You know who writes a lot about productivity? 20-somethings. Think they have everything figured out. Maybe they do — for now. Just wait until they get married and have kids. Even just one kid…
Old routines unravel when you start a family. You have to come up with new ones. Flexible ones. But you also have to rethink everything you thought you knew about productivity.
For starters, it’s not about how much stuff you get done.
It’s about impact. And fit.
You have to figure out what activities go where in your day. Imagine your time as one of these baby puzzles:
Some stuff has to happen at a specific time. Always will. Not everyone aspires to live like a solo entrepreneur, with complete control over their schedules. We have jobs. Daycare pickups. Feeding times.
It’s nice to fantasize that we can decide exactly what to do when. But many of us can’t. Pretending that we’re going to quit our jobs and start a business? Be our own boss? Not everyone can do that, or even wants to.
After all, my family needs health insurance.
Besides, most of my material comes from the difficulty of juggling the responsibilities of a normal person. The right amount of frustration feeds my creative drive.
Constraints nurture creativity.
How do I blog, do research, and teach while also helping run a department? I live by the sorter toy. And I’ve developed some other strategies.
Build your day around what has to happen.
So you’re not a morning person. Your boss has been kind enough to stack up your classes and meetings on Mondays, Tuesdays, and Wednesdays. You have to leave for daycare at 3:30 pm to avoid rush hour and traffic accidents. So, those days are looking like Swiss cheese.
Sure, maybe the goddess of inspiration will visit you during those little time holes. If she does, you’ll sit down and write.
But forcing your butt into a chair for 30 minutes of mindless typing between meetings might not make any sense. That’s your old view of productivity talking. Putting words on a screen doesn’t equal writing. Not if you can’t focus. Not if you need to prepare for the next thing in your day. Not if you’re stressing about downtown traffic.
So find something that fits into those little holes. Something mindless. Clean your office. Shred some junk mail. Scrub your inbox. All that stuff has to happen anyway. And it doesn’t take much concentration. You’re doing yourself a favor. Later, when your schedule opens up, you’ll have more time to do the work that requires real brain power.
You can be a little late.
We have a bad habit of equating punctuality with productivity. Sure, someone who shows up exactly on time looks awesome.
But you have a kid. Your days of showing up on time in nice clothes are over. Five minutes late, with a mystery stain on your pants. That’s the new you. At least for now. Adjust. Don’t let your boss pass judgment. He either doesn’t have kids, or his wife does everything for him. Or maybe his kids are in college now, and he forgets what hell it was working and raising a family. So screw him and his expectations.
Besides, sometimes what you’re working on in your office matters more than showing up exactly on time.
Sometimes getting something done just takes a little longer than you thought. Your coworkers can wait. So can your spouse. He can watch the baby for a few extra minutes, and you’ll pay him back later. Because if you don’t finish what you’re doing, you may not get to later. So just go ahead and be a little late. It doesn’t make you disorganized. Anyone who knows you, and simply wants results, will understand.
Cluster your chores and errands.
Things you have to do all have a certain shape and color. Some of them look alike. So put them together. For example, you notice a big gas station right next to your grocery store. So you gas up right after shopping. You make that a habit. Presto, you’ve combined two errands into one.
Sounds trivial. But if you have kids, you know how much it sucks to hunt for a gas station when the fuel light comes on.
On that note, try cooking meals in bulk. Maybe you can do it after you get home from buying groceries. Throw a load of clothes in the washer before you start chopping kale.
This is old school multi-tasking. You’re not actually shifting your attention back and forth all the time. But I’ve noticed you can have several household appliances running at once.
You can break anything down into smaller tasks.
You don’t have to clean the whole bathroom this weekend. Just slap on a latex glove and scrub the bowl. It takes less than two minutes, and has the effect of making the whole place look nicer.
You can take care of the moldy shower curtain next time.
This same idea applies to your projects. A giant block might not fit through your sorter puzzle. Back when I was 28, it was easy to carve out seven whole hours on Saturday to finish an article. But “finish an article” doesn’t work for me anymore. So I had to write out what that means.
Most projects break down into infinitely smaller steps. Just gathering and annotating sources counts as progress. Something like that, you can start and stop without losing much momentum.
Same with blogging. You can even do that on your phone now. So that’s how you can get stuff done on a hectic Saturday with a kid crawling around all over the place, but occasionally taking naps.
Build up your capacity to get stuff done.
Years ago, it occurred to me how much time I wasted hopping back and forth between a dozen journals in my field, all of them indexed by different databases with different levels of access.
