Tranquility by Tuesday: Just because you can doesn’t mean you should

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the “flexible work dilemma.” Many mothers — and I’m sure fathers who are the primary or at least 50-50 parent, or people of any gender caring for other relatives — seek out flexible work. Autonomy over your time is a wonderful thing when you have unpredictable responsibilities. However, in the midst of cultural narratives about what mothers “should” do with their time, flexibility can mean fragmentation. It can mean a lack of time for the career-advancing work that can be deeply fulfilling.

This was the schedule challenge for this week’s Tranquility by Tuesday make-over subject. Elizabeth Morphis is an assistant professor in an education-related specialty at a liberal arts college in suburban New York. She and her husband have two young daughters. She wrote that “I am coming close to going up for tenure so I feel that the pressure is on — especially this year, and I am interested/trying to make changes to my schedule.” Getting tenure requires having produced a body of original research, but “I have a pretty heavy teaching load and this semester I have close to 60 students,” she said. These student teachers need a lot of supervision as they develop lesson plans and learn how to handle their students. “The teaching can take a tremendous amount of my time and take over the writing time,” and so “I have been struggling to find/make time for consistent writing/research work.”

When I talked to Elizabeth, I learned that the family had moved in recent years to be close to her job. This was great for her, but meant that her husband had a reasonable commute into the city. So he was gone for long hours during the week. The family had made plans for this reality, securing reliable childcare coverage for the night class Elizabeth taught one day a week, for instance, but she was generally responsible for during-the-week kid care.

She sent me her log. There was a lot of great stuff going on. She made it to Soul Cycle three times during the week, and (it turned out) went to Pilates occasionally too. She made use of her work flexibility, sometimes writing in a coffee shop, for instance, or fitting in grading during transitions.

There was also a lot of kid time. I mean a lot. When I talked to Elizabeth, I learned that on days when she didn’t have teaching responsibilities or time-specific on-campus activities, she would leave the office at 1:45 p.m. to get one of her daughters, whose school ended at 2:00 p.m. While her husband was around in the mornings for getting-ready time, and was there and happy to cover on weekends, she tended not to take advantage of this; she just hung out with them too! I imagine that because she did have a night class, and did occasionally do prep work and grading on the weekends, she may have calculated that it evened out. For getting the immediate stuff of the job done, it did.

But…did we mention that Elizabeth was going up for tenure? Spending your weekday afternoons with your children is a lovely choice, but it is also very difficult to carve out focused time for academic research and writing when you have meetings in the morning and then leave the office at 1:45 p.m. Since Elizabeth said that research and writing were priorities for her — finding time for them is why she volunteered for a make-over — they needed to have time in her schedule. When we talked, Elizabeth shared with me that her husband was also going into a promotion window at his job. Both were facing similar career hoops, but I noted that he wasn’t thinking he should be home at 2:00 p.m. most days to pick up someone at school!

I was a little worried about how Elizabeth would take this. Fortunately, she agreed that her current schedule wasn’t supporting her professional priorities. This leads us to today’s time management mantra: Just because you can doesn’t mean you should.

Yes, Elizabeth could end her workday at 1:45 p.m. She could be as involved on weekends as she was during the week. But if she wanted focused time for writing and research, there is a limit to how efficient anyone can be.

So we looked at her schedule and strategized for building in blocks of time for focused work. I stressed that we needed more than enough blocks (“Create a back up slot” — one of our previous time mantras!) to ensure she wouldn’t lose all of them when the kids or a babysitter got sick.

Her first proposed windows were relatively small. The girls often didn’t wake up until 7:00/7:15 a.m., and her husband left for the train after that, so she said that she could carve out 6:00-7:30 a.m. on Mondays and Fridays. She also noted that she had the babysitter on Wednesday for her night class, and she could start a little earlier, thus giving her 5:45-6:45 p.m. to write.

I said this was fine, and those four hours were a start, but we needed longer stretches.

She mulled this over, and said that she could enlist the sitter to pick up her daughter on Thursday afternoons. Since she wasn’t teaching on Thursdays, this would give her an 11:30 a.m. to 3:30/4:00 p.m. stretch to write (after some other commitments). Yes, this meant trading off some kid time, but I’d venture that most academics going up for tenure would count getting home around 4 p.m. on a weekday to be a huge work/life victory. This is about changing our frame of reference.

