Going to War: How to Crush it in Family and Career

Winning at Weekends

An episode of Going to War: How to Crush it in Family and Career

By Sarah Ballard
Going to War is a podcast devoted to the working family. We believe that balancing two careers and children is hard, and we want to help.

Why listen to us? We’ve been through a lot to get where we are. Between us, we’ve made it though divorce, bankruptcy, sexual assault, poverty, infertility, infidelity, whole lot of death, and lots and lots of people telling us we couldn’t do what we ended up rocking out at. We have worked in two warzones, the White House, and more than 20 countries.

We deeply believe in family, and we’ve fought to make our careers work with and for ours.
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Protect the Unit - Your Relationship
A very wise colleague, who came to government service after a number of years in the private sector, once told me that in her experience, two-career marriages often feel the strain of one partner being up and one partner being down at work. She laughed that it never felt as though these highs and lows lined up and so that it was always hard emotionally because one person feels like a downer while the other is trying not to rub it in. The roles will switch, but it just puts a damper on things. Relationships are living, breathing, evolving organisms. The one thing that is never true? They are never static. There is always change, always movement. You can try to stay the same, but that big world all around you isn’t going to be so accommodating.  This is a gentle way of saying—if you really think things are good, then great, just don’t get lazy and complacent! Of course, we’re having this conversation because life is hard, and especially so as working parents who are constantly tired and stressed and under a truly absurd number of expectations pending others’ judgments. I sincerely doubt that most people are 100 percent thrilled with all aspect of their lives and relationships. Two keys here. Can’t stress them enough. As in, people get divorced over this stuff. All the time. Number one – You and your partner need to be aware of the state of your relationship. Preferable if you agree on said state but enough if you’re just tracking on what each person’s perception is. Number two – You and your partner need to be genuinely good with where you see your relationship. Possible that you can perceive yourselves to be in different places and each be good with that, but tricky.  If either you or your partner isn’t good with where you two are, you need to find a way to get good, together. How is an entirely individual couple thing.  To be truly happy and productive and healthy as a couple and as a family, you need a shared vision. That might have felt like serendipitous coincidence when you first met and started dating, but over time, especially when you’re not actively confronting a major life choice like whether to have kids or not or where to buy a house, it is easy to drift or drift apart. Day-to-day, what does it look like to protect the unit?  It looks like whatever you and your partner need it to, each and every day. Make an intention to say or do one loving thing each day. Involve one or more of the kids in such a thing once a week. Plan something you want to do together at least once a week. Emphasis on “want to do.” Could be coffee or lunch in the middle of a work day. Could be a bath with candles after the kids are in bed. At least once a month, get a blessed babysitter, go out, and have fun. Alternate who does the planning, and see how long you can go before doing the same thing twice. Agree that one vacation a year can be just the two of you. Dream up a one year goal and a five year goal. Think major vacation, kitchen or basement remodel, dream house, taking up a new hobby together like horseback riding or skydiving. Whatever it is, it needs to be something you are both excited about. How do you know you’re on the right track? The vast majority of the time, are you looking forward to seeing and speaking with your partner? Do you miss them when they are gone for a couple of days? Do you regularly have things you are looking forward to doing together? Do you talk about the future with excitement? If you looked at your relationship through the eyes of your kids, what would you see, and is that what you want them to aspire to?
