How to Achieve More By Doing Less (Really!)

What is the secret to having it all? According to leadership guru and working mother of two Tiffany Dufu, the answer is simple: Do way less. Sound impossible? 

How to Achieve More and Do Less

Tiffany Dufu's new book, Drop The Ball (to be released February 14, 2017), is part memoir, part genius guide to shedding the seemingly “required” responsibilities of working parenthood. (And yep, it’s just what you need to make a New Years resolution you can actually keep.) A launch team member of Lean In and chief leadership officer of the millennial professional network, Levo, Dufu talked to Parents about her journey to finding success at home and at work—and how other harried moms can get there too.

PARENTS: Your new book, Drop the Ball, contends that the secret to thriving at home and at work is, in your words, dropping the ball—the one thing all busy moms are trying to avoid! So what do you mean exactly?

My definition of dropping the ball is letting go of unrealistic expectations—and that’s most of the expectations women have for themselves. This is opposed to the traditional notion of 'drop the ball' that we're all terrified of, which is making a mistake and having everyone know that we're either a loser or not valued because we have failed in some huge way.

PARENTS: How do you know if your expectations of yourself are unrealistic?

On any given day, a woman's feeling of inadequacy is usually tied to the fact that she's got a list of things that she expects to do and responsibilities that she expects to fulfill, and if she doesn’t get them done by day’s end, she feels either guilty or inadequate. During a time management workshop I once conducted, I asked everyone in the room to write down what they expected to achieve in an ideal day. Then I asked everyone to add up the amount of time they felt it would take them to complete each item. At the end of that exercise, no one had a list that amounted to less than 24 hours, and only half had 'sleep' on their list.

PARENTS: Where does this crazy pressure come from?

Our expectations are not our expectations. They're expectations that we got from a billboard, our parents, and society.

PARENTS: What are some of the most damaging ones?

Here’s an example. I met with a mom this morning who was telling me how anxious she is about an upcoming business trip because her baby may start walking any day now, and she really feels she needs to be there when he takes his first steps. In fact, I've met with at least a thousand women over the past year one-on-one and I can't tell you the number of them who feel they need to be there for their child's first steps. At the time, my mom was visiting and asked me "Who was there when you were taking your first steps?" And I said, "Of course you were there, Mom. You've always been there for me." She responded, "Well, do you remember who was there?" And I said, "Well, no.” And she said, “If you want to be there when your child takes their first step because that's important to you, then that's for you. But you're going to have to get really clear about the decisions you're making that will benefit you and the decisions you’re making that will benefit your kid.” What she was trying to get me to do is become really clear about what matters most.

PARENTS: And what did you decide actually matters?

In my book, I decide that there are three things that matter most to me: advancing women and girls, nurturing a healthy relationship with my partner, and raising conscious global citizens. Once you're clear about what matters most to you, you know what your highest and best use is. And you can filter the list of your daily expectations based on what helps you achieve that. Unlike most people, when I get those pings of emails into my inbox, the calls from another parent that says they want this or that, I’m very quickly able to sort out “how is this related to what matters?” I ask myself, is this my highest and best use right now in advancing women and girls? Is this my highest and best use in raising conscious global citizens or nurturing my relations with my partner? If the answer is 'no' then the question becomes, is there someone else who can do this because it’s really that important? When you take yourself through this process, you quickly realize that half the things on your list are just not that critical, and if you don't do them, the world doesn't fall apart.

PARENTS: What is something you used to consider critical that you’ve dropped the ball on?

One of many examples: My son has a rash on his arm that we probably should have taken him to the doctor about three weeks ago. I think it might be eczema or something like that. But I don't have time to do that, and I feel no remorse or guilt whatsoever about the fact that I haven't done it. By the end of this week I will likely delegate that task with joy to someone else. That’s another concept in the book—how to engage other people and delegate with joy instead of with resentment. It seems very complicated in the beginning, but it is a practice that if you hone, dramatically reduces your overwhelm.

PARENTS: Of course, you first have to have someone you can delegate to. How do you get your partner to be an equal partner in household responsibilities?

That’s where our "MEL"—management excel list—comes in. One night after work when my son was very young I went home and I did my best to fill one excel column with all of the things I felt were important in managing our home, and then I put my name, my husband's name, our babysitter’s name, and the words “no one” at the top of four columns. We put X's in the column underneath our name, according to the things that we're going to do for any period of time. The reason it’s a really important tool and exercise is that you can't do everything. Even if both you and your partner are working really hard and you have lots of X's underneath your name, there are still going to be things that both of you feel are necessary to manage your home that neither one of you have the bandwidth for. That's what the "No one" column is for. We started putting X's under "No one," next to the things that we were like "You know what? We're just going to have to mutually agree that it’s not happening.” For three months no one is washing the car. For three months no one is folding clothes. We're just going to pull socks and everything from out of the laundry basket, and we're going to be okay with that. And we're not going to be resentful of one another; we're not going to get upset with one another, given the fact that it is very clear that we can't do it all.

PARENTS: And you don’t have to nag him to do these chores?

If you just tell someone "I really need you to take out the garbage,” it's kind of a win-lose situation, because no one wants to take out the garbage. But what I really wanted him to do wasn't just pick up the garbage—what I wanted him to do was to support me in being my highest and my best self. And when you frame and ask in the context of a higher cause, all of a sudden it becomes a win-win situation. That higher cause doesn't necessarily have to just be your happiness or your well-being or you creating change in the world. It could be economic. There’s a very clear argument you can give a partner about how you really want to be a rockstar in your career because you believe that it will provide financial freedom for your family.

PARENTS: In your book you mention that you feel no guilt. How is that possible?

Most of us have spent so much time being indoctrinated with what should matter most to us that we cannot articulate what actually matters very well, and that's a really important step in the process. So is understanding what guilt is. Guilt is the feeling that you've committed a moral transgression, that you've done something terribly wrong. I find it so ironic and so heartbreaking that the very people who are working their butts off to do well for themselves and for their children and for their families are the very ones who feel that they are committing a moral transgression for their effort in doing so. It’s appalling, and it's something that I hope to free women from.

Julia Edelstein is the senior health editor at Parents. She has resolved to drop many, many balls in 2017.