I began travelling for my job when my first child was three months old. But don’t mistake correlation for causation…it wasn’t the broken nights' sleep that forced me onto the road, but an excellent job opportunity that seemed worth the risk. Nearly eight years later and I’m in a different job but still with a bunch of travel involved. How much I travel has varied. It’s tended to average around 30%, but has peaked at way more than that. I’ve worked in consultancy, business development, and as a developer advocate in that time.
Over on the #parenthood channel of the DevRel slack there was a question about tips for balancing travel versus life with kids at home. I jotted down some quick thoughts that might be useful for others so I am expanding on and sharing them here. My kids are seven and five, and it’ll be interesting to revisit this in a few years to see if any of the advice and thoughts that I have below have changed in that time.
I’ll prefix this list with the caveat that this is what works and guides me personally. With this subject, you’ll probably find pretty quickly that in making a decision you have to rely on your personal views and compass on work, home life, family life, and so on. Also, I’m coming at this with a wife and two kids at home—as the acronym goes, YMMV. Finally, I am very conscious that I’m in a privileged position to have the luxury to make some of the choices I describe below. For some people, they just have to travel as part of the job that they need to do to make ends meet, and that’s all there is to it.
Travelling for work with a family at home is not a simple proposition. You’ve got to talk, talk, and talk some more about it with your family. Obviously, that means your partner, but I’m guessing as my kids get older they might want to know why I have to keep going away too. When you disappear out of that door on your way to exotic destinations (or Swindon) and fancy parties (or an 8-hour conference in a basement with no daylight), you’re leaving behind a whole ton of Real Life. Don’t underestimate the difficulty of that for your partner and what you’re dumping on them. Keep talking to your partner. What worked a year ago might not be working now; whatever you agreed back then maybe needs to be revisited now.
Just Say No
Say No when you need to. Be stingy about your travel time—don’t commit to the first ask, but make sure that it is the best and most appropriate use of your time. Saying no is hard at first, and it feels like you’re being unhelpful—but it gets easier. I’ve been fortunate to have great bosses who respect my desire to limit travel because of family, and so ultimately if someone takes issue with me refusing to travel they can take it up with them.
The second part of saying no is, in fact, saying no to yourself. I find it’s my impulses to travel more than being asked to do more that I really have to fight against. Like, "just one more trip here won’t matter", but they all add up and they do matter. Each day at home is precious and to be valued. In ten years your kids will have grown up and won’t want to spend any time with you. In ten years who will give two monkeys if you presented at SuperKool Konference 2008? Conferences come and go. Kids just go. Even now with them at seven and five, my wife and I are remarking how we miss [some of] when they were younger. Blink, and you’ll miss it. Sign-out, and you’ll miss it. Take that extra trip, and you’ll miss it.
To make it easier to say no, think about how you can prove and maximise your value whilst not travelling. In my current field of DevRel, there’s a ton of stuff you can do that doesn’t need to be on the road. Blogs, online talks, community support, and more. All super-valuable, all quantifiable, all from the comfort of your home.
When to say no
It’s kinda obvious to not be away on your kids' and wife’s birthdays. But think more holistically than that. I read a good post on LinkedIn (guess what, they do exist!) from someone who travels a lot and talked about the fact that not being absent on birthdays and other special dates is table stakes. Doesn’t give you a pass to be absent for the rest of the time. All those random days a kid comes home from school with exciting news about something totally inconsequential that they learnt. All those evenings your partner’s left after a tough day with the kids, just needing a shoulder to rest on. Each of those totally mundane, boring, days at home is what makes family life. Each one of those that you miss, you’re absent. You’re a gap in their lives at home. And each of those days you’re out earning a living, for sure. But you’re not there. And that’s what will aggregate over time and compound.
I wish I could find the original LinkedIn post in order to attribute appropriately and recognise the author. If anyone finds it, please let me know.
When planning flights, I plan around my family as much as my meetings. If I’ve got to be somewhere for 0900, I could travel there the night before, or I could get up at 0400 and travel that day. One way I lose an evening with my wife and kids, the other I lose some sleep. That amplifies if you’re flying and crossing time zones and is guaranteed to screw your body clock even more, but…it’s a trade-off, right? Similar to above where I talk about being present for all the random non-event days at home, the same goes for mealtimes. Breakfast with two screaming children who are late for school? Yeah…comes with the territory. Sucks at the time but you were there for it. If you have the luxury of being able to be there, be there.
When I started travelling, I had these romantic notions of my children being fascinated with my destinations, mapping them out on a wall chart, collecting souvenirs from each country, cherishing each and every one. In practice, they’d rather have a small Lego set that I order off Amazon in advance than some overpriced crap that I buy from the airport.
Overnight trips don’t get a present; week-long trips do.
They’ll occasionally like location-specific stuff, like a baseball cap from SF, but I gave up on the keyrings, stickers, pencils etc. a while ago. Maybe as they get older, they’ll be more into it.
The other good source of presents is…conferences. That annoying guy who comes up to your booth scrounging swag in exchange for a badge-scan? Yeah, that’s me. Sorry, I don’t want to know anything about your product, but hey you got a marketing lead for your metrics ;-) My daughter particularly likes playing with the lanyards and satchels that you get from some conferences. The pads of paper are useful for their scribbles. Random cuddly toys got the kibosh a while ago as there were too many, and they’re generally fairly lame quality. As an experienced swag-whore, I can vouch for this.
Keeping in touch
FaceTime. Is. Awesome. It’s also kinda crap. When I phone home, generally the kids will hold the phone pointed at the ceiling, and want to know when they can go back to playing Minecraft or watching TV. But hey, as my wise wife pointed out to me, it’s more about them seeing me, than me seeing them. So I try to call every day that I’m away. Timezone differences can make that hard, but it’s worth doing.
I use a spreadsheet (natch) to keep myself honest; I have a ceiling on how much I’ll travel in a month as a percentage of working days (excluding vacation time), and I set a simple data validation rule to highlight if I’m going to breach that.
It’s also useful to have the data to hand when it feels like you’re just doing too much. It’s important to be objective, and with this kind of thing in hand easy to realise that something needs to change (which it did 😀):
Watch out for trips that bookend end/start of months though; that’s caught me out before, and instead of a happy feeling that I’d kept under my target limit, I felt crappy that I was never at home—because the rolling 30-day average was way higher than I’d wanted. I use a separate calendar for trip planning that makes it easy to spot my travel patterns over a period of weeks, here seen with the excellent Fantastical app:
The flip side
Whilst we were discussing this on the DevRel slack, Waldo made some great points that I’m just going to quote (with his permission) verbatim here instead of trying to paraphase:
For me, the opportunity and reward of a job that requires travel is worth it. But it’s something that requires effort to do to keep the balance, and it’s a continual balancing act particularly with greater levels of autonomy in your job. No-one is going to be actually telling you to travel less other than you. Your family [hopefully] just want you there. Your boss if they’re good will respect your desire to keep the balance, but will have better things to do than actively police what you book. At worst you’ll have to continually battle the requests to travel more, and that’s part of the fun of trying to strike the balance…
What do you think?
Hit me up on Twitter, I’ll be happy to add more thoughts and contributions to this page :)