Best of Both Worlds podcast: When you want the world to stop for a week…

We’ve all been there. Life gets incredibly busy, and it just doesn’t seem possible to get caught up. In this week’s episode of the Best of Both Worlds podcast, Sarah and I address a listener question along these lines. This listener, with a preschooler and a 6-month-old, was back at work with an 80 percent schedule after maternity leave. Alas, her actual workload had not declined by 20 percent, so she found herself feeling constantly behind at work, and — since she was making up work at night and on her day “off” — behind at home too. Wouldn’t it be nice if the world could stop for a week so nothing new would come in and she could deal with her backlog?

Alas, this is unlikely to happen. So in the meantime, we had advice for how to cope with these seasons of overwhelm…advice that I am needing a bit more now than I did when I recorded this episode! Newborns take a lot of time, and nothing else has magically stopped coming in. I’m trying to keep the relevant tips in mind…

Beware the part-time trap. In our listener’s case, the 80 percent schedule made some sense. She had a long commute, so working four days vs. five days did open up time. But if she was still working full time in four days, well, that’s not going to help the sense of overwhelm. Better to view the fifth day as a work-from-home day and get paid for it, or actually get a work reduction. Otherwise, you’re just subsidizing your employer.

Question everything. Our listener was pumping multiple times per day. I am sure that commuting an hour and then spending big chunks of time at the office tethered to a pump was not helping her feelings of efficiency. Breastfeeding is great, but there can be gradations of this. Maybe she pumps twice instead of three times, or she decides that she’ll do this for 2-3 more months and then stop, or else she decides that this is a choice and other things (like some of the early morning runs) will need to go until she decides to be done pumping.

Make sure you know your cards. Often, being overwhelmed comes from not knowing exactly what you have going on. Not only do you have a lot of work, you don’t even know what you don’t know. Many other listeners (over on Instagram) have been recommending writing everything down and making lists of tasks, deadlines, steps, etc. This can help people regain a sense of control.

Get help from your partner (or someone). Our listener didn’t mention a significant other, but I assume there is one since someone was staying with the kids during the early morning runs. If there is one, this person can be used as a resource too. If you have jointly decided that breastfeeding is a priority, then the person who is not lactating can take things off the lactating partner’s plate. In general, during times I’ve been overwhelmed (past the early baby stage), I’ve had my husband take the kids on the weekend. It’s amazing how much you can get done during an uninterrupted 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. stretch on a Saturday. When I was pregnant with kid #4 and facing down a book deadline, my husband took the other three kids on a trip with his extended family for a week. I logged 60 hours of work without kid responsibilities and felt quite relaxed. If your partner isn’t available, maybe it means hiring a few hours of weekend childcare. Not forever, necessarily, but if the point is to get through the next few months, it could be worth it.

Schedule a catch up day. At work, maybe she could aim to keep a day free of meetings and use this for crossing off lots of to-dos. Sarah recommended a personal retreat day, if there is PTO available, and using this day to think about things and designing good systems. (Or use her day off — skip the errands!)

Remind yourself that this too shall pass. Our listener is really in the thick of things. Life won’t always look like this. She will stop pumping. The kids will grow up and be able to entertain themselves on weekends. The lessons she is learning in time management now will serve her well when time opens up and she realizes she can basically conquer the world. In the meantime, changing your interior monologue from “I’m overwhelmed” to “I’ve got this” can go a long way toward helping you believe it.

What do you do when you want the world to stop for a week?

17 thoughts on “Best of Both Worlds podcast: When you want the world to stop for a week…

  1. I can’t believe my email was turned into an entire episode – thank you! And thank you for all of the wonderful advice. I did want to clarify one point (that I neglected to explain in my email) – the reason that my workload did not decrease is that I was still getting paid at 100%. After maternity leave, I still had 20 days of parental leave (at full pay) to use, so I chose to use one day per week for 20 weeks. I was essentially taking one day off a week, not ACTUALLY decreasing my job to 80%. That parental leave ended with 2019, and I am happy to say that I went back to full time work in 2020 but with one day at home to at least save two hours of commuting once a week. That has helped, though not entirely solved, the feeling of overwhelm. The end of pumping is near, and I think getting that time back, combined with some of the suggestions made in the episode, will hopefully result in a little more tranquility in my brain. Thank you again!

