“I cannot subscribe to the belief that there is something about modern life that makes us harried and maxed out. If we are, then it’s time to examine our own choices and the scripts that are running through our heads. You don’t become a better parent or employee by not enjoying your life. There are likely lots of options available to you that would make life more fun. Don’t assume anyone is judging you, or actually cares, if you choose some of them.” –Laura Vanderkam in I Know How She Does It
If there’s one thing that being pregnant with a fifth baby while working, homeschooling three older children, and dealing with intense parenting issues has shown me, it’s that really, truly, and absolutely I cannot do All The Things. I am a pretty efficient person, and I get a lot done. For a long time there, I was pushing through pretty handily. But this year’s added challenges made that completely unsustainable and I realized that if something had to give, it needed to be the extras, not my core priorities.
In other words, to Do It All I had to stop doing All The Things. Yes, those are two different cultural narratives. Using them interchangeably is what causes problems.
Doing It All is about making time for the things that are truly important to you–that are YOUR priorities, that work for YOUR family, where YOU uniquely contribute value. It absolutely means different things for different people. Whereas doing All The Things is external–it’s doing the things that are expected, that are other people’s priorities, that aren’t necessarily of critical core importance to you. Doing It All is about finding a unique way to do the things you’re really called to do, and keep your soul fed and body rested and healthy at the same time. Doing All The Things is about feeling guilty for your choices and staying up until 2am doing your kid’s science project for him and distressing store bought pies to make it look homemade (remember that part from I Don’t Know How She Does It?)
Before you jump in with all the reasons you can’t possibly do anything differently in your life, I’d recommend you track your time for a bit. I have done this every once in a while since I read 168 Hours (still my most highly recommended life management book four years later) and it’s invaluable for several reasons.
Tracking time helps me check my words and attitudes. How we talk–to ourselves and others–about our life matters. When I track my time, I see the big picture of how I spend time over the course of a week or month, rather than just how I remember a given day. We all have a bias to weight the negative more heavily than the positive, but when I track my time I can’t say, “I spend all day picking up after everyone!” because I can see that actually I spend 10-20 minutes on it. Maybe 10-20 excruciatingly annoying minutes, but not all day. For me, knowing that reality helps me to turn around a negative attitude and start thinking of better solutions.
I also have to be honest about the “I don’t have time for…” excuse, because when I track my time I see that I spent X hours a week piddling around on Facebook or chopping onions instead of doing the thing I claim is something I want to do. You don’t even want to know how much time I used to spend chopping onions. My time logs have helped me get more focused about internet time, and were my impetus to buy those $1 bags of pre-chopped frozen onion. And sometimes I’ve had to own up to the fact that the thing I keep saying I don’t have time for is really just not a priority right now.
Tracking time helps me check my pain points. I overreact to some things (like feeling I pick up all day) but often completely miss actual problem areas. One time my time log showed that I was spending a crazy amount of time making breakfasts. I didn’t realize how much that was throwing off our day, but it was, and seeing on paper that I was spending over an hour a day prepping ONE meal–and during our prime work/teaching time nonetheless–helped me start to think through solutions. This time around I’m looking at the time I spend getting ready for the day and getting ready for bed at night. I’m not convinced those are hours well spent because they aren’t really restorative or rewarding, and they are keeping me from doing the things that ARE restorative and rewarding.
Tracking time helps me check my priorities. Tracking time is not about trying to max out every minute of your day. It’s about having an accurate view of how you spend your time now, so you can decide if that’s how you WANT to spend it. Sometimes I’m pleasantly surprised at how well my time and priorities line up, and other times I’m forced to look at the fact that I’m skipping out on something I say is a top focus area.
I recently read Laura Vanderkam’s new book I Know How She Does It: How Successful Women Make the Most of Their Time. Although perhaps less universally applicable than her previous book 168 Hours, this one brings fresh perspective to the question of women doing it all in our culture. The major strength of the book is its reliance on actual time logs tracking 1001 days in the lives of mothers who earn six figures. Laura is up front about the bias there–plenty of important jobs don’t pay that much, and lots of us define success in different terms than our annual salaries–but the point she was trying to make was that even women in the top tier jobs still have time for personal lives and being involved parents.
