Swimming like a duck — Tips for *appearing* calm and collected at work

Just by virtue of age and unwillingness to change jobs I am becoming a “senior” level associate. That means that there are increasing numbers of people junior to me, though I want to make clear that they don’t work for me and I am not their boss. It just means that they tend to view me as older and wiser and hit me up for advice all the time, and then scurry to their respective corners when I have work that would be more appropriate to hand off to someone with a lower billing rate.

It has recently come to my attention that among the juniors there is a collective agreement that I have a “great work/life balance” and that I am “so lucky” that “everyone loves” me, which is why I “never have to work nights and weekends”. They don’t seem to understand why they can’t have my life and how I managed to score this great gig. [Can you hear my irritation through the screen?]

  • First, my utilization rate for the month of May was almost 200%.
  • Second, I am part-time. I took a 25% pay cut as compared to my peer group — which means that I actually take home less than my favorite batch of juniors.
  • Third, I have invested a great deal of time into structuring my life — both work and play. It’s taken me a long time to work things out. It took HARD WORK to get to this point!

And so, with that said, here are my tips for “swimming like a duck” — smooth and calm on the surface, while paddling like mad underneath. (Thanks to my boss for the expression!)

1. Establish boundaries. I leave — EVERY DAY — at 3:30pm so I can pick my kids up at 4. From 4 until bedtime is kid time. When I’m at work, I’m not playing with my kids, and when I’m playing with my kids, I’m not doing work. And I don’t check my BlackBerry then, either. Work is work; home is home.

2. Enforce your boundaries. Every person I work with, whether partner or client, gets the same story — “I will be in the office until 3:30pm. You can reach me by cell until 4pm.” That’s it. I make an exception, at most, once each month, and only in cases where 12 people need to be on the phone and the only time they can all make it is 3pm and I know the call will run for an hour. This accomplishes two purposes: First, it means I get to enjoy the boundary I set. Second, it means that people know I am a person of my word — once I say I am going to do something, I do it. In this case I’m doing something for myself — but when I say I’ll do something for you, I will. Also, in general, nobody respects a wimp. If you can’t stand up for yourself, how can you stand up for anyone else?

3. Be flexible. I regularly work in the evening after my kids go to bed on things that are easy but would make my life easier if they were off my plate for the next day. That doesn’t mean I can’t be talking to my husband and catching up on “True Blood” at the same time. Also, there are always emergencies. I understand that. So — and this seems a bit contradictory — make sure that everyone you work with knows you will be available in emergency situations. With that said, TRIAGE the list of people who have your cell number. Feel out who is capable of using it appropriately — when, for example, you might commit malpractice if you don’t respond to something immediately — and who is not (you can often gauge this based on said person’s use of the “high priority” indicator over e-mail…). If you do answer during an emergency, it doesn’t hurt to have your kids screaming in the background. I do this all the time. It helps to convey — yes, I am always willing to help you, but please be aware this was my personal time. I find it engenders sympathy and apology in the caller, and makes them more likely to respect my boundaries the next time around. Also, if you happen to be in the emergency room with your kid (which has happened to me) and you respond — letting the person know where you are — it gets you bonus points for life and they will never, ever bother you again when you say you are unavailable (even if by “unavailable” you just mean “out shopping”).

4. Be prepared. It’s amazing how few people actually are prepared for phone calls, etc. Do a bit of independent thinking before you walk into a meeting. Review the agenda — have a few questions. The fact that you thought up a question usually makes people think you are amazingly diligent and brainy, even when the question is really obvious. If I have a bit of downtime at night and the Mr. is reading ESPN, I might take 15 minutes just to ponder an issue that will be discussed the next day. It gave me something to do while the Mr. was otherwise occupied AND I can bill for it. DOUBLE BONUS!

5. Stay connected. Most junior associates I know hate their BlackBerries. HATE them. I love mine. [Okay, that's going a bit far; let's be honest, I'd really rather have an iPhone but the Mr. doesn't see why I should BUY a piece of equipment when I have a perfectly serviceable and FREE BlackBerry.] But with my BlackBerry I can do amazing things. For example, I can go shopping with my mother-in-law all day Friday — hello, Kate Spade outlet, it’s lovely to meet you! — AND keep on top of my e-mail. 90% of the job is just remaining visible and in contact with the client. When something comes in which is too complex for an e-mail reply, I just set down my shopping bags in the nearest Starbucks, and use the handy phone feature on my BlackBerry to call the person, starting with, “I’m out of the office right now, but I wanted to make sure we address your question before it gets away from me….” Everybody wins, and I got an excuse for more coffee.

6. Look presentable. This one should be self-evident, but apparently it’s not. Ladies, I know it’s sexist, but the fact is you just look more professional when you’ve put on a bit of make-up. (Note, I said “a BIT!” Not a lot.) My morning routine — the part that is dedicated to me — is 15 minutes. That’s it. How do I do it? First, shower at night; you can always flat-iron your hair in the morning if it’s gone crazy. Second, have an established work wardrobe. (On this point, mix-and-match separates are a big, fat, confusing joke of a lie — they do NOT make life easier. You know what makes life easier? DRESSES. Or other outfits that clearly only go with each other. I don’t have time to mess around in the morning — I want to grab an entire outfit in one go.) Third, leave all of your work shoes in a basket by the door you exit in the morning, and put them back in the same basket when you come home. Yes, it’s not the tidiest of solutions, but it means I can always find my shoes as I’m rushing out the door. Fourth, find a two-minute make-up routine. Five minutes is clearly too long. My favorite go-to’s are tinted moisturizer, cream blush, mascara and Clinique’s Black Orchid gloss (amazing).

7. Show up in a good mood. I don’t care how much sleep you got or how much you worked last night. Your bad mood is poison to the entire office and it just brings everyone down. If you can’t be Susie Sunshine, fine, then keep your office door closed. If you don’t have an office, sorry, you lose — you’re just going to have to do what it takes to cheer yourself up. Put on some headphones and rock out on your iPod, have an extra cup of coffee, whatever, I don’t care. But buck up. You’re gainfully employed. Take a look out across the United States and you’ll find at least 16% of the population who is guaranteed to be worse-off than you. Add in the percentage of people who have cancer or some other terminal illness. Then add in the people whose family members have cancer or some other terminal illness. A lot of people would trade places with you to be stuck in a maybe-boring-but-pays-the-bills job.

So there you go, that’s how I get through my day. Oh, and lots of coffee…and wine…and girlfriends!

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