“I believe in work-life Jenga, not work-life balance”: Here’s how Stacey Abrams gets things done

Mar 26, 2019 /

Real life is chaotic and surprising and impossible to balance. Work-life Jenga is all about making the best out of each moment in our lives, one piece at a time, says political leader and author Stacey Abrams.

I reject the idea of work-life balance. The phrase is a bald-faced lie, designed to hang over the human psyche like the Sword of Damocles, because balance presumes an even distribution of weight, of value. But anyone who has ever lived understands that no set of tips or tricks can create a lifestyle equilibrium. The relentless pursuit of this unachievable end results in hours of self-loathing and diminished quality in the time that we spend in pursuit of either work or life.

Instead, I believe in work-life Jenga. You know, the game where you stack up these seemingly equal-size blocks to form a perfect tower and then proceed to pull them out one by one, restacking as you go along. The goal is to make as many moves as possible without destroying the tower, even as it sways and lists. So too, in work-life Jenga, the expectation is not one of balance; it’s one of strategy and of making the best of each move, one block at a time.

At any given moment, we each face a barrage of obligations, often disparate and distinct from what we thought would happen when we woke up. From the tragic to the common to the extraordinary, life refuses to be divvied up into careful slices of time. No technology can manage to overcome the realities of reality.

“First things first” might be a cliché, but it’s a useful one that means prioritizing what matters most to you and believing there is no wrong answer. When it comes to figuring this out for yourself, the careful binary of work or life entirely misses the point. We may have jobs we go to or families at home, but either can be hard work. I spend most of my time engaged in politics and social justice, but this is my life. Letting go of the finite distinctions and the moral judgments we hear beneath our choices clears the way to allow us to set priorities without condemnation.

I have consistently probed my core to determine what holds my interest and where I want to spend my time. One of my choices occurred during my third year of law school, when I completed my first novel. I’d been thinking about writing for years, had written poetry, dabbled in playwriting and screenplays, even songwriting. The last year of law school is notoriously rigorous.

As a soon-to-be Yale attorney, I had checked the boxes on a few items: job offer, check; journal article, check; novelist, not yet. Since the modern-day legal fairy tale of John Grisham, nearly every budding attorney has a novel waiting for the airport bookstands. I was no different. Approaching the final months before adulthood took complete and total hold of my life, I decided my priority would be writing one too. The original story, one of espionage and intrigue, became a romantic suspense novel. I sent off the pages to an editor, and she bought the manuscript. Soon, I had a book deal, and more pages to write.

Like any good story, mine came with a twist. My book deal earned me car payments, but I wasn’t about to buy a car with my avocation. Writing, however, had always been about more than money. I love the craft — the care of developing a story, plotting out the movements of my characters, delving into their lives like an omniscient voyeur. Writing fueled me, and my task was to make it fit into my life. I practiced my trade as an attorney, and on weekends and holidays I typed away. I assumed a nom de plume, Selena Montgomery, to separate my fiction from more academic publications. Eight novels later, I put Selena aside to focus on the task of leading the House Democrats in Georgia.

I have other novels in various stages of completion, including a teenage amnesiac superhero story, a kids’ book about the mishaps of a nine-year-old alien, a finished legal thriller awaiting edits, and a final Selena Montgomery story. I long for the days when I can again turn my attention back to fiction and pen the stories teeming in my brain. But my priorities have shifted, and I have to believe I will return to my love one day soon. Putting first things first — be it a relationship, a job, or a newly discovered passion — will be a consistent test of addition, which requires a readjustment or sometimes even a subtraction.

First things first also requires us to prioritize our time. President Dwight Eisenhower is credited with inventing a system I’ve found useful in managing time and people. He distinguished between important and urgent and looked for the interplay of the two. Urgency speaks to how time-sensitive an issue may be. Importance categorizes how much of an impact the action can have. The most critical priorities should be both urgent and important: time-sensitive and change-making.

In terms of Work-Life Jenga, you’ve got urgent and important, important but not urgent, urgent but not important, and none of the above. With apologies to President Eisenhower, I go with Gotta Do, Need to Do, Oughta Do, and Might Get Around To.

Under Gotta Do, the test is both if it has to happen now and if it matters if it happens. Rebecca has a paper due in the one graduate studies course that’s a prerequisite for her thesis. The day before it’s due, her girlfriend falls ill, and she spends the next several hours waiting with her at the hospital. Her choices are both important and urgent, and picking which one takes first spot is the crux of Work-Life Jenga. We face smaller, less stark moments of urgent and important that come at us all the time. Sometimes, the only block you can choose is the one right in front of you.

Next is Need to Do. Whether it’s family, friends, projects or personal time, give yourself permission to invest early in the items that need to happen because they will impact your ability to keep your options open. Like a savings account, we can build up a reserve of goodwill and accomplishments, something we can dip into later. Lindsey had worked for me for several years, and she consistently demonstrated dependability, a strong initiative for new ideas, and a great attitude. When a crisis happened, she needed time off and had no idea when she’d be back. I had no hesitation granting her unlimited leave because I trusted her. She’d shown me she understood what was important time and time again.

Oughta Do tends to happen when someone else’s important needs require your urgency. Usually, in these situations the urgency is the result of another person’s sense of first things first. The question to ask is whether their crisis will prevent you from achieving your goals — your firsts. In every organization and nearly every family, someone dominates in the urgent but not important category. Their strident demands or sheepish apologies have the same effect, that of diverting you from your objectives to answer their needs. By appraising your priorities, you can assess whether meeting an urgent request is necessary or can be delegated. Whenever possible, do delegate. Untold amounts of lost time have been ceded to the urgent but not important, but you don’t have to play.

Might Get Around To is exactly what it sounds like. The least relevant demands on our time are the ones that are not important and not urgent. These requests do not advance your interests, and there’s no reason to deal with them now. Of course, this list often includes the things you want but don’t need. The point of prioritization is not to completely ignore these — they may be fun — but to be certain they don’t take up space that should be used for what you really do need. Leave those blocks untouched and move on, knowing you can always come back.

Work-Life Jenga gives us permission to pick our pieces and arrange our lives to suit the desires of our hearts, not the dictates of those around us. I realize that’s easier said than done, but the only way to win is to try.

To win at Work-Life Jenga, you need to identify the priorities and concerns where you intend to focus your energy. These 5 exercises can assist you in the process.

1. Imagine that you’re a reporter for the community newspaper. You have the job of creating headlines, and your life is the topic. Headlines should be no more than 10 to 15 words long and give the reader a good sense of what the story would be about.

A. Write the newspaper headline about you in three to five years.



In the Community:

B. Write the newspaper headline about you in seven to ten years.



In the Community:

2. Write the title of your keynote address to the senior class of your high school in 25 years.

3. You’ve been awarded a Nobel Prize. What field? For what achievement?

4. You have solved one major crisis (in your family, in your field, in your community, in the world). What was it? How did you do it?

5. What would you do if you had two more useful hours in the day?

Excerpted from Lead from the Outside: How to Build Your Future and Make Real Change. Copyright © 2019 by Stacey Abrams. Published by Picador/Henry Holt. All rights reserved.

Watch her TEDWomen talk here: