Birthdays, Boundaries, and Benefits
Yesterday was my son Aidan's eighth birthday.
When I first became a Dad, I promised myself I would never work on any of my children's birthdays. I knew that my kids would never really care about that smart strategy I crafted or that great presentation I made... but I thought that perhaps, one day, they might remember that their workaholic father would always completely ignore his work on their birthdays to spend some quality time with them.
(I also don't work on my wedding anniversary, although on my wife's birthday, I make it a point to work so she doesn't have to put up with me and my antics for the day. We both consider that part of her birthday present.)
In December, it will be ten years since I made my promise to myself, and I haven't broken it once.*
How have I managed that?
When I've been working for myself, it's been easy: I simply plan ahead, and ensure whatever needs to get done happens either before or after the family event. As an example, I normally write my newsletters on the day before they're published; this one was written on Monday night (two days before) so that I could spend Tuesday evening with my family and still get this into your inbox first thing this morning.
When I've been employed full-time and a birthday has fallen during the week, I've simply used a vacation day. After all, I'd normally get between 15 and 20 of them every year, and I only have four children and one wedding anniversary... what else would I spend them on, vacations? (I mentioned above I was a workaholic, right?)
Companies have a bad habit of confusing "important" with "urgent", and so I fully expected that at some point, a manager would give me trouble about taking a vacation day to satisfy my self-imposed rule. Perhaps it was a meeting he would want me to attend, or a presentation she would need me to give... whatever the reason, I anticipated that eventually I'd need to take a hard-stand, and perhaps even provide an ultimatum, in order to keep my promise.
It's never happened. Not once.
Boundaries are important.
It's important for you to set them for yourself, and when you do, it's important for others to respect them.
I made it clear to every single one of my managers over the past ten years that my family comes first, and I was fortunate that they all respected that about me. It's easy to plan around a fixed date like a birthday (or an anniversary), and I made very sure not to give anybody any reason to complain about when I was choosing to take my holidays.
I wouldn't shy away from my boundaries, I'd announce them. Loudly. In my last role, I took advantage of the fact that our brand voice was irreverent and defiant by using the same tone in my out-of-office messages. In my auto-replies, I'd explain why I wasn't working, then used humour to underscore that I likely wouldn't be answering emails until I returned to the office. For example:
"I'm taking the day off to spend with my wife. I'll do my best to respond to priority emails when she isn't looking, but since I'm trying to earn a few badly needed good-husband points, it's better to not expect a reply until tomorrow."
"If this matter is urgent, please call my cell. But the key word is "urgent", okay? Because if it's not actually important, I'm going to hand my phone to Charlotte so you can explain why you're interrupting her special day with her family. And if you think I can be fierce sometimes... wait until you meet my little girl. I'll triage all emails on Monday as quickly as I can, I promise."
"Your email is important to me. It's just not as important to me as this little guy. So please forgive me for not replying to your email until Thursday morning, when I will triage my inbox as efficiently as I can."
People LOVED my out-of-office responses; I know this because they would often reply to my auto-reply to tell me as much.
And you know what else? They respected what I was trying to do -- and why -- and I found they made an extra effort not only to not contact me on my day off, but also to find solutions to their problems on their own so that I wouldn't have to deal with them when I returned. It was a reward for being authentic, candid, and human.
Not working on your child's birthday. Leaving the office every day by 5:30 pm. Taking lunch away from your desk so you can get some fresh air. Not working on weekends unless it's really an emergency.
If you give yourself permission to set some boundaries for yourself, people will generally respect them.
And the benefits of those boundaries will prove remarkable.
* I did bend my rule in 2018 on my daughter's eighth birthday. On that day, I drove her to the bus stop... then realized I had absolutely nothing to do until it was time for me to pick her up. Since I was launching a major marketing campaign the following week, I allowed myself to answer a few of my agency's urgent emails while I sat at home wondering why I didn't account for my children's school time before making my "never work" commitment. But as soon as it was time to pick her up from the bus, I stopped looking at all work emails. So the spirit of my promise remains intact.