Family and friends help us live our values of connection, loyalty, and responsibility. They need you and you need them, so they are clearly far more important than a mere “residual beneficiary,” a term I first heard in an Economics 101 class. In business, a residual beneficiary is the chump who gets whatever is left over when a company is liquidated—typically, not much. In life, our loved ones deserve better, and yet, if we’re not careful with how we plan our time, residual beneficiaries are exactly what they become.
One of my most important values is to be a caring, involved, and fun dad. While I aspire to live out this value, being a fully present dad is not always “convenient.” An email from a client informs me that my website is down; the plumber texts to tell me that his train is stalled and he needs to reschedule; my bank notifies me of an unexpected charge on my card. Meanwhile, my daughter sits there, waiting for me to play my next card in our game of gin rummy.
To combat this problem, I’ve intentionally scheduled time with my daughter every week. Much like I schedule time for a business meeting or time for myself, I block out time on my schedule to be with her. To make sure we always have something fun to do, we spent one afternoon writing down over a hundred things to do together in town, each one on a separate little strip of paper. Then, we rolled up all the little strips and placed them inside our “fun jar.” Now, every Friday afternoon, we simply pull an activity from the fun jar and do it. Sometimes we’ll visit a museum, while other times we’ll play in the park or visit a highly rated ice cream parlor across town. That time is reserved just for us.
Truth be told, the fun jar idea doesn’t always work as smoothly as I’d like. It’s hard for me to muster up the energy to head to the playground when New York’s temperatures fall below freezing. On those days, a cup of hot cocoa and a couple of chapters of Harry Potter sound way more inviting for us both. What’s important, though, is that I’ve made it a priority in my weekly schedule to live up to my values. Having this time in my schedule allows me to be the dad that I envision myself to be.
Similarly, my wife, Julie, and I make sure we have time scheduled for each other. Twice a month, we plan a special date. Sometimes we see a live show or indulge in an exotic meal. But mostly, we just walk and talk for hours. Regardless of what we do, we know that this time is cemented in our schedules and will not be compromised. In the absence of this scheduled time together, it’s too easy to fill our days with other errands, like running to the grocery store or cleaning the house. My scheduled time with Julie allows me to live out my value of intimacy. There’s no one else I can open up to the way I can with her, but this can only happen if we make the time.
Equality is another value in my marriage. I always thought I behaved in a way that upheld that value. I was wrong. Before my wife and I had a clear schedule in place, we found ourselves bickering about why certain tasks weren’t getting done around the house. Several studies show that among heterosexual couples, husbands don’t do their fair share of the housework, and I was, I’m sad to admit, one of them. Darcy Lockman, a psychologist in New York City, wrote in the Washington Post, “Employed women partnered with employed men carry 65 percent of the family’s child-care responsibilities, a figure that has held steady since the turn of the century.”
But like many men Lockman interviewed in her research, I was somehow oblivious to the tasks my wife handled. As one mother told Lockman,
He’s on his phone or computer while I’m running around like a crazy person getting the kids’ stuff, doing the laundry. He has his coffee in the morning reading his phone while I’m packing lunches, getting our daughter’s clothes out, helping our son with his homework. He just sits there. He doesn’t do it on purpose. He has no awareness of what’s happening around him. I ask him about it and he gets defensive.
It was as if Lockman had interviewed my wife. But if my wife wanted help, why didn’t she just ask? I later came to realize that figuring out how I could be helpful was itself work. Julie couldn’t tell me how I could help because she already had a dozen things on her mind. She wanted me to take initiative, to jump in and start helping out. But I didn’t know how. I had no idea, so I’d either stand there confused or slink off to do something else. Too many evenings followed this script, ending in late dinners, hurt feelings, and sometimes tears.
During one of our date days, we sat down and listed all the household tasks that each of us performed; making sure nothing was left out. Comparing Julie’s (seemingly endless) list to mine was a wake-up call that my value of equality in our marriage needed some help. We agreed to split the household jobs and, most important, timeboxed the tasks on our schedules, leaving no doubt about when they would get done.
Working our way toward a more equitable split of the housework restored integrity to my value of equality in my marriage, which also improved the odds of having a long and happy relationship. Lockman’sresearch supports this benefit: “A growing body of research in family and clinical studies demonstrates that spousal equality promotes marital success and that inequality undermines it.”
There’s no doubt scheduling time for family and ensuring they were no longer the residual beneficiary of my time greatly improved my relationship with my wife and daughter.
Excerpted from Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life with permission from the author and publisher.
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