Notes from a year of working less

I’ve kept numerous time logs since 2009. In most of these, I have worked about 50 hours per week, and sometimes a bit more. I have now been tracking my time continuously since April of this year. In those 8 months, I have hit that number only a few times. I haven’t tallied the exact average (I probably should!), but I spot check, and 40-ish is more typical, even with travel. Sometimes it’s a lot less. Last week was 34 hours.

There are a few reasons for this decline, which I suspect began about a year ago. The first reason is that I had a baby on January 15, 2015. I never completely stopped. I turned in copy-edits of I Know How She Does It on January 14, and I read a book I was reviewing while I was in the hospital. Still, I definitely worked fewer hours for the first few months.

That makes sense. But there are other things going on too. I think this is the same supply/demand issue that influences how much people read. Time is elastic. Since I’m not getting paid for a certain quantity of hours per week, my work hours are elastic as well.

First, the supply issue: various factors in how I have structured my life limit the supply of hours available to work. Four kids introduce a lot of kid stuff, a chunk of which happens during the work day. I’m well acquainted with the “split shift” methodology of working after the kids go to bed. However, my baby is still not sleeping as predictably as I’d like, so my ability to make up time at night or in the early morning is limited. I may have time, but I don’t have energy. Let’s just say I’ve been reading a lot of magazines lately. Finally, I agreed to a shift in childcare hours in June that means I don’t have regular care on Fridays. The baby naps in the A.M., so I generally get 90 minutes then, and often at least 30 in the afternoon. I generally get a sitter 1-2 nights a week, so those hours could make up for Friday hours, but I often use the sitter so I can run errands or shuttle a kid somewhere without taking the others. My husband will cover on weekends (or the nights he’s home) if I am swamped and behind or if I have an event, but I’m not going to make up the difference between 34 hours and 54 hours on a Saturday.

All of this is (mostly) chosen. I have the ability to rent an office somewhere and go there and consider myself unavailable during the workday. If I volunteer for holiday parties and chaperoning field trips, or wait for the bus with my sons and eat lunch with my daughter, it is because I want to. I have the ability to hire more childcare if I think I need it. My husband suggests this when I seem particularly stressed. I haven’t done it.

I think the reason I haven’t is that there’s the demand side of the equation here too. I have a limited supply of hours, sure, but I’m also not feeling a high demand to work long hours. I don’t have anything I am particularly excited about working on. I suspect that as soon as I figure out my next book idea and get going on that, my work hours will rise significantly. They were a bit higher in November as I filled hours I might have been reading magazines with NaNoWriMo activities.

In theory, working fewer hours can limit career growth — one reason I think part-time work is not the answer to the work/life balance conundrum many people think it is. However, I think I’ve been limiting the fall-out from my reduced hours by re-thinking how I spend them. I suggested a rubric of how to divvy up the perfect 40 hour workweek in this post, and I’m trying to do this personally. I am more likely to go to a networking event or meet someone for lunch than to pitch a story I’m not that interested in writing. A professional colleague/friend recently told me that she noticed that I will come to stuff, whereas a number of her friends with families just won’t. So there doesn’t seem to be a point in asking. I appreciated that observation, because it fits with how I’m trying to spend my time. Less core production, more soft side. Core production will go up when I’m in the middle of my next 80,000 word book. But life has peaks and troughs and there’s no reason to fill the troughs just to fill them. I suspect this is a limited trough, so I may as well try to enjoy it.

Two “sources for stories” queries:

Have you let go of a goal?

I’m working on a Fast Company post on how to let go of a goal. I’m as into goal setting as any other self-help writer, but not all goals are worth keeping. Or maybe they’re worth keeping for someone else, but not for you, or not right now. It turns out I’ve written about this topic before, so I’m looking for some additional stories and tips from people who’ve decided to let go of a goal, and have felt OK about it. You can post in the comments or email me: lvanderkam at yahoo dot com.

Have you rebuilt your career capital?

Another New Year’s themed post: maybe you’ve been in slow-go mode for a while, due to family responsibilities, or a lackluster boss, or health issues. But this year you want to show you’re a player, and go for that promotion, new job, etc. How do you rebuild your career capital? I’d love stories of people who’ve successfully gone from the slow lane to the fast lane, and how they’ve done it. Again, lvanderkam at yahoo dot com. Thank you!

9 thoughts on “Notes from a year of working less

  1. I am also looking forward to hearing stories like this. I my field, it seems like EVER taking one’s foot off the accelerator for ANY reason is frowned upon (if not potential career suicide), and well…. that just seems stupid. After all, it’s not as though your brain ceases to work when you have a baby, or that you’ll never have the time to do anything serious again. It seems not only possible, but desirable to have ebbs and flows in productivity as needed when your life changes.

    1. @OMDG- I thought that was the most interesting point in Anne-Marie Slaughter’s book. Much of it was underwhelming, but the idea that getting in the slow lane means you need to be there forever is indeed stupid. And yes, people who *don’t* have kids go through ebbs and flows too. There are probably plenty of people who work less during, say, the NCAA tournament or the World Cup. I suspect this is often obvious. Yet we do not fret that this amounts to career suicide vs. visibly coming in late some morning because you went to a kid’s school event.

      1. Yes! I would love to see the narrative of work/life balance change and our culture become more accepting (or even advocate for) routine sabbaticals and short (like a year or so) periods of time where people can try something new. Whether that’s staying home with children or taking time to write a book or go to school or just anything that’s different from their current career field. It seems like those experiences would have major long-term dividends all around.

  2. That second article idea is so me. When Brenna was born in 2011, I was running a successful portrait photography studio and freelance writing for local publications and businesses. It all fell to the wayside as we struggled through those early years with her many health problems, and I did very little career-wise in 2012 and 2013. I started freelance writing a little again in 2014, but this year was my big year. I’ve made almost as much this year working about 15 hours a week as I did working full-time for a university in 2009. It’s not a ton, but it’s definitely “not nothing either,” as you like to say 🙂 I’m mostly focusing on writing now, and I’m gearing up for a big year in 2016 too, which I’m excited about!

  3. I’m trying to figure out how to ramp up again and make some progress career-wise right now. In the last 3 years I’ve adopted 4 kids and become a department chair. Recently we’ve reached a new normal at home that seems fairly stable at the moment but I haven’t yet quite figured out how to deal with kid-related time at home and administrative-related time at work and get enough writing done to feel like there’s progress towards my next book.

    1. @Lisa- If you’ve managed to achieve stability with 4 kids in 3 years – wow! But yes, 4 kids and their management consumes a lot of time and mental space. I tend to think if there’s something mentally consuming I want to do, I need to do it first thing. Otherwise the day gets away from me.

  4. I’m also looking forward to the rebuilding career capital tips – I’ve taken some time out for grad school which will be good for my career in the long-term, but in the short-term meant moving away from my established networks and job opportunities. I’ve got a ways to go, but already starting to wonder about how to ramp it back up again.

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