Designing A Work-life Balance in The Bay Area

Commute traffic in the SF Bay Area. Photo: thomashawk via flickr/CC BY-ND 2.0

A few years ago my Bay Area commute was really getting to me.

One and a half to two hours behind the wheel. Home around seven thirty in the evenings. Never in time for dinner with my family. My little ones already in bed, having also missed them in the morning as I headed off to work early. It was depressing.

Not what I wanted for my life.

Eventually, I worked it out that I’d stay late at the office two nights a week (bringing leftovers for dinner). Then I’d leave early two days a week, so I could be home by five thirty. It made a huge difference.

More time at home with my family, fewer hours in traffic.

And since then, I went on to make it so I could WFH one to two days a week, for the same reasons. Now, when I’m not traveling to my company’s headquarters in Philadelphia, I’m seeing my family a lot more and actually getting to spend quality time with them.

I noticed these changes in my schedule not only improved my time out of the office, but they improved my time on the job as well. Getting to spend more time with my family has made me more present when I’m on the job – better enabling me to listen and mentor, which is a large part of my role. And getting myself more time out of the “trees” more often – away from the drawing board – also helps me to better see the “forest” of product strategy. A win-win, all around.

Now everyone may not be in a position to dictate their schedule to this degree, but everyone has the ability to be proactive in finding their own personal work-life balance.

So what’s the right ratio of work:life these days?

Writer Jessica Wildfire illustrated in a recent article that widely held definitions of “work” and “fun” aren’t held by everyone – and some people enjoy their work more than they enjoy their peers’ various ideas of fun.

I can certainly relate, deriving great satisfaction from my own work. But there are other aspects of my life, which I also enjoy, that can get pushed aside if I’m not strategic about how I spend my time. And careful not to let work automatically “win” over everything else.  

The challenge is staying competitive amongst those who choose not to fight this temptation. Those who do allow work to always “win”. Perhaps telling themselves that they’ll dial it back after this next release, this next quarter, once they retire. Or those who have no intention of dialing it back at all.

Columnist and Senior Editor at The Economist, Ryan Avent discussed in a recent article the growing trend of seeking passion and fulfillment in a person’s work today, whereas previous generations may have seen it as more of a means to an end. The piece went on to discuss that the more people enjoy their labor, the more time they’re able to spend laboring – in turn driving up the competition amongst individuals pursuing the same trade.

So if you’re someone who seems to benefit from a decent amount time away from the drawing board, and you’re competing against those who may not need as much of a break, how do you stay competitive and make time for other areas?

For me, the remedy is being proactive and strategic in finding ways to ensure my time is being spent where I want it to be, and being intentional about the way I spend my time in each of the areas – work, family, fun, etc.

These are a few things I like to keep an eye on and some basic “hacks” for maintaining my optimal work-life balance.

A Glimpse into My Personal System of Checks and (Work-life) Balances

Keep an eye on the big picture

Even with a self-tailored work schedule that “guarantees” a balance in my schedule, I still find that if I’m not careful about scheduling meetings and events and how I organize everything – my work-life balance can quickly get out of whack.

My answer to this is Calendar Bird’s-Eye View in Google Spreadsheet.

Calendars – whether in Outlook, gCal, or your phone – can quickly “bring you into the trees” of all your scheduled appointments. Making it hard to “see the forest” of how you’re spending your time and coordinating major events coming up (both work and personal).

To keep an eye on the bigger picture of how and where I’m spending my time, I maintain a birds-eye view calendar which shows where I’ll be in the morning/afternoon/evening of each day. I then color code whether I’ll be at my local office in Sunnyvale, headquarters in Philly, working from home, OOO on vacation, or in transit traveling. This way I won’t overbook a work trip on top of an important personal event that week. If the proportion of the colors doesn’t seem right, I’ll immediately know and be able to make adjustments.

Excerpt from my Calendar Bird’s-Eye View Google Spreadsheet

Your desired ratio may be different than mine but having a bird’s-eye view – and one that is easy to visualize, like color-coded blocks, can help you maintain your preferred ratios between work and home/family/etc.

Safeguard your “me-time”

Each and every day will throw a peppering of obligations and distractions at you, so take proactive measures to ensure that certain parts of the day aren’t jeopardized. It’s important in our hectic world that we get some time to think and work on our own projects and ideas – and these are the ones that tend to be most jeopardized because no one else will be advocating for them but you. Software developers, call this “flow” or getting “into the zone” but it’s not just useful for those roles.

Find a means of accountability for the other, also important, areas

This could mean investing money in a new exercise program to supply with an extra bit of motivation (shoutout to my fellow Pelaton’ers!), or it could mean scheduling recurring activities with a friend that you’ll find ways to make time for because you don’t want to bail on them.

For me, a great one I’ve found is signing up to coach my kids’ teams. I found this is the best way to periodically be extra present for their sports. I can’t do it all the time but each year I’ve picked one to do which gives me one more reason to get my work done and get to their practices and games.

Coaching baseball for one of my son’s on a day where I proudly awarded him the “game ball” 

Outsource as much as possible

I once read if you could delegate something and the other person could do it 70% as well as you could… do it.

Why not apply this to areas of life… to the time spent doing things you’d rather allocate toward something else?

I’m fortunate enough to afford the outsourcing of things like yard work and cleaning my pool (with a robot) – activities I’m not wild about.

See if there’s anything taking up your time that could be delegated to someone else, and allow you to focus more on something else.


As important as being smart with your time may be, it’s also good to remind yourself why you’re working in the first place.

A post by my friend and career coach, Larry Cornett really spoke to me last year. When he was experiencing some doubt about where his time was being allocated a while back, he made the calculation that 3 ½ total months of his life had been spent in traffic over the last 4 years at his previous job.

In his post, he writes that this was the day something inside of him “snapped,” and ultimately moved him to rethink how his time was being spent. For Larry, this meant ultimately leaving his corporate career to foster an independent one. It really made me think about why we work, though. All of us, in general.

Whatever your situation – as far as commute, homelife, etc. – we all make a thousand choices every day about the way we spend our time, and where it’s allocated.

There’s no reason not to be proactive with our time and choose how we spend it wisely.


Preston Smalley produced in collaboration with Mark Mizera.

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