Beat Stress by Doing Less: A Top Executive’s Strategies for Managing the Chaos of Modern Life

“If you really do drop the ball, eventually it can be picked up.”

Gretchen Rubin is the New York Times #1 bestselling author of The Happiness Project, Better Than Before, and Happier at Home. Her books have sold more than one million copies worldwide and have been translated into more than thirty languages. Recently, she joined Tiffany Dufu, author of Drop the Ball: Achieving More by Doing Less and catalyst-at-large in the world of women’s leadership, for a Heleo Conversation on the art of letting go of unrealistic expectations.

This conversation has been edited and condensed. To view the full conversation, click the video below. 

Gretchen: [In Drop the Ball] you talk about the second shift, how you would wave goodbye to your coworkers like, “Bye guys. I’m off to work!”

Tiffany: It’s what I call the “life-go-round.” You’ve got a full-time job at home, a full-time job at work, and you’re going around and around.

One of the popular questions that women get is, “How do you manage it all?” The truth is, there was a time in my life where I had a very difficult time doing it all. I became overwhelmed, stressed, and I eventually did the one thing that I was always most terrified of doing—I dropped the ball. But I discovered that the world didn’t fall apart.

Maybe all the time that I spent trying to be flawless was a lot of effort that wasn’t laddering up to something bigger and more important. That’s when I decided that I’d drop it. What’s interesting is, you evolve. Women see me now and say, “How do you do all these things?” I just expect far less than the average woman.

For most of my career I had been focused on bigger, collective solutions to women’s problems that I felt were more important than insignificant questions about work/life balance: equal pay for equal work, affordable child-care, and workplace flexibility. It’s just that I kept getting asked this question.

Gretchen: A lot of people mention their tendency: an upholder, a questioner, an obliger, a rebel. Tiffany, I think you are a classic obliger. There’s a lot in [Drop the Ball] about managing the pressure that obligers feel to meet outer expectations, and the difficulties in meeting inner expectations. How do you meet those inner expectations?

Tiffany: I talk about this particular tendency, as an obliger, called HCD, home control disease. HCD is when you feel that everything under your roof should be done a certain way, basically your way.

For me, it manifested in all kinds of small, insidious ways. This was my dirty feminist secret: publicly, I was the staunch advocate for women’s empowerment and disrupting gender norms, but at home I was basically on Stepford wife autopilot. I used to cook all the time, almost every day. If on Monday I made meatloaf, on Tuesday I made fajitas, and on Wednesday I made fried chicken, on Thursday if I had a work event and my husband was home, I would expect him to eat the meatloaf and not the fried chicken. I had this running expiration date for all of the leftovers.

I would come home, open the refrigerator, and he’d eaten the chicken. And I would say, “Why didn’t you eat the meatloaf?” And he would say, “I really like your fried chicken.” “Oh, so you don’t like my meatloaf?” This man has no idea what’s going on and why his wife’s so annoyed.

“If you ask someone to do something but you’re still holding onto the responsibility and obsessing over whether or not it’s gotten done, you haven’t really delegated it.”

Gretchen: The terrible truth about shared work is that if you don’t want to do something, if somebody else is supposed to do it, you have to allow it to go undone until they do it. If you’re doing it, you’re choosing to do it.

Tiffany: I used to be really conscientious about the mail. Then I realized it was something that someone else could do. I delegated it with joy to my husband who immediately said, “Of course. No big deal, babe.” The next day, he takes the mail out of the mailbox and puts it on the kitchen counter. He doesn’t open any of the envelopes.

Day two, same thing. Day three, same thing. Week one goes by. Week two goes by. This is what I call practicing patience judo. Maybe he has a strategy. Then he goes off on this very long trip and I end up in New York with a toddler, and I’ve just found out I’m pregnant, so I’m sick every day. I’m working full-time. The mail just starts to pile up.

I can’t do it. It grows so large that the pile of mail starts talking to me, saying, “You’re so irresponsible. That pink envelope is probably that birthday party invitation that you’re not going to respond to.” But over time, the pile of mail became so ridiculously large that my HCD started justifying my action. Eventually the voice would say, “The mail couldn’t possibly be your responsibility because you would’ve never let it get to this point.” As nothing terrible happened and the world just kept going, my anxiety began to wane. When my husband came back from his trip to find three months of unopened mail literally spilling over our kitchen counter, for the first time in our relationship, he seemed a little stressed about the mail.

