Ask Tiffany Dufu what’s most important to her in life, and this is the first thing she’ll say: “Advancing women and girls.” Second: “Loving my husband.” Third: “Raising conscious global citizens.” She’s a mother of two, a wife of nearly 20 years (she and husband Kojo Dufu will celebrate the milestone anniversary this year) and an accomplished professional currently serving as the chief leadership officer at millennial career network Levo.
Her new book, Drop the Ball: Achieving More by Doing Less, is part cultural prescriptive, part memoir. It’s her personal story of how she defeated a never-ending swirl of duties, an examination of gender-based assumptions that undermine the success of women and a celebration of people who have found a way to disrupt them.
After having her first child, Dufu recognized she had set impossible standards for herself. She reached a tipping point on her first day back at work after having her baby — a moment that involved sobbing in the bathroom at her new job and expressing her breast milk into the toilet, because she’d been to busy to pump. “I felt trapped by competing demands,” she says. “I got the promotion of my life and realized I had bitten off way more than I could chew.”
Hiring help was not an option, so instead, Dufu examined the root of the problem and asked herself why she strove for perfection in the first place.
“It’s connected to the invisible job responsibilities that are connected to the roles that we play,” she says. She’s talking about the roles of daughter, of student, of wife, of employee, of mother, of citizen. “Women — particularly ambitious women — default to putting the word ‘good’ in front of all these roles.” When we feel we’ve come up short, we suffer the detriment associated with feelings of guilt and failure — but a lot of the rules surrounding what makes a good ___ come from other people’s ideals and examples, rather than our own.
Dufu began pushing back against those prescribed roles and “delegating with joy.” First, she identified what mattered most to her, making it possible to then ask: “What is my highest and best use in achieving those goals?” She looked at her domestic to-do list: marinating chicken, shopping for gifts, scheduling preschool tours… None of it was the core of what mattered most. So she decided not to do those things.
Instead, Dufu worked with her husband to prepare for a particularly busy stretch in their lives by creating a spreadsheet with four columns: a column for all the tasks that need to get done to keep the household running, a column for items Kojo would handle, a column for items she would handle, and most importantly, a column that no one would handle — things that could be skipped completely. For a few months, the car could go unwashed and the clean laundry could be plucked straight from the basket, rather than drawers. When their circumstances shifted, they could shift their duties accordingly. The spreadsheet became a lifelong tool.
“I still cannot believe that for all of the conversations I had with my partner, about everything in the world, we never talked about the basics of who would do what at home,” Dufu says, adding that it seems obvious in retrospect. “There are all of these other factors that make so much more sense than, ‘I am the woman, so I’m going to do the laundry.’”
In the seven years since she made that fateful spreadsheet, Dufu has thrown herself into those three things that matter most to her, and she has seen her career and family life soar. She hasn’t opened the mail or read emails from her children’s school, but she’s none the worse, nor are her kids or marriage, she says. “The world does not fall apart.”