2014 in review

Not bad for my first six weeks as a blogger! I’m especially proud to have readers in 30 different countries!

Happy New Year 2015! May it be a year of love, happiness, health, and prosperity. And success – however you define it!

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2014 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

A San Francisco cable car holds 60 people. This blog was viewed about 1,000 times in 2014. If it were a cable car, it would take about 17 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

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Season’s Greetings

I’m taking a short break over the holidays but will be back with a new post right after the New Year.

In the meantime, have a Very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year 2015!

“To dare is to lose one’s footing momentarily. Not to dare is to lose oneself.”

― Søren Kierkegaard

The irony of work-life balance

People seem to be very interested in work-life balance. I guess that’s because it is something many of us lack and don’t know how to get. There are numerous studies on the topic, and on the strategies people use in their quest to find it, but still, many have so little of it.

I once saw a TV documentary on how to find happiness. Barbara Ehrenreich (whose books I can recommend, especially Nickel and Dimed) was interviewed as an expert on happiness – or rather the cultural obsession with happiness. What she basically said was that you’re not going to find happiness if that is all you are looking for. She talked about the importance of meaning in what you do and quoted Freud, saying that really it’s about losing yourself in your work, and when you do that then you can feel content and fulfilled, and in other words happy.

This really resonated with me, and I saw parallels to the search for work-life balance. Work-life balance is symptomatic of something else, and as we try to fix the lack of balance in our lives, we’re not actually getting to the root of the problem. The problem is the structures, working cultures, and corporate norms that are prevalent today. They make it hard to have a holistic view of life and career and to combine work with other areas of life.

After I opted out, I no longer so acutely felt a lack of balance in my life even though I was working a lot and at all hours of the day (and night whenever I had deadlines to meet). I could really lose myself in my work, and it automatically solved my lack of work-life balance. And yes, in case you are wondering, I still sometimes feel a lack of balance when I have too much to do or I am feeling stressed, because opting out does not obliterate all stress. But when I do feel a lack of balance, I know it is only temporary and not a chronic problem.

This is also closely related to time management.

Every once in a while I’m asked if I can recommend a good book on time management. I know nothing about time management, nor do I know of any good books on the subject. I have a vague recollection of being offered to take a course in time management a long time ago in my previous career. Needless to say I didn’t take the course. I remember having the feeling that no matter how many time management courses my colleagues took, or how many books they read on the subject, they still didn’t have enough time.

However, I do know enough about time to know that time management, like work-life balance, doesn’t actually get to the root of the problem. The experience of not having enough time doesn’t really correlate with there not being enough time, nor of not being structured enough in one’s use of one’s time. It’s a symptom of something else.

People feel they don’t have enough time when they don’t feel they have control over their time, and in today’s hectic working culture this is often the case. People don’t feel like they have control. In my research I have seen that the feeling of not having enough time becomes less of a problem when one can create a lifestyle where one can decide over one’s time and how one uses it. After opting out, people often create lifestyles and ways of working where they have more control over their lives and the use of their time (for example when they work and when they spend time with their children or doing other things, not necessarily how much time they spend doing all this). This feeling of control is, in turn, closely related to a sense of coherence, which then leads to a feeling of happiness and contentment.

So no, I have no books on time management, but I do have a good book on time that I can recommend:

Unwinding the Clock: Ten Thoughts on Our Relationship to Time (original title: Tio tankar om tid) by Bodil Jönsson

Opt Out or Lean In?

Many people seem to think that leaning in and opting out are opposites – either you lean in, or you opt out. I’m here to tell you that it doesn’t have to be either or, you can do both.

In her book Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg writes, “I have written this book to encourage women to dream big, forge a path through the obstacles, and achieve their full potential.” And then later, “I hope they [my children] end up exactly where they want to be. And when they find where their true passion lies, I hope they both lean in – all the way.”

Now that sounds an awful lot like what the women who opt out do. They opt out in order to opt in to a way of life and working that allows them to be who they are and to work to their full potential on terms that work for them.

I have talked to women who have opted out of jobs or career paths that hold them back. Women are still discriminated in the workplace (although now-a-days it’s generally harder to detect than it used to be) and still get bypassed by their male colleagues. I have talked to women who feel they just can’t be themselves in a corporate environment where they have to keep parts of themselves hidden. It’s ok for work to spill over into the private sphere – we’re expected to answer emails when we’re at home with our kids – but ironically it doesn’t go the other way. Women are expected to keep whatever issues they may have at home or with their children invisible in the workplace.

