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I’ll Finish the Dishes When I’m Dead

26 minute read

Correction appended: April 7, 2014.

The way you live your days is the way you live your life.

—Annie Dillard

One evening when my kids were young, I was outside weeding my infernal gravel yard that, if left untended, begins to look like a furry Chia Pet. They were bouncing with sheer delight on the trampoline.

“Mommy, come jump with us!” they cried. “In a minute,” I kept saying. “Just let me finish weeding.” It was a time in my life when I used to routinely ask myself, “What do I need to do before I can feel O.K.?” And then I’d run through a never-ending mental list. That evening, with a familiar sense of vague panic rising, I felt compelled to finish at least one thing — the weeding — on that long, long list.

Lost in my churning thoughts, I didn’t notice the sun go down. Or hear my kids go inside. When I looked up again, the sky was dark, the yard still covered in weeds, and I was alone.

I have often thought back to that moment with such regret.

But it wasn’t the only moment. Because this is how it felt to live my life most days: scattered, fragmented and exhausting. I was always doing more than one thing at a time and felt I never did any one particularly well. I was always behind and always late, with one more thing and one more thing and one more thing to do before rushing out the door. Entire hours evaporated while I did stuff that “needed to get done.” But once I’d done it, I couldn’t tell you what it was I had done or why it seemed so important. I felt like the Red Queen of Through the Looking-Glass on speed, running as fast as I could — usually on the fumes of four or five hours of sleep — and getting nowhere. Like the dream I kept having about trying to run a race wearing ski boots.

My daughter has stuck yellow Post-it notes on my forehead while I sat working at the computer to remind me to come upstairs for story time.

I have baked Valentine’s Day cupcakes until 2 a.m. and finished writing stories at 4 a.m., when all was quiet and I finally had unbroken time to concentrate. I have held what I hope were professional-sounding interviews sitting on the floor in the hall outside my kids’ dentist’s office, in the teachers’ bathroom at school functions, in the car outside various lessons and on the grass, quickly muting the phone after each question to keep the whooping of a noisy soccer practice to a minimum.

At work, I’ve arranged car pools to ballet and band practice. At home, I have constantly written and returned emails and done interviews and research for work. “Just a sec,” I would hear my daughter mimic me as she mothered her dolls. “Gimme a minute.” She has stuck yellow Post-it notes on my forehead while I sat working at the computer to remind me to come upstairs for story time.

At night, I have often awakened in a panic about all the things I need to do or didn’t get done. I’ve worried that I’ll face my death and realize that my life got lost in this frantic flotsam of daily stuff, that I’ll find that my children grew up right before my eyes and yet I somehow missed it, that I lived my life on the sidelines, watching time scream past, as a friend once told me, like a rabid lunatic.

Caught up in what I’ve come to call the Overwhelm, the thought kept nagging me: Was I not just bad at time, but was I squandering my one and only life?

Sleep, Sail, Sew, Be Happy

I sit at a table with four other people, pencil in hand, paralyzed. In front of each of us lies a blank calendar for one week, starting on Sunday and ending on Saturday. Each day is broken into hourly grids, starting at 6 a.m. and ending at midnight. The task at this daylong Time Triage workshop sounds simple enough: Design Your Perfect Schedule. What would you do, say, on Tuesday at 10 a.m. or on Friday at 3 p.m. to make your life meaningful? What, when you really come down to the quotidian details, does it look like every day to have time to do good work, to spend quality time with your family and friends and to refresh your soul?

I stare at the page.

'When we die, the email inbox will still be full. The to-do list will still be there. But you won’t.'

And so does everyone else: a real estate agent who feels there’s so much chaos between her work and life that it seems as if her time is “bleeding”; a man who just wants to figure out how to relax on the weekends without feeling guilty; his wife, who wants the world to stop for a few days so she can get caught up; a young woman living on fast-forward who has burned through two marriages and snaps photos of beautiful sunsets to post on Facebook as she flies down the road on her way to somewhere else. (“I just feel this tremendous sense of loss all the time,” she says.)

We’d started the workshop that morning with a very different exercise: filling in a schedule of what we’d done in the past week. That was easy. Everyone jam-packed the little hour grids with so much stuff that the cramped handwriting spilled out into the margins of the page.

Terry Monaghan, our no-nonsense leader and self-described “productivity expert,” then asked us what we’d do if our schedules opened up and we suddenly found we had more time.

