Yael Schonbrun, WORK, PARENT, THRIVE: 12 Science-Backed Strategies to Ditch Guilt, Manage Overwhelm, and Grow Connection (When Everything Feels Like Too Much)

Yael Schonbrun, WORK, PARENT, THRIVE: 12 Science-Backed Strategies to Ditch Guilt, Manage Overwhelm, and Grow Connection (When Everything Feels Like Too Much)

Zibby is joined by Dr. Yael Schonbrun, a clinical psychologist, assistant professor at Brown University, parenting coach, podcaster, mother of three, and author of Work, Parent, Thrive: 12 Science-Backed Strategies to Ditch Guilt, Manage Overwhelm, and Grow Connection (When Everything Feels Like Too Much). Dr. Schonbrun talks about using positive psychology to reassess working parenthood, the power of the “incubation effect” (when you step away from a problem and the answers just come to you!), and the benefits of switching between work and parenting to access creativity, rest, and perspective-giving wisdom. Then, the two share their experiences balancing work and parenting, and their thoughts on stress (it can be good!).


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Yael. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Work, Parent, Thrive, which we discussed a lot when we were in person at my event, which was so much fun, I have to say.

Yael Schonbrun: It was so much fun. Thank you for hosting me then. Thank you for hosting me now. I am a huge, huge Zibby Owens fan, so thank you.

Zibby: Thank you. I’m so delighted that Rebecca put us in touch, which is so nice.

Yael: I just texted her yesterday. I said, “I’m meeting with Zibby.”

Zibby: Yay. For listeners who don’t know you, don’t know anything about your book, give your spiel, please.

Yael: I am a clinical psychologist by training and wear a number of professional hats, including as assistant professor at Brown University. I have a small private practice where I specialize in couples therapy and parent coaching. I write. I’m also a podcaster myself. I have a podcast called “Psychologist Off the Clock.” Then I’m also a mom of three boys. They’re six to twelve, so six, ten, and twelve. It’s busy and fun. The book that I recently wrote that we’re here to talk about is called Work, Parent, Thrive. It really was born out of what happened when I became a working parent, which is that I kind of thought I had it in the bag. I’m a clinical psychologist. I love my work. I have a supportive partner, a flexible job. I had a healthy pregnancy. The baby was perfect. I was miserable. As a clinical psychologist and nerd, I was looking for the answer. How do I do this thing? What are the tools that I need? Everything in the bookstore was pretty disheartening. It was like, all the structures are not working. They’re really slow-moving. It’s totally unfair. There’s nothing to do.

I could kind of see the truth in that. That wasn’t my primary problem and also felt like, what was I going to do about that in my daily life that I needed to sort out in the now? The other part that is really true for me is that I look at most problems from a clinical psychologist lens. I specialize in relationships. I’m also really into positive psychology. Happiness science or positive psychology is really all about working with what we have in front of us, working with the tools, our thoughts, our behaviors, our actions, our intentions, our gratitudes, things like that. It doesn’t undo injustice in the outside world, but it helps us tolerate what’s difficult. That’s the positive psychology bent. Then the relationship bent is that I look at everything in relational terms. I started thinking about the relationship between roles and realized that there’s really nothing written about it in the bookstores or the library. I started looking at the academic literature.

There is certainly a lot that’s written about the relationship between work and family roles in terms of the conflict, but again, I’m interested in the positive psychology. I was really excited when I found this construct called work-family enrichment, which is basically defined as the way that our roles help each other out. I was like, ooh, that’s cool. I started diving more into the science of creativity and rest and stress and happiness. In all of these ways, there’s really overlooked opportunities that our roles help each other out. That’s what this book is about. It’s about both the psychology of working parenthood, so not the outside structures — although, I recognize that there are huge problems in those — but really about what we can do on a daily basis using the tools that we have at our disposal in our daily lives and using the tension between our roles in positive ways and taking advantage of the ways that the tensions can actually help us out, which doesn’t mean that it’s not hard. There are ways that we can harness some of the gifts in pretty strategic, clever ways using tools from social science and psychology.

