When I first transitioned to the reserves, I frequently asked the more experienced reservists how they managed work-life balance in the face of a second career. To be candid, some have laughed. After years of asking the question, I have concluded that no one has perfect work-life balance among personal/family commitments, civilian job, and military obligations during all calendar days of the year. Balance is a continuous work in progress that requires self-reflection and regular (re)assessment. After about ten years of reserve life, below are nuggets of wisdom I have gleaned.
One of our retired admirals advised me to pray, exercise, eat well, and meditate. Others have stressed planning and continual communication with everyone (family, civilian supervisors, and military). When you wait until the 11th hour to pass your clearance, submit your orders’ requirements, or execute your travel, you maximize the stress and increase the room for error. Checklists for recurring items (time card, out-of-office reply) minimize stress and help avoid the expensive mistake of forgetting (once again) to pack your uniform shoes or getting to the airport and finding out that your Government Travel Credit Card is inactive and your flight is canceled.
Former leaders have advised putting in for jobs that interest you because if you enjoy what you are doing, you are more likely to do a good job. In addition, before submitting for a job, read the fine print and talk to the current folks. Knowing the number of required in-person drills and remote-friendly aspects of the command and the assignment helps ascertain whether you have the bandwidth to meet the expectations. Usually, units will have a soft schedule of drill weekends, and I can let my civilian employer know when I will be away so they can arrange coverage. As more units increasingly move toward flex-drill, the flexibility helps to plan for the months when you might be doing a lot of support and the months when other things take priority (such as a large work project or a vacation). People are human, and being candid about a current challenge (such as a sick family member or a high-demand signal from the civilian job) helps set realistic expectations.
Recognize the Demands of Your Civilian and Military Life
Reservists are expected to manage their own careers. If you fail to satisfy your requirements for a good year, no one is hounding you to get it done. Keeping abreast of new rules, such as updates on parental leave policies, also helps. The operations officer from my first unit managed her responsibilities during a pregnancy through planning and front-loading her drills and annual training. Years ago, someone from a prior unit shared a drill tracker, and I forward it liberally to those who are in or might be interested in joining the reserves.
In my civilian job, I am fortunate to have three weeks of military leave in a year in addition to personal and sick leave. A previous (operational) assignment did not quite cover all my reserve obligations, and I burned through personal leave. After that experience, I found that serving in a remote-friendly unit lends itself to better work-life balance. I do not reside anywhere close to my drill sites, and if I am able to work from home to write an article, conduct a higher-level review of an equal-opportunity or Inspector General case, compile lessons learned for legal pandemic support, or deliver unit-required training, I am saving myself time, stress, and money. When I need to travel for the reserves, saving the receipts for the out-of-pocket costs and noting the dates and amounts on a spreadsheet will save me a lot of time during tax season.
Recognize that if you receive a leadership position, there are greater demands on any given day for the duration of that assignment—perhaps for two to three years. You are often the one needed to assist your unit, attend regular meetings with the active component, and finalize evaluations and awards, in addition to your other annual training and drill requirements, civilian job, and family and personal obligations. That being said, those who have served in leadership positions have reminded me that they are no longer action officers, do not have to know all the answers, and may leverage the subject-matter experts in the unit to answer the requests for information or support and delegate as appropriate.
Don’t Say Yes to Everything—Be Discerning
One year, I made a point of saying yes to every opportunity that came my way. It came at a cost—burnout, headaches, and lack of sleep. As Ruth Bader Ginsburg once said, “You can’t have it all, all at once.” As one leader mentioned, “If everything is a priority, then you have no priorities.” Set some goals and assess whether the prospective commitment will further those goals. There is only so much of you to go around, so be selective with your obligations. When you throw your energy toward one endeavor, there is less of you to devote to other people, activities, or causes. There will always be other opportunities to volunteer, and recognition and promotions are not guaranteed.
At various times during the year, priorities need to shift. Sometimes, there are good changes, such as a marriage, a birth, or a promotion, and at other times we are dealing with a loss—a divorce, a death, or getting laid off. Either way, we need to prioritize ourselves, whether celebrating our victories or caring for ourselves during our challenges, while keeping an open dialogue with our civilian and reserve employers. Flexibility about the dates of celebrations and travel insurance help to cushion the blow of being away during a birthday, anniversary, or holiday.
Sometimes, it is perfectly acceptable to take a break. I do not aspire to be that person who goes on vacation and still responds to work emails, so I got rid of Microsoft Outlook and Teams on my cell phone. Although I once had to call my commanding officer in the middle of the night to authorize a search to prevent the destruction of evidence, not every work situation (or email) requires an immediate response! Often, it can wait until I return or be delegated to another coworker in my absence. I have learned to take leave on either end of official or personal travel to recover. Even those training for a marathon have rest days. The additional time gives me the opportunity to rest and prevent burnout, and I return more rested to my regular life.
It is normal to feel overwhelmed at times, and getting help when needed is a sign of strength, not weakness. At times, life can be a rollercoaster of seemingly endless challenges. Sometimes, we are dealing with a toxic work situation, a failing relationship, the addition or passing of another family member, or health issues, and we need support and not judgment. Seeking constructive ways of dealing with and establishing resiliency, such as prayer, counseling, meditation, exercise, journaling, talking to friends and family, or a hobby, will help us get through the challenge at hand. Sometimes, a gratitude list helps to put our challenges in perspective, and a hobby outside of our profession and/or spending time with loved ones reminds us that there is life outside of our professional bubble. Tomorrow is a new opportunity to reset rather than allow a bad day to cascade into a negative week, an awful month, or a horrendous year.
In sum, balance is not a 24-7 destination but something that can be achieved through research, regular and constant communication, flexibility, prioritizing ourselves, and continually asking for help. One of the benefits of the reserves is its diversity. I have served with colleagues who are self-employed or who work in small or large law firms, federal/state/local government, academia, or careers outside the legal field, and some who are stay-at-home parents (including a commanding officer while I was deployed). Odds are that you can find a mentor in a similar work-life situation. As demanding as the reserves can be, I am grateful to have the variety infused in my professional life with friends to visit in the various locations. Balance is not a one-size-fits-all approach, and continuing to ask for ideas and advice will help you manage both in the present and as your circumstances change. Also, keeping a sense of humor intact is critical. Laughter dissolves tension. One day, the thing that is the bane of your existence may make a great lesson learned or, at least, an entertaining story.
Finally, keep your eye on the prize. There are many benefits to being a selected reservist: the Post-9/11 GI Bill, medical benefits through TRICARE, a pension, a way to make connections in the federal government, and the list goes on. Keep those benefits in mind on your bad days, and remember that you can always change units after a few years. Continuing to reassess your goals and commitments will help in your quest for balance.
The views expressed in the article are the author’s own and do not reflect the views of the author’s civilian or reserve employers.
Published in GPSolo eReport, Volume 12, Number 7, February 2023. © 2023 by the American Bar Association. Reproduced with permission. All rights reserved. This information or any portion thereof may not be copied or disseminated in any form or by any means or stored in an electronic database or retrieval system without the express written consent of the American Bar Association. The views expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the positions or policies of the American Bar Association or the Solo, Small Firm and General Practice Division.