    1. Oops. I posted simultaneously with you. Sounds like the job situation is working out again. I have no real advice about keeping up with things other than I sympathize. I will say, as someone who also meets a running group very early in the morning, I think the early wake up *does* make things seem harder. Even if you technically get enough sleep, getting up before 4 day after day is really rough. I’ve decided it’s worth it (it is truly a highlight of my week) so I totally understand not wanting to give it up, but it probably does contribute *somewhat* to what you are feeling (at least I tell myself that..)

    2. @KGC – thanks for the clarification! Yes, that makes sense why your work duties didn’t drop then. I’m glad it has converted to a WFH day. It would be great to get two WFH days (or even 6 per month so 1.5/week equivalent?). Every time puts 2 hours back in your busy life! And congrats on nearing the end of pumping. I think your life will feel much more spacious after.

  2. Another thought for the question writer: What about going back up to full-time and working 4 10-hour days? It would make for very long days (and maybe not work with daycare pick-up) but it would allow you to save that extra day of driving. Plus I’m imagining driving on truly off hours *might* save you a little time on the commute, and you might get extra bonus points from patients who would love early morning or evening appointments.

    As a more general comment, academic salaries tend not to be as high as one might think. There are lots of wonderful benefits of being an academic, but financial compensation is not usually one of them. If both the writer and her husband are academics (which often happens) this may be a very expensive time for them (hospital bills from the delivery, 2x daycare, etc) and extra domestic help or childcare may not be a practical option.

  3. It sounds like she is close to being done pumping from her previous comment, but one suggestion I have i pumping in the car if she can. I exclusively pumped and would take advantage of drives to pump when I could. I would wear a cardigan or some other kind of cover-up so even if someone peered into my window (unlikely!) no one would ever know. And if another car could tell then oh well. It was a good way to fit pumping in!

    I can understand why she is so exhausted. I did not have the will power to get up and run when I had a young baby – and I still don’t have that willpower now that my son is almost 2! She’s definitely burning the candle at both ends!

    1. I didn’t pump in the car much (times didn’t line up/not a lot of driving, etc.) but once I was running late to teach a class and knew I would be teaching for 2 hours so I pumped in the car and got pulled over for speeding. I was able to unhook and cover myself before the cop got out of his car, but it was so nerve-wracking.

  4. I’m in the thick of it too with a 10-month old. And the past 6 months since I’ve been back at work have been busy. The co-worker I shared my main client work with left the office, so for that client, I’m doing the work that used to be done by two people. I also picked up one of his other clients, so that’s a new work client with a significant learning curve. I’m also working with a co-worker I’ve never worked with before on this new client, and man, we really do have different working styles. We see our role as different fundamentally, and he’s very anxious about make the wrong decision which slows down decision making and it’s a huge time suck. And I’ve been tasked with mentoring two co-workers with performance issues (which I couldn’t turn down because it will be excellent on my resume for the supervisor job that will be advertised any day now), but again, that’s been an additional time commitment. And our leadership is pushing work deadlines that will result in a lot work landing on my desk for review with simultaneous deadlines in the next three weeks. In the lead up to that, my office has been flooded with requests for assistance as they try to meet their initial deadlines. And at the same time, my baby girl has had serious health issues involving multiple ER visits, multi-day in patient hospital stays, appointments with lots of specialists (including a really fantastic genetic counselor!), and that’s in addition to the regular well baby visits and normal illnesses you expect with an infant in daycare. So a lot going on. (And as I write all that I have to ask myself how I’ve been managing these last 6 months…)

