Flex your life
Annie Auerbach has all the answers when it comes to balancing work/family/leisure/gin time. Check out what the hot new self-help authors top tips are.
You know sometimes you read a book that really speaks to you? This was certainly the case with Flex by Annie Auerbach. It was one of my best April books and in a nutshell, it’s a no-nonsense guide to thinking and behaving more flexibly in order to have a happier, better, less frenetic life – and we’re not just talking about work (although that’s an important aspect). She looks at flexibility in the home, flex when it comes to our bodies and brains, and also its relevance to our futures. It’s packed with stories and tips from someone who properly gets It – Annie herself is at that Peak Busy stage of life. Aged 41, she runs a cultural insights agency with clients including Nike and Google, has loads of authorial duties and parents two young girls. But I managed to nab a few minutes of her time to talk the joys of flex. Here’s what she had to say.
We talk a lot about flexible working but your book looks at how to be more flexible in lots of ways, doesn’t it?
Yes, the world of work was my starting point. Lots of research shows we are happier and work more productively when we’re offered flexible working. But I wanted to look at other ways you can incorporate flex into other areas of your life and to be a bit more holistic about it.
The idea came from quite a personal place, isn’t it?
I’ve been working flexibly for 20 years in different guises – part time, freelancing, remote working, having a portfolio career. And so much of it has been a shitshow! It’s been hard to make it work – the systems and infrastructure aren’t in place and you can feel like you’re navigating it alone. And from a professional stance, my work looks at social and cultural changes and flex was coming through as this huge theme.
What kind of feedback are you getting from women who’ve read it?
One thing that’s really hit a nerve is the idea of flex in the home which is all about understanding the emotional load and that women get far less leisure time than men – 4.5 hours less per week on average – and it’s eaten into by that constant list-making and planning that we do. I call it conducting the chore-chestra – micromanaging all those endless tasks.
That sounds horribly familiar. What can we do about this?
I take inspiration from Justine Roberts, CEO of Mumsnet. She and her husband created an Excel spreadsheet detailing all the chores; not only household ones but all the emotional labour – things like remembering your child needs a costume for school next Weds. It’s not the most fun job ever but you need to sit down together, work out what needs to be done and how you can negotiate who does what. Take into account the frequency of tasks – you only need to sort out the car insurance once every six months but the dishwasher needs emptying every day. And look at what you enjoy when you’re divvying up chores. Some people find certain tasks therapeutic. My husband likes doing laundry for example, whereas I hate it.
Do you take your own advice?
Ha, we’re a work in progress! We both work flexibly and we try to divide things up but some stuff falls down the cracks. One of the first things we did was make sure my husband is included on all those lists and groups related to the children. You know how the class Facebook pages or WhatsApp groups are nearly always just mums? So you need to educate the people around you so you alone don’t get the messages about playdates when both you and your partner are busy at work. This kind of thing is the nuts and bolts of household life. All that stuff is so under-recognised and its saps your mental energy if you do it all. Just think of what you could do if you reclaimed that time and brain space – think about the boost to your creativity and energy!
Any other tips?
When you’ve decided who’s doing a task, that person has to take total ownership of the whole task. So if he’s in charge of school shoes, he needs to know what size feet they have! And by the same token, you have to appreciate your partner may have different ways of doing things to you so don’t interfere with their tasks.
You also write about flexing our lives around our hormonal cycles. We don’t talk about this kind of stuff much, do we?
No, if you’re my age or older, you don’t tend to talk openly about periods. We’re of that generation where you hide a tampon up your jumper sleeve when you go to the toilet. But there’s a lot to be said for tuning into your hormonal and emotional rhythms. I’ve started tracking my period and how I was feeling with an app called Clue and it’s helped me understand that some of my emotions and moods are part of a pattern rather than actual personality traits! So I’ve stopped being so hard on myself, treating my body like a machine and always cracking on at all times. Where possible you can adjust your schedule – maybe don’t host that big party or have a really important meeting on the fourth week of your cycle. You can play to your strengths at any given time of the month.
And why is it important to think flexibly about the future?
We’re living through a period of big demographic changes – people live longer and work for longer, and we’re seeing the rise of automated jobs. Which all means we need to think carefully about longer-term, sustainable careers. A way to do that is to think about pivoting to future-proof ourselves. Climbing the ladder and staying in one place isn’t the best way to do this. We should think about our careers as a place of life-long learning – how can we reuse our skills? How can we pivot? And the good news is women are pioneers in this way of thinking – especially if you have children, you go through a number of changes in your career.
But it’s easy to get stuck in a rut and think, “That’s just the way things are” and endlessly moan rather than doing anything about it…
It’s not easy to make these changes. I like to think about it as the 4 “C”s. First you need a sense of clarity – what’s not working in your life? What’s difficult? What are the changes you’d like to make? Next is creativity – think about potential solutions. How would you reinvent the rules and create a new template? Next is courage – it’s brave to speak up about these changes, be it at home or in the workplace and these conversations can be difficult. Finally, you need conviction. This is about setting boundaries and keeping to them, following your own rules. I learned this the hard way – when I initially negotiated part-time hours after I became a mother, I was so grateful that I’d always answer emails on my days off. I shot myself in the foot because I didn’t stick to my own boundaries. Basically, flex isn’t about being totally malleable and totally soft – it has hard edges too.
What do you think? Are you ready to embrace flex to mould your life to better suit you? We’d love to hear your views, experiences – and any great tips – in the comments box below.