The Mental Load: There’s No App for Work-Life Balance…but Property Law Might Help

Whether you’re on team Sandberg or team Slaughter, you’ve probably realized by now that nobody “has it all”. Exhibit A: Michelle Obama's candid slip when discussing techniques for achieving the elusive work-life balance: “That $%#& doesn’t work all the time.”

Despite the polarizing opinions on work-life balance (or work-life integration, if you prefer), there’s one thing all women have in common: we want things to be better, both collectively and individually. But with an overabundance of advice on how to get something that we've established doesn’t actually exist, it’s easy to feel like this whole dialogue is muddling into meaningless mush in your sleep-deprived mind.  

When you find yourself triple-booked by your woefully unintegrated calendars, you’re a thousand e-mails behind between your four accounts (one of which you can't figure out the password to), your kid is shouting in the background of your conference call that he is never going to forgive you for being two minutes late to the baseball game, you can’t recall the last time you washed your hair, and as if on cue, the cat starts vomiting on the living room rug, you might think to yourself “if only there was an app for this”. But no matter how many scheduling schemes you implement, no matter how many “learn to say no” articles you peruse, it’s difficult to improve upon an enigmatic problem without a tangible macro-scale model.

Here’s where things get good for my fellow property law nerds. (And if you hated property law, hear me out anyways!) Remember the good old bundle of sticks? Think of your life as a piece of real estate. The broad categories of pursuits that make you feel whole constitute your bundle of sticks. Here, my friends, you’ve got a working model for balancing not everything, but everything that’s critical to you.

The bundle of sticks will look different for each individual, but think of some basic categories such as:

  • Excelling at work
  • Being present with your family
  • Volunteering
  • Self-care
  • Managing the household
  • Miscellaneous (because there’s ALWAYS something unexpected that is going to take up unplanned time and energy).

Each of these categories is a stick in your bundle, and you can visualize little offshoots for more specific goals or important subcomponents (for example, a meditation branch on your self-care stick if you’re really committed to including meditation in your daily life). But I caution against getting too granular because the goal is to have a working big-picture model. It’s best just to think of most subcategories as living within a stick. For example, within the volunteering stick, you might visualize doing pro bono work and helping at your child’s school.

Now, manage your bundle of sticks just like you’d prudently manage a piece of real estate: perform regular maintenance on every stick, do not commit waste, invest in capital improvements from time to time, and never allow prescriptive easements or adverse possession.

If you’re overwhelmed with domestic tasks and the household management stick is about to snap, contract out some of that work. If you’re in the midst of a big trial and your work stick needs special attention, then one of the other sticks can grant it an easement – but the servient stick (unfortunately it’s usually self-care) isn’t going to disappear and is a valuable interest, so consciously set some time and scope boundaries. If you’re already committed to one community service project and someone asks you to help with something you know is going to leave you overextended, your volunteering stick is leased up right now. When the current tenant has vacated, you can then consider allowing other commitments to occupy this stick. For now, follow Michelle’s advice and use a simple “That doesn’t work for me.”

You wouldn’t run an investment property without this type of an objective mindset, and your well-being is the most important investment you’ve got. Being ruthless about managing your bundle of sticks will help you identify when you’re adding too much to your plate and stay the course in terms of balancing your key priorities. Nobody can have it all, but you can have all of the things that are important to you.

Finally, try to refrain from exercising self-judgment with respect to what’s in your bundle. So what if you don’t have a stick dedicated to that book you intended to start writing five years ago? Who cares if your work stick or your parenting stick is thicker right now? Your bundle is unique to you, just like every piece of real estate is unique. And it can evolve over time. “Someday goals” can be later additions as you divest other sticks, or you might even conceptualize a springing executory interest if you’re really into the analogy. And you thought future interests was one of those things you’d never actually use again!

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