“Read,” I said. The others chimed in: “Sleep.” “Learn to sail.” “Sew.” “Pray.” “Travel.” “Be happy.”

“Where is the time for that on your schedules?” Monaghan had asked.

There wasn’t any. That’s when she’d given us these blank calendars and told us to find the time. We stare, stumped, for several more uncomfortable minutes.

Monaghan’s approach to time management is simple: You can’t manage time. Time never changes. There will always be 168 hours in a week. What you can manage are the activities you choose to do in that time. And what busy and overwhelmed people need to realize, she said, is that you will never be able to do everything you think you need to, want to or should do. “When we die, the email inbox will still be full. The to-do list will still be there. But you won’t,” she told us. “Eighty percent of the email that comes in is crap anyway, and it takes you the equivalent of 19 1/2 weeks a year just to sort through. Eighty percent of your to-do list is crap. Look, the stuff of life never ends. That is life. You will never clear your plate so you can finally allow yourself to get to the good stuff. So you have to decide. What do you want to accomplish in this life? What’s important to you right now? And realize that what’s important now may not be two years from now. It’s always changing.”

Monaghan looks at us staring forlornly at our blank Perfect Schedules. She sighs. “This is not rocket science here, people,” she says. “Start with time for what’s most important.”

But that’s where I got stuck. Everything seemed important. My work. My family. My friends. My community. Changing the kitty litter. Sorting my daughter’s Barbie shoes. Keeping the incoming tide of clutter in the house at bay.

Ellen Ernst Kossek, an organizational psychologist and management professor at Purdue University, would later tell me that this means I’m not only an “integrator” of work and home duties, but the kind of überintegrator she calls a “fusion lover.” Unlike “separators,” who keep their work and life separated with bright lines, I tend to do everything all at once, all the time. In her book, CEO of Me, Kossek writes that some people thrive on integration, answering work emails from the sidelines of a child’s soccer game or checking in with the babysitter in the afternoon at the office, juggling 100 different balls with aplomb.

But if that integration was making me feel overwhelmed, then I wasn’t doing it particularly well. The downside to being a fusion lover, she said, is that people like me tend to get confused over which demand is more pressing in the moment, so we don’t have clear focus on what to do. We can’t decide. So we end up doing both work and home activities in an ambivalent, halfhearted way, which produces mediocre outcomes and vague disappointment in both.

Fighting Ambivalence Among the WoMoBiJos

Psychologists say that ambivalence is, literally, being of two minds. In their labs, they have found that this nebulous feeling is far more uncomfortable and stressful on the body and mind than either embracing one position over another or merely being neutral. To be ambivalent, say the psychotherapists David Hartman and Diane Zimberoff, is to be preoccupied with both what is wanted and what is not. “The opposite of ambivalence is a rigid intolerance for ambiguity, nuance or paradox,” they write. “The synthesis of the two is ‘passionate commitment in the face of ambiguity.’ ”

Ah, is that it?

WoMoBiJos: Working Mothers With Big Jobs

Sitting in the Time Triage workshop, staring at my blank Perfect Schedule, I realized I would never be able to schedule my way efficiently out of the Overwhelm. I had to face my own ambivalence about trying to live two clashing ideals at once — ideal worker, ideal mother. There would never be enough room in a day for both. Big social change in workplaces, policies and attitudes is critical to move out of Overwhelm. But change is hard. It takes time. And I may not live long enough to see it. I had to figure out how to embrace my own life with that passionate commitment in the face of ambiguity, right here, right now.

I searched for people who had. That led me to Maia Heyck-Merlin and the group she put together called WoMoBiJos: Working Mothers With Big Jobs. The WoMoBiJos are women in their 30s and 40s who live in different cities and have big careers in finance, the nonprofit world, medicine and other fields. They love their work, yet they are not ideal worker-warriors. They love their kids and families, yet they don’t buy into the ideal mother’s impossibly high standards. “Good enough is the new perfect” is their mantra. They love their lives. And many have found a way to make time for themselves. Though each one lives a busy life, not one described herself as feeling overwhelmed.

In talking to them, it pretty quickly became apparent why: none of the WoMoBiJos felt ambivalent. Their lives certainly weren’t perfect — living with a 2-year-old, one said, is “like living with a bipolar drunken troll.” They were tired. They worked hard to make things work. But without the fog of guilty ambivalence shrouding their days, each was able to embrace her life with passion.

“I found it’s better for me to ask myself: Am I trying my best? Am I doing things for the right reasons? Do I make those I love feel loved? Am I happy? And then adjust as I go,” said Heather Peske, a Boston WoMoBiJo.