June 29, 2019
Plotting Your Strategic Finances
We’ve talked about your tactical finances—meaning you weekly and monthly inflows and outflows. Now we want to talk about the long term, which we have dubbed your “strategic finances.” Your strategic finances are about wealth building. And while that sounds grandiose, we want to get beyond simply thinking abut retirement or saving up for a single thing like a house or your children’s educations. We want you to take a 360 degree look at your financial picture, see where you are, where you’re going, and where you might need to make some changes to realize your goals. We’re going to start with the same advice on strategic finances that we gave for tackling your tactical finances—pull all of your data and set up a date for coffee or lunch to comb through everything to get your house in order. Now, answer the following questions: 1 – What is the difference between what I am saving for retirement each month and 15 percent of my pre-tax income? (If you have a pension or other defined benefit plan, how much of your income will it replace, and what would it take you saving or investing on a monthly basis to make up the difference?) 2 – How much is three months of household expenses? Do I have that in an easily liquid account not earmarked for anything else? If not, divide what you are currently lacking by 12. 3 – How much would I need to increase my monthly life insurance policy premium buy to get a benefit that would replace my income for a year and set my family up to live on just my partner’s income? 4 – How much do I need to increase my monthly mortgage payment by to pay off my mortgage before my goal retirement date? 5 – How much more do I need to save each month to reach my goal for my child’s education account? 6 – What other savings goals do I have, and how much would I need to save each month to realize them in the time I have in mind? Now, added up these six numbers. And take a deep breath. The sum of those six numbers is how much you need to increase your monthly savings to achieve you strategic financial goals. I expect most of you do not have that kind of money simply accruing in your checking account each month waiting to be shipped off to these other accounts.  We have to prioritize which savings goals are most important and/or consider whether we could budget a bit differently on the tactical side to free up more money to save. Every financial planner will tell you to put your retirement plans before your children’s educations. Paying off your mortgage early can free up that money later, often when your children will be in college, that you could then choose to use in helping them out. We’ve said this before, but after going through this exercise, it is best to just sit with the numbers and not make any snap decisions. A week or two of reflection and consideration will help you get clear on what you have and what you’d like to do with it. We hope we’ve convinced you that there isn’t anything particularly magical or voodoo like when it comes to your finances. You are perfectly capable of taking control by gathering all of your information, organizing it in a spreadsheet, analyzing it using broadly accepted financial guidelines, and making informed decisions.
June 22, 2019
Tackling Tactical Finances
 Imagine your money as a little army. Your dollars are tiny soldiers you are sending out into the world to do battle on behalf of you and your family. One squadron makes sure you have a place to live with all the utilities taken care of. Another makes sure you have transportation. Another handles daycare expenses.  Your dollar army paves the way for your day-to-day existence to function. The better you deploy your soldiers, the better the result in terms of ease of living. We’ve talked about a number of ways to make your day-to-day life easier. We’ve extolled the beauty of cleaning services, grocery delivery, meal delivery services, home gyms, etc. Most of these require spending extra money to avoid spending the time and energy on the chores yourself.  Money gives you options. There are times when it can be very, very helpful to send a bunch of your little dollar soldiers out into the world to take care of a problem for you with a minimal time investment from you. So, the first step here is roll call. Gather ALL or your day-to-day financial data. For a scrub of your tactical finances, this typically means your bank account statements and your credit card statements. Pull a year’s worth of data. When you sit down to really dive in, you’re going to want everything ready and in one place. Make a date to sit down with your partner at a coffee shop or lunch joint to work through it all. Build a spreadsheet with your monthly inflow and outflows.    Are you in the black or the red? If you’re in the red, can you figure out why? If you’re in the black, do you see your accounts growing by that much each month? If not, why? If you are in the red, there is really only one question – how do you get to black, beyond ASAP. Our suggestion is that instead of trying to cobble together a bunch of little instances of unnecessary spending to eek across the line, you need to figure out one big move that would do the job.  Next, set target numbers and watch those on a weekly and monthly basis instead of doing regular deep dives. On the spending side, get familiar with rough numbers that you allocate as your weekly allowance for each spending type. For example, what is your target to spend on groceries each week? Set a number for “fun” spending and bucket all your non-recurrently billed entertainment, eating out, and nonessential shopping like clothing. Setting weekly numbers helps you because it typically isn’t too difficult for you to remember and mentally add up the handful of times you might spend in a given category. If you go over one week, it isn’t hard to make a mental note to be a bit more restrained next week.  On the savings side, set a monthly target number that represents how much you’d like to see your checking account grow by each month, which presumes that you’ve stuck by your general spending plan.  Finally, do a scrub every six months.  Are you hitting your targets?  Done with the appropriate rigor, this should tell you immediately where things are going off the rails. Remember, getting your tactical finances under control is how you’ll maximize your ability to use your assets to make your day-to-day life easier so you can spend more of your time and energy on the things that matter to you—your own pursuits, your family, and your career.