Elizabeth’s husband was also an under-used resource. Given that she was doing the lion’s share of the during-the-week parenting, she knew he was willing to do more on the weekends. So she agreed to talk with him and arrange that generally Saturday afternoons would be Daddy time. She would work from 12-4 p.m. or so on her focused projects. If for some reason Saturday didn’t work, she’d do this window on Sunday.

She agreed to try this. She sent me a new log a few weeks later. While a few things had gone awry (the babysitter was sick on Thursday, so she wound up with the girls), she managed to work for several hours on the weekend. The next week things went better. She got a long block on the weekend when her husband and her brother took the girls, and then on Thursday she managed a 5-hour block, which felt great. “I like using Thursday for writing,” she told me. “I need the break from teaching on Thursday after Tuesday and Wednesday.”

Another bonus of setting a schedule for career-advancing work: Because she knew these blocks were coming up, she noted that “I have been pro-active about planning the work I will do for each block of time, which takes away the writing anxiety.” She started keeping a notebook with her where she wrote down specific research and writing tasks. This allowed her to allocate her time efficiently. For instance, she took a colleague up on an offer to read a paper she was working on for a revise and resubmit. She sent the colleague what she’d done after her Thursday session, and got it back in time to incorporate the feedback during her weekend session.

She was still spending a massive amount of time with her daughters, but the additional focused writing time soon paid off. She wrote in mid-October that she was on track to meet the revise-and-resubmit deadline of October 24. And then she wrote me on October 17 that “It’s submitted!!! I just finished the upload process and pressed SUBMIT! I’m thrilled to share that the manuscript is submitted a whole week early!”

Not only that, she had a full back-up plan in place for the manuscript and her research if this submission didn’t work out. So the normal submission nerves had no chance to rear their ugly heads.

I always love getting emails with triple exclamation points. In any case, I know many of us tell ourselves stories about how we should spend our time. For many women in particular, these stories inevitably point toward working less, rather than more. But in some cases, working more can lead to better family balance. In Elizabeth’s case, I’d argue that her daughters getting time with Daddy fully in charge is a really good thing. And Elizabeth is on a much stronger path to tenure at the cost of literally two additional hours of babysitting per week.

Repeating the mantra that “just because I can doesn’t mean I should” opens up all sorts of possibilities.

Photo: Yes, I will be posting leaf photos for the next few months…I love October!

16 thoughts on “Tranquility by Tuesday: Just because you can doesn’t mean you should

  1. Oh, I love these posts! They are so insightful! Especially seeing the gradual change over several weeks. Change doesn’t happen overnight even when we think we have everything figured out.

    1. @Tana – change is a process. And one reason I like real time makeovers with multiple weeks of follow up is that I can see what works and what doesn’t…

  2. This shows how it can be so helpful to have a third party look at how you’re spending your time and gently point out that your decision making doesn’t line up with your stated priorities.

    I can’t help but see the connection to your previous post about single women vs married women vs women with children and their respective boards passage rates. In a society where many women have internalized the narrative that family life must always be a/the top priority, women probably need to be proactively coached/reminded that sometimes, in order to not miss the available window of opportunity to meet professional goals, work has to be their singular priority. That’s especially true in fields like academia, medicine, and law with very clear professional hurdles like getting tenure, boards, bar exams, making partner, etc. that happen in narrow windows of time.

    1. @Alyce – yep, and there can be big payoffs to going through those hoops, including even more control of your time afterwards. I’m not saying these hoops are always wise, and there are some definite arguments for reforming them. But if they’re there, best to understand that balance can happen over a lifetime, not just over any given day, week, month, etc.

  3. This post really resonated with me. I struggled with this A LOT right after leaving my full-time job to go freelance. It took me a few years to realize that I had to protect my work time at home just as much as I did when I reported to an office! Sometimes even more!

