Mostly, I think efforts on “Work-Life Balance” are stupid. Or, rather, deflective. They tend to be pitched to women (because men, in general, are doing less in terms of their “life”–less housework, less childrearing, less emotional labor, and less work at maintaining their appearance), and they are blamed for finding the arbitrary demand to work a 40 (or more) hour work week stressful. The answer isn’t in bullshit workplace wellness programs or mindfulness exercises, both of which pass along responsibility for managing workplace stress to the victims of it. The answer is in a reduced workload (not just reduced work hours, though this isn’t a bad idea either).
But I get that this isn’t entirely within our control (and, for some of us, not within our control at all.)
Still, I write to share some quick principles that have helped me enjoy both work and the rest of life a bit more. I share them here specifically in response to a question a friend asked me about enjoying both a relatively demanding academic career and a rambunctious family.
Decide what must be done well, what must be done good enough, and what doesn’t have to be done at all.
For me, research has to be done well or it won’t be useful to anyone. I want most of my teaching to be done well, too, but it’s okay if some of it is “good enough”–meeting all expectations, exceeding some of them, and always caring about my students’ learning, success, and wellbeing but not reinventing the wheel or working harder than my students. In practical terms, I select 1-2 courses to be fantastic at (always my senior capstone) and 1-2 to do “good enough.”
In terms of the other domains of my life, I want my friendships to be fantastic and my house keeping to be good enough. (One of the nicest–if inadvertent–compliments I ever received was a guest who came over for a pumpkin carving party our family hosts each year. Seeing our family’s “good enough” housekeeping, she commented, “I wish I were confident enough to have guests over when my house wasn’t perfect!”)
Apply the “touch-it-once” rule.
This one is straight from my mother, who rarely allowed us to watch TV unless we were also folding laundry, ironing (which falls into my “doesn’t have to be done at all” category), or keeping our hands busy in some other way.
Here is how it works: If you touch it, you finish it.
Don’t open the mailbox until you are ready to handle what’s inside. (This is why I check the mail twice a week.) Sort it on the way inside (which is so much easier after you got yourself off unwanted mailing lists), dropping off the recycling on the way in and taking the rest to shred or (if you must) file immediately. If something must be dealt with (a list you’ve reduced to nearly nothing because you autopay your bills, right?), do it right away. On days I check the mail, I visit the box twice: once to bring in the mail and another time, 10 minutes later, when I return the next day’s outgoing mail.
Fold laundry while it’s hot (admittedly, a hard one for me). Clean up the dishes by putting them directly into the dishwasher, not the sink. Make the bed (if that’s on the list of things you do) when you get out of it.
Respond to email when you read it. Don’t label,sort, or file to deal with later. Deal with it now. (I know this isn’t possible if you don’t have an answer right away.) I respond to student email once per day (twice the day before a major assignment is due and not at all the day an assignment is due), and I don’t open them sooner than that. Why read something you aren’t going to handle?
Every time you pick something up, then put it down, you are forcing yourself to make a decision about it now AND later. Don’t. That just takes precious brain energy.
A scientific study of my hatred for housework indicates that 70% of housekeeping in our family is moving stuff back where it belongs. (The other 30% involves removing unidentifiable sticky residue.) We make it easier by giving each kid a box, then tossing everything for that child in that box. If the box is not emptied promptly, my husband attempts to throw it away, arguing that if the Lego pieces, crazy socks, hair bands, etc. in the box mattered, they’d be put away. I plead with him like Esther before King Ahasuerus, and somewhere in there, fearful that he’ll really do it this time, the kids put their stuff away.
Above, Queen Esther implores the king not to throw away the pieces to the Lego Batman Dynamic Duo Funhouse Escape because it was expensive and also the only thing the kid asked for for Christmas. No, wait, that was me on Saturday. This is Bernardo Cavallino’s Esther Becomes Queen, 1645-50.
Just say “no.”
I mostly hate Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In, even though I also think that women in particular tell themselves “no” too often. And I think that many of us can do a lot more than we think we can. BUT I also think “no” is an important part of keeping our lives under control. I don’t mean small “no”s but big ones–blanket statements that take entire arguments off the table. Here are some of our “no”s:
- nail polish
- also, rodents
- more than one after school activity per child
- parents doing all the housework
- anything from Pinterest
If you struggle with saying “no,” try: “Our family doesn’t do [slumber parties, travel sports teams, unnecessary home improvement projects, the school science fair, Christmas cards, etc.].” Obviously, some of these will be important to your family (We LOVE Christmas cards!) or your individual child, but I’m betting lots of us have kids or partners who would prefer to do less–or we just really, at this point in our lives, don’t want to attend another obligatory wedding (Send a really nice gift instead.) or organize a mostly pointless meeting (“Can this be addressed via email?”).
It did not work to reduce adolescent drug use, but the “Just Say No” ribbon above might help you remember that children never bring drinks into the car and that you will not get a new pet until the current one dies.
Reduce your systems.
Look–I get it. I spent years of my life enjoying the new-highlighter high of back-to-school office supply store sales. There is something really comforting about having systems for managing your kids’ unending preschool artwork, the backlog of new articles you need to read in your field, handling kids’ clothes (top dresser drawer is for clothes that don’t yet fit, middle drawers for those that do, and bottom drawer for outgrown ones), your dinner schedule and shopping list. Systems are great for reducing decision making (It’s Tuesday, so we eat a quiche made from yesterday’s leftovers and green salad for dinner.)
But they also might be a sign that you have too much going on, especially if they are stressing others out. Do the kids seem unable to learn the rules of your system? Are you mostly failing at your system? Are you spending more time building and maintaining systems than doing real work? Did you need to buy gear or actually build something to make it work? Those might be signs that your system is too demanding.
I like principles rather than systems, in general, because systems need to be maintained–which means I’m putting in energy to something that was supposed to save me energy. I also tend to fail at them, which means then I’ve got guilt, plus wasted time and money. Principles guide my choices, while systems demand my attention. It’s not that I don’t use them. (I like our chore system.) But I keep them to a minimum.
Try hostile architecture.
Do a quick look around. While I’m a firm believer that a messy desk is a good thing, a dinner table, kitchen counter, or front entrance table covered in mail, to-do lists, permission slips, old homework, etc. makes life harder. Take a picture of these spots. Decide which, if any, principles (or, if you gotta have ’em, systems) you need to get things in order (You might start with “Touch it once,” above.), and try them for a week. Then look back at that picture. Is the spot any less messy now? If not, remove the horizontal surface if you can. (Put the coffee table in the garage for a few days; put the kitchen chairs on top of the table.) Force your cohabitators to make decisions about the papers that flow into the house by giving them no place else to put them except the place where they belong. If they don’t–box it.
What are you doing to make your life easier? Share your ideas (with pics, if you like–but no kiddos’ faces, please) with me at firstname.lastname@example.org before March 1 to have them included in a future blog post. One lucky participant, drawn at random, will receive a very special prize, probably involving coffee or books.