Feeling Perpetually Overworked? Read This Now

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Shared_Work_1Photo: Image Source/REX USA.
Gretchen Rubin, author of two New York Times bestsellers, is our go-to gal for the best get-it-together know-how. Every week, she'll be dishing up her wisdom straight from her popular blog, The Happiness Project, to get you on the road to a more productive, healthier you. Here's to a 2014 resolution that sticks!

I’ve posted about this subject before, but I find myself thinking about it so often that I decided to raise it again. When I hear people complain about the fact that other people aren’t doing their share — about a spouse who isn’t pulling weight at home, or a colleague at work, or a sibling in a family — I want to launch into a disquisition about shared work.

From what I’ve observed, people have a very incorrect understanding about how shared work actually gets divvied up. Take note of these somewhat-painful facts:

1. Work done by other people sounds easy. How hard can it be to take care of a newborn who sleeps twenty hours a day? How hard can it be to keep track of your billable hours? To travel for one night for business? To get a four-year-old ready for school? To return a few phone calls? To fill out some forms? Of course, something like “perform open-heart surgery” sounds difficult, but to a very great degree, daily work by other people sounds easy — certainly easier that what we have to do. This fact leads us to under-estimate how onerous a particular task is, when someone else does it, and that makes it easy to assume that we don’t need to help or provide support. Or even be grateful. For that reason, we don’t feel very obligated to share the burden. After all, how hard is it to change a light-bulb?

2. When you’re doing a job that benefits other people, it’s easy to assume that they feel conscious of the fact that you’re doing this work, that they should feel grateful, and that they should and do feel guilty about not helping you. But no! Often, the more reliably you perform a task, the less likely it is for someone to notice that you’re doing it, and to feel grateful, and to feel any impulse to help or to take a turn. You think, “I’ve been making the first pot of coffee for this office for three months! When is someone going to do it?” In fact, the longer you make that coffee, the less likely it is that someone will do it. If one person on a tandem bike is pedaling hard, the other person can take it easy. If you’re reliably doing a task, others will relax. They aren’t silently feeling more and more guilty for letting you shoulder the burden; they probably don’t even think about it. And after all, how hard is it to make a pot of coffee? (see: fact #1). Also, they begin to view this as your job (after all, you’ve been doing it reliably for all this time, in fact, you probably enjoy this job!), it’s not their job, so they don’t feel any burden to help. Being taken for granted is an unpleasant but sincere form of praise. Ironically, the more reliable you are, and the less you complain, the more likely you are to be taken for granted.

3. It’s hard to avoid “unconscious overclaiming.” In unconscious overclaiming, we unconsciously overestimate our contributions relative to others. This makes sense, because we’re far more aware of what we do than what other people do. Also, we tend to do the work that we value. I think holiday cards are important; my husband thinks that keeping the air-conditioning working is important. Studies showed that when spouses estimated what percentage of housework each performed, the percentages added up to more than 120 percent. When business-school students estimated how much they’d contributed to a team effort, the total was 139 percent. It’s easy to think “I’m the only one around here who bothers to…” or “Why do I always have to be the one who…?” but ignore all the tasks you don’t do. And, maybe others don’t think that task is as important as you do (see: fact #5).

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Shared_Work_2Photo: Cultura/REX USA.
4. Taking turns is easier than sharing. I read somewhere that young children have a lot of trouble “sharing” but find it easier to “take turns.” Sharing is pretty ambiguous; taking turns is clearer and serves the value of justice, which is very important to children. I think this is just as true for adults. I have to admit, shared tasks often give me the urge to try to shirk. Maybe if I pretend not to notice that the dishwasher is ready to be emptied, my husband will do it! And, often he does.

5. The person who cares the most will often end up doing a task. If you care more about a task being done, you’re more likely to end up doing it. And, don’t expect other people to care as much as you do, just because it's important to you. It’s easy to make this mistake in marriage. You think it’s important to get the basement organized, and you expect your spouse to share the work, but your spouse thinks, “We never use the basement anyway, so why bother?” Just because something’s important to you doesn’t make it important to someone else, and people are less likely to share work they deem unimportant. At least not without a lot of nagging.

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6. If you want someone else to do a task, don't do it yourself. This sounds so obvious, but think about it. Really, let it go. If you think you shouldn’t have to do it, don’t do it. Wait. Someone else is a lot more likely to do it if you don’t do it first. Note: this means that a task is most likely to be done by the person who cares most (see: fact #5). To repeat this point in other words, if you persist in doing particular work, it becomes more and more unlikely that someone else will do it. Of course, you can’t always choose not to do something. Someone must get the kids ready for school. Someone must file the reports.

7. If, when people do step up, you criticize their performance, you discourage them from doing that work in the future. If you want others to help, don’t carp from the sidelines. If you do, they feel justified in thinking, “Well, I can’t do it right anyway” or “Pat wants this to be done a particular way, and I don’t know how to do that, so Pat should do it.” The more important it is to you that tasks be performed your way, the more likely you are to be doing those tasks yourself. (Of course, some people use deliberate incompetence to shirk, which is so deeply annoying.)

What do you think? What did I get wrong — or overlook? Do you find shared work to be tough to manage?

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Gretchen Rubin, author of two New York Times bestsellers, is our go-to gal for the best get-it-together know-how. Every week, she'll be dishing up her wisdom straight from her popular blog, The Happiness Project, to get you on the road to a more productive, healthier you. Here's to a 2014 resolution that sticks!