And I do it.”

Now, the Lencionis have a strategy that has guided them from maintaining their lives to enjoying them. Days are still crazy with four young boys at home, Lencioni says, but the time is purposeful. “This is not about perfection. To the naked eye, our lives are unpredictable and crazy,” he says. “But we have less guilt, more courage and more clarity.”

Let Things Go
One of the most difficult decisions the Lencionis made was to give up the things they thought they ought to be doing that didn’t bring them much fulfillment. Businesses make these cutthroat decisions all the time, he says, but families don’t. As a result, they try unsuccessfully to “do it all,” and then feel guilty and overloaded. Patrick and Laura finally took their kids out of Cub Scouts after they realized they just didn’t love it. “I think it’s a wonderful program, but it’s not for us. In the past, we would have felt guilty. But it just didn’t fit us, and it’s not worth our very scarce time,” he says.

For the Lencionis, as well as Lim and Biderman-Gross, the keys to family productivity are prioritizing, planning and structure. By prioritizing important goals and letting go of others, they accomplish more of what’s really meaningful.

“Home is most important in the long run,” Lencioni says. “People who have a sense of peace that their priorities are in the right place also have a sense of humility and a realistic view on life. The best leaders, over the long term, are those who have a sound home life.”

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