    These are the things that have been helpful:
    – knowing that I can’t do absolutely everything I would ordinarily do to feel balanced, I have to be hyper cognizant about what I need the most at a particular moment and focus on doing that. So two weeks ago when I realized that I was losing so much focus at work because I was so tired and that I was never going to kick a cough that had been lingering for a month if I didn’t sleep, sleep became my top priority. I set an alarm for 8:30pm to start getting ready for bed so that I could be done with all of my nighttime things (grooming, pumping, etc) and be in bed by 9:30 instead of 11 as I’m naturally inclined to do. I would literally repeat to myself that nothing was more important than going to sleep. And a week of prioritizing sleep got me back on track health wise and focus wise, at which point I could check in with myself about what I needed the most to keep going. Sometimes it’s exercise, sometimes it’s cutting out junk food, sometimes it’s socializing with friends. But focusing on just the area of greatest need gives me the biggest bang for my buck so to speak, and it gives me permission to let other things go, which is freeing.

    – Mono-tasking at work, which has been the work equivalent of focusing on the area of greatest need in my personal life. And wherever possible, taking control of my work priorities. And by that I mean getting real about only being able to have one priority at a time, and being transparent and telling people when their work item isn’t my top priority. I explicitly ask them why it’s a priority item for them (rather than assuming that it’s super important), which is info that helps me to place it in the priority hierarchy of all of my work items from my different clients. Frankly, I’ve found that many of my client’s issues don’t actually have time sensitive deadlines, and when asked about it, they acknowledge themselves that it isn’t time sensitive. In those cases, I let them know that their issue is in the queue and will be accomplished as soon as possible. When I’ve been upfront on the front end about where a client request comes in on my overall priority list, clients have totally understood because everyone is dealing with their own overwhelm.

    – Communicating regularly with my husband what both of our needs are at a given moment in time, and coming up with a plan that lets us both meet our needs. His job is flexible and he can telework whenever he wants to without advance planning or approval from someone else. He doesn’t actually like teleworking more than one day a week, but I told him that one of the things that I need right now is to be able to stay late to work a couple nights a week, which I can do when he teleworks and does daycare drop-off and pickup. So he’s been teleworking more frequently the last couple of weeks and will continue to do so during my upcoming crunch period. We’re also divvying up weekend time, much like Laura and Sarah suggested. Mostly, I’m using my weekend time to set myself up for success during the week – not spending more hours on work unless absolutely necessary. So I’m getting in my longer workouts, getting groceries, prepping food for the week. In lieu of outsourcing childcare, we are doing fewer family activities primarily structured around playing with the baby. Instead of a morning zoo trip and an afternoon trip to the park across the street, the baby is tagging along on a grocery store run, or playing with toys on the rug as we fold our laundry (or, to be honest, licking the trash can while we do food prep). So in that sense, even the baby is pitching in to get us through this two month window of awfulness.

    – Looking really critically at my schedule and accepting that some things aren’t negotiable as to when they happen. I have to go grocery shopping on Saturday so that the food is in the house on Sunday when it comes time to prep food for the week. I need to do my share of food prep Sunday morning because if I wait too long in the day, I lose steam and I wind up dragging and it takes much more time or I don’t get it done. And having healthy home cooked food to eat during the week is a top priority because it’s more time efficient than getting take out, and I just don’t make healthy food choices when I eat out, which negatively impacts my mood and energy level and undermines whether or not I can get shit done.

    – Tara Brach’s podcasts, about Buddhism, meditation, mindfulness, etc. I’m not a meditator at all, and some of the podcasts are basically mumbo jumbo to me, but she has an incredibly soothing voice, and every so often some of the mumbo jumbo is crystal clear and offers a life changing perspective of the world. I can’t really explain why it helps, but it has, especially in terms of calming my anxiety around my daughter’s health and the dumpster fire state of the world. But when the stress gets dialed down a notch, I move through the world with more ease. My ability to focus at work and at home is better, and I accomplish so much more. Actually, acupuncture also helps in a similar way. (I go to a community accupunture place, which is very affordable and can easily be scheduled at the last minute when I find an unexpected window of free time.)