For the next 48 hours all I could hear was the shredder. He goes through all of it. Another two days of him making phone calls and managing it.

It was an important moment because I learned that other people in our lives do have a threshold for disarray or disorder. If you really do drop the ball, eventually it can be picked up. When we delegate, we often think that it’s the process of communication that is the delegation, but it’s not. If you ask someone to do something but you’re still holding onto the responsibility and obsessing over whether or not it’s gotten done, you haven’t really delegated it. You assigned a task, but you’re still owning it and feeling the responsibility.

Before I could even get to delegating, I used to do this thing that I call imaginary delegation. I used to assign tasks to people in my mind, expect them to fulfill the task, get annoyed or angry when they didn’t, but never actually tell them.

Gretchen: That is very obliger to think that other people should recognize the responsibility to fulfill something, or that other people will understand that you have taken on a burden and give you mental credit for it.

This is the thing about shared work: you’ll be like, “For three months I made the coffee. Is no one else going to make the coffee?” And they’ll be thinking, “I thought it was your job to make the coffee.” Or, “I thought you liked making the coffee.” They’re not feeling like a shirker. We don’t walk around thinking, “How are people helping us?” or “What should I be doing to help?” We’re just like, “What’s the least I can get away with here?”

I want to talk to you about your four go-to’s, one of which is sleep. I know you’re a sleep zealot.

Tiffany: I am. I used to not be. I used to have a work ethic that was attached to depriving myself of sleep. It is one of the most damaging things that you can do. I had my epiphany through a relationship with my boss. I joined this company called Levo, and during my first performance review, the CEO said, “I have one concern. I don’t think that you get enough sleep.” I was kind of offended.

I felt like she didn’t understand my circumstances. It was a company that’s run by millennials and I was the only person who had kids. I thought, “She has no idea what’s required in order for a busy working mom to run her life.” When I got home that night, I complained to my husband about this millennial who told me I needed to get more sleep. He said, “Tiffany, I think the world would be a better place if you got more sleep.” So my performance evaluation hinged on this exercise where I had to get eight hours of sleep for eight weeks in a row. And it changed my life. It’s like a fog lifted. I’d been exhausted for 10 years and I just didn’t know.

“When we’re trying to change our habits, there’s some fundamental part of our identity that needs to evolve.”

Gretchen: The research shows this is very typical, where we adjust to sleep deprivation. We think that we’re normal. People don’t realize how off their game they are, but when they’re tested in a laboratory, research shows that they’re very impaired.

It’s something I talk about in Better Than Before, the strategy of identity. When we’re trying to change our habits, there’s some fundamental part of our identity that needs to evolve. Like you said, “My identity was a workaholic. I stayed up late. I was hardcore.” You took pride in that, but then it had to change in order for you to get more sleep. You did it by tapping into another aspect of your identity.

Tiffany: That’s it. Getting clear about what matters most to you is hard. I encourage people to think about the roles that they occupy. If you’re a woman, it’s probably: daughter, sister, friend, worker, student, maybe wife and mother. Ask yourself, in terms of your roles, what does a good “x” do? What does a good sister do? Write down those behaviors.

Then ask yourself: how do I know that’s what a good “x” does? You realize none of your behaviors or the ways that you move about the world originated with you.

You recall what your mother did, what your aunts did, what people in the church did, or what you saw on television. I love The Cosby Show. I was going to be Claire Huxtable one day. She had perfect feathered hair, flawless makeup, and these amazing outfits. Her house was always perfectly manicured and she had five perfectly well-behaved children that were all college-bound. It wasn’t until later in my Drop the Ball evolution that I realized how ridiculous Claire Huxtable was relative to the reality of the world. But that’s what I aspired to. Take the time to recognize that you’re largely exercising your journey based on someone else’s script, but you can rewrite it.

Gretchen: Back to your boss who saw that you were depleted and running on fumes. What happened?

