The idea of doing the dusting while listening to newspaper podcasts in order to spend time more productively might seem like multi-tasking gone mad. But that is what self-confessed serial networker and public relations supremo Julia Hobsbawm recommends in her new book, The See Saw: 100 Ideas for Work-Life Balance.
“I have called the book The See Saw because I think life is a bit of an inexact science where we swing from a busy time to a fallow time,” she says over coffee at London’s Groucho Club. She negotiated membership at the exclusive venue with her employer in lieu of a pay rise during her first job at publisher Martin Dunitz in the 1980s.
Hobsbawm, the daughter of Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm, was one of the first ever professors of public relations — at the London College of Printing (now the University of The Arts). She set up PR business Hobsbawm Macaulay Communications 16 years ago with school friend Sarah Macaulay, the wife of Prime Minister Gordon Brown.
Now 44 and living in north London, Hobsbawm runs media analysis company Editorial Intelligence and does seem to “have it all”. She has three children, two step-children and a husband, Alaric, who is in charge of child-care duties while running his antiquarian book business from home.
She knows she is in an enviable position but believes all women — and indeed men — can balance fulfilling careers with being good parents and partners. “I have achieved a good-enough work-life balance,” she says. “I have learned that you can be driven and energetic, but you must drop the fantasy that you can be a perfectionist.”
Hobsbawm uses the phrase “good enough” a lot. In fact, as a PR guru, coining signature phrases is part of her schtick.
“You realise, as a parent, you can’t be perfect,” she says. “You realise, three seconds after they are born, that you will make mistakes. I can’t be perfect. But I absolutely think it’s great to work and great to have a family if you can.”
The book partly came about after Hobsbawm caught pneumonia on a family holiday in Aldeburgh, Suffolk, and realised she needed to slow down. “In my über-organised way I managed to nearly die and recover on my summer holiday,” she jokes. “I was exhausted. By the time I got to the hospital I was suffering from septicaemia. It was a bit of a wake-up call. I wouldn’t like everyone to undergo quite such a dramatic realisation. On the other hand, sometimes you need something quite abrupt. The thing I have learned most of all is that you have to say no to things.” It was 2005 and she had recently set up Editorial Intelligence, which she thought she could run from home. But it proved impossible with her youngest son, Wolfie, now three, crawling on to her desk and chewing the corners off every envelope.
“I’d incubated this idea of a media analysis service,” she explains. “I had this ‘guilt lite’ fantasy that I wouldn’t need to work a lot and I’d be a ‘school-gate’ mum. I did not have work-life balance at all in the first couple of years of my business. I suddenly found myself with five children and a new business and I really felt overwhelmed and overloaded.
“I contacted a life coach who I found really useful. I came back in the autumn following the holiday and thought: ‘Let’s just be really focused’.”
Hobsbawm — who describes herself as “culturally” Jewish — is aware that increasing numbers of women are abandoning work to be full-time mothers, some out of choice, many because they have lost their jobs in the recession. But she says that 24/7 motherhood is something she could never do and she has the luxury of not having to.
“There was a little bit of a movement just before the recession that wanted women to stop work altogether,” she says. “I think: ‘Good on people who don’t work, either because they can’t or because they don’t want to.’ That is not to say that women like me, who grew up wanting to work and who are the bread winners, shouldn’t work. I’m really anti-guilt. Being a Jewish mother I’m hard-wired to feel guilty. I hope I’m a good enough mother. If I was home all the time then I’m sure I’d feel I’d let my family down in some other way.”
Instead, she prefers to practise the art of “time stretching” — a phrase to describe simple time-saving methods and multi-tasking. Instead of going to her children’s parent evenings, which are inconveniently scheduled in the afternoons, she will arrange to talk to the teacher on the phone, or have “telephone tea” as she calls it.
Or she will combine exercise, work and travel by walking to her appointments while listening to a New Yorker magazine podcast. She also advocates doing absolutely nothing for five minutes each day.
“I’m not saying there’s an answer,” she explains. “There are only many solutions. Part of me is saying knuckle down and the other part of me is saying don’t overdo it. I’m not trying to advocate doing anything that doesn’t work for you.”
For example, she is not judgemental about French Justice minister Rachida Dati, who was heavily criticised in the press for going back to work five days after giving birth. “Let her do what she needs to do,” says Hobsbawm. “There was no indication that she was actually going back to work full time. It could have just been one cabinet meeting.”
The papers went into overdrive about that story, proving that it is not just Hobsbawm who is preoccupied with work-life balance. “It’s possible I think about it more than sex,” she admits. “I began to talk to friends and suddenly realised we’re all obsessed. It’s the new calorie counter.”
And it is not just women who are fixated on the issue. “It’s actually arrogant to say this is something that only preoccupies women,” she insists. “The culture has shifted. I think men absolutely want to be part of their family lives much more than they were before.”
Seven ways to achieve balance
● Ditch unnecessary work meetings. Perfect techniques that cut back on the time spent working and allow you to be at home and connecting to your non-work life.
● If you are overloaded with lots of competing obligations, learn to treat your life like crop rotation. In other words, allow yourself to give priority to some things at the expense of others.
● If you are the working mother, realise that you have to give up wanting to be at the centre of everything, all the time. By delegating some bits of mothering you will inevitably see others do the job as well as you, at least some of the time. Learn to accept this.
● Don’t compare your family life to other families. Compare it only to your values and what you think is best for it. If you aren’t doing what is best for your family or you, make a change. But avoid “family envy” where you think everyone else is doing it better than you, because they aren’t.
● Go for a walk without your mobile. Remember, our parents were not contactable every second and we survived. There is nothing so terrible about a delay in replying to a call.
● Keep a daily tally of three things you want to achieve, not 30. List them and do them.
● Pause for thought instead of mindlessly rushing around. Switch off for at least five minutes every day and don’t do anything with your mind or hands or time.