Tuesday, February 7, 2023

It’s About Time: Is Outsourcing Parts of Your Life a Good Thing (Or At Least Not a Bad Thing?!)

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Sarah Lang contemplates what she outsourcesis this the modern woman’s secret to sanity?

Last weekend, I outsourced my son’s eighth birthday party. Knowing in advance that I’d have a lot on that week, I decided I wouldn’t have the energy to do the usual party tasks: buying and making the food, taking it to a hired venue (usually a community hall or kindergarten), unpacking, serving it, helming the party games, then doing the dishes and clear-up – which is the worst bit because you feel shattered and your child is on a sugar high. (I don’t make goodie bags on principle, because of the inevitable ‘I want to eat it now’ tantrums on the way home, but I digress.)

Instead, I booked a ‘Bounce Party’ at Wellington’s ASB Sports Centre. That’s a supervised hour on bouncy castles and other inflatable objects, followed by a birthday lunch catered for by Wishbone in the same venue. Reader, I even outsourced the cake.

Outsourcing birthday parties has become increasingly common, particularly among time-poor parents with some disposable income. Basically, you’re paying once a year for a service that doesn’t involve a heap of time and effort (not to mention the very real risk of destruction of property).

I would normally do all the party stuff, but I kept in mind what my therapist calls the spoon theory. The spoon is a metaphor for the amount of physical and/or mental energy that a person has available for daily activities and tasks, depending on various factors. So try to allocate your spoons, and if you run out of them, that’s it for the day. Another metaphor is the idea of having a certain number of balls in the air. You might be juggling too many tasks to cope with successfully – so, when you need to, give yourself permission to drop a ball, to pick up another day, or never. If you’re at work, you might delegate it. Outside work, you might outsource it.

At the party, I felt almost embarrassed around the parents there throughout (most parents leave and return), as though I was saying ‘look at my disposable income and laziness’. I found myself shamefacedly explaining why I didn’t have time that week to do all the party stuff myself. TBH, I doubt any other parent wondered about that or cared one bit. Meanwhile, none of this ‘shame’ had entered my husband’s mind.

When the kids had tornadoed (if that’s not a word, it should be) the table, two parents started clearing up the plates and rubbish so I joined in, feeling mortified that I hadn’t planned to do so because I knew a Wishbone employee would.

The party situation got me thinking about how I essentially outsource parts of my life. We used to outsource the cleaning; I’d still like to, but my husband doesn’t much like strangers in our home. Now I don’t inspect too closely what indistinguishable fragment has been ground into the kitchen floor. (Weetbix? Pasta? An ant? Best not to look.)

Some weeks I outsource meal planning to HelloFresh, because I detest meal planning. I usually go to the supermarket myself, but now occasionally do grocery shopping online, getting it delivered. Then there’s Uber Eats (maybe once a fortnight) for those days where I just can’t be arsed cooking. I would dearly love to outsource the dishes, which is part of why takeaways appeal in the first place.

It’s quite a list, or is it not? Is the next step calling on someone to buy my clothes, write my emails (so it doesn’t keep autocorrecting ‘Sarah’ to ‘Satan’), or write this story for me (another rhetorical question, over my dead body will I let robots take over feature writing).

It’s convenient… but is it GOOD?

Am I outsourcing too much of my life? Am I losing something essential? Or is it totally fine? Well, there is a cautionary book called The Outsourced Self: What Happens When We Pay Others to Live Our Lives for Us by Arlie Russell Hochschild, who worries about “the commodification of intimate life”.

Hochschild is concerned we might create lives that are “more like a network and less like a community”; that we won’t get a breadth of knowledge about how things are done; and that we’ll feel more disconnected from the tangible world. On that point, I do feel a bit disconnected when the curry I’ve chosen online is magically in my lap 45 minutes later courtesy of Uber Eats.

It’s all about time. Or buying time, you could say. In a Forbes article called The Ultimate Guide To Outsourcing Your Life, writer Seth Porges says: “Buy back that scarcest of resource: time. If somebody else can handle your cleaning (Handy), shopping (Hello Alfred), dog-walking (Wag), laundry (Flycleaners), calendar scheduling (Zirtual), and Ikea construction (TaskRabbit); you can spend more clock ticks relaxing, eating, drinking, traveling, and possibly even being productive.” Yes, those are American services, but some New Zealanders certainly outsource things like cleaning, dog walking, laundry, and grocery shopping.  

The article quotes Whitson Gordon, editor-in-chief of the website lifehacker.com “Your time is worth something,” he says. “If you truly hate a certain task – whether it be grocery shopping, cleaning, or anything else – why not outsource the task so you can spend those hours with your family, or working on a personal project? It’s a case where money can actually buy you happiness and reclaim one of life’s most limited resources: your time.” Preach. My time is valuable. And, as someone tells me “there’s no ironclad rule saying you absolutely must do every single tedious task in your general orbit just because you technically ‘can’, you know?”

Rather than use the word ‘outsourcing’, we could perhaps frame it as getting help, often from local services. We could see it as paying someone – someone probably more competent at it – a fair wage to do something that needs doing. We could call it self-care. It might even help prevent burnout.

Christchurch writer Rachael says, “Outsourcing is my village. I’ve been lucky to be privileged to have money for things like a cleaner, or a babysitter, but also, I don’t have family or friends who can pop around to help, or I feel awkward asking friends who aren’t that close. And I don’t have the skills to do things like build outdoor steps, and it’s quite hard to learn on YouTube! I don’t think we’re meant to be good at/enjoy/have time for all the possible jobs as well as meet all the expectations with job/kids etc, so where I’ve been able to, I’ve paid people to help me. I’m aware how unfair it is that I can be supported the way I needed, due to the luck of having had money to spend on those things.”

Says Marino, a mum-of-two from Wellington: “It’s definitely fine if you’re financially able to outsource an area you don’t feel like doing yourself, plus it’s usually also supporting another business. I outsource birthday cakes every year because I’m crap at baking and decorating and get no joy from it. I acknowledge someone else can do much better. I’m by no means wealthy, being on a sole-parent benefit and doing a bit of casual part-time work, but I plan for the big spends like this and budget hard because it saves my sanity.”

Amy*, an historian from Auckland, thinks there’s a gender issue at play. “I’ve noticed that traditionally feminine tasks often get judged more for being outsourced like cleaning, childcare etc, than they are for paying someone to do more masculine-associated tasks like DIY, mow the lawns, fix a car etc. I have outsourced various tasks at different stages of my life including two birthday parties for my kids – and a cleaner at two stages of my life when I was overwhelmed – but have always felt more embarrassed about it than hiring someone to paint my house or stain my floorboards or clean out my gutters. There’s the financial privilege aspect too, which makes it awkward talking about outsourcing with people.”

(Myself, I am extremely aware that I’m privileged enough to even contemplate outsourcing. I remember living as a student with only enough money to eat tuna and toast some weeks, and sometimes having to use toilet paper instead of sanitary pads.)

When it comes to outsourcing, everyone’s situation is different. But, because I now have the option, I’m thinking more about what I’m outsourcing and why. Is my ‘buying of time’ helping me do the things that are necessary for my sanity and/or the things most important to me? I reckon outsource whatever is sapping your energy or affecting your mood (if you can afford to) – and don’t feel guilty about it. In that spirit, I’m glad I didn’t spend an hour cleaning up after the birthday party.

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