While Sandberg calls on women to lean in and make a difference, many women don’t feel the effort of trying to change a workplace or working culture to suit them and their needs is worth it, nor do they want to take the risk that it may entail. Not only do they think it’s a lost cause, but they are also genuinely worried that it would harm their careers and their reputations.

One might think that they therefore choose opting out as an easy solution, except that opting out is never easy. It’s a path these women have been compelled to take in order to create a working environment where they have more control over their professional lives, where they can work to their full potential, while seamlessly combining work with other areas of life. In other words, they do this so that they can lean in all the way.

All the women I have talked to have been ambitious and have wanted their work to be meaningful. They want to lean in, but on their own terms. After opting out, these women did not necessarily work less, nor did many of them spend more time with their children. The difference was they had more control over how and when they worked, and how and when they were with their children. Having more control, in turn, entailed less stress. It allowed them to feel passionate about their work, and being passionate about what you do tends to automatically make you want to lean in.

So by all means, do both, opt out and lean in!

What is it about mothers today?

I remember being at a dinner party a few months ago and I was sitting with a group of women who were my mother’s age. We were talking about motherhood, work-life balance etc., when one woman wondered out loud why it is that women with young children complain so much now-a-days, why do they think their children are such a nuisance? She was wondering whether people who have grown up in the 70’s and 80’s aren’t used to working hard, if they just don’t love their children as much, or simply don’t like being parents as much anymore.

This is definitely not the case. It is not that mothers or parents don’t love their children as much as they used to, or that they aren’t prepared to work hard.  There is actually research that shows that parents today spend much more time than previous generations playing with their children. There is also research that shows that professional life is much tougher than it used to be and that people work longer days. It may be true that mothers today complain more than before. One reason may be that it is no longer taboo to talk about how hard being a mother really is, and that is a good thing. But there is more to it.

Women today, especially if they are juggling both a career and children, are drawn between the individualistic world of work on the one hand, and the self-sacrificing world of motherhood on the other. The irony here is that both worlds crave 100% dedication and devotion. At work, you are expected to be completely dedicated and available 24/7, and as a mother you are expected to be completely devoted. Simple math will tell you that two times 100% simply doesn’t work no matter how you look at it. But not only that, the past decades have witnessed a professionalization of motherhood where simply being a mother is no longer enough. In addition to being a mother, you’re supposed to also be your child’s nurse, nutritionist, personal trainer, coach, tutor, teacher, child psychologist…you name it. You’re supposed to be well read and if you don’t live up to it all (like making everything from scratch in order to protect your children from sugars and additives etc. while also holding down a fulltime job), all the recommendations and hype going around in the media and on the internet will certainly make you feel guilty, not to mention the pressure we get from each other.  (Have you ever thought about how you present yourself and your life on Facebook for example? There is material in that for a whole new blog post…)

However, women are not only pressured to be perfect mothers, we are also supposed to be perfect women and have perfect homes. I at least tend to get stressed by the lists of things you need to do that circulate. What you need to eat, and how much of it you need to eat every day; how much water and other fluids you need to drink everyday; what kind of exercise you should be doing and how, and how often you need to do that. And while you’re busy remembering all this, you need to take care of your body, make sure to wax and use the right cosmetics, not to mention your hair and nails. Is there enough time in the day to do all this? On top of all that, there needs to be time to work and to be a mother, not to mention a wife, daughter, sister, aunt and friend. And somehow I get the feeling that if we eat and drink everything we’re supposed to, and in the recommended amounts, we would end up over eating.

There is also a greater sense of risk in society today. Through media we can take part of all the catastrophes that take place in all the corners of the Earth and people perceive life as much more dangerous, especially for children, than it was say 30 years ago. We need to constantly protect our children from these dangers, which sometimes can be very stressful, not to mention tricky – like protecting children from seeing horrible things on the internet, or internet bullying.

And on top of that there is of course this whole hectic culture in which we live. The job market is insecure.  With all the restructuring and downsizing no one is safe. What you have accomplished does not really count anymore; you’re only as good as your next thing.

So maybe it’s no surprise that mothers have a lot to complain about. Being a mother in today’s society can really be quite overwhelming.

If you’re interested in reading more about the contradictions of motherhood, see:

Competing Devotions: Career and Family among Women Executives by Mary Blair-Loy (Harvard University Press)

The Cultural Contradictions of Motherhood by Sharon Hays (Yale University Press)