As I’ve tracked my time, I’ve often struggled with what counts as work and what does not. I like Laura’s definition that work is anything that’s contributing to your career trajectory. So, in my case, a business building meeting or doing the administrative tasks that keep my business going count as work even though I’m not directly paid for them, but an office worker wasting an hour on Facebook during the work day probably shouldn’t count that as work even if she is getting paid a regular salary. I also apply that to the time I spend on homeschooling–my prep counts for me, but my kids doing independent work without me doesn’t factor into my time log. It counts for their school record, but doesn’t count against my available schedule space.
When you look at it this way, and especially as you consider the time logs in Laura’s research, you quickly see that the key to balance is actually to determine your OWN definitions of success in your various roles, and fill your time with important things first, rather than trying to add important things on top of whatever you’re actually doing. In this sense, working (or working more) may not actually harm your family at all. What’s overwhelming is the plethora of little unimportant things we find ourselves saying yes to, even when they aren’t contributing to our big priorities, goals, and roles.
“You don’t build the life you want by saving time. You build the life you want, and then time saves itself.” –Laura Vanderkam in I Know How She Does It
When I track my time or build an “ideal week” type schedule, I find this to be invaluable. I know from tracking my time that I spend 20-30 hours a week directly on homeschooling (the kids spend a bit more time doing independent assignments). I also know that I read aloud to the kids, on average, just under two hours per day. And I interact with them a lot of other times as well. Therefore, I do not have to feel any guilt when I set aside afternoons as work time and let them play independently or with a babysitter. I also see that, although I’m not in a stage of life where I can easily fit in a 90 minute workout every day, over the course of a week I do exercise more than the recommended average. My time logs help me see the big picture on my time, so I can more easily try out shifting things around to free up a block of time for things I want to spend time on.
So can you work a “big job” and also have a life and be a good mom? Depending on how you define those terms, sure. I fully believe that you can do the big jobs with kids if you got started at the big job BEFORE you had kids. Having looked into this pretty extensively, I don’t think you can start entry level in a demanding field and immediately hope for the kind of flexibility people achieve after devoting several years to a career path. So, ideally, you’d discover your love for the big job prior to starting your family.
What do you do if you already have the family and want to on-ramp into some kind of work? I transitioned out of a very particular type of government job when I had kids, and gradually figured out ways to translate those skills into the private sector in a way that is very flexible and allows me to also devote considerable time to my other callings, passions, and interests. I think the transition could have been faster if I had been more deliberate about the advice Laura gives in this book and in her previous work to put the big pieces in first, and then fill in the schedule with other things, rather than trying to shove a new big piece in on top of the minutia.
One criticism I’ve seen of this book is the fact that women who earn at this level can afford to outsource in ways most of us can’t. There is something to that, especially if these women have only a few children and if they are in dual-income households. Even on-ramping would be easier if your spouse is already earning enough to off-set start-up costs and childcare and housekeeping. But, after reading the book, I can’t say that it’s the outsourcing that makes these women able to balance. The schedules include lots of cleaning, piddling around, and working when kids are sleeping or otherwise occupied. It can be done. If you take the main principles into consideration, you might be surprised at the ways you can escape overwhelm and find time to do what’s most important to you.
I Know How She Does It gave me a lot to think about and inspiration for some new solutions I’m integrating into my own balance. While it would probably be most helpful for moms who do some work outside of the home, the principles do apply to anyone who has a work identity–including homeschooling, homemaking, volunteering, or whatever. I still think 168 Hours is more universal, but if you’re a person who is interested in work/life balance or who is contemplating trying it out, or who needs some inspiration to stop feeling stuck in your choices, I’d recommend I Know How She Does It.
What do you find is your biggest challenge to work/life balance? Have you ever tracked your time to try to solve it?
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