Zibby: What’s an example of a way we can make all this work in harmony to make our lives easier?

Yael: For example, I have a chapter devoted to creativity. We often think about creative endeavors — you’re a writer. I also write. It takes time. We think, oh, gosh, if I only had more time to bang out this chapter. I have a history in science. That’s true about scientific creativity. You need to address a problem and go super deep, really into the trenches. It can be incredibly time-consuming. That is true. We do need time. There is really cool science on creativity that suggests that it’s when we step away that we have access to certain kinds of creativity processes that happen in our unconscious mind in what’s called the default mode network, which is an interconnected set of structures in the brain that basically wake up when our mind is wandering, when we’re not intensely focused on a problem. In fact, our creative processes are more effective when we step from one particular problem into a totally different content area. For example, if you’re doing a spatial task and then you step away into a verbal task, then your spatial creativity actually grows even more. My favorite sets of tools have to do with doing less and finding — I actually just interviewed for my podcast, Annie Duke, who wrote this really good book called Quit. It’s transformative. It’s basically, what do you need to stop doing so that you can be more effective? I have a chapter on subtraction too. I do think sometimes we have this idea — it’s related to creativity; it’s related to productivity — where we just think we need to keep going and that the answer is, do more.

Again, the science on this is pretty clear. That’s the recipe for burnout. In the realm of creativity, it’s the recipe for kind of losing your edge. By doing the same thing over and over again and never taking a break, you really kill your creativity over time. You can have a short-term creativity if you work that way, but it kind of dies out over time. People who are prolific for their life tend to have multiple roles, tend to take breaks from the most demanding work that they have. Coming back specifically to creativity, what the science shows is that incompatible roles help freshen our perspective. It also shows that we can incubate, basically, come up with creative ideas when we stop consciously thinking about whatever the problem is that we’re working on. For a writer, for example, you get stuck on a paragraph. Oh, my gosh, now you have to go pick up your kid. If you only had a few hours, maybe you could figure it out. You don’t, so you put it away. You go pick up your kid. Then magically, sometimes — this isn’t a for sure thing. Often, while you’re making dinner or listening to your kid’s story, almost as if out of nowhere, the line will come to you. Most people have had this experience. I think the most common one is, you have a fight with your partner. You couldn’t answer the thing that they were blaming you for. Then three hours later in the shower when you’re thinking about nothing at all, the perfect response comes to you.

That’s what we call the incubation effect. It happens when we’re not consciously thinking about something, but we have sort of done this preparation of thinking. We step away fully. That’s when our creative processes in our default mode network get active. This is a very long-winded way of saying that part of how we can use the tension between roles is using the forced breaks to our advantage, using the forced breaks to access creativity, using the forced breaks to access rest for each role. Even if you’re stepping from one demanding role into another, whatever role you’re stepping away from you’re actually getting a break from. For parents, stepping away from parenting to go to work can be a really important and useful break from parenting. I know I’ve experienced this a lot. Then when you’re really worn out from your job, stepping away and going home to your family can be a really nice break from the work that you do. To summarize it, it’s using the tension between roles to access creativity, rest, happiness, perspective-giving wisdom, interpersonal skills. When we have access to multiple roles, we have a richer life that allows us opportunities to build skills in novel ways and also to take breaks in important ways.

Zibby: Wow, I love all that. How do you do all this? Do you take big breaks from your demanding work? You do a million things. How do you do it?

