If I Had to Choose Between Chocolate Chip Cookies or Another Concert, I’d Choose The Cookie
Peter Bregman recently wrote a compelling article for the Harvard Business Review about the importance of enforcing one’s own rules–especially about not being interrupted while working. In “The Cardinal Rule of Rules,” Bregman writes:
I have a rule: if the door to my office is closed, [my children] have to knock once. If I answer, they can come in. If I’m silent, it means I don’t want to be disturbed and they have to wait until I come out. Well, this time, not wanting my call to be unprofessionally interrupted, I remained silent. But they kept knocking and, eventually, just walked in. I was stunned! What about my rule? I signaled for them to be silent but let them stay in the room until the call was over. After my phone call, I asked them why they had disobeyed my rule.
“But Daddy,” Isabelle said, “you like it when we just come in. We did it yesterday and the day before and you didn’t say no.”
I had broken the cardinal rule of rules: never break a rule.
Mr. Bregman does offer helpful advice on this subject, especially for within a work setting. Sometimes team members need to aware of how to respect others’ time, and to think in advance before you approach someone. At UniversalGiving we have a document called “Effectiveness Tips” which helps people understand how to operate effectively in our workplace. Effectiveness Tips includes tips on writing, communication and operations. One of our points is about questions. We ask people to ‘gather their questions’ before approaching the CEO or a team member, so that we don’t come with one-off questions several times throughout the day.
Mr. Bregman’s points are even more important if you work at home. It’s very hard to set boundaries and accomplish your work, and, also be present with families. And to his point, I spoke on another article regarding the downsides of MultiTasking, which points to staying focused on one thing. Mr. Bregman’s points again are essential if you are being paid to be available for certain hours, which is part of a contract, agreement and promise with your employer.
I think my Dad “separated” these areas really well. He traveled a fair amount and worked very hard. But when he was home, he was “super present.” He was with us. He played hide and seek, running around with us in the backyard, and eating dinner every night he could with us. In fact, at his company he told his team that work ended at 5 pm and family dinner was important. And, that he didn’t want people working weekends. “When we are here, 8-5, 9-5, we’re going to stay focused and work hard. If we can’t get our work done in 8 or 9 hours, then our priorities aren’t right.”
With my Dad, I never felt work interfered, because he kept it at work and kept it away from us. When he was at home, he was present with us. There was the boundary Mr. Bregman speaks of.
This of course becomes harder when your office is at home. Or when you are a working mom. The complexities our society presents today provide so many choices, so many ways to have it all, that it is a unique and challenging choice for each one of us, when and when not to be available.
My mom was quite different. I’d like to also provide an alternative view here, another choice. I am reminded of my own childhood, and of what happened when I interrupted my mother. I’d love to share this personal story, and it was part of my response to Mr. Bregman’s article.
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I always appreciate your clear writing, focus on principles and storytelling. I understand your point, and I think it is helpful.
Additionally, I think different circumstances can work differently, across different people. Sometimes we have to have client service internally in our organization. Sometimes people need something repeated and perhaps it’s not so easy to wait for the next meeting time your staff member has scheduled with you.
People who are great workers or leaders make mistakes, too. If it is repeated interruptions, your point may apply. But some of my best team members need repeated information. It’s simply because we have so much on our plate, and are all working so hard.
I’d like to bring in a very important, repeated personal story here. My mom was and is a professional concert flutist of the highest caliber. She performed at Carnegie and has a Masters in Music from Stanford. She performed a duo concert of she and Jean-Pierre Rampal, one of the greatest flutists of all time. She continues to perform with Avedis at the Legion of Honor, a concert series she created.
When I was growing up, her ‘work’ was at home. She practiced right next door to me in the adjacent room. Sometimes I would interrupt her to see if she would come see if my cookies were done. I’ve always grown up with Mom making cookies, so they are a big part of the Hawley Family Culture. We were known for making great cookies and bringing them to all types of events. It was one of Mom’s many ways of expressing love for others.
Knowing Mom would drop her flute playing so she could help me with my cookies always filled with my heart. Every child needs that endorsement of making great chocolate chip cookies — ones that don’t burn on the bottom (my biggest fear!). Ones that aren’t too crispy. Or too soft. And often, I just needed the “OK” of a mother love. I will always remember her stopping what she was doing, to help.
I will always remember I came first with my mom. I will always know my mom loved me and her family above everything else. I will always remember how available she was and is to me. She was made to love her family. It’s her highest joy and calling, and she does it 100%, 100% of the time. I have tears coming down my face right now because her life has been a devotion to me, my sister, my father, her mother, her grandchildren. She simply lives love of others.
So then, here’s the question. How did she do it?
Her selflessness was so strong. And yet her trust must be so strong as well. She knew she couldn’t be ‘punished’ by checking on the chocolate chips cookies of her dear child. And somehow — she got it all done. Her concerts are stellar. She is always prepared musically. She cooks great meals. She is a great listener. She has her three grandchildren over at least twice per week, opening up her home and heart, cooking them their favorite tapioca pudding, and filling our home and heart with love.
She never once told me to come to her later because she needed to practice.
If I had to choose, I choose chocolate chip cookies over another concert. She had her priorities right. I just happen to be the lucky daughter who received so much love.
What my mother did was absolutely amazing. I am not a mom yet or a working mom yet, so I don’t yet know how I will handle my situation. I hope it will be a balance of time for work, and time for family, clearly and lovingly delineated. Regardless, I honor all parents who are striving to understand this balance, and the unique choice they make…