Do flexible schedules lead to loneliness?

IMG_0164Thanks to alert readers who sent me a recent New York Times article by Cristobal Young called “You don’t need more free time.” The thesis, based on time diaries, is that leisure time is a network good. It is most enjoyed when it is experienced at the same time as other people. Young implied that this had negative implications for flexible schedules. While it is an intriguing idea (and cheers to using actual time diaries for studying time) I think the thesis ultimately has some holes in it.

The study that sparked the article, published in the journal Sociological Science, looked at how people felt about their time. We all get happier on weekends, which might make sense for working sorts, but even people who were unemployed felt happier on Saturdays and Sundays. The reason, Young says, is that we are happier when sharing our leisure time with friends and family. So if working people are waiting for the weekend, so are unemployed people, because that is when they see other people. “The weekend derives much of its importance from the fact that so many people are off work together.”

I agree that this is one reason I suspect people sometimes do not like my suggestion to think in terms of 168 hours, not 24. Working on weekends can open up more time during the week, but for some people that is a no-go.

But not for everyone, and here Young seems to operate in a different world than many readers of this blog. I will quote: “This conclusion points to a key feature of the work-life problem: You cannot get more weekend simply by taking an extra day off work yourself. If we were to take more time off as individuals, we would be likely to spend that time, as the jobless do, waiting for other people to finish work. We are stuck at work, in a sense, by the work schedules of our family and friends.”

Given how many of my busy parent readers tell me they crave time for themselves — and really enjoy taking the occasional Tuesday off, for instance, to have time that is not with kids or at work — this does not follow. If your weekends involve pure leisure, that is one thing. If they involve hours of childcare, you can totally get more “weekend” time by taking an extra day off work.

Then this conclusion is even worse: “Over the past few years, many workplaces have looked for ways to create more flexibility in individual work schedules. There is no question that doing so has many benefits. But my research suggests that a disadvantage of these efforts is that they may lead us even further from a weekend-like system of coordinated social time. They threaten, ultimately, to exacerbate the decline in civic engagement and social contact known as the ‘bowling alone’ problem. The solution might be found in a form of constraint: more standardization of the time for work and the time for life.”

Here is the issue with this: the reason many parents want work flexibility is so they can leave earlier during the week, and spend time with young children who go to bed early. This makes it possible for them to have connected time with their family, or with their communities (running sports practices, scouts, church groups, etc.), while making up work at night and on the weekend. The point of the “split shift” is to trade off work time for TV time instead of work time for family time. Watching TV alone is even more lonely than bowling alone.

Standardizing the time for work and the time for life forces many parents, generally mothers, into a bind. In order to do personal things that must happen during the workday, they have to work less. This means they cannot advance their careers. If the time can be made up, they can. I often work at night or on weekends, and I know that many other people who are mindful about how they spend their time do too. This does not cut off time for civic engagement, it just makes life workable for working parents.

Photo: Scene from some weekend work. I spoke at an event in Princeton on Saturday featuring high tea and about 2 dozen lovely professional ladies. No loneliness here!

29 thoughts on “Do flexible schedules lead to loneliness?

  1. I really enjoyed this post. In a way, it really encapsulates one of the major themes of your work – that the stories we tell ourselves (and that are told to us) are not necessarily true. There is an aspect of “doom and gloom” to many pieces – even flexibility is suspect! But I appreciate your ability to push back against these tropes. Your work has helped me push back against them in my own life. We can get it all done and more if we act thoughtfully and don’t just clock in from 9-5, and there’s nothing wrong with having it all!

    1. @Melanie – thanks! In his defense, there’s a certain element of needing to come up with a thesis that fits the format of “something everybody thinks is good is actually bad!” People dig that narrative format. That’s how you get published in the NY Times. But I think it’s really kind of silly. I resisted the urge to google the author and see what I could figure out about his own life situation, as I think it’s better to discuss the ideas, but what some other posters are saying seems likely. I am guessing he is not the primary caregiver of young children.

  2. “we would be likely to spend that time, as the jobless do, waiting for other people to finish work”
    hahahahahahaha! Seriously? I could think of a million things I could do with a weekday off while everyone else was at work, none of which involve sitting alone & watching the clock! Me-time, kid-time, household responsibilities, community engagement—lots of things can happen during working hours.
    In addition to all you said above, a lot of working mothers also miss out on some fun-seeming (or at least friendship-building) SAHM activities. I would’ve liked to continue my breastfeeding support group go once a week to mommy-and-me something with a toddler or, now, to go to the PTA meetings that are 10:30 on Tuesday morning (WHY?????)
    In fact, getting some of the usual weekend things done during the week would make our weekend much more “weekendy” too.

      1. There is no way to raise said stink without GOING TO THE MEETING. Its all baffling to me still, we are just in KG so I have no idea how it all works.

    1. @Ana – another point I’d raise is that some countries do have stricter regulations on when stores (which are workplaces!) can be open. The net result is that it’s a lot harder for women to be in the workforce when you can’t shop for goods and services after 6 p.m. This is very much an old school male mindset that the details of life will be attended to while you are at work (by someone else) and then you can all enjoy the weekend together.