  4. As a recently tenured faculty member, I agree with your advice here. I could meet my kids at the bus stop at 3:45 every day, but instead I pay for after-school care and pick them up at 5:30. It provides me with some breathing room. I enjoy the extra time in the day to finish projects or to read an interesting book for work that isn’t directly related to my current research. Sometimes I get ideas that I can use for the next project!
    My only suggestion is that Elizabeth should make writing a daily affair. I find writing one or two hours a day more useful than six hours once a week. If I have day packed with meetings and teaching responsibilities, I get up early to get in those writing hours (I prefer that to working in the evening). I tend to be less able to write and edit in a focused manner after the two-hour mark…

    1. @Jane – breathing room is good! Also, with the shorter windows (like the M and F ams plus Wed before class) Elizabeth is getting some writing time most days. I think that having some long windows helps too, since you can really get in the zone (understanding that short breaks in the middle might be necessary).

  5. This is great advice. I also got tenure two years ago and have an almost four year old. We have great full time daycare on campus and we use it! I sometimes feel guilty, like I should be leaving work early to pick up my kid on afternoons when I’m not teaching. Or like maybe I should take Fridays off to spend with her since I could. But the first thing to go would be my research and writing, which is the thing I love most about my job. I got good advice from a senior colleague who had made the opposite decision–to take more time off to spend with her kids–and now feels that it has set her back significantly in her career, and regrets that.

    My husband, incidentally, is also a professor and feels no such guilt! He points out that our daughter is happy playing outside with her friends, which is better than whatever we’d be doing with her at 3pm.

    A great book on this is Professor Mommy: https://www.amazon.ca/Professor-Mommy-Finding-Work-Family-Academia/dp/1442208597

    1. @Karen- thanks for your comment, and for sharing your experience as an academic. I agree that the message is out there that people with flexible jobs “should” spend more during-the-workday time with their kids, but that message does appear to be pretty gender-specific.

  6. I am also really enjoying this series, and I love that you are pulling a mantra out of each one. I find it so interesting what different fields of work lend themselves to for narratives for women. There are some commonalities, to be sure, which is also interesting.

    1. @Caitlin – so glad you’re enjoying it! I loved time makeovers. And there are definitely some common mantras/rules that I think can help most of us do more with our time (and feel better about it).

  7. Another thought, from an academic (and the daughter of an academic). If you can pull children into your world, it can be a win-win for everyone. My dad took us to his lab on Saturdays when we were growing up. We go the run of the classroom, HUGE chalkboards, and all the chalk we wanted to write with. He worked, we played. They are fond memories. I never felt I was missing out on anything – in fact, my sisters and I thought we were so luck. My son – now 14 – has spent tons of time with me at work. When he was young he hung out and played so that I could work. Now he helps out with research tasks. Lots of parents cannot pull their children into their work world. So I count myself lucky that I have been able to do this. I should also say that my son has traveled to many conferences with me. (Not so easy these days because some conference venues restrict child access.) At first he came to sessions with me, then stayed in the hotel room alone and I ran up on the elevator to check on him, and this past summer, in Chicago he made a plan for himself and did a bunch of things alone. (Laura – was thinking of this when listening to BOB podcast where you talked about traveling with your #4 and #5 in the years ahead). My colleagues are always sad when I don’t bring him along!

    And I agree on the writing everyday — How to Write A Lot! Great book. And if Elizabeth’s college/university pays for access to National Center for Faculty Development, check out that resource. Great support! Good ideas.

    1. @Melanie – that’s great that you’ve been able to pull your son into your working world. I know my husband spent a lot of time running around campus while his father did experiments on the weekend when he was growing up.

    2. I’m also in academia and was about to recommend the book How to Write a Lot! I’m glad I went through the comments first 🙂 That book helped me so much throughout grad school, I’ve read it many times. The best advice truly is to carve out that time to write and to protect that time (within reason).

      Laura, I find this series to be completely fascinating and I’m really enjoying it!

  8. One more (late) comment from an academic…. One other thing she might want to do is try tracking some days or weeks between semesters and during the summer. Early in my career I had a really good schedule during the semester, but I struggled to balance work and life between semesters and in the summer. It was so easy to be endlessly flexible for family related events or appointments . Our semesters are 15 weeks each, so around 40% of the year is these in between times. I think realizing that I needed to set aside reasonable vacation time but then make sure I was working a full time schedule the rest of the weeks was one of the keys to getting enough research done for tenure.

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