June 15, 2019
Winning at Weekends
Consider rethinking your weekend with five principles: 1 – The Rule of Eights - The Weekend Rule of Eight involves equal parts sleeping time, unstructured time, and structured time divided between tasks and fun—eight hours for each both days. Try for eight total hours of productivity and eight for intentionally doing enjoyable things. Only one-third of your weekend is “planned,” and only one-sixth of it is tagged of unpleasantness. 2 – Set Up for the Week Ahead - When looking at weekend chores, make sure you’re including things that set you up for an easier week ahead. The work week functions best when you’re devoting as little time and energy as humanly possible to housework and other chores. Knock out anything that takes more than half an hour of concentrated time; and anything where by doing it once for all five days of the work week saves you from doing it five times during the week. 3 – Fast Mornings, Slow Mornings – Just like on the weekdays, get up and be productive before the kids wake up. We work on our side hustle and then hit the gym. Then, just as our little nuggets start to stir, we load up a breakfast tray and climb into our king-sized bed as a family to cuddle and caffeinate our way through a family-friendly tv show. About 8am, we head downstairs for eggs, and by 9am, we are ready to get started on the day—with massive momentum. 4 – Get Out of the House - This is similar to advice given to women on maternity leave. You may cringe at the prospect, and it may make you tired even thinking about all the effort it will entail, but get yourself and the family out of the house and off on some kind of excursion each and every weekend. In a perfect world, you’d strive to do something new each weekend as an excursion, or at the very least, not something you’ve done in the last 3 months. A new restaurant or a new park or a new friend’s house for a barbeque. Go to the movies, or to the museum or to the outlet mall or the zoo. 5 – The Sunday 3pm Rule - If we’re doing work on a weekend—be it chores or home improvements or our side hustle or entertaining—we wrap it up by 3pm on Sunday. Late afternoon and early evening on Sunday are devoted to a quiet family dinner, hanging out together, and getting everyone to bed early so we can attack and own the week ahead. Nothing is worse then getting to 6pm on Sunday will three tasks to go and no dinner plan. Collapsing into bed late Sunday night is no way to start a work week.
June 11, 2019
Slaying Physical Fitness
Ready for some details? On HIIT, here are two of my favorite workouts.  I do them both each week. On the treadmill – three ten minute cycles where the first five minutes are a ladder and the next five minutes are sprint intervals. Minutes 1-5  - start at 5mph, and increase 0.5 mph every minutes Minutes 6 – 10 – start at 9mph, sprint 30 seconds, drop to 5 mph for one minute to recover, and repeat for 3 sprints. Repeat the pattern for 11-20 minutes and 21-30 minutes. One 10-minute cycle: 00:00-00:59 – 5.0mph 01:00-01:59 – 5.5mph 02:00-02:59 – 6.0mph 03:00-03:59 – 6.5mph 04:00-04:59 – 7.0mph 05:00-05:30 – 9.0 mph 05:31-06:30 – 5.0mph 06:31-07:00 – 9.0mph 07:01-08:00 – 5.0mph 08:00-08:30 – 9.0mph 08:31-09:59 – 5.0mph Repeat for 2 more cycles. Ready to increase the intensity?  Pick up the pace on your sprints, and extend them up to one minute in length. On the stationary bike – 30 minutes where you’ll do 15 sprints of 30 seconds each with declining rest periods. Start with a light load for 2 minutes 30 seconds.  Then turn up the resistance and pound out 30 seconds.  Rest 2 minutes and thirty seconds, sprint for 30 seconds.  You do each set for three reps, then, you take the rest period down thirty seconds until, at the very end, you’re one-for-one—30 seconds rest to thirty seconds sprinting. 00:00-02:30 – Warm-up 02:31-03:00 – Sprint 03:01-05:30 – Recovery 05:31-06:00 – Sprint 06:01-08:30 – Recovery 08:31-09:00 – Sprint           Now, decrease the rest interval by 30 seconds: 09:01-11:00 – Warm-up 11:01-11:30 – Sprint 11:31-13:30 – Recovery 13:31-14:00 – Sprint 14:01-16:00 – Recovery 16:01-16:30 – Sprint           Keep decreasing the rest intervals by 30 seconds.  