Mastering the Juggling Act in the Circus of Life

June 20, 2011
Dow Chemical Co. executive offers tips on how to find a good work/life balance.

Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, children of all ages --welcome to your life, the greatest show on Earth! Though I may not juggle flaming torches, sometimes my life certainly feels like a three-ring circus. For those of you who juggle physically or figuratively (like me), you know it's hard work. There is the ongoing effort of juggling commitments to our employers, our loved ones, our communities and, oh yes, ourselves. By dealing proactively with the real-life issue of work/life balance, we can have a fulfilling career and a rich life with family and friends; the secret to doing this is learning to juggle – and juggle well. Here are a few tricks that can make it a bit easier and even enjoyable.


Be passionate. Life is too short to have a job that you can't stand. Start by choosing a profession or role that you enjoy. I honestly believe that there has never been a better time to be a chemist or chemistry professional. Chemistry is a dynamic, exciting and essential field; more than 90% of all products -- everything from adhesives to cell phones -- have some level of chemistry in them. Developing solutions to the growing challenges of energy, food and water facing us today will required the full engagement of all of us, especially us chemists. So, roll up your sleeves and join in the fun.

"Have it All….Define All." You can have it all, but it depends on how you define "all." Career, social and personal interests and needs are all important, and they all take time and energy to develop and sustain. And so much the better if these interests are reinforcing, instead of competing. For instance, my dad was a chemist and he shared that with me. He and my mom were avid bridge and tennis players, which they also shared with me and my six siblings. At holidays we still play and often have two full tables of bridge. And growing up we couldn't afford a car for each child, but we did have seven bicycles. Years later, I met my husband in a bicycle club. And now our son, a collegiate racing cyclist, has pulled us back to our cycling roots.

In my professional life, I successfully combined my love of chemistry and people by serving as president of the American Chemical Society where I focused on education, collaboration and innovation – education of legislators, the media, the public and the next generation; collaboration because none of us can, or should, go it alone; and innovation to recreate our companies, our universities and ourselves. The professional network that I have developed enables me to successfully build technology partnerships across industry, academia, and national labs working with foundations and government agencies. 

Set Your Priorities. When it comes to managing "having it all," I like to think of juggling three balls. In juggling, at any given moment, only one of the balls can be on top. In life, at any given moment, you can only have one top priority. That said, as in juggling, the location of the balls is always changing – so, across the course of a year, a month and even a day, priorities are continually changing. Similarly, our priorities shift across the stages of our lives -- as our career aspirations form and develop, as our families grow and age, and as our interests (and our bodies) develop and mature. To be a good juggler we must get comfortable with shifting priorities and with the fact that only one area at a time can be our main focus. What makes this manageable is setting goals, breaking these down into addressable tasks and scheduling time to get the tasks done. And, of course, scheduling time to revisit and recalibrate those goals, as well as to schedule training, both required and developmental.

Enlist Support. When I moved from process chemist in research to laboratory manager in the plant, I worked hard to bring value to my team. When I became a mom, not only was I entering a new stage of my life but my colleagues were faced with a new challenge: the office manager mom. By sharing with my team the new demands on my time, such as leaving to pickup my son at daycare, etc., we were able to work out flexible time schedules that accommodated everyone. This not only resulted in building a strong working relationship across our entire work group but also developed what I believe was the plant's first-ever telecommuting program (circa 1991). 

Set Your Boundaries. As my son likes to remind me, family time with the Blackberry is not family time. Most of us suffer from the habit of inviting work into our personal lives, and it's important to realize that this not only impacts our ability to de-stress so we can maintain our health, but it impacts the quality of the experiences we share with our family and friends. Supportive friends, family members and significant others serve as a team that can help you develop and maintain boundaries and balance. Ask them for help.

Check Your Balance. So what are you juggling? Take a piece of paper and create one ball for each sphere of your life and be sure to include one for yourself. Which responsibilities and activities fall within each circle? What circle is at the top of your juggling arc right now? Think about whether or not your current priorities are working for you. If not, what needs to change?

One of my favorite sayings sums it up best: Today is the first day of the rest of your life. Embrace it; live it.

Catherine T. "Katie" Hunt, Ph.D., is director, Innovation Sourcing and Sustainable Technologies, at The Dow Chemical Company and 2007 President of the American Chemical Society.  Here bimonthly column appears exclusively on ChemicalProcessing.com. Follow her on Twitter @KatieChemist

To hear more perspectives about women in chemistry – why they chose chemistry as a profession and how they balance a rewarding career with family life, tune in to "The Future of Women in Chemistry and Science," part of Dow's The Future We Create virtual conference series, at http://www.futurewecreate.com/events/women_in_chemistry/.


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