Monday, February 5, 2018

On Priorities, Time, and My Best Work: A Motivational/Business Psychology Reading Spree

One of my classes earlier this semester hosted a panel of professors that were invited to come talk to us (all graduate students) about what it was like to pursue tenure track as a career. During the Q&A, another student asked the panel about their work/life balance, and all of them laughed as if such an idea were hilariously ludicrous. Then one of the female professors proceeded to share how she had never attended a single one of her children's soccer games (presumably because she's too busy on Saturday mornings?), and shared what she evidently thought was a hilarious anecdote about when her five-year-old daughter asked if they could occasionally, like maybe once a month or so, eat a home-cooked meal. She shared this story with evident pride, as if to say "Yes, I have put my career above my family, but this is what success in this career looks like!"

I was suuuuuuper annoyed with this professor's response. I wanted to raise my hand and refute the message she was sending, that her career is so demanding and her life so busy that she had to sacrifice things like family dinner and attending her children's games. I wanted to say, to her but especially to the other student who had asked the question in the first place, that work/life balance is all about priorities and choices.

I know this from personal experience (more about that in a minute), but I'm also backed up by all the reading I've been doing recently on topics like work, motivation, and success. In the past month or so, I've read five books that have all talked about some aspect of "success," what it looks like, how to define it, and how to achieve it. There are plenty more out there on this topic, but the books I've read recently were Deep Work by Cal Newport, Originals by Adam Grant, Grit by Angela Duckworth, Multipliers by Liz Wiseman, and Essentialism by Greg McKeown (for short summaries, see my last two monthly round-up posts here and here). While all of these books have there own (sometimes widely different) focus and message, there were a few common themes and takeaways that I found repeated throughout them.

The biggest takeaway for me is that work, and especially good, deep, interesting, and successful work, does not have to consume life. In fact, much of the reading talked about studies that confirm people are usually "busy" doing things that don't actually matter, and if we could strip away all the unnecessary stuff, and learn how to do just the essential, deep work in an efficient manner, then we could accomplish twice as much in less time, opening up the rest of our lives for relationships and rest and things that make life worth living. In one way or another, all of these books talked about figuring out what is most essentially important in life, what our core goals are, and then letting everything else go so we can just focus on those goals and use the time we have in the best way possible.

I've been fascinated and encouraged by these ideas, because I think by anyone's standards, my life is "busy," but that doesn't mean I don't have time for the things that mater most. For better or for worse, this is the path my life is on for the next five years or so (and potentially beyond, who knows what the future brings). I am a working mother, this is my reality. And because this is my life right now, because I am teaching two courses a semester and taking classes and working toward a PhD while raising three rather young children on less sleep than I'd like, I need to figure out how to make this work. I need to figure out how to live a life that is busy but is not frantic and survival mode all the time. I need to figure out how to thrive.

So I've been thinking about what my core, essential priorities are, and what else I can strip away. And here's what I've decided. My family is first, always and forever. What this looks like for me is family time. Family dinner that I've cooked every day is a priority (and unlike that professor, I've managed to cook dinner for my family nearly every day since starting school last August). Play time with my children is a priority. FHE is a priority. Date night (mostly at-home date night, but whatever) is a priority. Story time at bedtime is a priority. Violin practice is a priority. Family movie night is a priority. These things happen, and 95% of the time I am there for it.

But school is also a priority. I'm a bit afraid to call it a career, because I still have no idea if this PhD thing is going to lead anywhere, but at least for now, I'm allowing myself to lean in as if my end goal is a career (why go to all this trouble if not to treat it like it's leading somewhere?). One of the things most of these people wrote about is the importance of finding meaning and passion in your work for it to be worthwhile, and that gave me a little pause. I've admitted before that I don't find much greater purpose in academia. I mean, what good does it do the world to study reader marginalia notes in early printed play texts? These feelings are why I never would have pursued academia as a career if left to my own devices, but do you know what does give me purpose? The unshakable faith that this path is my calling in life. For whatever reason, God wants me to get a PhD, and I know this almost more certainly than I've ever known anything. So school gets to be a priority. What does that look like? It means that when I have childcare time to do schoolwork, I dive deep. I get my homework and lesson planning done, but then spend extra time doing research for the sake of research. I write conference abstracts and apply for funding. I try to get something published. I'm committed, 100%.