You’ll finish 15 sprints at a final round of 1:1 effort to recovery right at 30 minutes. On weights, learn proper form, use proper form, eschew machines for free weights, mix it up like crazy, and alternate heavy lifting major muscle groups with lighter lifting on secondary and support muscles. Try for four sessions each week – two for upper body, two for lower body.  Try do add in ab work at least three times a week, which you can combine with any of your sessions, and save one day all by itself for explosive, full body work such as kettle bells or plyometrics.  Give yourself one, preferably two days of rest before lifting with the same muscle groups.  Done properly, your workout is making tiny microtears in the muscles, and those muscles need a day at minimum to recover and get stronger before you tear them again. I’m not super into classes, but I recommend that anyone without a strong background in strength training use a trainer to learn proper form.  Same goes for yoga. I probably won’t run another marathon because of the massive time commitment, but I’d certainly recommend it to others looking to build some fitness momentum.  There is a lot of power in signing up for something, paying a registration fee, telling others about your race and goal, and having a structured training plan for a couple of months.  It can be exactly the right way to break out of a fitness rut or to get yourself moving after a long absence from the gym. Now get off you butt and go get after it.
June 1, 2019
Cleaning House
Caleb’s and my parents don’t understand where we got it, but despite being raised in households where keeping a spotless house was the furthest thing from a priority, we keep a house that is almost always ready for entertaining guests or showing to a potential buyer. Why? Doesn’t that seem like a lot of wasted time and energy for two parents with big, demanding careers and two small, demanding children? Simply put, for us, a spotless, clutter-free house is a priority because it calms us. We are introverts who thrive off of order and symmetry. Clutter and mess and disorder stress us out. Get super specific about the standard of clean you want, and then you can work on what is going to be required to get and stay there. First, find the space in your budget for a cleaning service. There is little reason a two career household should be spending that kind of time on housekeeping, even if you’ve got other big financial goals like paying down student loans or saving for a house. You owe that time to yourself and your family. Second, purge ruthlessly. You must, must, must purge your home of all the needless, excess, dust-collecting stuff that serves a marginal purpose or a potential future purpose or no purpose at all. Third, figure out the small list of chores you are going to have to handle yourself in between professional cleanings to keep your house at the standard you want. Quantify the time these chores take. Outsource as many as possible. Never, ever be afraid to ask for or accept offered help. Even with all these workarounds, laundry is still, hands down, the single most time intensive, soul-sucking chore I have on my plate. There are few chores that require so much work on a regular basis whose accomplishment feels so unrewarding. Also, this one can be particularly hard to farm out. My extremely Catholic grandmother used to get in a huff over people being stubborn and not asking for help. She said they were denying others the opportunity to be charitable. God bless her for instilling that particular gem in my mind. So, identify your short list of weekly chores, divide and conquer, and always consider how others can take on occasional small lifts for you.  There is no need for you to do everything. And honestly, everyone doing their part models the right lesson for your children. No one is above chores, even houseguests, and no one is automatically stuck with all of them because their name happens to be “mom.”  Remember, you’re raising future tiny houseguests and spouses!