Yael: I feel like you should answer the question after I do because you’re an even more busy person than I am. I am pretty certain of that. I use all of the tools. What was fun and also extremely difficult is that I went under contract to write this book at the beginning of the pandemic, so all three of my kids were home at the time. My youngest was three. A three-year-old is not that easy to be home with. My husband has a more rigid schedule with his job. It was really hard. I got to road test a lot of these science-backed tips. They really do work imperfectly, quite imperfectly. I do a lot of mindfulness, so wherever I’m at, I try — I’m not a naturally mindful person. I am very deliberate about bringing my attention back. When I’m with my kids and my mind travels to whatever writing project I’m working on, I try very hard to bring myself back, recognizing that it’s beneficial for my work when I do that. Same thing goes when I’m working. I try not to worry too much about my kids. If I have thoughts, I write them down. It’s a mindfulness practice of coming back. I use micro-rituals to transition from one role to the other so that it kind of ques my body and mind to move more fully and efficiently from one position to another. I used to burn out on a monthly basis, get these terrible headaches. I used to burn out regularly. I am really into the science of rest. I find it quite useful personally. I take Saturdays off from work. I try not to be on a screen at all. I take a nap.

Zibby: Do you do a tech Shabbat type of situation, or no?

Yael: Yes, it’s exactly that. It’s a tech-free Shabbat. It also involves my Shabbat nap. I have three kids. They are high energy. They don’t love rest time, but we have rest time. That’s another regular thing that I do. I’m often the parent that stays home on school holidays because, again, my schedule is much more flexible than my spouse’s. When I have a full day of parenting, I know that my parenting battery runs low. My kids just know this because this is our practice. We have a rest time in the middle of the day. During that rest time, except for on Saturdays when I really do nap, I work. They know that. It’s an hour in the middle of the day after lunch. They go to their rooms. I do work. I use that as a break from parenting. When I come back to parenting, the pressure is on to fully put away work because they have given me my hour. They expect me to be back. That provides some social accountability to transition fully. That helps me rest the work side of my personality and brain.

Zibby: I love how you just dissected that. That was really awesome.

Yael: What are some of the tools that you use to balance, to juggle, keep the balls up in the air that you have going? You’ve got four kids, many, many professional hats, all of these entrepreneurial endeavors. It seems incredibly busy and a lot of role transitions, I would have to imagine.

Zibby: Yes, a lot of role transitions. I don’t know. Like you, I don’t think I consider it mindfulness. I consider it hyperfocus, almost. When I am doing a podcast, this is all I am thinking about, and usually, leading up to it when I’m preparing and everything. I’m in this moment. You and I are connecting, talking. I am learning. I am processing. I’m connecting. All these sensors are lighting up in my brain of all these happiness things that I love. I love to learn. I love to talk to people. I love to listen. I like to get to know people, figure things out. Then I do all that. Then I close the Zoom and go on to the next one. Then I’m like, okay. It depends on my schedule. I just have to do it. Next, I might have a thing for publicity. I might have a strategy meeting. I have to just be really in it. Whatever I’m doing, I’m just totally in it. I guess that’s mindfulness.

Yael: Let me ask you a question. You’ve been doing some version of multiple hat-wearing for a while, but it’s sort of intensified. Have you experienced that you’ve gotten more skilled at doing those transitions over time?

Zibby: Yes, I’ve gotten more skilled at all of it, at all the juggling. All of the energy of going back and forth and switching gears actually makes my engine run faster. I don’t think I knew this about myself until I started doing so many things. I’ve always been this way. I get bored really easily. I need to have a lot of things going on to feel really happy. Even if I’m stressed, I am happy. When I don’t have enough going on, I get depressed. I like all this. It’s okay because now I’ve learned. I’m forty-six. Now I know for the rest of my life what it takes. I talked to — do you know Dr. Amy Shah? She wrote I’m So Effing Tired.

Yael: No, but that’s a great title.

Zibby: Now she has a new book coming out called I’m So Effing Hungry. She’s awesome. She had this whole theory when I talked to her that people keep thinking that when they’re overwhelmed, they need to take things off their plate. It turns out that it’s just the wrong things on their plate. Sometimes they may need to add more. Just add different things. For me, that is the case. I can have a heaping plate and be totally excited. If I have one of the wrong things, it ruins the whole meal.