But other things are a priority too. This is my life, and so sleep is a priority. I go to bed at 10, and get up at 5:30, and sleep in on the weekends. Health and exercise are a priority. I do yoga in the mornings, I eat vegetables for every meal. Friendship is a priority, so I go to book club. My spiritual life is a priority, so I read my scriptures, and meditate, and write in my journal, and prepare my lessons for Sunday, and go to the temple. Pleasure reading is a priority, so I listen to audio books when I can. Pleasure writing is a priority, so I write here when I can.

But do you know what is not a priority? What is not taking up my time these days? Television. A clean house (although this one makes me sad). Social media. Play dates with other moms (although this one also makes me sad, maybe this summer?). Attending all the interesting guest lectures on campus. Serving on the PTO at my son's school. Grocery shopping (my husband now does 100% of the grocery shopping, although I make the lists). And probably a million other things that would be so fun, or fulfilling, or good uses of time. They just aren't essential right now.

I still have my issues, my pinch points, and my things that are out of balance. I need to find time to get my hair cut, go to the dentist, fold the laundry, and a thousand other small things that I still consider "necessary" but that I haven't made the time for. But I firmly, firmly believe that my life is better for having had to make these decisions about my priorities.

And I also firmly believe that if that professor at my school had different priorities, she could have made it to every single one of her children's soccer games, and still been at this same point in her career. I am learning this about the work I have to do, as I compare myself to the grad students and professors around me. Work expands to take up the time you allot for it. My childless peers spend eight hours a day in their offices, work nights and weekends too, and tell me how frantic and busy they feel. I spend two hours a day in my office two days a week, and work after my children go to bed at night, and yet I get the same homework load done, teach the same number of lessons, write the same number of papers. In fact, I think my work is better for being condensed. I must work more efficiently, but I have learned to work better because of it.

All of these thoughts and experiences I've had with my work and defining my priorities over these past few months have made me view my husband's work differently. He spends eight hours at work every day, regardless of whether he actually has work to fill up those eight hours. His job is a little bit famine or feast: some times he has more work than he can handle, other times the projects are a little more scarce. But regardless of how busy he is, he's expected to be in his office eight hours a day for the sake of "face time" and looking busy. Regardless of how hard he's worked during those eight hours, he's expected to be on call all night long (and all weekend too), checking his email incessantly just in case something comes in. And even though in his line of work absolutely no one will die if those contracts aren't reviewed until Monday, he's expected to work all weekend just to keep everyone happy. In his culture of billable hours, efficient work is not rewarded. In fact, the longer it takes you to do a task, the more busy and "productive" you look. It's a ridiculous culture that I have many frustrations with (as does he).

But like I said, January is a notoriously slow month for him. As I've compared our work loads recently, it's been especially frustrating. He still goes to work for eight hours every day, but spends much of his time working on personal things. He finished our 2018 budget, worked on our taxes, and researched some home renovation projects. He took two afternoons off to go to the dentist (cavity). These things are all fine and good, but he also spends a lot of time checking pointless email, scrolling the internet, just filling his time up.

There have been days when I won't deny that I've been jealous of his time. Why does he get the luxury of eight child-free hours to essentially scroll Facebook? Why must I be the one trying to cram eight hours worth of work into two? Why am I the one feeling pressure to hurry through my homework and lesson planning so I can rush home to be with the kids, while he feels no such pressure to be home despite having far less work than me right now?

But after reflecting on what I've been reading, I've come to the conclusion that I do not so much wish I had my husband's time, as I wish he had mine. I do not wish for eight child-free hours, I'd miss my kids too much! I do not wish to spend eight hours on my work when I've been able to get it done in two. Why would I want to spend a single minute longer than is necessary on my work? And would I be working at the depth and level I'm working at if my time crunch didn't demand such complete and utter focus? I would rather be forced to get my work done as efficiently as possible, so that I can spend the rest of my time building Legos on the floor with my boys (while trying to keep them out of the mouth of my baby girl). I wish it were acceptable for my husband to spend his time like mine, to work efficiently when he has work, and to spend the rest of his time at home on his other priorities not worrying about "face time" or whatnot. But that is not the culture of his work place, or our society at large. For most, the longer hours you spend at work, the busier you look, the more successful you must be.

I do not believe this to be true at all.

Other take-aways I've had from this motivational/self-help reading spree:

-Business books are repetitive. Not just in themselves (though some of them are that), but between them. The same studies kept getting mentioned over and over and over. Honestly, I don't ever need to read Carol Dweck's Mindset because I've already read so much about her theories of growth mindsets vs. fixed mindsets. The other studies that kept coming up? Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's work on flow was mentioned in almost every single book (although, I've got to give a plug here for Grit, because Duckworth's discussion of how "flow" works with the concepts challenging practice in learning a new skill was the most interesting and insightful discussion on the topic). There was also some study about dogs getting shocked that got mentioned a couple times (something related to the concept of fixed mindsets, and how we lose hope when we don't think we can change our circumstances). I found the repetition to be more interesting than annoying, actually, because it felt like seeing a larger pattern and identifying what ideas are resonating right now.

