In her work as an executive coach in Silicon Valley, Katharine Agostino has worked with clients from Facebook, Reddit, Airbnb and plenty of startups.
When she’s not alleviating stress over Series A funding and paths to profitability, she’s helping clients work through dicey personal life problems. In the high-risk, high-reward world of tech startups, “work-life balance” can feel like a pipe dream.
“My clients want it, but it seems illusive,” Agostino told HuffPost. “One husband of a female CEO put it this way, ‘She is never here. Even when she is here, she really is at work.’”
Married to a serial entrepreneur herself, Agnostino has learned to be realistic but fiercely intentional about prioritizing her relationship. She recommends the same thing to her clients.
“So often people will say they are committed to, for example, having work-life balance,” she said. “But when you get them to be radically honest about what they are doing, they are actually committed to being stressed and constantly feeling distracted.”
How do you move beyond that hurried, frustrating state? She and other experts share their best advice on staying married or coupled up when email is the third wheel in your relationship.
1. Put a premium on the quality of time together rather than the quantity of time.
It’s understandable that you or your partner aren’t bringing your best selves to the table after a long day of putting out fires at work. Not every night will be an opportunity to connect. Instead of beating yourself up over it, work on getting the most out of the quality of time you do manage to squeeze in.
The goal, said Agostino, is to protect your energy more than your time.
“One client from LinkedIn decided to get through her work reading with her family at night,” she said. “For 10 minutes, the whole family reads together, silently, and it’s what helps her get through the reading she needs to do for work while getting in some quality family time.”
Another client of Agostino’s takes every Friday totally off to spend with her husband and young child or go for a run. While that much time off might not be feasible for everyone, some morning hooky with your S.O. every now and then is probably doable.
2. Recognize the benefit of having a partner who’s passionate about their work.
If you’re with someone who’s incredibly focused on their career and doesn’t consider their work “work,” try to see the benefit in that enthusiasm.
Look at it this way: Your work life and personal life are reciprocal, not two competing areas of your life, said Naz Beheshti, an executive wellness coach and consultant who got her start as a personal and executive assistant to Steve Jobs.
“When my client loves what they do, that joy and fulfillment ripples through their relationships and results in positive outcomes,” she said. “In these cases, asking them to scale back is like asking a kid to scale back on their play time rather than accepting and allowing them to do what they love most.”
3. Put your phones away for a few hours, at least.
You don’t want to dull your S.O.’s shine when it comes to work, but it’s not asking too much to request they put their phone away every now and then. Commit to spending a certain amount of minutes, hours or days together with no cellphone distractions, said Elisabeth LaMotte, therapist and founder of the DC Counseling and Psychotherapy Center.
“I tell clients to work together to determine concrete, manageable solutions, like a half hour to talk each night or one or two evenings each week where laptops are closed and phones are left at the charging station,” she said.
4. Reframe the way you talk about your relationship problems.
When frustrations over work and home life start to get the best of Agostino and her husband, they draw on lessons they learned in The 15 Commitments of Conscious Leadership.
Though the book is about workplace culture, its guidelines about open and honest communication ― try not to take yourself or your problems too seriously, cut back on blame and criticism ― can easily be applied to your personal life.
The goal is to respond to frustrations in a non-triggered, nonreactive state. When you respond candidly and want to hear your partner’s side, you invite them to do the same.
“If my husband and I are getting triggered by silly things ― him walking across the floor I just mopped or one of us being late again for dinner because of work ― then we make a game of discussing it,” Agostino said. “We let the other person really get the feelings out, or we have to make our frustration so big that it’s funny that we end up laughing at ourselves.”
5. Plan activities with your work-consumed partner. (Just don’t forget to add it to their Google calendar.)
Instead of asking your S.O. to scale back on work, which might be misconstrued as unsupportive, plan out more quality time together, Beheshti said. Work-life balance is more of a verb than a noun: You actually need to commit to doing the “life” part to make it a reality.
“Quality time reconnecting is always a great reminder of what has been missed and most cherished, and often leads to becoming the norm rather than the exception,” she said. “This approach is more solution-driven, effective and enjoyable than having a serious conversation that can go sideways.”
6. Bring some of that workaholic energy into managing your marriage.
Approach your relationship issues with as much vigor as you would a work problem. Experiment with rules with your partner and see what works, and then communicate like crazy, Agostino said.
“For me and my husband, we have a weekly meeting on Sunday night to set priorities and expectations and to uncover what will be different this week,” she said. “Maybe I’ll say, ‘I won’t be home until later on Wednesday. Let’s get takeout so we can still have family dinner.’”
At the end of the day, fine-tuning your personal life and schedule will benefit your partner and your productivity at work the next morning.
“When my clients are respecting their own work-life balance dreams, they’re happier, their employees are happier and their companies do better,” Agostino said.