Working from home with a baby and a toddler is a wild ride. I suddenly need to be my professional self and my mom-self simultaneously. There is no longer such a thing as work-life balance. I can’t even imagine if my kids were older, and I had to attempt distance learning too.
Like so many moms out there right now, I’m hustling during naptime, getting work done before the kids wake up and after they go to sleep, and using weekends to catch up on email and cross things off my to-do list.
But these moments of uninterrupted work time are few and far between. They don’t account for the majority of the time when I’m managing deadlines, joining conference calls, and replying to emails that require my “immediate attention,” while cutting crusts off PB&Js and eating leftover nuggets from my kids’ plates.
You know what actually requires my immediate attention? My toddler who’s yelling from the other room that he can wipe his bottom all by himself.
Most days are chaos—there’s no question about it—but I have found a few tricks that help me maximize the precious time when my kids’ naptimes align or they’re independently playing for more than a few minutes at a time.
Read on for what’s working for me.
1. Don’t Make a Schedule, Make a List
Everyone everywhere is pushing the schedule thing right now. I’m going to go against popular opinion on this one because the stress of trying to stick to the schedule makes things harder for me. In our typical life, we loosely follow a schedule for structure and routine, but these days aren’t typical and trying to force them into that box isn’t happening over here. Leaning hard into expecting the unexpected is my new thing.
What I will say is to make a list. Actually, make lots of lists. I have three of them: long-term, short-term, and today.
Long-term is the master list. It helps me keep track of every single thing I know is coming and to plan ahead so I don’t find myself surprised by a deadline or way behind on a project. It includes the name of the overall project but not a breakdown of every step required to see it through.
The short-term list outlines everything I need to accomplish this week. This is where I’m breaking down bigger projects into individual steps. I update it throughout the week as new things pop up (expect the unexpected, right?), and the satisfaction that comes from crossing off completed items is real.
The today list is what it sounds like. I ask myself: what are the three to five things that must get done today? When I do have a few moments to myself, this where my focus goes. If I worked from my long-term or short-term lists, I would be overwhelmed with the number of items and have trouble deciding where to start. Narrowing it down to the three to five must-dos for today helps my focus and efficiency. Anything else that gets done after that is just icing on the cake.
2. Shut Off Your Email
No, not all day, but that would be nice, wouldn’t it? When I see an incoming message pop up in the corner of my computer or hear the ding of a notification, I am immediately taken out of whatever task I’m in the middle of accomplishing, and I’m now giving my attention to another task. And then my email pings again, and I’m in the middle of three tasks. And so on and so forth until I’m in the middle of everything, but I’m accomplishing nothing.
Closing email is a scary thing, I know. Figure out what feels like a reasonable amount of time to be unavailable on email for your workplace. During my kids’ nap-time, I can generally expect to get at least an hour, sometimes two, of uninterrupted work time, and I’m comfortable being away from email for that period.
Plus, if people really, truly need you immediately, chances are, they know where to find you–and they’ll find you. My colleagues text me when something is urgent, which gives me peace of mind when I’m not on email. If this isn’t the norm in your workplace, consider notifying a few of the people who would be most likely to need you. Let them know you’re not checking email for the next hour while you power through projects, and they can text you if they need your immediate attention. Then, breathe a sigh of relief because now you can focus.
3. Move Your Phone to Another Room
I know I said people can reach you urgently via text if they need you, but most of what comes through on my phone isn’t urgent, and it takes me out of whatever productivity zone I’m in. One minute, I’m coming in hot getting my email down to inbox zero, and the next I’m down an Instagram rabbit hole into the latest news on Harry and Meghan’s move to LA.
If you’re really worried that you’ll miss something urgent, allow yourself to check your phone every 30 minutes, or whatever span of time feels comfortable for you and your job.
4. Set a Timer
I don’t set New Year’s resolutions, but I do set a mantra to live by every year, and this year’s is “better than nothing.” It translates in various ways to different aspects of my life, but in the case of work, it’s the idea that done is better than perfect.
How much time have you spent going over and over that story, that presentation, that email, that whatever it is, until it’s absolutely perfect? For me, it’s a lot. It’s too much. I can indulge this tendency in my normal life, but once again, this isn’t normal life.
Deadlines are a great motivator for me, even if they’re not real. When I’m working under a time limit, I stop overthinking, overanalyzing, overediting, and overeating. That last part’s actually not true, but it would be nice. Either way, when I give myself a limited amount of time, my efficiency goes up.
5. Use Every Minute
I’m guilty of looking at the clock and thinking, “Well, I can’t get anything meaningful done in the seven minutes before I need to feed the baby.”
This partially true: I might not be able to make great headway on something, but instead of chalking it up to lost time, I make it a challenge. How much can I write in seven minutes? How many emails can I clear from my inbox in seven minutes? How many quick things from one of my longer to-do lists can I finish?
These small pockets of time where I’m tempted to call it a loss add up over time, and taking advantage of them makes a difference in the long run.