Make Friendships a Part of Your Routine

by Neal J. Roese and Kyle S. H. Dobson

Quick Takes

  • Don’t use lack of time as an excuse
  • Create shared experiences by doing tasks at the same time
  • Bundle mundane life activities
  • Show friends what’s really happening in your life
  • Embrace tech options, including video calls and chat apps

Monica gently tucks her 2-year-old son, Hudson, into bed. She has just finished up work as a senior manager at a global bank. As she quietly closes the door to her son’s bedroom, her mind flips back to the documents she still needs to review in preparation for an early meeting the next morning. She had hoped to call a friend back first, but she just doesn’t have the time (or energy) tonight.

For Monica and many other parents managing challenging careers, a fundamental struggle is balancing work versus family. Whether parenting toddlers or teenagers, working parents can find it difficult to divide their time while still feeling successful and committed in both areas. Friendships barely register in this balancing act. That’s a big problem. Basic research in psychology shows that friends are a key contributor to not only the mental wellbeing of working parents but their career success as well.1

Friends matter. We share our innermost secrets with our closest friends, and we can count on them in an emergency. Research shows that close friendships are pivotal to both psychological and physical well-being. Close friendships bring stronger emotional well-being.2 Friends benefit our basic physiology, as shown by studies that link social connections to cellular-level protection against disease. For instance, we are less likely to catch a cold if we have a solid network of friends.3 Indeed, having a solid friendship network can reduce mortality as much as 50%.4 Friends also boost work performance. For one thing, friends (who do not work at your company) give you an “outside view” that can unlock new insights and open your eyes to broader perspectives. For another, friends are a stress reducer. A happy hour after work with friends after a challenging workday, even virtually, may calm the mind as well as the body.

Even if parents recognize the importance of their friends, it’s all too easy to let those get-togethers fall to the bottom of the priority list. In fact, the time spent with friends drops steadily over our lifespan; from its peak in the teen years, the fastest decline happens in our 20s and 30s, which is precisely the age range in which children first enter our lives.

So what can we do?

Friendships are nurtured by simple shared experience, like attending the same class, sweating at the same gym, or even sharing the same elevator in your apartment complex. So, it is no surprise that friendships are reinforced through focused sharing—think book clubs and wine-tasting events. But staging these focused get-togethers is tough when you have children, and tougher still when your best friend lives on the other side of the continent—or the planet.

The solution we are exploring in our scholarly research is one we call bundling. Bundling is the creation of shared experience by way of combining, or bundling together, two friends’ mundane life tasks. Rather than carving out unique time for a book club, pick a task that you do anyway on your own, like shopping for groceries, cooking dinner, or even reading bedtime stories. Then, connect it with a friend who is doing that same thing by using technology. For instance, when it’s time to shop for groceries, shop at the same time as your friend and talk to them on your AirPods. When it’s time to cook dinner, connect with your friend on FaceTime and share your kitchen tricks on video. When it’s time to read a bedtime story to your kids, connect on Zoom and let your friend’s kids listen in. The special sauce behind bundling is that you need not be in the same place, just the same time.

Bundling allows us to include friends in our messy lives. Unlike a happy hour, bundling doesn’t sacrifice any of our precious free time—and you don’t even need to leave the house. Rather, bundling allows us to leverage our current activities as parents to simultaneously strengthen our friendships. Integrating our friends into the necessary parts of our lives makes us more authentic by showing our friends what is really happening behind the scenes (as opposed to the happy front we display in Facebook or Instagram posts). This kind of intimate self-disclosure and vulnerability is a key ingredient for maintaining close relationships. Bundling can be quick, too. It may only take a weekly call while you clean your living room to make you feel close to a friend who lives in another city.

The great news about bundling is that we now live in a time of abundance in tech solutions to help us share our moments. As you consider the power of bundling, the following tech options are just the tip of the iceberg:

  • Use Zoom or Skype while cooking. Try cooking or baking the same thing as your friend in real time, all the while watching each other’s creations unfold.
  • Use Marco Polo to create brief video messages in the moment for viewing by your friend later in the day. Keep it short and keep it real.
  • Use noise-canceling earbuds to talk on the phone (yes, the phone) while doing housework, like emptying the dishwasher, doing laundry, or cleaning up.
  • Use FaceTime or Duo while grocery shopping. Show off the odd and esoteric items you buy for your kids.
  • Simulate the movie theater experience with your family and friend’s family. Click play on Hulu or Netflix on the phone at the same time, hang up, and then talk about the movie after it’s over. If the movie is a comedy, try adding a voice-only connection to your friend’s house so that you can hear the reaction to the funny bits; laughter is infectious.
  • Working the same time as friends? Use Slack instead of text messaging to keep each other up to date with your goals, remain focused, and stay connected throughout the workday.
  • Make a virtual coffee shop with video and your own home brew.

Parents with careers have an enormous challenge in time management, but that challenge can actually be assisted, not worsened, by taking the time to connect with friends. There are many ways to keep in touch without sacrificing who you are. Encourage your friends to bundle their tasks with you; it may well help both of you without adding any extra effort or stress. Any time you intend to do something alone, ask yourself if there’s a way you can include a friend.

Adapted from “Working Parents, Make Friendships a Part of Your Routine,” on hbr.org, May 12, 2020 (product #H05LGU).

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