Editor’s note: “How to Balance Parent and Professional: The Start Finishing Guide to School-Time Productivity” is a guest post by Jenn Labin.
Like so many other parents (and others) out there, I am in a situation of working full time remotely while also managing kids who are in virtual school. There are so many versions of this setup — however, anyone caring for school-age children who are trying to learn remotely are certainly finding their way through new challenges. This post is definitely not about if kids should be learning virtually or how virtual learning should work. What I’m here to share are ideas for being productive yourself, if you are in this situation.
Real talk? I don’t mind the daily “You Can’t Wear Pajamas to Virtual School” battle. I’m not going to complain about how gym class currently consists of watching 5-minute videos together, and then the teacher telling the kids to “practice on their own.”
No, what really sucks the life out of me is the TWENTY-FOUR transitions we manage every day getting them into and out of classes — all while trying to get our work done as well. Switching costs are high between my work and their school and leave me brain-dead and exhausted on the daily.
- First, I reviewed my work environment.
- Then, I created better batching and stacking processes.
- Finally, I used the 5/10/15 split to set myself up for daily success.
How Cluttered Is Your Workspace?
I always joke that at any given time, you can tell how I’m feeling by how cluttered my desk is. If it’s neat and cleaned up, you know that I’m organized and clear on my goals. On the other hand, these days the view is more a “late-night college study session” aesthetic with tons of papers, the occasional used coffee mug, fidget toys, and some random drill bits (?!?).
Using Charlie’s guidance, I took a look at my work space and thought about how it might be affecting my productivity. I imagine I’m rushing back into my office after getting my 1st grader into her next class, and have limited time to get real work done. It would take me precious minutes to figure out what I need to work on, locate my notes, and get ready.
Obviously, the first and most important step was to just clean up my work area and minimize any distractions. Then, I needed a way to maintain a clean space even though the external pressures that helped create the clutter in the first place would still be happening.
For example, I’m going to continue to have work meetings that end as soon as I need to run to help my kids. Rather than grabbing a sticky note, writing down my action items and leaving it on my desk, I’ve reinstated my To-Do app on my phone. I can enter the tasks as they come up, or as I’m running to the kids’ desks. I thought through each of the common ways I accumulate distracting clutter and how I can systemize tasks to keep it clear.
Batch and Stack to Make the Most of Small Time Blocks
Knowing that I reduced the friction to get back into work mode, the next idea was to do a better job of batching like-tasks together and stacking tasks in a way that made sense. Using the concepts of Batching and Stacking from Start Finishing, I’ve been able to increase my productivity.
Today, for example, I have 29 items on my To-Do list. The personal items range from recurring everyday tasks that take a couple of minutes like, “Harvest the garden” and “Order more hand soap” to larger tasks with smaller sub-tasks such as, “Send out invites to virtual birthday party.”
There are also a spectrum of work-related items. I have definitely found myself occasionally trying to answer a single email during a moment of downtime, which just isn’t effective.
During planning periods, I batch similar tasks together. So, checking off attendance for school in their classrooms, printing materials for their daily work, and checking grades are all done online in the same platform and I plan for those tasks to be done in the same block. Likewise, I batch customer video meetings in blocks together so that I’m already in my work “costume” and environment. This is a pretty intuitive idea, and a lot of people do it naturally, but I found giving it a little focused attention was helpful.
Stacking, on the other hand, requires a little more practice to get right.
As Charlie describes in his book, stacking “uses different kinds of physical and mental resources simultaneously.” It’s not multitasking which is more like trying to split your focus between multiple things that need your full attention.
I’ve found that stacking washing the dishes or doing the laundry with reviewing the school day with my kids works well. Also, I’ve identified the purely routine admin tasks for work that can be stacked with other actions. I try to make sure that if I’m filling out some forms or reviewing LinkedIn connections, for example, I also listen to webcast recordings / podcasts.
WARNING: Try not to stack professional work tasks and parenting tasks!
It’s true that usually it’s convenient to combine work items with typical personal jobs (like going for a walk while holding a team call.) However, managing a virtual learning environment, or even just making the most of your quality time with kids, is not a good time to get to inbox zero. The most likely outcome is only being half-present for both worlds.
Use the 5/10/15 to Check In and Check Out of Your Workday
With two important organizational tools in place to help me be more productive, I addressed the issue of early morning and late afternoon chaos. At the end of the work day / school day, I was running away from my desk as fast as I could. I’ve been so tired after managing everything, I just wanted to get to my evening. Because of that habit, I found myself floundering about first thing in the morning because there were so many things to do, and even though they were all written down and prioritized, I just wasn’t sure what to tackle first.
Revisiting the 5/10/15 split has been perfect for getting me back on track.
The idea behind it is that you use your 5 Projects to drive your top tasks for each day. Then, you spend 10 minutes each morning getting organized around those 5 projects and prioritizing for the day. There is also 15 minutes at the end of each day reserved for noting anything that came up and should be prioritized for the next day (or later).
This structure has been so helpful to make sure:
- I only have five projects prioritized at any time. For my personal situation, I have to count each of my kids’ virtual school management as one project (two projects total). So, I really only have time for 2-3 other projects at a time.
- The first 10 minutes of each workday are an important level-setting exercise for me so I don’t jump into tasks that may not be the most urgent.
- I invest in my future success by emptying my brain of trapped action items for 15 minutes at the end of each workday.
Balancing Roles: Parental and Professional
Honestly, there are so many great ideas in Start Finishing I could use to help get back to higher productivity, but I found these three to be a great place to start:
- Nothing helps create clarity like a clear workspace.
- Efficiency is increased exponentially by using stacking and batching on tasks.
- And, the 5/10/15 split is essential for making sure momentum isn’t lost overnight. (Tweet this.)
If you find yourself challenged with managing virtual school while still trying to be productive in your work, I hope you consider these steps for reducing friction while jumping back and forth. Whether you choose these steps, or others from the book, they can really help you feel more productive and effective as you balance being a parent and professional.
Don’t have your copy of Start Finishing yet? There’s no better time than right now to get your copy and start putting these and other techniques to work to get control of your busy work and home life. Get yours here.