Whether you’ve been working from home for a while or used to work in an office, the calmest and most productive part of your day may well have been right after you dropped your kids off at school, topped up your morning coffee, and settled down to work in peace. Oh, how times change. Some school districts began the year with a full in-person option, with many more offering a choice between that, remote learning, and a hybrid model. Now that COVID-19 cases are spiking again nationwide, the pendulum is swinging rapidly toward online schooling, with Boston and several other large cities recently opting to go all-remote.
As a result, your solo WFH days are either numbered or already over, and your life might feel like it’s turning into a story from The Onion. While it’s nice to eat more meals with your children, cut out the time suck of drop-offs and pick-ups, and avoid having to venture out in bad weather, this aspect of the pandemic also presents some challenges. Chief among them is figuring out how to continue doing a good job for your employer while also playing parent and teacher simultaneously. Let’s look at some ways to cut down on the craziness and bring some order back to your days.
Just because you have so much to do right now, it doesn’t mean that you should attempt to do all of it at once. As we shared in a recent post, one of the most potent ways to tap into flow is to focus relentlessly on a single activity, while attempting to multitask will prevent you from getting in the zone and lead to you underperforming. As Avik Chanda puts it in Harvard Business Review’s Ascend magazine, “when we split a finite amount of time allotted to us to do too many unrelated activities, our focus and concentration levels suffer, and with it, our effectiveness and productivity.” In other words, don’t think about how many things you’re capable of doing at once, but how well you can do a single thing right now.
The benefits of unitasking won’t just extend to you being more productive at work. They’ll also make you more effective in helping with your kids’ studies. This can manifest itself in two ways. First, when you commit to doing just one thing at a time (as much as is feasible), you’ll be modeling this behavior to your children. And second, if you can leave your laptop in your office and keep your phone out of sight when you’re helping with their homework, you’ll be more fully engaged and better able to answer questions and problem solve.
The quality of your family time will also improve if you can successfully separate it from work and school (not to mention social media, as we explored in another article). You’ll have more fun, richer conversations, and better relationships with your kids and spouse if you can commit to being fully present when you’re with them. So try setting a consistent daily time for when everyone should step away from their devices and start actually living again, and try to limit the amount of work tasks and homework in the evening and on the weekend.
Keep Intrusions at Bay
One of the biggest productivity killers is being interrupted. UC Irvine professor Gloria Mark’s research shows that the typical office worker is interrupted every 11 minutes, leading to what she and her fellow researchers call a “disruption cost” as you try to re-focus on the task at hand. Whether you’re a longtime WFH pro or had to make the transition during COVID-19, you know that focusing in a dedicated work environment is child’s play compared to wearing employee, parent, and teacher hats at home. In fact, some days might seem like little more than a series of distractions.
In which case, you need to find ways to preserve concentration and limit the number of times small invaders raid your work castle. Simply slipping on your noise-canceling headphones and locking your office door might be tempting, but probably aren’t going to win you any Parent of the Year awards. Instead, you could utilize a couple of old-school suggestions. First, print out a daily calendar, highlight the blocks when you’ll be on calls, writing, or doing other must-focus tasks, and give it to your kids.
Second, you could also use a traffic light-style system of colored dots on your office door, with red meaning stop, yellow indicating knock and wait, and green permitting your kids or significant other to come in. On the flip side, make sure you’re aware of their schedule so you don’t blunder into their workspace when they’re trying to take a test or listen to a teacher’s directions.
Your success in setting boundaries and expectations around your work schedule will largely depend on the age of your children. The younger they are, the less likely they are to understand the implications of “Mom’s going to be busy for the next half an hour” or “Dad needs you to not disturb him until he’s finished his next call” and the importance of you carving out some dedicated work time. But if your kids are in middle or high school, they’ll understand that as nice as it is having you review their English essay or pitch in on their shop class project, you also have important things to do and will show the restraint needed to leave you in peace.
Don’t Do Fake Work
If you’re going to tell your family that you’re focusing on important projects, then you need to actually be working. When UK company Vouchercloud surveyed almost 2,000 of their employees, they found that while these team members might have been at their desks eight hours a day, they only actually worked for two hours and 23 minutes. The rest of their time was frittered away on scrolling social feeds, checking headlines, looking for a new job, and so on.
As tempting as it is to check on the latest sports scores, comment on a few friends’ posts, or, heaven help us, sneak a peek at the latest political news, you need to seize every opportunity to dial in and get your best work done while the going is good. Because soon enough, you’ll have to switch roles and sort out your son’s broken Zoom link, figure out why your daughter’s social studies teacher marked her absent, or pay that almost-overdue electric bill.
So don’t do fake work. Sure, you can’t work without a break all day, but given everything else going on in your home right now, that’s not going to be the case anyway. So if you find your attention waning or have been typing for so long that you can barely see straight, by all means step away, refill your water bottle, get a micro workout in, or step outside to get a few minutes of sun. But don’t stay stuck to your screen under the pretense that you’re still working when you’re not. If you can train yourself to flow when you’re supposed to, you’ll be able to get more done faster and to finish your workday sooner, which will help your whole family.