Yael: There’s really interesting research about this. Two things. One is that I think that there’s a mindset issue. We often have this belief that we shouldn’t feel so overwhelmed. It causes us to interpret the overwhelm in a particular way. What you’ve just described is that you had this mindset evolution over time. Now that you’re forty-six, you realize that the busyness isn’t the problem. It’s having the right kind of busyness. Embedded in that is this awareness that busyness can be good. There’s probably some extent to which it’s no longer going to be very healthy. You’re going to just be stressed out and start to get depleted and burned out. You have a pretty wide range of busyness that actually works for you. That’s the mindset of enrichment, of really recognizing that multiple roles fuel you. They feed each other. They keep you interested and interesting and excited, even though it can go along with stress. The second part is a mindset about stress. Kelly McGonigal has this great book that I recommend to everybody called The Upside of Stress. It basically helps us to shift from this idea that stress is bad for us, which to some extent is true. Here’s the trick about psychology. You can kind of cherry-pick.

Extreme levels of stress really are not good for you, but there’s a wide swath of stress that’s actually quite good for you. In fact, the stress response is adaptive. Researchers define it as when you don’t have sufficient resources to meet the demands on you. Your stress response helps your body and your mind to get activated to meet those demands. Sometimes it’s by building skills. Sometimes it’s by having adrenaline and more energy in your body. Sometimes it’s about reaching out for resources to help you. Sometimes it’s about recognizing, this doesn’t really work for me, and saying no. The stress response helps you to hone in and figure out what you’re going to do in response to this demand that you don’t quite have the resources to meet. Recognizing that that is really good for you helps you to take that ride in a more open and curious way as opposed to shutting down and getting very pessimistic about it. Once we’re pessimistic and we have that fixed mindset of, oh, this isn’t going to work, we stop looking for ways to meet that demand. In a way, what you’re describing is an evolution of your mindset that has really been helpful and allowed you to really thrive in this super busy life.

Zibby: Yes, very true. Thank you for the dissection of me.

Yael: It’s what I do.

Zibby: This is great. I didn’t even have to pay for this. This is amazing. What else?

Yael: I know. I am curious, and I bet all of your listeners are too, about how the tension between work and family roles has worked with having — maybe I won’t put it on your listeners. I’m curious how it works when you have a family that’s on the East Coast but you’re starting a huge new project on the West Coast. I know you have a place out there. Is the traveling back and forth when you have kids in school stressful?

Zibby: I’m divorced and remarried. I go out when they’re with their dad. Every other weekend, I have a long weekend, essentially. I only schedule trips out there when I am either on spring break but they’re with their dad or it’s not my weekend. I don’t have to debate, when am I going? When am I not? I just look at my custody calendar and make all my plans. That’s how I schedule my work, all of my publicity events or events with my authors or whatever. It’s all about when I have the kids and when I don’t. I run very hard when I have the kids. It’s hard. I often take those breaks of relaxation or whatever. I switch gears in a big way when I don’t have them. Sometimes by the time I get there, I’m falling apart by the end of those ten days or whatever. I’m exhausted. Sometimes I’ll sleep for twelve hours and just really regroup. I couldn’t do this whole thing without breaks. When I take a break from them, in a lot of cases, I don’t schedule meetings on those Fridays and Mondays because I’ll be traveling. Who knows? I use that time to write or catch up or sleep or go to the movies. Actually, I don’t go to the movies, but you know what I mean. Fun things with my husband. We go to brunch. We went to Rome. That’s how I balance it. What about you?

