Like many modern couples, my husband and I espoused ideals of partnership and equality when we married. But after starting his company, my usually helpful spouse began shirking his household duties at an alarming clip.
I noticed more dirty dishes left in the sink and more laundry left on the floor. He forgot appointments and important dates. He paid less and less attention to the management of our home. A couple years into our marriage, I suddenly realized that I had become our home's CEO, chairwoman, accountant, secretary, and janitor--all wrapped up in one. So much for equal partnership.
Blame it on the same circumstances that lead Mark Zuckerberg to wear a gray T-shirt every day. He once explained his bland wardrobe this way: "I really want to clear my life to make it so that I have to make as few decisions as possible about anything except how to best serve this community." In other words, he's minimizing his daily decisions to create more mental space for running the world's largest social network.
Neuroscientist and psychologist Daniel Levitin, author of The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload, explains how our brains have limited bandwidth for attention and decision-making. "To pay attention to one thing means we don't pay attention to something else," he writes. "Attention is a limited-capacity resource" (p. 17).
As an entrepreneur, you're probably closely acquainted with such limits on attention. Each day you expend mental energy considering hundreds of high-level and menial options, from strategies and budgets to pen color and brand of paper to order. The end result? Your brain is very, very full of business-related matters--and there's not much space left for anything else.
But all those daily life tasks that fall through the cracks of your overworked brain don't disappear. Instead they likely land squarely in the laps of your significant others. Chores, errands, childcare, social engagements, house maintenance, and more may become the sole responsibility of your other half, regardless of his or her own career and personal priorities--and without any prior discussion or agreement.
And because we (rightly) associate attention with importance, it's understandable why spouses might feel neglected and insignificant when you're not able to fully partner with them at home. This potent combination of feeling under-appreciated and overworked can foster deep levels of misunderstanding, bitterness, and resentment in the spouses of entrepreneurs.
You might wonder how it's possible to give your best effort to your startup and your family. But even if your brain feels overstuffed to the point of bursting, it is possible to create some extra space in your brain for your loved ones.
According to Levitin, using external tools to organize our priorities and responsibilities allows us to optimize how we expend our attention. A little old-fashioned communication helps too. Here are five steps to guide you as a couple toward a healthier equilibrium:
1. Acknowledge the unequal workload and empathize with your spouse's experience.
Entrepreneurs, admit you're not being equal partners at home and acknowledge the additional workload your spouses are taking on for you. Significant others, try to understand how much your entrepreneurs are managing at work and that they're not intentionally leaving you in the lurch.
2. As a couple, decide what your most significant priorities are and what you're okay doing without.
Focus your energies on what matters most, such as having quality time together. Give permission to yourselves to let other things slide, like housecleaning or keeping up with social engagements.
3. Set explicit agreements for how much each of you will contribute to the family and home.
Decide the duration of these expectations and when they will be revisited. Having such agreements will give each of you a voice in the decision-making for the family, and will help stave off resentment from unexpected surprises.
4. Use external tools to help you track, schedule, and organize these tasks.
The less you have to think about organizing household tasks, the more mental space and energy you'll have for the tasks themselves. Make lists and post them on the refrigerator. Set up reminders on your phone. Schedule household responsibilities in your calendar, just as you would business meetings.
5. If something's not working for you, speak up.
If either of you feel overwhelmed by your professional or personal responsibilities, bring this up to your spouse and work together to find a new normal that is manageable for both of you.