The more I spoke with the WoMoBiJos, it became apparent that they were freed from the mire of ambivalence because the structures of their lives fully support them in work, love and play. They all work in incredibly flexible work environments. Many WoMoBiJos work compressed schedules or work regularly from home. Their time is their own to control and is predictable. They are unapologetic. Their partners are, to greater and lesser extents, equitably sharing care of kids and domestic work. They automate, delegate or drop everything else — shopping for groceries online, hiring help or not caring if the house is less than perfect or if their husbands always make sandwiches for dinner. So, unlike a majority of women who still do about twice the housework and child care even when working full time, none face the double-time bind at home.

Heyck-Merlin has no qualms about hanging up chore lists at big gatherings of family or friends. “Why should someone be sitting on the couch while I do all the work?” she says. “They can empty the dishwasher.”

The WoMoBiJos are also ruthlessly clear about their priorities. They feel no compulsion to spend time on anything that feels obligatory. They are all disciplined and organized and have learned skills to integrate their work and home lives. They carve firm boundaries to protect uninterrupted time at work, undisturbed time to connect with family and guilt-free time to themselves.

More than anything, I was struck by how supremely confident all the WoMoBiJos are, in themselves, their skills, the decisions they’ve made and the way they live their lives — cultural norms be damned. I wondered, Was that it? Their confidence? Were they able to create these rich, complex and full lives and live them wholeheartedly simply because they believed they could? And if that were the case, could the WoMoBiJos, instead of being just a small group of admirable women in enviable special circumstances, really be pioneers showing us all the way? If they could believe their way into living unambiguously, could others? Could I? “I actually really do not care, to a fault, what people think,” Heyck-Merlin told me. “But I also don’t believe anything is due to personality trait. Everything is learned. It’s a mind-set. It’s a skill that needs to be developed. It takes practice. And time.”

That’s the gospel that Kathy Korman Frey, whom some call the Confidence Guardian, has been preaching. Korman Frey, a Harvard MBA, is an entrepreneur, a mother of two and a business professor at George Washington University who runs the Hot Mamas Project, the largest global database of business case studies written by female entrepreneurs about how they run their companies and manage their home lives at the same time. She is adamant that what keeps so many people, especially women, running ragged is that most have yet to develop the skill of confidence, or what she calls self-efficacy.

Self-efficacy, like grit, can be learned, she said. Like a muscle, like willpower, it can be exercised and made strong. And she is devoting her life to teaching the four ways that famed psychologist Albert Bandura said people could learn it. She calls them Jedi Mind Tricks:

  • Have “mastery experiences.” The more you do some things well, the more you’ll build confidence to do other things well.
  • Find role models and seek out mentors and sponsors.
  • Listen to and believe, rather than dismiss, the positive and encouraging words people have for you.
  • Get a grip. Recognize that perceptions are what shape experience.
  • And when it comes to negative and self-defeating patterns of thought, she advises, as Cher did in Moonstruck, “Snap out of it!”

    “I’m not saying it’s not hard,” Korman Frey said. “But I am saying it’s like you’re wearing the ruby slippers. You have the power. You’ve had it all along.”

    Boot Camp: ‘What’s Most Important to You Right Now’

    I called Terry Monaghan. If I was ever going to use what I’d been learning on this journey to find a way out of the Overwhelm, if I was ever going to allow myself a moment of peace, if I was ever going to figure out how to embrace my life with passion, I realized I needed boot camp.

    At our first meeting, Monaghan asked me: “What’s most important to you right now?” Then she asked me what I planned to do in the coming week to make time for it. I began rattling off an exhaustive list of just about everything that I needed to do, ever, in my life. By the following week, when we were scheduled to talk again, I was feeling guilty and defeated. I’d barely made a dent in all the tasks I’d assigned myself to do.

    We started small: by clearing my desk.

    “So,” she said wryly when she called, “how long did it take for you to figure out you couldn’t do everything on your list in one week?”

    In truth, I’d always known it.

    “So much of our overwhelm comes from unrealistic expectations,” she said. “And when we don’t meet them, instead of questioning the expectations, we think that we’re doing something wrong.” Managing the overwhelm, she said, comes down to knowing the underlying story that’s driving those unrealistic expectations.

    “So what’s my underlying story?” I asked.