-I came away from all this reading feeling really positive about corporate America. This is very different than the feeling I get from my reading in the Humanities department, where everyone is a liberal or socialist, and capitalism is the greatest evil of all time (I once mentioned to a class mate that my husband was a corporate lawyer, and he visibly shuddered and said, "Wow, so, basically he's the devil incarnate," ...). Anyway, all of these books made me feel like it could actually be extremely personally rewarding to have an executive corporate job. All the motivational jargon just made it seem like you can find your best selves in these jobs and really become a dynamic and innovative leader who can change the world. Go team corporate capitalism!

-Mormons rule in business. So, I didn't realize that the last two books I read were written by Mormons (Liz Wiseman and Greg McKeown) until after I'd read them and looked up the author bios, but I think Mormons were quoted or mentioned in every book I read but one (Mitt Romney, Steve Young, Clayton Christensen, and others all got shout outs). So go Mormons!

Okay, so now I'm kind of burned out on this genre, but I still feel all sorts of motivated to conquer the world and live my best life and do my best, most creative, deepest and most efficient work. I honestly recommend all of these books, for different reasons, but if you don't want to read all of them then I think Deep Work and Essentialism would be my two top picks for general readers (followed by Originals, if you like pop psychology Malcolm Gladwell stuff). I have lots more thoughts about all of these books (especially Deep Work), so I may write more about this stuff in the future. But enough for now. Have you read any of these? What are your thoughts?


  1. If you haven't read How Will You Measure Your Life (the full book, not just the talk), I'd highly recommend it. It's different than all of the other productivity and self-help books and definitely supports what you're saying about making deliberate choices about where you dedicate your time.

    I set up specific Deep Work monthly goals for the year and I've been so frustrated this month as I've spent so much time on small, shallow tasks. I just have to keep reminding myself that once February is over and this conference I'm planning has happened, I can turn more of my attention to the deep work/big picture type stuff.

    1. I haven't read How Will You Measure Your Life, but I have heard really excellent things about it, so it's on the to-read list. And I'm definitely interested to hear more about your Deep Work monthly goals. I have some issues with how he defined deep vs. shallow work (this might be a post for another day). I understand why he places value on the big picture/deep thought kind of work, but I think work he defined as shallow (emails, admin stuff, even the type of conference planning you describe) can be done in a more efficient, deep work kind of way which can be just as beneficial, and free up more time for other deep work.

  2. Essentialism was a great book. One that I will need to re-read soon. You should look him up on Youtube, he's fun to listen to with his great British accent. :) Deep work is on my hold so I'm excited to dive into it. It was one of my brother's favorite books last year.

    1. I listened to the audio book, which he narrates, and yes! His voice is amazing! So suavely British and soothing! I loved it.

  3. I noticed the same thing when I was teaching full-time after I had my daughter---before, I'd wasted a lot of time at work because I knew I could stay later after school to finish up stuff if I needed to. Once I had my daughter and wanted as much time with her as possible, I was able to get the same amount of work done in WAY less time than before--it really is amazing what can happen when you totally cut out all the distractions and give something your 100% effort!

    I loved Essentialism and Grit, and I've ordered Deep Work and am eagerly awaiting it :)

    1. Not to be unfair to my single friends and family, but I kind of believe no one really learns how to work efficiently until you become a parent (specifically, a mother). :)

  4. I haven't read any of these, but I want to get Deep Work. I feel like being a stay-at-home mom, I have the same sort of problem. Since I get to choose how to spend my time, it's way too easy to waste time and not get the important stuff done. I do feel like I'm much better at time management when I'm already busy, because it forces me to get things done in the time that I have.

    1. I know! There's a lot of rhetoric these days against being busy, which I totally understand, but I think there's a difference between being busy with nonessential things, and being busy with only essential things. There's a lot of benefits to the latter.

  5. I love this post. It’s amazing how we have time for whatever it is we prioritize. I remember feeling like I had half the study time of my peers in law school but it forced my to be efficient and really dig in when I had time.

    1. I'm still in awe of how you got through law school without taking any time off to have a new baby. But yes, being a parent in school really forces efficiency in doing the work, which I thinks makes me a better student.