To do work productively you need time and space. But this year we’ve collectively experienced a blur of time. And for those of us able to work from home, we’ve also experienced the blurring of the clearly established border between work life and home life. While it’s nice to save on gas and other commuting costs and just roll out of bed, the lack of a traditional office means the home space contains new responsibilities.
The work/life balancing act that was precarious before the pandemic has been thrown out the window and the burden of this disruption has been acutely felt by working mothers. Remote learning in schools means you are not simply a working parent, but also the principal, school bell, taskmaster, on-demand snack chef, technology expert, and photographer of every scrap of paper that needs to be turned in for school—all while trying to maintain a modicum of productivity in your work by navigating Zoom meetings and answering emails in carefully carved out pockets of time. It is, to say the least, challenging. But there are a few strategies for maintaining this balancing act and your sanity when things are most definitely out of balance.
Lean on routine
If your kids are engaged in remote learning and meeting with a class on Zoom, then you have a set schedule to guide the day. Take the time to experiment and personalize your schedule, finding the best time to navigate work and play and to stick with it. When kids learn a routine, their expectations of you are well-established. If mid-afternoon is park time, then they’ll look forward to that time to enjoy. If mommy work time is well-established, then they’ll begin to develop habits and expectations that fall into the rhythm you establish. Every kid is different and everyone’s workflow is different, but trying to keep a consistent schedule day in and day out will help navigate the chaos of your work sphere and home sphere colliding.
Divide & conquer
You always want to avoid multi-tasking. The problematic function of our work reality, even in normal times, is that you face constant interruption. You receive a push notification or a text, a new email pops up while you are crafting an important one, or a coworker has a question—dealing with continual distractions isn’t exactly new. The solution? Schedule the interruption before you get interrupted. Divide work projects into stages and segments. Plan to do a fast draft, then revise later. Even when things require a lot of concentration, you don’t need to block off multiple hours; you can instead tackle your work in pieces and anticipate the inevitable interruption.
Create a space
If you have a dedicated office in your home that is an entire room, congratulations. If not, it is important to create a work zone. This has an important mental component too—getting “in the zone” works better with a physical setup, but requires a mental setup too. Find the quietest, clutter-free space you can and maybe grab some headphones too. With the ritual of the commute gone, creating some alternative that allows you to shift modes is important. You can also ease the transition from mom-mode to work-mode by a simple practice that guides you to devote your concentration to work. Take a few minutes of sipping coffee or engaging in a minute of deep-breathing, a mantra, or a visualization exercise before you dive into work.
Foster independence & patience
In this current situation, you have a real opportunity to get very involved in teaching your kids daily habits that can be good for all of you in the long run. For example, kids are learning how to use Zoom and navigate the internet as much as you are in your adult job. Sit with them to make sure they really grasp the tech they’re being asked to use every day. Maybe you can even work up to the point where they can photograph their own homework to upload later. Kids of a certain age can also learn some home basics like getting a snack for themselves, if you keep healthy snacks and bowls within their reach, and finding a way to entertain themselves for short stretches.
But one important thing kids can learn right now that you desperately need is patience. Waiting ten minutes to get what they want isn’t the end of the world. Just as you ideally can rely on your partner, your back-up, or their teachers, you can also see how much your kids are able to step up to the plate and help too. Help them learn when you need quiet time to work and when you are able to give them your full, undivided attention.
Everyone needs 5-10 minutes to themselves. Yes, that means you too. Set a calendar reminder and use a timer where you reserve a bit of time to do absolutely nothing work- or parent-related—no reading the news, no watching shows, no emails, no snack fixing. Let yourself listen to your own thoughts. In fact, let yourself have a single complete thought. It can be as simple as doing a short meditation or going for a walk around the block sans technology. On days when you are bombarded with interruptions and being pulled in all directions, you need to find a way to recenter yourself and rebuild your resilience. Sure, all the things you need to do for “self-care” should be a priority, but also just schedule downtime and let yourself be unproductive.
Meet the moment
Redefine success to meet the moment—because this moment is about survival. If you are less productive than usual, that’s okay. Allow yourself the kindness of admitting the situation is hard and that you may not be as productive as you’d like. Practically speaking, this means you may need to schedule more time for a project than it would normally take. If you are goal-oriented, this means adjusting the timeline to meet a goal whenever possible—whether that’s extending a goal by a week, a month, or even a year. Take the time to celebrate small achievements. And if you’re not achieving as much as you’d like, recognize that this moment will pass.