  3. I read this article and thought it was probably written by an extrovert with no kids 😉

    I absolutely adore those days I have childcare but don’t have to work and have no problem filling the time!

    Nearly everyone I know can meet up for lunch during their workday so even “lonely” people who are home during the week can have at least one social hour during that day. My unemployed hubby is doing that now with various friends, and it turns out it’s great for networking too 😉

  4. I worked a flexible part-time for about 18 months. I was in the office 3 days a week and at least 2 of those days I worked through lunch. It was really great for the family side of things and it allowed me to keep working, but I missed having lunch with colleagues and friends. I think it’s easy to discount what a great (even unintentional) networking time and just socialization opportunity that is.

    1. @Jessica – I’d say these things aren’t either/or. You can socialize and work flexible hours — that was what I was trying to get at with my post earlier this week. If you have some flexibility, it might be possible to do some elements (administrative stuff, email, etc.) at night and keep the time for socializing during the day, even if you are working a different schedule. I definitely agree that lunch with colleagues and friends makes for much more enjoyable work days.

  5. This is really timely. I have a 4 month old and have been back from mat leave (working full time) for a month. I’ve been carefully considering negotiating a 30 hr/week schedule for some of the reasons you mention – more awake time with the baby, but also because I am running to exhaustion and feeling that ‘all the things’ are not fitting in my day.

    So I’ve been keeping a time log. In which I discovered that I’m spending 2-2.5 hours per day pumping breastmilk and ancillary activities (washing parts, getting to/from pumping room, etc). That’s 10 hours or more per week – the same amount of time I’m considering for a work week reduction!

    Then I really went down a rabbit hole and did some economics on formula and the value of my time. (Shaking my fist at all of the bf’ing propaganda that values my time at $0). $800 or so for supplementing 3x/day vs 10 hrs per week … at my salary level, I’m two orders of magnitude off. Starting to think it doesn’t make economic sense to milk myself.

    I know it’s not a purely economic question, and I really love bf’ing my daughter (when I get to do it in person … would be a totally different question if every feeding were in person) but now I’m seriously questioning my choices and how I’m using my time. Laura, have you ever considered this question? as a time management blogger and/or a bf’ing mom yourself?

    1. @Byrd – oooh! Good question! I did write about this about 6 years ago: http://lauravanderkam.com/2010/03/the-economics-of-breastfeeding/ Since I work from home I wasn’t pumping, but nursing the baby did take work time, and I’m guessing I could have earned more than formula cost, even using a very conservative definition of the value of my time. Of course, it wasn’t really an economic decision, as I liked breastfeeding (precisely because I wasn’t pumping much of the time!) and my kids generally have too. That’s why I’m still going as my 4th kiddo goes on 13 months.

      In your case, I’d mention a few things — first, being newly back from mat leave is HARD. As you know, having survived it before, especially when your baby is so little. In another month or so you can introduce rice cereal and that will start lessening the demands on you. If you want to cut your hours, by all means do so, but if you can hang on another 2-3 months, I imagine the situation will start to feel different. I also think there isn’t some governing body of motherhood that gives bonus points for breastfeeding exclusively. Supplementing a few times and breastfeeding when you’re home still counts as breastfeeding. In fact, if you’re not pumping, maybe you can do more work while you’re at work AND leave earlier with all the time you save!

      1. Laura is right, the first few months back at work are hard. Just a few thoughts: obviously you’ve figured out how much time it takes to pump, but it will decrease, it is a season like everything in life. Also, bottles, parts, etc are still part of supplementing so you don’t save much time there. Some women can continue to nurse without pumping too much. Do what’s best for you!

    2. Pumping is the worst; I really feel for you! For me, breastfeeding was more than just a source of food; it was a source of connection between me and my babies, and I really try to be focused when I’m doing it (have a 9 month old right now and back at work on a somewhat reduced schedule, but do a lot from home). Plus, we have food allergies in our family, and so I’m trying anything that might have a chance of reducing this baby’s chance of getting them. So…that is all just a long way of saying that, for me, the calculation you’ve done wouldn’t work because I was always very adamant about getting to at least 6 months with BFing. I might try to tough it out at work full time for another 2 months but wouldn’t really hesitate too much to take that reduced schedule in the short term so I could still BF my baby. Then again, I think the maternity leave policies (or actually lack thereof) in the US are a form of cruel and unusual punishment.

    3. 4 words for you: hands free pumping bra. You actually can work while pumping! Or read, or knit, or whatever you want. I even scrapbooked while pumping a few times! And you don’t have the wash the pump parts every time, just stick them in the fridge with the milk bottles and pull them back out for next time. Once a day is plenty.

    4. Just a workday time-saving tip — if you stick the pump parts in the fridge as soon as you finish pumping, you can save the washing up until the end of the day, when you get home. I am not a doctor, though, so take that as you will 🙂 There are also great wipes from Medela that you can use to wipe everything down. Those are way faster than washing the parts out after every pumping session.
      Pumping is a huge, huge pain. Even with a fancy hospital-grade pump, it still takes forever and is boring. I managed it for 3 days a week (I work at home, and only had childcare 3x/wk for my youngest when he was a baby), and I swore his 1st birthday party was also a freedom-from-pumping party for me.
      So you do you! And remember Amy Poehler’s advice — it’s always okay to say, “Good for you. Not for me.”

