Work-Life Balance: Family First

Time well spent with loved ones yields high emotional profits.

August 1, 2005

In my book The 7 Habits of Highly Successful Families, I recount a story about a busy father, sitting in his home office checking his appointment schedule for the next day. His five-year-old daughter walks in and stands by unnoticed until she asks, “What are you doing, Daddy?”

Without looking up, he replies, “Nothing, honey, just writing down the names of all the important people I need to visit and talk to.”

The little girl hesitates and then asks, “Daddy, am I in that book?”

The little girl has got right at the heart of how busy people can make time for family in today’s world. They make it a priority. They schedule specific times for family gatherings and for one-on-one time with each child, a spouse, or an extended or surrogate family. Then they put those appointments in their planner and don’t change them unless a true emergency happens. We schedule our client appointments and our tennis dates, but too often we just hope that family time will happen.

As Johann Wolfgang von Goethe said, “Things that matter most must never be at the mercy of things that matter least.”

Scheduling time for family can be particularly challenging for those in real estate because their activities are dictated by the schedules and demands of others. Clients phone, other salespeople fax offers, and prospects walk in the door. You can’t always create a schedule weeks in advance.

According to a 2004 survey by the NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF REALTORS®, 29 percent of REALTORS® reported being frequently interrupted by work when spending time with their families. More than one-third felt they didn’t spend enough time with their families, and one in five wasn’t able to make or keep family commitments.

Yet, as I said earlier, it boils down to priorities. No matter how busy I am, my team knows that calls from my wife or my children should always be put through. And I tell my staff they should do the same thing—put their families first, ahead of work for me. I’ve also learned that far from taking advantage of this flexibility, everyone on my team will go that second mile to get the job done.

One way real estate practitioners can ensure that client demands don’t interrupt family time is by partnering with other people in their office—just as doctors in a practice cover for one another. Partnering is often hard for real estate salespeople. They’re independent people; they don’t often think interdependently. Yet, interdependency and the nuanced communication it requires is the most mature way to interact with others. By partnering, you not only gain free time but also benefit from the synergies of working with another skilled professional.

Making family your mission

Once you’ve decided to make family your priority, one of the best ways to begin building a strong, lasting relationship is to create a joint family mission statement. Such statements create a compelling visualization of your family’s life together—what it is, what you want it to be, and how you’ll get there.

Mission statements are important because they help families define their priorities and the criteria they want to live by. They help family members build self-awareness as well as awareness of the family as a whole. Mission statements are also important for couples. Because people grow up with different value systems, each spouse’s approach to life and personal interaction is different. If a couple don’t agree on a shared set of principles early in their relationship, communication will break down and eventually lead to problems.

Begin your mission-creation process by asking each member of your family, What’s the purpose of our family? What do we stand for? What are our goals? How can we as a family serve others? Another option, which works well with younger children, is to ask each family member to show pictures of what they’d want their family to be like.

One family I know—all avid climbers—based their mission statement on a mountain-climbing metaphor. They envision themselves roped together, climbing up to the peak, then standing in a circle holding hands at the summit. Another uses the motto “No empty chair” to symbolize the family members’ commitment to always support and care for one another.

It may take weeks or even months to develop your family’s mission statement. Keep the process as simple as possible; don’t make it onerous. But do it. Then revise it as needed. Remember, you must begin with the end in mind.

Building family bonds

Creating a family mission statement is a strong bonding experience. Yet, once the mission is complete, it’s vital to keep extending and strengthening your bonds. Begin by scheduling at least one night a week for a family dinner and meeting—a time when you sit down together, turn off the phone and TV, and talk. The meetings are an opportunity for family members to share concerns, to make plans for family outings and vacations, and to review and discuss elements of the mission statement.

You can also use the meetings as teaching experiences—to share values or solve problems. For example, one family used a weekly meeting to discuss how the family would cope when the father lost his job. By sharing the budgeting challenges they faced—yet at the same time being reassured that they could weather the temporary problem—the entire family was able to accept limitations on spending. They even agreed to do all they could to cheer up the father and keep his confidence up while he looked for another job.

Sometimes you may encounter resistance to the meetings, especially from teenagers. Be persistent and change planned meeting times only when absolutely necessary. By showing that you make the meetings a priority, you’re sending a message to your family members that they’re the most important people in your life.