Yael: Before I get to me, this is one of the gifts of divorce that doesn’t get talked about enough. I actually did an interview with this terrific author called Zoe Chance who has a good book called Influence is your Superpower. You should get her on. She’s awesome. She was talking about the same thing. It makes it easier to do this all into one role. Divorce makes it easier. I think it’s sort of the unsung win of divorce, is that it’s easier to really be present as a parent because the time is a little bit more organized in that way. That’s the role that you inhabit for a number of days. Then you fully step away for a number of days and really make some progress in your professional life or your other relationships. I think that can really work. I do some version of what you’re talking about where I go really hard in whatever role that I’m in. I build my work schedule around my — I’m able to do that because I have a flexible schedule, which is a huge privilege. I always wonder if, on the blacktop, people who don’t know me well think that I have a job at all because I look so much like a mom. I’m hanging on the playground and talking with other parents. I go home, and I bake with my kids. We like to get crafty. I do a lot of the chauffeuring. Then during the day, I’m doing these fairly ambitious things that require intense energy and a lot of cognitive capacity. I’m talking with super brilliant people who are doing incredible things. I wonder if they know that I’m also this “on the floor with my kids playing Uno at night” mom. It doesn’t really matter. You occupy whatever role you are in to the hilt. Whatever role you’re not in, you step fully away from it.

I really do think that that is a skill. It’s not a talent. It’s something that you hone over time, which is why I asked you this question of, has it gotten easier? This is another piece of the mindset that I think is really important, to really think of it as a muscle that we build over time. It’s a little bit like when you first have a baby. You put the little guy in the carrier. Then you have to go into CVS for a minute. You’re like, oh, my god, when am I ever going to be able to be strong enough? This is so difficult. Then six months in, you’re doing it like it’s nothing. It’s not a big deal. I think that’s true for a lot of tasks. That’s certainly true of working parenthood. We have this idea. I’m never going to figure out how to juggle all these things. It’s just too much. If we give ourselves a chance to see it as an opportunity to build that muscle of doing these role transitions and building skill in each and also in building the skill for making those transfers, then it goes a lot better. It’s having faith that you can build it. That goes back to this idea of growth mindset, which I think is really important when you have a life with lots of demanding roles, and seeing it as an opportunity to build those skills as opposed to something that can’t be done or something that shouldn’t be done.

Zibby: I could really talk to you all day. You are so good. I have to admit I don’t make time to listen to a lot of podcasts myself because I’m so busy podcasting.

Yael: By the way, I don’t know how you release every single day. That is amazing.

Zibby: It’s a lot. It’s a lot, but I love it. They’re not long. They’re thirty minutes each.

Yael: You probably read most of the books.

Zibby: Prep time takes a while. Like everything else, I’ve gotten much better at it. I’ve done it 1,500 times. Some, I read all the way through. Some, I don’t. I have a mix and match. Sometimes I go deep in the book. Sometimes I talk more about the person. Anyway, the only reason I brought that up was to say I love your voice and your calm and how you think about everything, so I really do want to listen to your podcast. I feel like it would be so helpful in place of the therapy that I don’t actually get myself. I love your whole demeanor. Thank you for everything.

Yael: Thank you. It’s so funny to be told that I’m calm because I don’t feel calm on the inside. Isn’t that interesting?

Zibby: Yes, exactly. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.” Yael Schonbrun, Work, Parent, Thrive. What’s your podcast called again?

Yael: “Psychologist Off the Clock.”

Zibby: “Psychologist Off the Clock.” Go take a listen, everybody who’s listening to this. Thank you so much.

Yael: Thank you, Zibby.

Zibby: Have a great day. Thanks for the therapy.

Yael: Have a great day. Thank you so much. Take good care. Good luck with the launch of the store. Bye.

Zibby: Thank you. Bye.

Yael Schonbrun, WORK, PARENT, THRIVE: 12 Science-Backed Strategies to Ditch Guilt, Manage Overwhelm, and Grow Connection (When Everything Feels Like Too Much)

WORK, PARENT, THRIVE: 12 Science-Backed Strategies to Ditch Guilt, Manage Overwhelm, and Grow Connection (When Everything Feels Like Too Much) by Yael Schonbrun

Purchase your copy on Bookshop!

Check out the merch on our new Bonfire shop here.

Subscribe to Zibby’s weekly newsletter here.

You can also listen to this episode on:

Apple Podcasts