Last Friday I got a call at 11:20am. My daughter’s kindergarten, never a good sign. And it wasn’t — Maya had a fever and needed to be picked up.
“Behold the joys of parenting. That’s that for my focused work day”, I thought.
Then I realized something. Parenting and work don’t always mix, but it’s not all bad. In the past three years I’ve completely redesigned my work habits — for the better. For me, parenting has been the ultimate productivity booster.
Why is that? I find 5 reasons this holds true:
Maybe you’re familiar with the situation: “I’ll get this done by 5:30pm and call it a day”. Come 8pm and you’re still ‘finishing up’. I used to do this all the time. And despite the clear pattern, I somehow always believed myself — only to find myself working away at 10pm. It was simply too easy to get swept up in the flow of work.
There’s a simple rule called Parkinson’s law: work expands to fill the time you give it — whatever that time is. If you allocate a task a full work day, it’ll take a full day (and usually a bit more). If you give the same task 3 hours, it will take you 3(ish) hours. Why? Because a large part of our working time is not positive flow. It’s insecurity as to “is this good enough?”.
Hence, deadlines work best when they’re truly hard deadlines.
With kids it’s almost exclusively hard deadlines. When I know I have to pick my daughter up at 4:30pm it’s amazing what I can get done. Like magic, tasks I normally would have worked on until late in the evening somehow get finished. Because there’s no renegotiating when daycare closes, when the kid’s hungry or when bedtime is.
Best of all — with kids it’s deadlines you want to meet. When you know you’ll get to spend the evening with your child and then wind down with your spouse, you have a hard deadline you’re truly incentivised to keep.
Instead of asking “Can it be done?” you now ask “How will it be done?”. And that’s a game-changer.
Our brain works best when it gets to focus. But only for short bursts of time — then it needs rest. Prof. Barbara Oakley, PhD, instructor of the popular massive open online course, ‘Learning How to Learn’, with over 2 million registered students, calls this the focused and the diffused mind. To learn and work optimally, we need both.
The focused mind is at work when we’re concentrating on a task, no distractions. The diffused mind on the other hand, is all about the distractions. Diffused thinking happens when you allow your thoughts to wander freely, making connections at random, letting unstructured thoughts take shape at the back of your mind. It’s the diffused mind at work when you’re singing in the shower and have that “aha!” moment.
That’s why experts recommend taking breaks. For example, psychologist Anders Ericsson’s extensive research shows that most people cannot do focused work (Ericsson calls it ’deliberate practice’) for more than an hour. Then you should take a break and go for a walk. In a typical desk job though that’s easier said than done.
With a kid, taking breaks becomes the norm. Before my daughter went to daycare a typical day could look like this: Take Maya to the park — work — pick her up for food and nap time — work — coordinate with babysitter — work — pick Maya up again. I didn’t average more than four hours of “real” work per day, but all those breaks in between allowed my diffused brain to kick in. While I’d walk to the park my brain would passively mull over a presentation, a financial model, or the meeting prep for the next day. When it came time to sit down by my laptop, my diffused mind had structured my thoughts, and my focused mind could get right to the action.
Many parents I know make use of this by having family time between 5 and 8pm, and then doing a last hour of work after the kids have gone to bed. Done right, this break can be much more brain-friendly than working right through the evening.
A successful entrepreneur once said: “When you feel you don’t have enough time — halve the time. When a project feels understaffed — reduce your resources. Only then will things start to work”. His point, beautifully simply put, was that only real scarcity will make us see what’s truly important. And having kids inevitably leads to time (and energy) scarcity.
It’s painfully true — in normal office life, we fill our time with administration, meetings, management, email, and sadly — with tasks that aren’t that important at all.
It’s the big “efficiency” illusion: “More done in less time”. A CEO may read his emails on toilet breaks. A COO may find ingenious ways to reduce time spent on a task. A lawyer may craft a complex foldering system for sorting contracts.
But consider the effectiveness perspective: ”More of the right things done”. Maybe the CEO should be limiting needless cc’ing on internal emails. Maybe the COO should eliminate some tasks completely. Maybe the lawyer should be shredding 90% of his documents. Less time is okay – fewer, more meaningful tasks is better.
Faced with true time scarcity you’re forced to be effective, i.e. do only the right things and less of the ‘busy work’.
Effectiveness, at its best, is working with your boss to figure out where you can make the largest contribution; sharpening the strategy of your company; asking your customers the high-quality questions to really move the needle; or cutting out three of five projects to get more focus and up your game.
As a parent, effectiveness is your best friend.
In line with the previous point, parenting forces prioritization — on a radical scale. I’m currently seven months pregnant with my second child and looking at handing over tasks during my maternity leave. As an entrepreneur I’m not in a ‘typical’ situation — I cannot simply clock out and leave it all. So over the past few weeks I’ve had to write down all my work tasks and figure out a) how much time I realistically have available, and b) where my input truly adds value.
It’s made me realize two things. First, I’ve been forced to see the variety of tasks I currently do (despite being a natural-born prioritizer). And secondly, it’s made me realize that sometimes you have to say ‘no’ to even enjoyable tasks or projects when someone else could do them equally well (or, let’s face it, better).
But what happens afterwards is the most beautiful thing. The clarity and space that radical prioritization provides helps you stand back from life and see it whole. You’re no longer doing things because ‘they need to get done’, you’re doing them because ‘these tasks truly matter’ and because ‘you have unique gifts that make you the best to do them’.
You feel calm, focused, driven. And what better source or motivation is there?
A mouse spends all day running around in a small wheel in his cage. He runs and runs, only stopping for sleep and food. The running makes him feel busy, accomplished, strong. One day, he notices that the door to his cage is open. Slowly, he approaches the door. Hesitantly, he peeks out. He takes one step out, two. Then he makes a run for it. Outside the cage he still spends most of his days running. But now he runs to hide from the cat, to cross the field undetected, to catch a piece of cheese left behind. Now his running has meaning.
Ask yourself: Are you running for a purpose, or are you just busy running?
It all boils down to this for me: In the world of work we do so many things that are meaningless, unnecessary or a waste of time, with the sole purpose of fitting in, looking busy or appearing successful. David Graeber of the London School of Economics raised quite a discussion a few years ago by showing how 30–40 percent of people feel their jobs “do not make a meaningful contribution to the world”. He argues that too many jobs (and no, not entry-level roles, but high-paying professional services) are ‘bullshit jobs’ built on status and jockeying for power, providing little or no real economic value.
The problem is that our sense of self-worth is so tied to these jobs and our success in them, that we dare not even question the status quo for fear it will break us. It’s easier to just stay busy running.
I’m not saying every parent feels the same way I do. There are different parenting situations, and most parents probably never truly reflect on it. But having children, or anyone else in your life you care about more than life itself, has made at least me look differently at life and work.
Having kids has given life more meaning — not only more purpose to my day by having a child to care for, but more purpose for doing the work I do, for wanting to succeed and for accepting if I don’t.
Realizing that failure at work doesn’t mean I’m failing at life has not only given me peace of mind, but allowed me to take more risks. That perspective helps me not only cut down my hours, take more breaks, do less busy work, and prioritize radically. It also helps me be happier.
And that’s a truly life-changing productivity booster.
Originally published at medium.com