Tiffany: I had to figure out how to get more of my professional work done during the day. At a certain level in leadership, you’re basically in meetings all day.

There are things that you say you’re going to do in these meetings, but you end up just going from meeting to meeting. At the end of the day, you’re rushing to relieve your childcare provider. Then you do dinner, put the kids to bed, get to the actual to-do list. By the time you get in bed, it’s one o’clock in the morning. I was running on four or five hours of sleep.

I had to figure out, how can I get that done during the day? There were three things that I did.

One was I stopped defaulting to one-hour meetings. I started asking people, how long does this meeting need to be? What is the decision that needs to be made? Can it be 20 minutes? Can it be three minutes?

I also started using a timer. When people would say, “Can I chat with you?” I would say, “Great, but I have to put you on a timer.” You would be surprised how efficient people are in getting to the point when they’re on a timer. That cut down a huge chunk of my time.

[The last thing is,] if you have a work culture where people send you calendar invites, other people decide there’s a meeting. I started picking up the phone and asking, “Why do you need me in the meeting again?” 70 percent of people will rescind their invitation, because people are not very thoughtful about who should actually be in the meeting.

Gretchen: Steve Jobs was zealous about this. He was adamant that no one should be in a meeting that didn’t absolutely have a role there. He would kick people out mid-meeting if he was like, “Wait a minute, why are you here? You’re actually slowing things down.”

In Better than Before, I found that one reason that people would fail with a habit is they’re like, “I can’t start because I should already be done.” “I can’t even start quitting sugar because I should’ve quit sugar a year ago.” Or, “How can I work on my novel when I haven’t worked on it in six months?” It’s this weird paradoxical feeling.

“It’s no wonder we’re all walking around as if we’re inadequate, when what we imagine we’re supposed to be doing is not humanly possible.”

Tiffany: Part of it is the voice in our head that’s telling us these things. You’ve got to talk back to the voice. It’s also important for us to be truthful with ourselves about the expectations we have.

I was once doing this time management workshop with a group of 70 women. I started by asking them to write down all of the things they expected to complete in an ideal day. Then I said, write down how long you think you should do each one of those things, and sum it at the bottom. Not one woman in the room had a sum that amounted to less than 24 hours. Only half the women had sleep on their list.

It’s no wonder we’re all walking around as if we’re inadequate, when what we imagine we’re supposed to be doing is not humanly possible. This idea that I’m not doing enough, that’s part of where it comes from.

Gretchen: What do you do with this feeling of, “My list is growing and I can’t ever come to the end of it”? How do you manage that feeling?

Tiffany: I have what I call the drop the ball question. And I ask myself the question a gazillion times a day.

My question is: is responding to this email, picking this up, or whatever is on your list, is that my highest and best use in achieving what matters most to me?

The answer is usually no. And it gives me permission to drop the ball. Sometimes there are consequences. Sometimes it’s dropped and not delegated. But oftentimes, that higher purpose is more important.

A specific example: a couple of months ago, I got a call from my daughter’s school. She’s in the second grade. It’s three P.M. She’s crying in the nurse’s office because all of her friends have gone off to a birthday party that she knew nothing about. She was invited to the party but it didn’t make it on my calendar.

Here’s the thing, though: this exact scenario has played out more than once in our family. I’ve delegated my kids’ social calendar. This is something that women often, by default, take on, but the person who is a social butterfly is way better at maintaining a social calendar, and my husband does a brilliant job. It’s just that our society hasn’t quite evolved for our family.

No one ever sends a child’s birthday party invitation to their father. Sometimes I write the person back and I say, “Hi, thank you so much for inviting her to your birthday party. Her father is her calendar maven. Please email him.” But sometimes, when I’m asking myself the drop the ball question, is responding to this birthday party invitation your highest and best use of raising a conscious global citizen? The answer is no. And I move on to the next thing.

When I think about what I’ve been able to achieve since I’ve dropped the ball—I’ve run a national women’s leadership organization that’s training thousands of women to run for office, I’ve raised millions of dollars for women’s nonprofits, I’ve had the chance to write a book—if any of those things helps to create a world in which my baby girl can grow up and aspire to be anything that she wants to be, then to me it’s worth it for her to miss a couple of birthday parties.