It’s the pile of dishes that sits on my counter as I leave for work that haunts me. The impulse to keep all facets of my life — both professional and personal — under control remains a daily struggle.
And I’m not alone.
For many women it’s very comforting to feel we can control various aspects of life from the way we do our jobs to the way we run our homes. But if you work full-time and have a family, or even just a time-consuming passion for a sport or artistic endeavour, chances are you’re exhausted. Part of that exhaustion stems from the inability to relinquish control over some things so you have more time for others.
Tiffany Dufu is president of The White House Project, a non-profit organization that coaches women in leadership skills. She says giving up control in parts of her life has been key to letting her happily maintain a marriage, two children under age six and a career she loves. The first part of giving it up is having someone else who can take it on. In her case, that’s her husband. “Negotiating with your partner an actual partnership” is a big part of achieving balance, she says.
Financial Times columnist Mrs. Moneypenny (AKA Heather McGregor) also believes in ceding control if you want to maintain focus, something she says is vital to having a stellar career. In her book, Sharpen Your Heels – Mrs. Moneypenny’s Career Advice for Women, she maintains women cannot have it all, but they still have to do it all, or at least be seen to. Ms. McGregor advises that doing it all includes outsourcing – in her case to a stay-at-home husband, whose bed-making ability doesn’t necessarily meet with her approval. Too bad.
“The key to outsourcing,” she says, is “don’t expect things do be done as you would do them. Instead, learn to live with them being done differently.” (In the UK, the title of the book is simply Mrs. Moneypenny’s Careers Advice for Ambitious Women. Apparently the U.S. publishers couldn’t bring themselves to put the words ‘ambitious’ and ‘women’ in the same sentence.)
Tiffany Dufu concedes that giving up control isn’t easy. She recently outsourced the fix of a leaking kitchen faucet to her husband, too busy to deal with it herself. The faucet was replaced quickly, but Dufu had to suppress a groan when she saw the result.
“It was not a faucet I would have picked,” she says. “It was maybe the sort of faucet that might have been in my grandmother’s kitchen.” But instead of agonizing over the offending fitting every time she uses it, “I’m going to have to look at that faucet as a reminder of the importance of letting go in order to be able to do other things.” In other words, getting through the day without a cluster of small but niggling details distracting her from work.
But why is it that so many women find it tough to let go? Chicago-area psychologist Nancy Molitor says much of it comes down to expectations: we can’t drop centuries of social conditioning overnight just because we’re now a large part of the workforce.
“We still see our strength as the outcome of our family,” says Ms. Molitor. You know how unsettling it is when someone around you, boyfriend, spouse or child, is unhappy – that feeling that you need to solve it, make everything better?
“It’s a burden,” Molitor says. “That is where I have found women have more problems than anywhere else when it comes to letting go – they believe it’s their job that the kids are happy, the husband is happy.” If things don’t seem right, women feel they need to fix it. Little girls are taught from a young age to be “other-focused.”
Brain chemistry also has something to do with it. Ms. Molitor says women are less able to focus on one thing at the expense of others – something any woman knows guys can do with ease.
“Men’s brains are organized much more linearly in how they think,” she says. “They are really good in prioritizing because their brain is very efficient in that it knows, ‘This is a right hemisphere issue, I’m going to track this problem and figure it out.’ It makes it easier for them to prioritize.”
Women, on the other hand, are primed to do far more at once but that can lead to getting bogged down. “The way we process verbally is with a lot of detail,” Ms. Molitor says. “You’ll be talking about five things at once and you’ll go off at tangents. That also leads to taking on a lot of tasks and detail, and you can easily miss the forest for the trees when you’re trying to solve a problem.”
So it’s harder for women to focus on one thing at a time, which means we are always likelier to feel overwhelmed given all we take on. But giving up control in some areas, if we let ourselves, can help. Even if that means ignoring that nerve-wracking set of dirty dishes.
Category: Career Girl