Menu of Excerpts:
Alternating: Having It All But Not All at Once
Bundling: Getting More Mileage from Fewer Activities
Outsourcing: Having It All, But Not Doing It All
Simplifying: Not Wanting It All
Techflexing: Using Technology as Your Servant, Not Your Master
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Chris Watson, a management consultant in her late 20s, travels nearly every week to work with clients all over the world. She’s a volunteer youth-group leader at her church. And she takes advantage of her large stash of frequent-flier miles to vacation in Cancun and Bali. So when does she find time to take care of mundane household chores, such as laundry and cleaning? She doesn’t.
Chris faces the same problem that plagues many busy professionals. In her daily quest for balance, the basics don’t always make her to-do list. For Chris, that’s okay. She prides herself on not even trying to do or have it all. Cooking, cleaning, laundry, and even her dating prospects are all handled by a network of outside resources. “I’d rather have free time than more money,” she says, “and I’ve found that I can hire someone to do almost anything I don’t want to do myself.”
Chris’s approach to having a life is in sharp contrast to the norm. Research on how professionals balance work and the rest of life finds that most juggle by pursuing all of the activities that make a life—meaningful work, satisfying relationships, and personal rejuvenation or self-care—in addition to performing regular maintenance activities like house cleaning or yard care. They hope to achieve balance by running faster, working harder, and cramming more into their lives. This leads to a rich and multifaceted life, but it’s also exhausting.
Our research identified people who found more sustainable ways of running the rat race. Chris belongs to one of those groups, which we call “outsourcers”—people who are so clear about their personal priorities that they hire out almost everything else. Outsourcing has worked its way into business lingo as corporations have slashed costs and focused on their core competencies—the things they’re best at and that make them distinctive. Everything else is turned over to vendors. Individuals have taken the same approach as they try to control their overstuffed lives. They farm out certain tasks and obligations to focus more attention on the activities, relationships, and causes they care most about.
While everyone outsources to some degree—few spin their own wool or construct their own automobiles—those who use it as a balance strategy go to lengths that might make others uncomfortable. Chris regularly uses a dating service to identify potentially compatible men. “Mingling at clubs or parties isn’t a great use of my very limited social time.” While Chris has endured lunch with some obvious mismatches, she’s also made some good friends and enjoyed one long-term dating relationship.
Besides going beyond one’s comfort zone, outsourcing seems like a strategy for the rich and famous. Many outsourcers have more money than time and use their healthy incomes to buy freedom and flexibility. Others find less cash-intensive ways to buy free time. One woman organized a babysitting co-op, where parents use a system of vouchers to equitably trade on childcare services. If outsourcing is your preferred balance strategy, having money definitely helps. Without it, be prepared to muster some creativity and to rely on the support and generosity of family members and friends. “I couldn’t make ends meet, either financially or emotionally, if my mom weren’t willing to watch my kids after school,” says Meg Mason, a medical technician and single mother.
Outsourcing isn’t without its downsides. “I sometimes feel like I’m out of touch with reality,” says Chris. “Cooking a meal is a basic survival skill, and I can’t make anything that isn’t microwaveable.” Concerns loom especially large for the parents we interviewed, who wonder about whether they are adequately preparing their children to live an average life on an average income. “I worry that my daughter thinks we’re too good to clean up our own messes,” said an executive mother. “My mom taught me that cleaning is very satisfying.”
Outsourcers also worry about whether they depend on outsiders too much, with childcare topping the list of high-anxiety purchases. “There will always be a part of me that thinks I should spend less time at work, more time with my kids,” we often heard, “yet I love my job, and it enables us to have the rest of our lifestyle.”
Marisa Santos, a finance executive and single mother in Detroit, points to another pitfall. “When you depend on paid staff for basics like childcare and snow removal, you have to accept that sometimes they don’t get the job done. Lining up and managing back-up babysitters is a lot more difficult than anything I do at work.” Another outsourcer put it more succinctly. “Outsourcers spend all of their time hiring people to do things, then fixing what they paid them to do.”
Despite its challenges and tradeoffs, outsourcing is a viable balance strategy for people who want to give up something besides the number of hours they work. In turn, outsourcers must be clear on their values and priorities, plus willing to try new ways of doing things and to invest time and energy in finding and managing resources.
And if you don’t fit the profile of a die-hard outsourcer, you may still be able to make small gains by implementing the strategy on a more limited scale, including using gift-wrapping or delivery services from retailers, buying prepared meals at the grocery store, organizing a carpool for your kids, and expanding the number of services you buy from a single resource, such as asking your lawn service to weed your flower beds or hang your Christmas lights.