You can also use these same techniques to build stronger relationships with your extended family and friends. Whether it’s an annual picnic, a weekend trip, or just getting together to share a meal, regularly scheduled interaction will reinforce how valuable these people are to you. If your family or surrogate family is spread out across the country, you can build bonds with a weekly family e-mail, a monthly newsletter, or a regularly scheduled phone call.

Focus on the individual

In addition to group activities, it’s critical to spend one-on-one time regularly with each family member. Whether you listen to music, engage in a sport together, or just talk, the sessions provide a way to connect emotionally with each person.

One-on-one time doesn’t mean taking a child along with you when you refill flyer boxes or pick up the dry cleaning. That’s fine, too. But during true one-on-one times, you must make the child or spouse the complete focus of your time and let that person set the agenda. What’s important to your child, spouse, or friend should be as important to you as that person is.

One-on-one times can be as simple as going for a bike ride or a movie. One woman told me that her greatest childhood memory was of her father taking her to McDonald’s for breakfast before going to work. With such attention and the unconditional love it demonstrates, you’ll help instill a sense of self-worth in a child that will carry that child through life and strengthen your relationship to weather any number of problems.

By spending time both one-on-one and with the entire family, you also help build up your emotional bank account—your core of trust and communication—with each family member. Making deposits to this account through acts of kindness and concern—showing loyalty and unconditional love to your family and close friends and being willing to apologize when you’re in the wrong and to forgive when others are—will pay long-term dividends in strong relationships. By admitting your own failings to your loved ones, you give them the right to fail and the confidence to tell you about it.

In every interaction with family members or close friends, exert all your power to really listen to what’s being said. Don’t attempt to give advice or interpret what you’re hearing, at least not initially. Instead, seek to understand how those speaking see the situation. You must look at life through their frame of reference and let them know that what’s important to them is important to you. (For tips on listening empathetically, click Current Links at

Time for yourself, too

Finally, just because you’ve chosen to put your family and friends first, it doesn’t mean you should neglect yourself. Unless you take time to renew yourself physically, emotionally, spiritually, and mentally, you and your commitment to your family will deteriorate. Like a car engine that’s never maintained, you’ll eventually stall. I call this renewal process sharpening the saw. Take time to eat a healthy diet and exercise. Renew your spirit with prayer, meditation, and great literature. Keep your mind sharp by writing, visualizing success, and learning new skills. Reinforce your emotional and social well-being by building friendships and serving others in the community.

You can also make these revitalizing activities a family affair—go on a family hike, attend a worship service, or cook a meal together. Done regularly, some activities can become traditions that provide another way to come together as a family. For example, our family developed a tradition of inviting each child’s favorite teacher of the year over for dinner to show our appreciation. We used the good china and dressed up, and each child told why the favorite teacher was valued.

The family bondings I’ve described here are within the reach of each of you. It’s just a matter of making family a priority. Once you do, the ways in which you help strengthen your family become easy. The challenge is making the choice in a culture that encourages you to put other things first.

As a successful real estate professional, you’ve learned to use your empathy and your problem-solving skills with clients and associates. Use those same abilities to achieve a new closeness with your family. The biggest challenge is making up your mind to do it.

Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Successful Families

  1. Be proactive. Become an agent of change in your family.
  2. Begin with the end in mind. Develop a family mission statement.
  3. Make family a priority in a turbulent world.
  4. Think win-win. Move from “me” to “we.”
  5. Seek first to understand, then to be understood. Solve family problems through empathic communication.
  6. Synergize. Build family unity by celebrating differences.
  7. Sharpen the saw. Renew the family spirit through traditions.

Not only is Covey an internationally recognized author, speaker, teacher, and consultant, but he’s also the cofounder and vice chairman of Franklin Covey, a leading global professional services company with offices in 123 countries. The most recent of his many best-selling books is The 8th Habit: From Effectiveness to Greatness. He holds an M.B.A. from Harvard University and a Ph.D. from Brigham Young University.

Among the many awards Covey has received is the 2003 National Fatherhood of the Year award from the National Fatherhood Initiative. As the father of nine children and grandfather of 42, he says the award is the most meaningful one he’s ever received.

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