How do you do it?
Getting vulnerable to answer my most frequently asked question
I get asked a lot, “How do you do it?” 3 degrees, 3 kids, 2 career pivots, conference talks, expat, published book, etc. etc.… The truth is, I don’t really think a lot about doing these things, I just do them, and so I find myself at a bit of a loss when asked how. But I do get asked a lot and so I sat down to think it through and here are some ideas I came up with. I’m sorry to say, they’re really not earth shattering, but here they are.
I do not have a TV nor have I ever had a TV since my childhood home. At first, it was because there wasn’t one in the first apartment I moved into when I left home, and it didn’t occur to me to buy one.
Later, I made the more deliberate decision not to buy one because I don’t like the lack of control over the content I consume — I don’t want to turn on the TV and have someone else decide what I see.
And then there was an added layer of “designing my life”— I noticed that homes with TVs generally have the TV as the center of the living room with the seating all facing it. I want my main living space to be designed for social interaction and therefore is made up of seating and coffee tables oriented in a way most conducive to people hanging out and looking at each other.
Eventually my life filled up with so much stuff that I didn’t have time for TV anyway. Then one day, stuff slowed down for me and I was going bonkers from the void and so my husband got me a Netflix subscription. This worked since my aversion was not to the screen time, it was to the lack of control over the content; and a laptop did not suddenly redesign the flow of my living space. I know many people who lose time to channel surfing and so I attribute some of “How I do it” to keeping that time and preserving the brain space of thinking about whatever I’d watched, for tasks I find more meaningful. This is not a judgement of people who watch TV! This is just part of my personal answer to “How do you do it?”
No apps, no notifications
OK, that’s obviously not true. I have apps on my phone. My philosophy about apps though is they are a fabulous improvement on tools we’ve always had in the non-digital world. For example, pre-smartphones I had a paper calendar — my calendar app is better. Pre-smartphones I had a dictionary — my dictionary app is better. Pre-smartphones I had a calculator — my calculator app is better. Pre-smartphones I had a to do list — my to do list app is better. The theme is that I see the phone as having utilitarian function, not a place to do new stuff I never knew I “needed” until the phone turned up.
The exception is work stuff. Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram, etc. are tools of my trade and I want to do my best work so I use them. But I treat them as tools, not entertainment. I go there to do a task, and leave. (Most of the time ;)
I have all notifications turned off on all of my devices. Context switching is one of my biggest drainers and on principle, I don’t like losing control over where my attention is. Notification creators don’t get to decide when I think about what. Maybe this means I proactively log in too often to check what I’ve missed, since I have no idea in real time, but that’s my choice. I decide when my brain is available for that and when it would be better used focusing on something else.
Share the load
My husband does stuff, too. In 2023 that should be a norm, but from what I’ve seen, it’s not. Back in the day there was a clear division (I’m talking US, heterosexual family units, mostly with kids) where women did house/kids and men did work. Then women fought for “equal” rights and started working outside the home. The thing is it wasn’t really equal, was it? Women we doing 2 things now while men were still only doing 1. “Equal” means both partners do half this and half that. There are families where this happens! But my non scientific observations say it’s still not the norm in the Western world. For my family, it works best if we each have our own home/kids stuff — I do laundry, he does dishes, for example. We don’t each do half of each. The point is that I’m not doing it all plus work while he only works.
I outsource as much as possible. This is a privilege I recognize many people do not have. It is also a choice. When I was living on $1,000/month, I had a cleaner. I didn’t eat meat or dairy because it was too expensive, but I had a cleaner. That was my personal priority. And I know plenty of people who can afford cleaning help and don’t want it. That’s cool. But this is an important part of my personal “How do you do it?”
When I get asked for time or emotional bandwidth that I do not want to give, I (generally) don’t. I am a strong believer in opportunity cost and any obligation I take on comes at the expense of another, so I try to be planful about how I fill my time and headspace.
I do sleep. 7 hours sleep helps me get the most out of the 17 hours I’m awake. The ROI is there. If I get 10% less sleep I find that I get far less than 10% more done the nextday, it’s just not worth it.
Again, this does not work for everyone. But personally, writing is my trade and I happen to write really fast. I don’t know how much it’s an acquired thing and how much I’m blessed for it to come naturally. But I churn out 500 words in like, a really short amount of time.
Important vs urgent
Part of how I prioritize is identifying what is “only” important as opposed to being urgent. When I focus on important stuff at the wrong time, I find it screws up my flow a lot. Like, if we’re in the evening homework/dinner/bath/bedtime window, and I’m submitting an unemployment claim — this is not good. That claim is important! It’s worth a lot of money that I need and is more important than a kid missing a bath for one day. But it will still be there in an hour and the bedtime routine won’t. Being present during this window makes the whole evening smoother and more efficient. The kids are slowww when I’m not with them, there’s more shouting, they end up less clean, and they get to bed late which makes the next day lower quality, too. It’s not always easy because I want to submit that form! But the bedtime routine ENDS at 8:30pm and the form deadline is not for a week. It’s more important but not more urgent and separating those out is valuable for the ROI of my energy and time and for my overall productiveness and quality of life.
I know I could do better
I don’t exercise nearlyyyy enough and I miss how good it felt and how well oiled a machine I felt when I was working out. I’m bummed about that and am having trouble getting back there, but I’m holding onto the aspiration. I try to focus on baby steps and fresh starts — just because it didn’t happen last week, doesn’t mean it can’t happen this week! (It probably won’t, but it could!)
I also used to eat better. I eat a pretty healthy diet! But it used to be better and when it was, I was more productive. I know I can do it because I’ve done it before, and I try to focus on small wins. Again though, I keep it on my radar, even if it’s not perfect right now.
IMPORTANT NOTE: I am not suggesting anyone take on any of these! I am simply answering a question I get asked a lot: How do you (I) do it?