May 25, 2019
Recalibrating Your Relationship with Food
I haven’t stepped inside a grocery store in months because it is a colossal waste of time and energy. Once-a-week grocery delivery is the easiest way to save money and time while avoiding food waste and unhealthy eating. First and foremost. Time. Not physically driving to the store, parking, shopping, loading, unloading, and putting away the groceries will easily save you 1-2 hours a week, and more if you’re insane enough to do this more than once a week right now. Money. Yes, you’ll pay a premium of about 15-20% between the delivery fee, tip, and lesser sales. However, by deliberately searching for and adding items to your cart according to what you need for each meal for the week, you are far, far more likely to avoid impulse purchases, excess purchases, and catastrophic second trips because you forgot one item but magically walk out with five.  Health. No impulse purchase and no walking through aisles makes it infinitely easier to only bring whole, healthy foods into your home. You’re far less likely to skip because the temptation just isn’t in your fridge. To get even more extreme, I haven’t cooked a weekday dinner in 6 months. Our meal service—and Isaac’s—has been the single best quality of life improvement I’ve managed for the family in the past year. Honestly, the only downside is the cost. You’re looking at $10-$15 per person per meal, less for the child’s services, which roughly doubled my weekly grocery bill. But, we almost never order takeout or delivery now, which, if you did only once a week, is around half the cost of the meal service. The two biggest benefits? Time savings and healthy eating. On time, there’s no contest. You can walk through the door after barely making daycare pickup on time and have family dinner less than 10 minutes later.  Second, your health. Most plans allow you to choose meals based on various dietary restrictions—vegetarian, keto, paleo, whatever. While I don’t subscribe to any of those, I am a huge proponent of the inherent portion control and transparency with regard to calorie count and other numbers I pay attention to—protein, fiber, sugar, and fat. When you cook, it is far too easy to lose sight of the number of calories you are consuming. In contrast, when it is printed on the very cover of your dinner, you know exactly what you are consuming. You might think by now that Caleb and I don’t care that much about food. It is true that we probably live more by the maxim “Eat to Live” vice “Live to Eat.” That said. We know and love a good splurge once a month or so. To our way of thinking, we’ll keep our eating dialed in 90 percent of the time, reserving five percent of the time for unavoidable social functions, and then seek out high-quality, experience-level splurges for that last five percent. We were in Italy in February, and we signed up for a cooking class in the hills of Tuscany and a tasting lesson at the headquarters of the biggest Chianti producer. We ate at two Michelin star restaurants and then sought out tiny holes in the wall off the beaten path where the pasta was hand-made by the family nonna. Life is too short for sub-par food. Eat to live most of the time, but when you live to eat, make it an experience.
May 17, 2019
Resetting Your Weekday Battle Rhythm
At Isaac & Isabel, we’re tweaking our own battle rhythm. This week, we’re jumping right in to the thick of it in terms of our social media campaign—five days a week we’ve got YouTube videos running. Each week is then summed up in a podcast. The coming week is previewed with a blog. This level of content creation takes a bit of inspiration and a whole lot of discipline. Last week, we explored the problem of the career family. This week, we’re jumping in to the eight-week “basic training.” We’re sharing our secrets for weekday schedules, food, cleaning, fitness, tactical finances, strategic finances, weekend plans, and working as a partner team.  The game is won or lost for the career family on weekdays—particularly in the hours before and after work. A strong morning sets you up for the best day you could have at work—given the many circumstances beyond your control—and a plan for the evening based on minimizing chores and maximizing time for relationships can soften the impact of even the most frustrating day at the office. First up, have a plan. What has to get done during the week to keep the trains running? How much time does that take? How are those task hours currently divided? Are their ways to outsource some of those tasks? Is there a fairer distribution of labor to be had? Second, become a morning person. Caleb adores motivational literature. Without fail, they all advise a morning routine that is akin to religion. Setting aside the breathlessness, consider this – the morning hours before the kids wake is the single most predictable time you have to yourself and to whatever you want to get done for yourself and your family. Work is far less likely to interfere with your morning than your evening. Kids are still asleep. Momentum and progress are yours for the taking in whatever endeavor you choose. Third, maximize the productive value of your commute. Your commute does not have to be wasted time. Technology has made it possible to catch up with all of your friends and relatives while you drive or ride. Don’t lose time with your family to call home, use your commute. Audiobooks are God’s gift to tired parents who still want inspiration or to improve themselves or to just catch up on the bestsellers list. How often do you get to read for more than 15 uninterrupted minutes at home? Never?  Four, resist the urge to embark on shift #2 as you walk in the house. You need to streamline your home life such that you are not spending your evening hours doing chores. You just worked all day and braved two commutes for that privilege. You are tired. The kids are tired. You all miss each other, whether you admit or think about it or not. Take a really hard look at all of the household work you’re doing in the evenings. What can you pay someone or something else to do for you? What can you let go of? In subsequent weeks we’ll try to convince you on some specific chores you might give up—cooking dinner, cleaning the house, packing lunches for the kids—but for starters, just make yourself more aware of what it is that eats up your time and dwindling energy in the evenings. Finally, consider the idea of trying to achieve three quality hours on a given weekday—one for yourself, one with your partner, and one with your kids. For yourself, you can count working out, pampering yourself, watching a favorite tv series, reading, practicing an art, etc. With your spouse, aim for conversation or activity that doesn’t involve work, the kids, or other familial stressors. With the kids, break it up between fun activities, like play and sports, and more formative experiences, like dinner conversation, working on a school project together, or teaching them some new skill, such as how to cook or build or repair something.
