Mental Load: Understand it, Manage it, Reduce itMay 17, 2022
Have you heard the term “mental load”?
BetterUp’s definition resonates: mental load is “the cognitive effort involved in managing your work, relationships, a family, and a household”.
Mental load is the responsibility of keeping things running (hopefully) smoothly, of noticing, of reminding, or following up. Mental load is a major source of stress, fatigue and a contributor to burnout. And it’s often invisible. This 2017 Comic titled “you should have asked” illustrates mental load beautifully. In the comic, this is a great summary: “it’s up to her to know what needs to be done and when”, and then to “ask”.
Some examples of mental load include:
- Household responsibilities: Keeping track of when to buy more detergent, or when the only thing the kids will eat for lunch is running low, when the air filters need to be replaced and reordered.
- Family management responsibilities: Managing bills and payments, scheduling maintenance, keeping track of when it’s teacher appreciation week, or crazy hair day. Taking medical appointments.
- Social management responsibilities: Remembering birthday parties and planning gifts, planning outings, activities, camps. Making sure the required supplies are available for said activities and camps.
- General logistics: Getting paperwork together for school or camp registration, figuring out how to make all the activities and responsibilities work together.
It’s frustrating that these are often invisible, and navigating these responsibilities, and creating an equitable distribution of the workload (including the mental load) is rarely explicit. Why isn’t it a shared responsibility to notice what’s necessary?
In today’s post, we are highlighting a few resources that tackle this topic beautifully, as well as 9 tips and strategies to provide relief when we’re overrun by obligation.
Resource: Fair Play - Eve Rodsky
Fair Play is a “new vocabulary that will change the way you think and talk about your domestic life”, and “a system that sets you and your partner up for success in your relationship and your parenting”.
In Fair Play, Eve Rodsky speaks of responsibility ownership as CPE: Conception, Planning, and Execution (you can see more about that here). She highlights that sometimes even when a task is taken on by someone else, the mental load stays behind. For example, someone makes dinner on the grill, but the other still purchases the ingredients, makes the sides, and does the dishes. That’s not taking full ownership.
There’s a Fair Play book, a podcast and a card game. If you’re in a partnership and you’re finding yourself taking on a disproportionate share of the mental load, pick up Fair Play and give it a try.
Resource: How not to hate your Husband after having kids - Jancee Dunn
This book is part self helf, part memoir. Don’t let the title throw you off, it should be required reading for becoming a parent for any gender identity.
One of the most salient points is that we often assume that we’ll figure things out during a major life change, that we’ll just naturally share the load, and we don’t explicitly tackle how workload and responsibilities might change, and how each partner will adjust. This often results in a super unequal division of chores, and the resulting frustration at one’s spouse. It includes lots of research, and some actionable tools and lessons learned.
How can you reduce mental load today?
We compiled the battle tested advice of many who are grappling with the staggering mental load of their lives. While these may not all be accessible to you, the consensus is clear: mental load doesn’t get better unless you take proactive steps.
It can be helpful to do a full inventory of all the tasks you’re responsible for, and that are required to keep your life running. Either listing them in a spreadsheet (along with who’s responsible for them), or using Eve Rodsky’s Fair Play system. Then you know what’s on the table.
Delegate explicitly and get out of the way
When there’s someone else who can take on some of the work: a partner, a child, a colleague, create clear shared expectations about what responsibilities they are expected to completely manage. Once those responsibilities are clearly communicated, let them go completely. It can also be helpful to take turns with certain responsibilities (like cooking, meal prep, lunches) and set up a schedule to keep track.
Create supportive infrastructure
How are you communicating and aligning on responsibilities on an ongoing basis? Create supportive infrastructure so things aren’t just assumed, and you aren’t stuck. Examples of supportive infrastructure includes:
- Creating a shared family calendar for the week (digital or analog) that outlines what needs to be done, and who’s “lead”.
- Having a weekly meeting to review what needs to get done and who’s responsible.
Accept how others do (or don’t) do things
When something is someone else’s responsibility, accept how the other person approaches it. If buying gifts for your partner’s family is theirs to manage, accept they may forget, or choose something you wouldn’t have. If grocery shopping is your partner’s responsibility, accept they may forget some things (lists are helpful), and come back with some things you may not have selected.
Are there things you are taking on that are totally unnecessary? Many of us are in the habit of defaulting to yes. Practice saying no, and setting clear boundaries that help keep things from getting on your plate in the first place. This recent blog post has some excellent resources on resilience, including how to give yourself space to consider requests, how to think about whether you should say yes or no, and of course, how to say no gracefully.
Outsource & eliminate
What can you completely eliminate? For example, setting up automatic bill payments. Where can someone else do the thinking for you? For example, meal kits, clothing styling subscription boxes, laundry service. If it’s within your means, consider hiring a household helper, cleaner, organizer or personal assistant can be life changing.
Get things out of your head
While it doesn’t change the total amount of work you have, putting your responsibilities on a calendar, in an app (like Google Keep, or Todoist) can help get it out of your head as something you need to remember. It can provide needed relief to not have to juggle it all in your mind.
Put yourself on the list
The responsibilities and obligations that matter to everyone else can often crowd out the space we need for our own self care and recovery. Make sure your needs are included. If you need help with this, check out this blog post on priorities.
Create a semi-annual or annual recalibration routine
Things change, as kids get older, as jobs change, as circumstances evolve. It’s helpful not to assume that things will still work, and to proactively revisit how responsibilities are shared and whether they need to be adjusted.
Mental load is a real thing that many struggle with. First being aware of the burden, and then taking a proactive approach to managing what’s taking up real estate in your mind can help you lead a calmer, easier life.
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