Work Life

How to achieve life balance when you commute between countries for work

Photo of Jonathan Pennington
April 26, 2019
Reading time
5 minutes

Exactly 1000km separate my front door from the entrance to my office. It’s a journey that takes me around 272 minutes, or just over four and half hours.


If the minute breakdown seems a little OCD, it’s because I am when it comes to time. Clichéd as it is, when the one thing we can’t buy more of is time, each day is centered around optimizing mine. And though I work in another country and travel extensively around the world for work, I have a better work/life balance than if I was working on my doorstep in London. If you read on, I’ll tell you why, and more importantly how. 


Five years ago, when I worked and lived in the same city, I had a daily commute that took 90 minutes each way. Soon after starting my last job, I asked my boss if I could work from home on the occasional Friday given the commute and how much more productive I might be doing deep work from home. “You can work from home on Fridays if you want, but I’ll consider it as you taking a day off,” she said. So when I joined Jabra, the most important question I had was what the work culture was like. It’s crucial to find a company that lives being able to work from anywhere. And while there is something unique in that, it takes an entirely different set of training in time management to thrive in it.

This is what lead me to develop a toolkit to tackle time management across my life, to the point where I can spend more time with my family than if I was still working in London.


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Balancing your two families

Managing a team is like leading a family and my time and goal setting is mirrored across my professional and personal life. I have my work family and my family at home; my goal is to give each dedication and support whether I’m there or not. Technology enables me to do that on both sides, and even if I had a PA, the one thing I would still maintain full control over is my calendar. Living by a calendar isn’t a regimented all-governing principle, it’s just the smartest way to make sure you create time for what’s important. It’s widely known that they can be effective productivity tools, but I know few people who extend them to block off the family time that is important. If I’m travelling for work, I will always block off an hour to be able to FaceTime my children and hear about their days before bed. And if I’m home, I’ll schedule time to do school runs and private time with the kids, buying back what I lose while away.

Living by a calendar isn’t a regimented all-governing principle, it’s just the smartest way to make sure you create time for what’s important.

The four week runway

Understandably it can be quite tricky to manage a calendar while remaining agile and responsive. I’ve found that scheduling with three to four weeks of runway is the most effective balance here. I’ve learnt what I need to be at and what I can say no to. Put the important time into your calendar. Block it off. Keep cycling back to your overall plan and objectives. And hold up meeting requests and their agenda against yours when making decisions. You need to be able to input across the business, but it’s about prioritization in your key areas. While I’ll put in big trips, deadlines and school calendar events in advance, a three to four week runway is where physically booking out family time, for both my families and my key tasks, becomes most important.

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Make sure you’re always present in one place

The major determinant of where you sit on a time-quality index comes down to how present you are. This applies to smarter working, more effective time management and how to get the most out of family and downtime. Like Carl Richards recently wrote in The New York Times “if the primary muscle you use to do your job is your brain, you need to learn how to rest it, too.” Regardless of whether I’m working, relaxing or spending time with family; I always try to be 100% present. When it comes to working from home, it’s about setting boundaries.


Set your ground rules for the home office

Attention and priority management is what enables productive work from home. Many people don’t think they can do it because they would be too distracted. My greatest sanity check when working from home is having a dedicated work room. Whether I’m in or out, the door remains shut. When the office is closed, it is shut, and my laptop never leaves that room.

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Communicate the why

Though Simon Sinek has raised awareness to the concept of “Start with Why”, it is often thought of within a work context. I find it as valuable, and almost more so to apply at home. If someone understands where you are, and why you’re there, they’re far more likely to be happy with your absence. Having a family calendar is certainly a help, but explaining why you need to be somewhere should always be your number one communication priority. While there is no secret recipe here, I find that communicating something as soon as I find out about it keeps all lines open. Understand what people want to hear, when they want to hear it and how they want to hear it. Don’t underestimate the power of strategic communication in the home.

If someone understands where you are, and why you’re there, they’re far more likely to be happy with your absence.

At the end of the day, some might disagree that booking priority tickets and parking strategically in an airport car park are undue stresses, but for me they are by-products of effective time management. You can’t build lasting habits if you don’t apply them across your life, and though many people might think that travelling for work detracts from family life and effective work, they are great opportunities that you can train yourself in to unlock your best work. Finding a company that trusts you is key, passing on that trust is essential, and managing time effectively is a daily practice.

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