Cutting Corners to Achieve Work Life Balance and Sanity

Cutting corners


My kids complained at dinner the other night that I rarely cook from scratch. I buy boxes or packages where I can add fresh ingredients but I don't have start from the beginning. I'm not a good cook. I try to cram a lot into my day and I'm looking for ways to get a decent meal on the table as quickly as possible. In other words, I cut corners. Should I feel guilty about it? 

I study people who are successful, productive and happy. They have one thing in common. They cut corners, too. They aim to be great at what they do for a living, but they don't get bogged down if they're second best in some aspect of their lives — as long as they're great at the things they most care about.

This weekend, I read an excellent interview in the New York TImes with Debora Spar, the president of Barnard College and mother of three children. Spar just wrote a book called "Wonder Women: Sex, Power, and the Quest for Perfection." In her new book, she argues that at every stage of life, women are straining to reach impossible standards. Spar says she looks back at her life and sees areas where cutting corners would have helped her be saner. I think most of us could do that, right?

Spar introduces women to the term "satisficing." It means to settle for something that is second best. In the interview, she says, "You dont' want to go out there and say women should settle for second best. But sometimes second best is much better than fourth best or worse. Women in particular feel if I didn't become the top CEO or perfect mother, I've somehow blown it."

As Sheryl Sandberg pointed out in her book, Lean In: we need great women to run our PTAs and we need great women to run our public companies. It likely is not going to be the same person who does both.

Spar points out something in the NYT interview that I see happening as well. The pressure is starting early on young girls to be Wonder Woman — to get the perfect SAT score, to have perfect GPAs and perfect resumes. She thinks females internalize this need to relentless pressure to be perfect more than males. I'm not sure how true that is because I see my son and daughter experiencing the same pressure to be super achievers.

But I do like Spar's advice to women: "Don't get taken in by women's magazines that show bathrooms or living rooms that look simple and Zen-like but have to be maintained constantly." I know all too well that having a beautiful house where pillows stay in place and clothing stays off the floor takes work — so does serving a gourmet dinner. "Men's magazines don't seem to do this. They seem to be about things that are fun, not things you have to spend lots of hours on and then fail at," she says.

In an article Spar wrote for The Daily Beast a year ago, she hit it right on. We have to let go of our guilt and our fear….

"Today, part of what keeps women from the top ranks of their professions is a fear that they will not perform well enough..Part of what makes women unhappy at home is a related fear that they are not quite good enough—that their kids don’t practice piano for at least two hours a day, their closets are a mess, and the brownies they brought to the bake sale weren’t entirely gluten-free. It’s madness."

Spar, who loves statistics, found women were still devoting nearly 40 hours a week to family care: housework, child care, shopping. Men, by contrast, spent only 21, most of which were devoted to fairly discrete and flexible tasks like mowing the lawn, washing the car, and tossing softballs with the kids.

She did point out, to be fair, that men have leapt pretty dramatically into a rapidly evolving rearrangement of roles doing more housework and primary child care.

But she notes, men are better at cutting corners at home. "These men may do the household chores differently than their wives would. They may leave the playroom messier or abandon more socks in the dryer. But, given the vast changes afoot in household organization, those socks might just be worth sacrificing."

By now, after years of trying, I think lots of women and men are realizing that no one is going to pull off being a gourmet cook, successful business person, parent of the year, fitness buff, home decorator. If we understand we can not excel across the board, and stop trying so hard, we'll be happier and saner. That's the message Spar is trying to get across and I like it.

So where do you need to settle for second best…or cut corners…and how do you do that well?

Outsource home tasks. Use technology for efficiency at work. Buy clothes that are flattering rather than obsessing over falling short of your fitness goal. Serve pre-made fried rice (even if your kids complain!)

Women in this country are struggling far more than is necessary. I'm with you all the way, Debora Spar. Let's figure out where we can "satisfice" for a better work life balance and still be great at the things that count the most.


The Work/Life Balancing Act

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