Tried-and-true management tips for busy households.

Pot on a stove
Credit: Coral Von Zumwalt

About 11 years ago, two big things happened in my life: My wife and I started a family, and I launched a consulting firm. For years I was much more successful at running my company than managing our family―probably because I was taking specific steps to improve my business, then going home and winging it.

Well, a few years ago, it occurred to me that this made no sense, and that my family was in fact an organization, too―the most important one in my life. That realization was probably provoked by an innocuous (or so I thought) comment to my wife: “You know, honey, if my clients ran their companies the way we run this family, they’d go out of business.”

I’ll spare you the gory details of her response and just tell you that we eventually decided to figure out whether the tools and concepts I applied with my clients might help our home run more smoothly. I’m here to report that they absolutely did and might help you, too. (Don’t worry: None involve persuading a 10-year-old to endure the agony of a performance review.)

1. Identify your core values. Companies define their core values because they provide a great framework for making all kinds of decisions. To apply this idea to your family, think about what common traits each spouse admires in the other. One of the things I love about my wife is that she is unafraid to speak her mind or stand up for her beliefs. We wanted to pass that trait on to our four sons, so we made it a core value. (Our others are creativity and passion.) Then, when one of the boys was sent to the principal’s office for defending a classmate who was being bullied, we made it clear that he should be proud that he had stood up for a friend.

2. Establish a single top priority. If everything is important, nothing is. Too many companies fail because they spread their time and energies too thin. Answer this question: “In addition to our day-to-day responsibilities, if we accomplish one big thing as a family in the next few months, what should it be?” And then work on it. It could be anything from “Help Dad get healthy” to “Spend more time together as a family at home.”

3. Keep your values and top priority visible. You don’t need an engraved plaque to remind you of what’s important. But it’s good to have a ready reference. My wife and I were out on a date around the time we were coming up with our family’s list of values and top priority. She borrowed a waiter’s pen and wrote them on the paper tablecloth. After dinner she neatly tore off that section and stuck it to our oven, where we could see it every day.

4. Don’t make snap decisions. Companies (and families) tend to take on commitments out of peer pressure or guilt, before they understand what’s involved. Often it’s not a single big project, but the dinner date, bake sale, and sleepover that all add up to make a family frantic. Which leads us to number 5.

5. Understand your opportunity cost. In business, when taking one course of action prevents a company from accomplishing other tasks, we talk about opportunity cost. One of the best decisions we ever made was to let our sons opt out of Cub Scouts (the opportunity), which was eating up our weekends (the cost). Why cut that and not, say, guitar lessons? We decided that Cub Scouts was a little too regimented and that music better suited our style. Knowing the decision reflected one of our values―creativity―removed any sense of guilt we might otherwise have had.

6. Assess which balls bounce and which ones break. Sometimes tasks that feel urgent can actually be ignored. (In other words, those balls will bounce.) As we were getting ready to have our fourth child, I was overcome by the urge to landscape the front yard and to start going to Pilates. Would the house be overtaken by a jungle? No. Did I need to touch my toes again? Well, eventually that might be nice, but not right now. What I really had to do was prepare my home and family for something that mattered―the arrival of Baby Number 4. The rest could wait.

7. Don’t confuse long-term strategies and short-term tactics. For parents, this can take the form of discussing what to have for dinner in the same breath as whether to change jobs. Or trying to make a decision about finances or discipline while brushing your teeth and getting the kids off to school. Vital issues can get short shrift or be entirely lost in the minutiae if you don’t stop, filter them out, and return to them later.

8. Meet often to review your progress. Don’t groan. This is not a bad episode of The Brady Bunch. But families do need to meet once a week, for no more than 10 minutes, to review what’s going on and what adjustments need to be made to their time and priorities. We’ve noticed that our twin boys get a sense of clarity and accomplishment from our Sunday-night discussions. They like talking about how we’re doing as a family and seeing their role in it.

9. Get out of the “office” from time to time. Most executives I work with develop a condition I call adrenaline addiction: They’re convinced that they can never slow down and think about the big picture because there is so much to do right now. Which inevitably ends in burnout. Parents should also take time as a couple to review calmly the bigger picture of their family, even if it means just going for a drive with the radio off. A long date or a weekend away can pay huge personal dividends even if you have to shell out for a babysitter.

10. Welcome productive conflict. When executives can’t argue, they can’t make good decisions and commit to them. Families are the same. Remember―many of the ideas I’ve described here were born out of a messy, tense discussion I had with my wife when I clumsily critiqued the way we were running our family. For the record, she’s not mad at me anymore.