When we talk about work, and time, the usual narrative is that everyone wants to work less. Work/life “balance” becomes a code word for reducing work hours so that the other side of the scale — family and personal matters — can rise from neglected status.
But as I look at more and more time logs from people who work, but also take on the bulk of the logistical and caregiving responsibilities for their families, I find that this narrative is not always the best fit.
Here’s what happens. Many of us (and I include myself in this category) work flexibly. This is partly because big chunks of modern work can be done at any time and any place, and also because we’ve sought it out. No one is breathing down our necks about being in a seat in an office at 10 a.m. As I do time makeovers for my “Tranquility by Tuesday” project, I’ve had people tell me that they can work from home at times, and shift hours around work obligations too.
This is an absolute blessing. But it can also lead to other issues. Because we can do things, we do them: taking a mid-morning doctor appointment, for instance, instead of pushing for an evening or weekend one, or taking responsibility for a relatively early school pick-up, and assuming we’ll make it work. Certain logistical family tasks are also often easiest to do during work hours — no kid distractions, we’ve got a phone, a laptop, and the calendar right there! The hazard is that many of these are straightforward and easily accomplished, leading to a feeling of getting stuff done. It’s tempting to do these when we’re stuck on something bigger or nebulous that’s work-related, or to try to “clear the decks” before moving on to complicated matters.
But what winds up happening is that the hours available to work get squeezed. This can lead to people feeling pulled in all directions, or chronically behind. Even if the day-to-day stuff gets done, people can suspect that they’re under-investing in the soft side of work.
So what to do? The answer generally isn’t to work less. It’s to protect longer stretches of time to do work.
That doesn’t mean giving up the benefits of flexibility, and sitting in an office from 9 to 5, Monday-Friday even when that’s not necessary. It does mean being realistic about how many focused hours the workload of a full-time job might entail. Maybe a sitter or partner can handle an early school pick up twice a week. Maybe a partner who is not doing the primary during-the-week duties can commit to covering an evening work shift or a few hours on the weekend. I’ve also been suggesting that people set a time for personal tasks during the work day, so they aren’t always an option. Maybe the online grocery order, birthday party invites, and call to the orthodontist’s office happen between 2-2:45 p.m. If a life administration task occurs to you at 10 a.m., put it on the list, and go back to what you were doing. You can address it during the designated window, rather than succumbing to the lure of knocking if off immediately.
This is definitely a work in progress for me. My kids have dutifully written their thank you notes for birthday presents; I’ve got the envelopes right here, ready to be addressed. But I’m better off using my designated work hours to work on a book proposal than to get those notes out to the mailbox. I probably won’t work on my book proposal on Saturday night while they’re watching a movie. So that’s the time to tackle this other sort of work.
Have you had to be careful about protecting hours for work?