    – At the end of each day as I’m packing up from work, instead of focusing on everything I didn’t do, and everything that still remains, I tell myself that I did everything that I could do today in the time I had available to do it. And instead of leaving work in a panic, I leave feeling at peace with what I did accomplish, and I take that home and have a bit of respite before I have to come back and do it all over again.

    1. @Alyce- thanks for the comment and for these great ideas! You’ve figured out a lot in six months — this is impressive. And yes, sometimes prioritizing sleep is really the key. And asking for help too.

  5. I can certainly relate to wanting the world to stop for a week so I can catch up. One thing I started doing that really helps is to try to schedule one “at-home” weekend a month. For my family, that means that other than going to church and checking in on my 94-year-old father-in-law, we don’t leave the house. We’ll plan fun activities like a family movie or a board game (or both), but the rest of the weekend is spent just getting things done. I never get completely caught up, but I make enough of a dent in the backlog of chores that I can make bigger, better plans for the rest of the weekends without the chaos taking over.

  6. I just wanted to (probably unpopularly) second Laura’s comment that pumping is a choice not a requirement. It sounds like from comments above the emailer is wrapping up her pumping anyway. However, so often I talk to moms or hear about moms that talk about pumping as though it is required. It is a choice like so many others we make and I think sometimes mothers need permission to stop if pumping is no longer working for them and their family. While, I fully support women who choose to pump/nurse and think workplaces should do the same, I also think it is critical to examine when it is something that works for us and when it isn’t without all the guilt and baggage that comes with the topic.

    1. I also appreciated the reminder that it’s a choice, and particularly that it’s not “all or none.” There are many areas in life where I tend to get myself trapped in “all or none” thinking and it was a good reminder to try to remember they aren’t. I think exercising is another good example of this — it doesn’t have to be 4-5 days per week if that’s not feasible for the season of life. Two-three is better than zero.

    2. @Gillian – thanks! Yes, it’s good to make decisions about how we spend our time rationally, considering all the trade-offs. And avoiding misplaced guilt!

    3. It is a choice, and I regularly say that to other people. I think sometimes we have a blind spot for ourselves, though, you know? Kind of like “well, it’s a choice for other people, but for ME…”
      (which is ridiculous, but hard to not feel it sometimes)
      With my first, I had to stop breastfeeding at 6 months to go on a very long course of antibiotics, so it was not my choice to stop and it was…horrible (so.many.hormones. so.much.guilt). This time around, I really wanted to have it go to a year and be on my own terms, and I think I’m reaching my limit. My supply has tanked and my freezer stash is almost done, so I’m going to have to supplement formula for the last month or so anyway – and this realization has suddenly made me fine with dropping my pre-run pump session and cutting down to just once at work.
      I’ve really loved reading all of these comments and am grateful for the advice from those who have been (or are) there!

    4. I’d also like to add to this…. you don’t have to breastfeed at all. GASP. HORRORS. I know. But… you can stop without any reason that has to do with inability. You can just NOT or just STOP. You owe not a soul an explanation. Your child will thrive because it has an involved, loving parent who takes care of themselves.
      (Lots of the studies that portray breastfeeding as OMGBESTTHINGEVER can’t actually prove causation anyway. Lots of correlation mistaken as causation.)

      And if there is judgement, it’s a great time to clean house in terms of friends and family who you really need in your life. Yes, I said family. That’s another thing – you don’t have to tolerate anything simply because someone shares a bloodline. That could be a whole other post though 🙂

  7. I also appreciated the reminder that it’s a choice, and particularly that it’s not “all or none.” There are many areas in life where I tend to get myself trapped in “all or none” thinking and it was a good reminder to try to remember they aren’t. I think exercising is another good example of this — it doesn’t have to be 4-5 days per week if that’s not feasible for the season of life. Two-three is better than zero.

  8. Knowing all your cards is really useful. Even just dividing your weekly/daily to-do list to focus on the immediate helps calm the chaos a little bit and helps zero in on what needs to be done versus everything you could do. Having long-term goals in the form of the Quarterly goals and then dumping everything else into a Someday/Maybe list that extends beyond just that quarter in the Laura adage of “Not now.”

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