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!