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Two years ago, Jean Kane seemed to have her life all figured out: She was president and chief operating officer of a growing commercial real-estate company, a respected member of local and national boards, and the mom of three smart and active kids. She even managed to maintain her fitness through vigorous hourlong workouts each day.

Still, Kane wasn’t as happy or as satisfied as she thought she should be. Her early-morning workouts meant she didn’t see her family until after work, and her long days on the job often meant she came home exhausted and irritable. Worse yet, her anxiety about fitting everything into her schedule kept her up at night, so each day she felt more tired and out of control. “I just felt like I was running all the time,” she recalls.

She knew her pace wasn’t sustainable, and she feared she was missing out on the lives of her growing children (Charles, 16, and twins Carolyn and Elizabeth, 13). But she also enjoyed her job and valued her fitness regimen. So instead of abandoning any of the things she loved, she learned to make frequent, small, purposeful choices that would give her the time and the energy to appreciate all three.

Building a Bigger Life

As Kane, 47, was climbing the career ladder in the late ’90s, she kept an eye toward balance by arranging a flexible four-day schedule so she could have three full days with her family each week. But when she was offered the posts of president and COO
in 2001, she knew the opportunity would come with costs.

Though her daughters were still too young to see the tradeoffs, she talked with her husband, Tom, and son about whether it was the right move. “If I took the job, I wouldn’t be home Fridays,” she says. “I knew it would change our lives.” She would also travel more frequently and participate in more client dinners and other events. But her family knew she loved her job and that the position would bring her valuable opportunities, so they encouraged her to take the leap.

As Kane’s work responsibilities grew, though, so did her stress. And while she credited her daily 5 a.m. cardio and strength workouts with helping her blow off steam, she knew that exercise was also part of the problem.

The gym was closer to work than to home, and she went straight from her workout to the office, forgoing family breakfasts. Then, after a 10- or 12-hour workday, she rarely had the energy to spend much time with her kids.

Kane began to wonder if there was a way to sneak some family time between exercise and her job. When a Life Time Fitness club opened just minutes from her Deephaven, Minn., home in January 2006, it was the perfect opportunity to make a change. By joining the new gym, she could come home to shower and chat with her kids and husband before they headed off for the day. They loved it, and she saw that even this small change could make a big difference.

Still, Kane wasn’t sure she was striking the perfect balance. She worried she wouldn’t be able to effectively manage all her work responsibilities if she cut out early for, say, her kids’ swim meet, and she was concerned that the time away from her kids and
husband was taking a toll at home. So, for a while, she just tried harder to do it all.

It didn’t work. By the end of 2006, several friends, family members and work colleagues had individually pulled the exhausted Kane aside to voice their concerns about her go-go-go pace, and to encourage her to re-evaluate her hectic schedule.

From Breadth to Depth

Kane was pondering those concerns just as the calendar turned to the new year — a perfect time to reflect on her life. She realized there were some disconnects between her daily choices and the things she claimed were most important.

“I never really lost track of my values,” she says. “I just wasn’t paying close enough attention.” She vowed to find more ways to make her family central to her life without sacrificing the career she loved.

The choices she made were subtle, but meaningful. Instead of flying out Sunday night for out-of-town meetings on Monday, for instance, she flew in the morning. She hired more staff and delegated some of her responsibilities. And during the summer, she wrapped up work early on Fridays so she could spend the afternoons with her kids.

“It’s not a big vacation,” she explains. “It’s just being able to go on a bike ride and get an ice cream with my kids. It’s about being there.”

She also arranged her schedule so she could drop off her son at school every morning and pick up all three kids after swimming practice in the evening. “It’s a nice time to connect,” she says of the drive time. “It was a subtle change, but it’s so important to capture all the time you can with your kids.”

Meanwhile, she stopped bringing home stacks of office work and became more selective about extracurricular work functions, choosing carefully between invitations and stepping down from several boards.

Her friend and early-morning workout partner, Ann Hansen, says it wasn’t always easy for Kane to strike that balance. “She’s not a quitter, so I think those changes were tough for her,” she says. “But she realized she was spreading herself too thin.”

An Everyday Balancing Act

Kane’s workdays are still long and busy, but she has learned to focus on what she values most. She believes the small, conscious changes she’s made have made her life happier and more complete. Her kids especially have appreciated the time she carves out to spend with them.

Still, says Kane, she’s not perfect, and she’s always working to make choices that reflect her values. “The changes I’ve made haven’t been dramatic,” she says. “They’re baby steps. But I work on them every single day.”

Success Summary

Meet: Jean Kane, 47, Deephaven, Minn., president and COO of a commercial real-estate company

Big achievements: Spending more time with her family without forgoing fitness or her busy work schedule

Big inspiration: Her three children. “I saw my kids getting older, and I realized they would be gone before I knew it.”

What worked: Shunning multitasking. “So many people are thumbing away on their BlackBerries when the people who are important to them are right there with them,” she says. “Whether I’m at work or with my kids, I want to make sure I’m there, and not focusing on something else.”

What didn’t: Trying to do it all — at home, at work and at the gym. “It seemed like my life was moving too quickly,” Kane says. “I wasn’t feeling any range of emotion — I was just feeling flat.”

Words of wisdom: Align words with actions. “After you think about your values and what’s important to you, you need to hold yourself accountable. If you say it’s important to carve out time for yourself and family, do that. If you’re not aligned with your values, you’ll never be happy.”

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