    5. I am with the others: this is a tough, tough phase, but it will be over soon.

      I find formula a lot more stressful than breastfeeding.

      The older the baby gets, the easier (and faster) breastfeeding/pumping gets. Just remember – all this is temporary. Also, it doesn’t have to be all-or-nothing. Maybe pump less frequently (especially as the baby gets older!) – you could still breastfeed at home and have some milk for bottle feedings, then supplement with formula and/or solid food as needed.

      You might also want to think about streamlining/shortening the bottle/equipment wash time (maybe just a quick rinse with water between pumps… and then a regular wash after you get home? – if you are comfortable with that…).

      Whatever you do – it will be ok 🙂

      Money is only money… think bigger picture. Will it matter 10 years from now whether you did BFing or formula? will you career suffer in the long run if you cut your hours (and do you care)? does BFing make you happy or stressed? does formula-feeding make you feel relieved or freaked out?

    6. A couple of things I did to make pumping/work easier (though I was only working 2 10-hour days per week at the time) – having two pumps – one for work/one at home, and extra parts at work. Fridge in my office and I’d throw in the whole apparatus in a tray in the fridge between sessions and just take stuff home at night, I threw *everything* in the dishwasher. No handwashing anything. Also hands free pumping bra so I could pump/work at the same time (I had my own office so that was easier.) And I only pumped twice a day at work and just nursed a gazillion times after going home. I was eventually able to get down to 1x a day as she got closer to a year.

  6. From the headline I thought the article would be about the perils of ‘unstructured time’. I’m a student and freelancer so most of my work can be done ‘whenever’ which is great…sometimes. We all love the idea of flexibility – but I’ve found that to make it work I need to do as Laura suggests and plan out the week so everything fits in, rather than get to the end of the week and wonder where my time went.
    The direction the article did take didn’t appeal to me at all. I will quite often work on a Saturday night so that I can go to the beach on a Friday afternoon, or so I can do my shopping and laundry when it’s nice and quiet on a Tuesday morning. It can be hard to fight the attitude the it’s Saturday so you ‘should’ be doing something relaxing – but it’s just another block of time. I like rearranging the tiles of my week to suit me, not society’s expectations.

  7. Ha- I cannot imagine spending a quiet ay in the middle of the week twiddling my thumbs, waiting for other people to get off of work.

    I would just be busy crying of happiness.

    1. @Kristen – yep, I’m scratching my head at that one too. Perhaps there is a distinction he’s failing to make between people who are involuntarily out of work, and who have more solo downtime than they wish, and people whose lives are quite full, and would be happy for some solo downtime.

  8. For me the distinction lies in how weekdays versus weekends feel (wish I could italicize ‘feel’.) I can and do move tiles around throughout the week, but the weekend has a vibe that I just don’t experience during the week. I acknowledge that ‘vibe’ isn’t scientific or data-driven, but that’s how it feels to me. As I get ready to re-enter the work force, I may be required to work weekend days, and the Monday or Tuesday swap outs as days off just won’t feel the same, even though I might accomplish the same things I would have on the weekend.

  9. So I read this part, “[T]hey may lead us even further from a weekend-like system of coordinated social time,” and my reaction was not a prediction of the end of society. I think it would be *fantastic* if we moved toward a society that did a better job integrating social, work and civic engagement throughout the entire week. So it’s possible losing the coordinated social time of weekends would result in higher engagement during the week, rather than lower engagement overall.

  10. I’m guessing that the article was written by a male who is at least 40+ years old (without kids, grown kids or SAH spouse who does bulk of childcare)? Younger people are so used to flexibility that forcing everyone to a regular work schedule is a laughable idea. I would rather have less civic engagement and more time with my family!

  11. For me the biggest challenge of a flexible schedule is decision fatigue from being solely responsible for planning how to allocate most of my working hours as well as most of my leisure hours (particularly as I’m single, so don’t have just one go-to person I always do things with regularly). I’ve read any number of studies about how decision-making is the most draining activity for the brain, which only has a finite capacity for it per day, so I’d welcome any suggestions for how to avoid getting so tired of planning everything that from time to time I end up not planning anything–or what to do when that happens?

  12. He appears to be a 30-something college professor.

    I thought there was something to the notion of looking forward to the weekend. Even if it’s not practically true, I assume that the default is no work on Saturday or Sunday, which is likely why I get a bit cranky when weekend work comes up.

    But I really love that random Tuesday when I am off and the kids are in school. What a delicious treat.

  13. My work schedule is off. I have a lot of say in my daily schedule but, as a college librarian (salaried) I have class visits crop up with as little as few days (or less) notice. It makes it nearly impossible to participate in any type group except on Friday, Saturday or Sunday. Friday in dead, no interest, Sunday I prepare for the week & want a calm day. That leaves only Saturday to try to make plans. I love what I do, but it gets very lonely now that I’m an empty nester who wants to be more social beyond meeting for breakfast.

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