    “You want to write the perfect book,” she said matter-of-factly. “And you think the perfect book is anything written by anyone else. Your ongoing conversation with yourself is, You’re not enough. So whatever you do will never be enough. Every human being has some flavor of ‘not enough.’ You can either be stopped by it or simply notice it, like the weather.”

    I began to try just to notice that stormy internal weather, instead of getting swept away in it. Notice how much I was unconsciously trying to live up to impossible ideals. Notice my ambivalence. And I began to grapple more consciously with the questions that daunt not only perfectionists but, really, anyone with a pulse: How much is enough? When is it good enough? How will I know?

    We started small: by clearing my desk. “It gives your brain a rest from visual clutter,” Monaghan said. As we worked to build systems and routines into my days, we always seemed to be coming back to my brain, and how getting a handle on the Overwhelm was not just about creating more space and order on my calendar and in my office but also doing the same in my mind.

    When I would second-guess myself or become obsessed about not knowing what I was doing, she’d interrupt me brusquely. “Right now, you need to free up all this energy that’s being consumed by worry.” She told me to take out a piece of paper, set a timer for five minutes and write furiously about absolutely everything that was bugging me. I didn’t have to do anything about this “Worry Journal.” Just getting the ambivalence out of my head and putting it somewhere would give my brain a rest. “It’s a way off the hamster wheel,” she said.

    We did the same with the enormous to-do list I carried around in my head. Every Monday morning, I began to set aside time to plan the week. I began with a brain dump. It was the list of everything on my mind from here to eternity. The working memory can keep only about seven things in it at one time. And if the to-do list is much longer than that, the brain, worried it may forget something, will get stuck in an endless circular loop of mulling, much like a running toilet. That mulling is what social scientists say creates “contaminated time,” when, even in what looks like a moment of leisure on the outside, you can be lost in the churn of your thoughts and feel anything but. The brain dump is like jiggling the handle. “If your to-do list lives on paper, your brain doesn’t have to expend energy to keep remembering it,” Monaghan said.

    The Power of the Pulse

    As I worked with Monaghan, I also interviewed productivity and time-management experts; read books; clipped magazine articles; watched webinars; listened to podcasts; attended lectures; took my Time Perspective Inventory to see if I viewed the past, present and future in the optimal configuration for happiness; took an Energy Audit to see if I was working at peak performance physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually; and reviewed dozens of different methodologies all aiming to relieve the time-sucking overwhelm.

    The idea was to chunk my time to minimize the constant multitasking.

    The essence of their advice all seemed to boil down to what my kids learned in preschool: Plan. Do. Review. Take time to figure out what’s important in the moment and what you want to accomplish in life. If you’re ambivalent, notice it. Pick something anyway. Embrace it. Play. Try one approach. Assess. If that isn’t working, ditch it and play with something else. Keep yourself accountable but enjoy the process. There is no right answer. This is life.

    Like Monaghan herself does, I began using bits of one method, pieces of another. If they seemed to help, I kept on using them. If the methods were too complicated or took too much work, I moved on. But by far, the one skill that I have learned that has transformed my experience of time is the power of the pulse.

    Pulsing — deactivating and reactivating the brain — actually makes it pay better attention. The brain evolved to detect and respond to change, always alert to danger. And once the novelty wears off and the brain becomes “habituated,” it no longer notices the nonthreatening sights, sounds or feelings that have been constantly present. And neuroscience is finding that breaks inspire creativity and flashes of insight.

    Monaghan sought to train me to work in pulses. The idea was to chunk my time to minimize the constant multitasking, role switching and toggling back and forth between work and home stuff like a brainless flea on a hot stove. The goal was to create periods of uninterrupted time to concentrate on work — the kind of time I usually found in the middle of the night — during the day. And to be more focused and less distracted with my family.

    When it was time to work, I began to shut off email and turn off the phone. When it was time to be with family, I tried to do the same. I began to gather home tasks in a pile and block off one period of time every day to do them. It was easier to stay focused on work knowing I’d given myself a grace period to get to the pressing home stuff later.

    When I was having difficulty, procrastinating, avoiding a task, stuck in ambivalence, Monaghan had me set a timer for 30 minutes, then take a break. “Your brain can stay focused on anything, even an unpleasant task, if it knows it will last only 30 minutes,” she said. Slowly, I worked up to 45- and then 90-minute stretches. I try to regularly pause, to disrupt the busyness and set my own priorities. That’s helped me flip my to-do list. I focus on what’s important first, pick one thing to do a day, and the rest goes in the Brain Dump.

