Feeling productive these days is hit or miss. Some days, I can’t believe how much I accomplish in 24 hours. I’m super mom! Then, the very next day, it’s dinner time, and I feel like I have nothing to show for my day except that I’ve unloaded and reloaded the dishwasher. And as common as those low productivity days are and as hard as I try to fight against them, sometimes that’s just the way it is.
Long days spent at home, juggling work and a baby, come with challenges. Our routine has changed a lot in the last couple of weeks, and I’ve learned a few things along the way that have helped me to maximize my productivity as I balance working from home and caring for a baby.
If you’re looking for simple ways to feel more productive and minimize distractions, here are eight things you can put into practice that have worked for me.
1. Use your evenings to set yourself up for success
Since we’ve been staying home all day every day (minus daily walks), I want my space to be clean and uncluttered. It helps me to focus. If I wake up in the morning to a sink full of dishes, I will absolutely spend 20 minutes clearing it out before I can sit down and focus on my work.
That’s the first of many small cleaning breaks. And all of those quick cleaning breaks add up to the precious time I could be using in a better way. At the end of the day, as much as I’d love to lay on the couch (and don’t get me wrong, I do plenty of that too), I always spend a few minutes cleaning things up. I do this while mindlessly watching TV or listening to a podcast. It’s relaxing and makes me know I’ll wake up to a somewhat put-together home with fewer distractions pulling me away from my work.
2. Discover your productive times
It’s tricky trying to force productivity. As a writer, I don’t always feel inspired and am not always in the mood to work. Whatever your profession is, I’m sure you can relate. But I can’t simply wait for creativity to spark, I need to be creative and inspired specifically between 10am-noon when my daughter naps.
If you have a similar situation where you need to be productive at certain times, figure out what those times are for you. I’ve played around with this a bit to discover the hours I feel most inspired to work. I tried waking up early to write before my daughter woke up, but found that instead of knocking out a story, I spent the time waking up and sipping coffee, searching for my focus. I’ve now learned that 6am is a great time for me to get my workout done as it doesn’t require me to think, I just get to it. Then, I know I have nap times throughout the day to do my work.
3. Make a long term and short term to-do list
To-do lists are a great way to feel productive and accomplished, checking off items one by one. But when your to-do list gets really long, it can become overwhelming. I used to write out my daily to-do list and would get carried away. My Monday to-do list would suddenly include 20 action items that popped into my head. In reality, if I got those 20 items done in the next month, it would be considered a success.
To make to-do lists more approachable, create two. One is the bigger list of items you want to accomplish within either the week or the month and the other is for the day. Keep your daily to-do list around six items, which makes it more likely that you’ll actually complete the items.
It’s helpful to write your daily to-do list at night so you wake up with a list of items to tackle. Make your list specific, and you’ll be more inclined to finish things and check them off. I used to write things like “clean the house,” a relatively vague goal. Instead, make your items more specific, like “clean the upstairs bathroom,” and it’s easier to accomplish that goal.
4. Write to-do items as if/when-then format
To make my to-do list even more specific, I format some of it as, “If (or When) ____ occurs, then I will _____.” Psychology Today notes that this kind of planning helps your brain to detect and seize opportunities. Motherhood is unpredictable. And life right now in general is particularly unpredictable. While I want to accomplish everything on my daily to-do list, it’s not always in the stars. I reformat some items so that when certain scenarios do occur, I know exactly how I’ll use that time. For example, if my daughter naps for more than one hour, I will use that second hour to prep dinner.
5. Multitask when your kids are awake
I’m not saying ignore your baby or your kids, but if there are things you can easily do to be productive while also caring for them, put that into practice. Think about the little things you do each day that take away from your productive time. For example, if you find yourself constantly washing baby spoons and bibs during precious “free” time, see if you can do that while your little one is eating. If you’re able to stand at the sink and tidy up while also watching and chatting with your baby, you’ve maximized this time while your baby is occupied and sitting in one place.
6. Fully focus when kids are napping
And while I suggest multitasking while kids are up, I’ve found the opposite to be true when your kids are napping. It can be tempting to jump into a number of projects all at once when you finally get that elusive hour of uninterrupted time. Personally, I have found that this makes me accomplish less overall, and by the end of the day, it feels like I half did a number of things while actually finishing nothing. Start and finish a task before moving on to the next.
7. Turn your phone to airplane mode
And to really focus, I turn my phone on airplane mode. Especially with everyone staying at home more, I’ve been in some really fast and furious text chains. I have my group texts of college friends, a text chain for my friends that want to discuss celebrity gossip/Bravo, my mom friend text chain. It’s not uncommon that I look away from my phone for an hour and come back to 100 messages.
I love these group texts, and it keeps me feeling sane and connected. But it also can steal away precious productive time when my daughter is napping. My best approach is to either leave my phone in another room, or turn it on airplane mode as I work. I do jump into chains super late, but it’s fun to read a 100-text saga after an hour of work.
8. Ask for help in advance
As the primary caregiver, I take on the bulk of taking care of the baby and the home. But with my husband working from home full time right now, I’ve learned to ask for help (actually, I’m still working on this, but I am getting better!). Though I’m working part-time and my husband is working full-time, it’s still OK to ask for help. Plus, he does love having extra time with the baby since he is home all day. Instead of him bopping in when he’s free and playing with her while I sit there, not knowing how long he is available, I plan in advance. I turn those pop-ins into scheduled hang out time. It might be just 10 minutes between his meetings so I can shower, or him taking the dog and the baby out for a walk so I can write for 20 minutes. Those small moments add up to a lot at the end of the week.