I spend a lot of my time talking about the disproportionate mental load that women carry in our society, managing much more of the responsibility for the remembering, conceptualizing, and planning tasks of domestic and work life.
When women feel like they are drowning, it’s so often the mental load that feels most overwhelming, contributing to exhaustion and burnout.
“I just can’t hold anything else in my brain anymore,” women tell us. “I can’t be responsible for managing one more thing!”
Indeed, the mental load is not-so-slowly killing us, and we need practical strategies for how to reduce and manage it. We need ways that we can not have to hold as much in our minds and make fewer decisions day to day.
Here are some of my favorite ways to lighten the load inside our tired brains.
Embrace the uniform. If you want to sound fancy about it, you can call it a “capsule wardrobe,” but the idea is simply to cut down on decision making by streamlining decisions about what to wear. This could mean assigning one outfit to each day of the week and keeping them in rotation, or could mean having ten or so core pieces that you alternate among. For those with kids, doing this for each of them can be a lifesaver.
Bonus Tip: One of the best things I’ve done is to replace everyone’s socks in my household with pairs of the same socks in the same color. So every one of my kids’ socks is the same style and color, meaning no more struggling to match or having to throw away lone socks. It’s the little things…
Maintain a stockpile of gifts. Running out to pick up a birthday present for your kids’ friend thirty minutes before the party or realizing that you don’t have a housewarming present for your neighbor is stressful. Keep a basket full of go-to gifts. Have a few things that are appropriate for your kids’ ages and then some homey favorites, like stationery, candles, and other things you love to give. And always have some gift wrap and bags on hand so you’re not scrambling.
Ditch the convenience food and screen time guilt. You simply don’t need to feel guilty about utilizing the conveniences available to us, even if it’s to just allow you twenty extra minutes to sit and stare at the ceiling. The guilt itself is part of the mental load we carry, and we can free up our emotional energy by letting it go.
Play the “Who Can I Ask?” game. This tip might be my favorite, because it’s where we usually leave so much opportunity on the table. Grab a piece of paper or your phone and for five full minutes force yourself to write down as many responses to the question “I could ask _________ to help me with _________.” Try to avoid limiting yourself to what you feel comfortable asking. The first pass is just brainstorming. You could ask your mom to pick up your son from daycare on Thursdays. You could ask your neighbor if he wants to do a meal swap twice a week (doubling what you make for dinner and trading). You could ask your partner to stop leaving her laundry on the floor. You could ask a friend to check in with you on how your self-care is going. The options are endless! Once you make a list, commit to picking at least three that you will actually ask. While this makes most of us nervous, actually asking and seeing how happy people are to be asked and to be able to help often makes us wish we’d ask long ago.
Utilize delivery subscriptions. Popularized by Amazon, but available from other merchants too, signing up for recurring deliveries of your most used items takes at least a few things off of your list. Even if the time it takes to use the item varies a bit, as long as you have a place to store, let the recurring delivery happen until you need to pause it. Some of the most common include diapers, laundry detergent, toilet paper, hair products, and other hygiene products, but go through your home and think about what you’re always running to Costco for and automate it.
Put things on your calendar, not on your to-do list. My friend and working mom coach, Katelyn Denning, helped to solidify this one for me. My ever growing to-do list kept taunting me each day and week as I added and never subtracted. She helped me develop a system of starting each week by assigning days and times to tasks rather than simply letting them sit on an unstructured list. Without a commitment to when, where, and how I was going to do these tasks, they occupied precious space in my mind that I needed for other things.
Have a regular rotation of meals. In a similar vein to deciding what to wear, the pressure to come up with creative ideas for meals is just not necessary. Unless cooking is something you are passionate about, try assigning each night of the week a type of meal (Sandwich Monday, Taco Tuesday, etc.) or come up with a list of ten core meals that you put on rotation. The idea is to simplify so you aren’t having to consider what to make and so your grocery ordering or shopping is repetitive and pre-planned.
Schedule an “Adulting Day” once per month. The frequency is up to you, as some of us may be able to get by with quarterly and others need weekly. The point, however, is to acknowledge that we all need time to actually cross those bigger tasks off our list and without an actual option of when that will happen, we stress. This is day to get the oil changed, update your license, go to the dentist, shop for your stockpile of gifts (see above), or do any of the other hundred tasks spinning around in your head.
Plan out registration deadlines. It’s a terrible feeling to have deadlines for things like soccer, pool membership, kindergarten, or summer camps sneak up on us, or actually be missed (SO GUILTY!). And having the question of “When is that registration happening?” lingering in the back of our brains isn’t helpful. Take an hour or two to go online or make some calls to find out when registrations are happening and mark your calendar in advance.
Review – and change – the division of mental labor. This is the most important practice of all, as one person should not be responsible for doing all of the above. Either partner in a relationship is capable of employing these tips, and they aren’t gender-specific. Without a clear division of responsibilities, however, they often default to a female partner in a mixed-gender relationship. Taking the time to outline and divide tasks – the mental ones especially – is a crucial practice for couples that want to avoid misalignment and resentment. If you are looking for a system to work from, the Fair Play model is our favorite, and we’ll be offering a workshop on it this April. Stay tuned for details coming soon.