Sunday, December 4, 2011

prioritization - the cure for the overcommitted

Why is it that as our sunlit days grow shorter, our list of obligations grows longer? Most working women I know - particularly those with children - have had friends and relatives at some point say faux-sarcastically, "and what do you do with all your free time?" I can't even claim the worst of the lot, as I have had the lovely mixed blessing of a stay-at home husband for the past 1-1/2 years, who is a good cook and even does the dishes. However, Daisy leader he is not.

Working moms, in particular, seem to be prone to overcommitment. In addition to the expected workday obligations, we add career growth (like state or national organization commitments, research or writing projects), volunteer work with our children's organizations, and the typical home management tasks. Does anybody else remember the 1970s commercial for Enjoli? Our moms thought that their hard-won civil liberties meant that they had to have and do it all, be everything to everyone, and thirty odd years later we're still trying to live up to those self-imposed expectations.

 History, politics and philosophy aside, here we sit, with careers our grandmothers would never have dreamed of, small children, and the holidays just around the corner. Our children have busier social calendars than any generation before, and we feel obligated by some turn of guilt to spend our free time exclusively with them and so busy that "mom's taxi service" is a haggard old joke. So then our December calendar reads Work Party? Mandatory. Kids' Holiday Pageant? Mandatory. Gift Exchange and Drinks With Friends? Someone Important's Birthday Party? Decorating for a Volunteer Group? End of Year Meetings for another Volunteer Group? Shopping for The Perfect Gifts? Travel to Visit Family? The calendars start to droop under the load, to say nothing of our backs, sleep schedules, energy levels and morale. The results are either that we get everything done and don't enjoy a bit of it, get most of it done in a fit of mania and collapse on Christmas Eve with suppressed immune system breakdown (under the onslaught of cooped-up germs), or give up and hide our heads under thermal blankets (which we would then notice need to be de-pilled) and plot an escape.  I recently read an article (whose author/publication I sadly cannot recall) that said we don't need to fix our time management, we need to fix our attitudes and realize that there aren't any "have-to's" but only "get-to's".  I can see how it might be used, as in "I get the privilege of taking 12 Daisies to a ballet event this month and seeing the sweet childrens' reactions" instead of "I have to coordinate 12 families, several of whom will probably no-show, with the box office, the ballet school and the Girl Scouts regional office to get them to a 3 hr show they will probably wiggle through and be bored," but there is a pull of obligation that can sometimes sap the joy from events.

Celestine Chua suggests that there are some psychological reasons behind our pathological overcommittedness in the first place:
- we're kind and we want to be helpful
- we're afraid of being rude, and were taught that saying "no" to people is rude
- we don't want to disagree and alienate ourselves from a group
- we fear lost opportunities
- we fear conflict or dissent if we reject someone
- we don't want to burn bridges

When reading her excellent article, I found myself flinching at a few of those in recognition of several recent RSVPs and "yes" decisions. I don't think that is necessarily bad, or that a "yes" decision made for fearful reasons is always wrong. I would also add another: we fear not being able to give our children every opportunity. quotes a friend, “It’s ironic that the things we do to benefit our children keep us from spending quality time with them.” It does help me to sort out my obligations in "why" rank-order. Chua and many other self-help writers go on to suggest a multitude of "ways to say no". The lists range from humorous ("only if it includes free weekly maid service for a year") to simple ("no, sorry").

Some other favorites:
- No, if I accepted that position, I wouldn’t be able to devote the time needed to do the job well, and I care about this organization too much to do that.
- No, I need to spend my more time with my family.
- I'm not the best person for this. Why don't you consider contacting ...
- No, it’s time to share the load. I want to give others a chance to get involved.

That last is from the UncoolMom blog, whose author had a recent moment of revelation in which she realized that by simple math, 90% of the members of her organizations were inactive, and 10% had held all of the leadership roles. She further asserts, "... if they keep doing it, then nothing’s going to change. And that 90% will never get the chance to hone their leadership skills. It’s not fair to them, and it’s not fair to us."

The only good response I've begun to hone over the past year or two is, "Let me think about it first, and I'll get back to you." I try to use it as much as I can, even when I'm pretty sure that the answer will eventually be yes. Having a bit of time to mull over the potential impact of that decision on the other pending obligations and my dwindling personal physical, mental and time reserves helps to put things in perspective, and my eventual answer is much more heartfelt, with less fear and guilt.

Having personal time - even if we spend it browsing Pinterest or reading blogs - is not selfish. Even for today's "24-Hour Woman".

prioritization - the act of arranging or dealing with elements in order of importance.

1 comment:

  1. Amen, sister. Judith Warner's highly readable "Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety" addresses the pressure to do it all from a cultural/political standpoint. Personally, I've found that saying "no" is habit forming. It's mostly your strategy of waiting before answering that has gotten me to that point.