May 10, 2019
Going to War - The Problem Set for the Career Family
 Life in Afghanistan was easier than life in Washington, DC. Yes, I realize how terrible that sounds.  The day-to-day grind of two big careers, two small children, major urban commutes, maintaining a home, and trying to have some semblance of a family and personal life is hard. It is too hard. In Afghanistan, we didn’t have commutes. We didn’t have chores. Food was prepared and provided to us. We had work, and we had whatever everyone was doing after work as our social life. Sure, we missed home. We missed family. We could have happily done without Duck and Cover alarms that sent us sprinting to the nearest bunker. We’re thrilled to be away from the omnipresent dust and putrid smell.   We lost colleagues and friends and some of the guards that greeted us each day.  Now, to be fair, we had each other, and we did not yet have our children, so, this is an imbalanced comparison. But there are certainly days when Caleb and I look at each other and reminisce about our simpler times.    We are launching a media platform championing the career family to complement the work we are doing with our subscription box service.    We are going to tell you, and anyone we can find who wants to listen, our stories. We’re going to tell you how we make life work as two big careers and two tiny children. We’re going to share our anecdotes, pictures, strategies, thoughts. We’re going to admit where we’ve struggled, and we’re going to show you how we’ve pushed through it. We’re going to rant about situations and injustices that we’ve faced, and we’re going to level with you about how everything is not puppy dogs and daisies.   Every week, we are going to publish a blog post previewing our topic. Then, we’ll tackle a subject in five short YouTube episodes, Monday through Friday. Finally, we’ll post a podcast on Saturday that sums it all up in case just listening is your jam. We’ve got an entire year mapped out. We’re going to start with eight weeks of “basic training” – the biggest muscle movements you can take as examples from our lives to apply to yours for the biggest immediate changes. We have spent the last five years road testing every way we can think of to build an existence that minimizes the grinding slog and maximizes what we value most—our family and our careers.   One of our favorite things to do at work is mentor. We don’t get to spend nearly enough time on it. We also feel a little weird getting personal in the professional setting, but we sense that the next generation really does want us to pull back the curtain and tell it like it is—the whole picture, not the curated corporate one that the senior leadership slaps on the home page. We’re going to be provocative. You’re absolutely not going to agree with everything we say, every choice we make, or even perhaps entire tenets of our philosophy. And that’s totally cool with us. We want you to take what works for you, and we want to motivate you to make decisions about what is best for your family despite all the noise out there about what that should look like.    We will have succeeded if we can convince you to at least consider dumping the guilt over all the things other people think you should be doing and just confidently concentrate on those things that advance your family’s project, whatever that might be.  We’re leaving our comfort zone with this to be sure. We welcome you to join us and to push us.   And if you find it the least bit helpful, sure, you can tell us, but share it. You all know other working families out there who might be able to use a little inspiration. 
April 26, 2019
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