    I’m getting better about defining the mission of my work, setting realistic expectations, communicating them and measuring performance rather than tracking hours. Because change is hard and the urge to conform to the larger culture hardwired into our brains, I have created my own culture — and set up a network of support with like-minded people, who are also committed to resisting the popular culture and finding time for Work, Love and Play.

    At home, my husband Tom and I and the kids are getting better at sharing responsibility for the second shift. That has freed up time to play. I’ve spent entire days reading again, whether the laundry is folded or not.

    Having a clearer sense of what’s most important to do, I’m not as seized with the feeling that I haven’t done enough and the urge to do “just one more thing.” Clearing the clutter in my head and the guilt that hung over every halfhearted decision has given me more peace of mind than any elaborate time-management system. Time is still a struggle. But I am learning. Time feels better. Rather than ambivalence or Overwhelm, what I feel most of the time is gratitude.

    ‘Come On, Mom, Let’s Take a Break Together’

    When I was 34, I spent months helplessly watching my younger sister die of cancer. For the first time, I clung to each precious minute like a rare jewel. She had so few left. If she had to go down this awful road, then I wanted only to be right there with her, so at least she wouldn’t have to travel it alone. In that singular focus, the smallest gesture, the quietest moment was transformed into an unimaginably exquisite gift of grace. Every detail presented itself in its aching fullness: the bright red Adriamycin dripping into her veins, the way we laughed like little girls who’d done something naughty when I combed her thick, wavy blond hair and a big chunk fell out, the quality of the fading light in her hospital room as evening gently softened to dusk.

    I'd pledged to live my life as if it were always 200 o’clock.

    The single tear that rolled out of the side of her eye when it was clear that her life was at an end.

    The Greeks called that kind of time kairos. When we live by the clock, the Greeks said, we are bound by chronos time. This is the time that races, marches, creeps and flies. It is the life that T. S. Eliot measured out in coffee spoons and the 30 hours of leisure that some time researchers claim we have. But kairos is the time of the “right moment,” the eternal now, when time is not a number on a dial but the enormity of the experience inside it.

    On the day that I sought to write the last chapter for my book, I was caught in the gears of chronos, rushing from an early-morning teacher meeting we’d forgotten to the shop to get Tom’s rattling car. The dryer was broken. Soggy clothes were draped all around the house. My son had forgotten his big geometry project. And I’d had to physically remove the keyboard from the computer to keep my daughter from spending most of her waking hours on MovieStarPlanet.com. At a loss for what to write, I went for a walk. As I passed the park near our house, I saw a little girl wearing a bright pink paper crown and giggling with her friends. One asked, “What time is it?” The little girl, completely absorbed in the joy of walking home from school with friends on a gloriously sunny afternoon, started to laugh. “It’s 200 o’clock!”

    When my sister was gone, I thought, for her sake, I would remember to live the rest of my days with that same fragile and humble grace, as if it were always 200 o’clock, knowing that one day I, too, would be gone. I even began to wear her watch every day to remind myself. I still do.

    But I soon forgot.

    One rainy Sunday, not so long ago, the kids and I made soup together. The kitchen was a mess. I immediately began to tackle the sink, which was clogged with vegetable peels and dirty dishes. My daughter Tessa sat on the window seat in the family room to watch the rain pour down.

    “Mom, let’s have lunch,” she said.

    “I’m doing the dishes right now.”

    “Come on, Mom, let’s take a break together.”

    “In a minute. Just let me get these dishes done.”

    “Mom. Come over.”

    It was the third time that hit me. Just stop, I thought. Stop right now. I took a breath. Now, I thought. I can feel O.K. right now. Here, I thought. Here is the best place to be. I keep forgetting, but right now I remember. I remember that life will be over quickly and that this is an amazingly beautiful day.

    I poured myself some of the soup we’d just made, left the mess in the kitchen sink and sat across from Tessa on the window seat. My son Liam came to join us. I didn’t yip at them about chores or homework or things to do. We just sat together on the window seat. Eating soup. Watching the rain.

    Brigid Schulte is an award-winning journalist for the Washington Post and the Washington Post Magazine. She was part of the team that won the 2008 Pulitzer Prize. She is also a fellow at the New America Foundation. She lives in Alexandria, Va., with her husband and their two children. Adapted from her new book Overwhelmed: Work, Love & Play when No One Has the Time, published by Sarah Crichton Books/FSG.

    Correction: The original version of this story misspelled the name of Diane Zimberoff.

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