So I started building one. Now I’ve got my own ever-growing, searchable database with more than a thousand books and articles. I’ve also got folders full of PDFs. It takes a major load off.
I’ve been an organization freak long before the days of Marie Kondo. If I can put similar things in a box, I’ll do it.
Little inconveniences can wear you down fast. Especially when you’re also trying to juggle kids. So eliminate them.
Tired of always doing search and rescue missions for batteries? Then buy lots of renewable ones. Invest in a charger. Put them in a box, and make a battery station in your house or apartment.
Tired of playing musical chairs with your power outlets? Go ahead and indulge yourself with a big surge protector. I’m talking about something like this. Yeah, it turns me on a little:
Tired of doing laundry? Me too, and adding a new person to the family dramatically increases the amount of dirty clothes. Stockpile socks and underwear and towels. Buy two or three of the same shirt — if you can afford to. That way, you can streamline your laundry process.
Tired of running out of dish soap just when you decided to empty the sink? Then buy it in bulk. Your brain will thank you.
The sorter puzzle changes shape.
It’s one thing to plan out your day. Another to adapt it. So you decided you were going to write for two hours, at 8 pm. You sit down and start typing or painting or sculpting or brainstorming.
But nothing happens. Your mind won’t cooperate.
Twenty minutes later, you’re just not feeling it. Hey, be honest with yourself. You know what a flow state feels like. You’re not there.
What happened? Well, your sorter puzzle shifted on you. A square block won’t squeeze through a triangle hole. No matter what you try.
Don’t spend the next hour stressing about a creative block. Hit something else on your list and come back later. That’s how I handle my creative deserts. I clean the house or do yard work. Sometimes I even grade papers. Turns out, sometimes block stems from stress about some loose end. Maybe you need to tie it off before you do anything else.
Listen to your body.
Say your kid goes to sleep as planned. It’s a small miracle. Your spouse went out for coffee with some friends. House, quiet.
You were planning to knock out your chores and then work on a project. But your eyelids feel heavy. You don’t want to leave the couch. So you take a nap. Sure, the sink is brimming with dishes. That blog post you just published is off to a slow start. Don’t worry about all that.
Just take these 20 minutes to rest. You’re not wasting time. Working when you’re tired or unfocused — that’s a waste. You’ll take longer to get the job done, and quality will suffer.
Sometimes I still catch myself trying to write articles or blog posts when I can barely stay awake. Sure, I can push through. But the work I produce will probably suck. And that’s a deal breaker.
So I just go to sleep now.
That’s your new routine. Little moments open up here and there, and you decide right then what needs to happen. If it’s a little sleep, then so be it. Rest is never a waste of time.
Plan for distractions.
You never know when your kid will wake up crying. Or when they’ll need a surprise doctor’s visit. You can’t predict when your food processor will crap out, just when you were making your meals for the week.
If I have to stop in the middle of something, then I have to write down exactly what I was doing and why.
It could be hours before I get to come back to it.
So I’ve had to get a lot better at documenting my thought processes. Hello, Trello. Hello, Google Keep. Hello, post-it notes. These also help me keep track of all the brilliant ideas that slap me in the face at the most inconvenient times — things I can work on later.
Time shuts down when you least expect it. But it also opens up. So if I come across unexpected spare time, I can pounce on it. I don’t spend fifteen minutes just trying to decide what to do.
Don’t kill your down time.
Entrepreneurs love talking about the little sacrifices they make. Success supposedly means no more Netflix.
Well, I call bullshit. Watching a good show is the cornerstone of my day. A good book or movie is fertilizer for your brain. If all you do is produce, you’re going to run out of ideas.
Some of my best ideas come find me when I’m folding laundry and watching Jessica Jones. When that happens, I just thumb-type it down in my phone and plan to write about it the next day.
As a bonus, that primes all the other parts of my brain to start working on the idea overnight, while I’m sleeping. So I wake up, and a post comes practically pouring out. Now that’s a productive day.
So don’t work yourself to death. Utilize your downtime. Structure it so your R&R feeds right back into your output.
Be present, wherever you are.
So I’m sitting in a doctor’s office with my kid. Now’s not the time to try and write an article. Or check email on my phone. I’m with her. We didn’t plan to be here, but we are.
She’s in a good mood still, crawling all over my lap and trying to feed me cheerios. Now she’s climbing up to the window and staring out from the sixth story patient room.
So that’s what I do. An unexpected doctor’s visit about a rash turns into family time. We just sit there and look out the window. She’s amazed. I’m not worried about getting anything done because, well, I’m getting something done right now. Just not the exact thing I planned on. A square hole turned into an octagon, so I reached for an octagon.