Now that the boundaries between work, school and home life have completely blurred, we need to create new rules to guide how we live and how we work. The silver lining, according to a growing body of research, is that these rules can offer strategies for managing work-life balance not only now, but for the long haul as well.
Confined to our homes, the time famine that often plagues busy parents was replaced by a different type of famine: a shortage of mental bandwidth, or the energy needed to juggle too many competing demands. Simply put, bandwidth is the limited store of focused attention we have to expend in any one day. Every time we make a decision, debate and weigh options, or deliberate over how to go forward, we use up that precious mental energy. This brain drain is particularly exacerbated when we are navigating unfamiliar territory, such as, say, home schooling, housekeeping and working through a pandemic. It can leave us feeling tired and overwhelmed.
When our mental bandwidth gets depleted, we can turn to counterproductive or even unhealthy behaviors to cope. A recent poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation finds that 45 percent of adults say the pandemic has affected their mental health. Another poll by the University of Michigan found that 40 percent of parents surveyed had shouted, yelled or screamed at their children at least once in the past two weeks.
Research finds there are ways to protect and replenish our mental bandwidth so that we have the resources to meet our most important demands. According to growing research, one effective strategy is setting “personal policies,” or rules of thumb to guide our decisions and actions. These policies can help us reflect and prioritize what is really important and streamline our thinking so that we don’t waste valuable mental energy making the same decisions over and over again. For example, you can have a personal policy against taking red-eye flights, so whenever the possibility of taking one comes up, you know the answer — no wasted energy debating it in your head.
To create a personal policy, begin by identifying your priorities (privacy during work calls) and stressors (kid interruptions). The personal policy that results might be something like: “Unless you’re injured or the house is on fire, please don’t interrupt me during work calls.” Los Angeles-based educational consultant Jamie Bakal made her “no-interruption policy” more palatable to her girls, ages 7 and 9, by allowing them to text her questions as they arise.
The girls don’t have cellphones, so she set up iMessage on their computers, added in her and her husband’s numbers, and set the rule that they can only text for homework help or they will lose the privilege. “They’re so excited to have texting capabilities that they are being very respectful of the rules,” says Bakal. For teens, parents can borrow a page from teachers by setting aside “office hours” for homework help, instead of fielding questions all day long.
Karen Carlucci, a New York-based therapist and coach, says with the increased time she’s spending on her computer, she’s made it a practice to now schedule a short block of time in between calls, instead of booking appointments back-to-back. Stepping away from devices, even for a short time, she says, can help clear our heads.
Here are other examples of “personal policies” you might adopt for living and working through a pandemic:
- Fighting with your spouse about the messy kitchen? Make a policy that you don’t comment on housework during work hours no matter how messy it gets.
- Debating whether to pick up groceries today? Decide to go shopping on the same day every week.
- Having trouble finding time to do the kind of deep thinking your job requires? Adopt a policy of waking up an hour before everyone else for uninterrupted time.
- Barraged by well-meaning but time-consuming email chains? Set a policy against responding to group emails asking for things like recipe exchanges.
- Can’t stop snacking? Make it a policy to only snack while sitting down at the kitchen table, not while standing up, or while sitting at your desk. It will cut down on constant munching.
- Feeling drained by the news of the day? Limit news intake to just before heading out for a daily walk, so you can walk off the added stress it can bring.
- Having a hard time falling asleep? Start a routine of writing a gratitude journal each night to focus your attention on the things to be thankful for.
When setting these new boundaries, some research has shown that how you frame your personal policies matters. For instance, a personal policy that uses the words “I don’t” vs. “I can’t” conveys your conviction and decisiveness. Saying “I don’t take the elevator when I can take the stairs” or “I don’t take work calls during evening family time” is more empowering and effective than saying “I can’t.”
Just as important as protecting our mental bandwidth is restoring it. Research finds that creating everyday rituals, such as 45 minutes of family physical activity after lunch or regularly taking time out to engage in a hobby, can help buffer against life’s daily stressors and actually make us more productive. In this study, researchers observed that individuals who noticed and appreciated the simple pleasures in their daily lives, like the first sip of coffee in the morning or a pretty sunset, experienced boosts of happiness, which resulted in them being more likely to achieve the goals they had set for themselves that day.
One last thing to keep in mind as you’re creating your personal policies: they’re not just about setting up fortresses to protect your time now, but also about giving voice to what you value, what you prioritize and how best to spend your time in the future.
With this in mind, New York mother Lindsay Leaf recently set a policy to make some of the family’s isolated time together feel more intentional. Leaf dubbed it “Mandatory Family Fun Time,” a biweekly, nonoptional planned family activity. It’s a policy she plans on keeping long after the quarantine is over.
Vanessa Patrick, PhD, is the associate dean for research and a marketing professor at the Bauer College of Business at the University of Houston.
Jennifer Breheny Wallace is writing a book on modern childhood and achievement pressure for Penguin Random House.