The Complicated Business of Personal Lives
There’s a popular meme from roughly the late Cretaceous period (pre-2020) that goes: “Tired of looking at BAD SCREEN. Can’t wait to go home and look at GOOD SCREEN.”
The “bad screen,” in this case, is the work computer on which one does dreary things like scheduling meetings, filling in spreadsheets and circling back on emails.
The “good screen” is the personal computer, on which one does fun things like scheduling meet-ups (with friends, at bars, restaurants or at other people’s houses), filling in spreadsheets (for bachelorette party logistics; potluck dinners), and circling back on emails (about bachelorette party logistics; about how no one had signed up to bring a salad for the potluck).
Also you can stream TV shows and stuff.
The point of the meme is that our work and personal lives often don’t look all that different. The corporate tools we use at work have crept into our personal lives. Which is understandable, because while a corporation may never be a family — no matter what any overenthusiastic H.R. rep may say — one’s personal life can be a job in the sense that individuals have personal goals they want to accomplish, mundane tasks that need completing and thinly sourced gossip they want to share over coffee.
The tools used to accomplish these things are often the same in both spheres, because keeping track of several different organizational systems is too much to ask of creatures who, in the grand scheme of our planet’s history, just recently learned to walk on two feet.
All of this makes sense, but it can also feel a little sterile and unromantic, like a Valentine’s Day email from your dentist’s office. At what point does professionalizing our personal lives leech them of any spirit or spontaneity? When does a healthy level of organization go overboard? And how can relationships built on mutual respect, trust and admiration recover from someone sending an unsolicited Calendly link?
Last December, Kenzi Enright, a 29-year-old digital strategist from Milwaukee, posted a picture to Twitter of her father’s agenda for his weekly bar meet-up with friends. Topics included: “World Cup” and “China and Russia,” with time left for “General Discussion.” The post went viral, and Ms. Enright went on to explain on Twitter that her father and his friends call these get-togethers “board meetings,” and he texts the other “board members” beforehand to see if they have any topics they would like to add to the agenda.
Laura Vanderkam, 44, a time management expert who lives outside of Philadelphia, argued that Mr. Enright’s planning “demonstrates a level of social and emotional intelligence that a lot more social groups would benefit from.”
Too often, Ms. Vanderkam argued, people aren’t deliberate enough about structuring their personal time. “There’s so many icky things in the workplace,” she said. “But in general, people are trying to achieve things, and so they are more intentional about their time at work.”
After long, packed work days, planning for one’s downtime may not sound appealing. But as tempting as it may be to believe that our unstructured free time will automatically be spent deepening our relationships, recharging our batteries, or lolling about sun-dappled fields in languorous indolence, Ms. Vanderkam says that’s generally not the case.
“What happens when people don’t treat their time with intention is that they feel like it didn’t happen,” she said. “In a very distracted world, you’re not going to automatically choose the most rejuvenating and relaxing activity. You’re going to do whatever is in front of you.”
In this way, four hours of free time in the evening can suddenly vanish like a dove in a magician’s trick cage, but the cage is Twitter scrolling and “Below Deck Mediterranean” reruns.
This is not to say that every minute of one’s free time needs to be accounted for, Ms. Vanderkam said. “There’s just such a huge space between planning nothing and planning every 10 minutes.”
Weekend schedules and social plans don’t need to look like detailed, color-coded military operations. But writing down two or three things you would like to do on a Saturday, she advised, or thinking beforehand about what you’d like to discuss with your fellow board members at the bar can ensure you make the most of the time you have.
The Myth of Spontaneity
When Jayne Drost Johnson, 39, started J.D.J., a contemporary art program with galleries in Garrison, N.Y. and TriBeCa in 2018, she wanted to find a way to grow her career while recalibrating her work-life balance to have more time with her daughter. “I thought, I don’t want to miss her growing up because I’m always stuck in the gallery on Saturday.”
Enter: Google Calendar. Ms. Johnson’s recalibration has involved a heavy reliance on them — for herself, for the galleries, for her family. “I try to put everything on my calendar,” she said. “Sometimes it’s projects that are work-related and sometimes it’s like, today’s the day to weed the garden.”
Ms. Johnson’s calendar is so packed — with shipping deadlines, exhibitions, tennis, reminders to make plans with a friend, appointments with clients, dinners — that one might not immediately guess that, in fact, one of her main priorities is having plenty of free time. But, she argued, you often can’t have spontaneity without forethought.
“I think there’s probably a misconception that the more you plan, the less joy you get from something,” Ms. Johnson said. Sure, some of her favorite days are the unplanned ones, she said. But she’s found that those sorts of days can only be fully appreciated if you’re already created the space — and gotten the things done — to enjoy them.
Corporate tools can also be useful in interpersonal relationships, said Jessica Stern, a clinical psychologist at New York University Langone Health. She suggests couples have monthly meetings to discuss administrative matters like finances and communication styles. She also recommends that couples schedule sex.
“People often say, ‘That’s so weird, sex should be spontaneous,’” Dr. Stern said. “But if you and your partner are not finding time to connect with each other, there’s nothing more sexy than saying, ‘I want to put you on my calendar as a top priority.’”
The caveat, when using work tools to connect with friends and loved ones, is to make sure friends and loved ones are not repulsed by them. “You might find you’re the type of person who is very organized in terms of sending Google invites, or Google Docs for planning a trip, or a karaoke night,” Dr. Stern said. “Your friends might appreciate it, or your friends might feel overwhelmed by that kind of thing.”
Adrianna Herrera, 36, an English-language instructor in San Jose, Calif., has had to find ways to compromise in her mixed-organizational-styles marriage: While Ms. Herrera is ambivalent about Google Calendars, her husband, Daniel, 38, relies heavily on them, and even creates events for when their Roomba is scheduled to run. Ms. Herrera eventually started sharing Google Calendar events with her husband, but only on a secondary Gmail account that she doesn’t use often, so that the events won’t pop up on her main calendar.
“When I’m looking at our date nights and I see my doctors appointments, and our Roomba schedule, it takes the fun away,” she said. “It puts everything into the same category: chores.”
Brains Are Bad Offices
The general scientific consensus is that our brain’s working memory — a type of short-term memory that allows us to retain information while focused on something else — can only hold about four items at once. That means that relying solely on our brains to remember what’s important is a flawless plan for up to two seconds , until you inevitably think of a fifth thing you need to remember.
“Most people try to use their head as an office, but it’s a lousy office,” said David Allen, a productivity consultant who created the Getting Things Done work-life management system, using a more colorful term than “lousy.” “Your head’s not for managing, reminding, prioritizing. You need to externalize all that.”
But even if you’re intentional about your free time, maintain a perfect Google Calendar, never miss an email, and externalize every thought that crosses your gray, wrinkly brain, the truth is that time is a finite resource, and trying to accomplish every single thing both professionally and personally is a Sisyphean task at which you will surely fail.
“You’ll find out you can do anything but not everything,” Mr. Allen said. “So you just have to be comfortable with the choices you make about what you do and what you’re not going to do.”
In other words, that is something one has to come to peace with, maybe by scheduling time on the calendar for reflecting on the beauty and futility of life.