It’s 12:51 p.m. on a Tuesday. The kids are finishing up their lunch and my husband’s car is rolling in the driveway. He is fresh off of a 9-hour shift at work and has been up for 12 hours. When he comes in the door, there’s no time to even shower the day off, because I am going to need to get in the work zone quickly.
I have a meeting in nine minutes and he’ll be responsible for childcare. He comes inside, takes off his coat, we exchange a quick hello while I gather my laptop, shove a string cheese in my mouth, and sprint upstairs. I do my best not to huff and puff at the start of my Zoom meeting, but I definitely sound like someone who just finished a marathon.
This scenario is the same for many families. The pandemic has exacerbated the childcare crisis nationwide and left many like us: living out this daily passing-ships routine for more than a year.
Before my husband comes home, I do my best to work in small stints. I get four minutes here, another six or seven there. If I call upon our new BFF Blippi, I might get 20-30 minutes of uninterrupted work time while my kids are occupied.
Working in short spurts has forced me to learn how to get in the work zone quickly, and to work efficiently when I have the time, no matter how short that length of time may be.
It took me a while to figure out how to quickly shift from mom mode to work mode. I spent many months in 2020 frustrated. When I did have an hour or more to work alone, I felt like I wasn’t able to focus. By the time I was done settling in, checking my email, and updating my planner, the hour was gone. I would finally be starting whatever task was next on my list, only to hear the familiar “MOMMMMMMM! I need a wipeeeeee!” from the bathroom.
Focus lost. Clock reset. Rinse and repeat all day long.
I started implementing these small changes over the past few months and have noticed that they really helped to make the most of my short work spurts. Below are my top five tips on how to focus on the work zone and make the most of limited time.
Before I sit down to work, whether it’s for two minutes or two hours, I slip on a pair of shoes. Not socks or slippers, but real shoes. Sometimes it’s sneakers, but most of the time it’s a pair of Birkenstock sandals or cheap rubber flip flops. This small act helps me feel more like I’m at the office and not lounging around. There is something about having shoes on my feet that helps me feel grounded, focused, and ready to work.
I know what some of you are thinking – shoes in the house? Gross! This is why I have a pair of Birkenstocks that I only wear inside. Mud season crisis averted!
It might sound silly, but give it a try, it might help you stay on task!
Stop checking your email.
I check my work email three times per day: in the morning, at lunch, and in the evening. Always the striver towards the elusive inbox zero, this was a big change for me.
Historically, checking in and responding to emails has been more like text messaging to me. Rapid opening, rapid response. I used to view my inbox like a to-do list. Having too many things in it made me feel anxious and behind. I also felt like it was rude to not respond to an email if I could see it there, begging for my attention. My goal used to be to attend to my inbox as quickly as possible in an effort to eliminate stress and guilt.
With set chunks of time to check my email during the day, my inbox feels far more manageable. I used to stress that I would miss something that needed a speedy reply. Now I know that if someone really needs me, they have my phone number, and will reach out.
When I have a half-hour because my kids are plugged into The Matrix (that’s what we call screen time around here), my first go-to is no longer to check my email. I don’t even open up that browser tab. Without the distraction of my inbox, I am able to get into the work zone quickly and make the most of that glorious time where no one needs or their butt wiped, no fights have broken out, and the kids are distracted by a mountain of snacks and the television.
Put down your phone.
Along with checking email, how many times do you sit down and scroll your social media feeds before settling into work? Stopping that task has saved me far more time than I care to admit. I also put my phone on vibrate and place it on the desk face down. When I get a notification, I try to ignore it unless I’m expecting a phone call that can’t wait. This helps me stay distraction-free when my kid-free work time is limited.
Ditch your planner.
I know, I know… planners are cute. They’re fun to fill out, doodle in, and set up. You can even get ones with coloring pages and stickers! Be still my 90s girl heart.
But around the same time I had the revelation about my email and phone cutting into my work time, I also recognized a huge timesuck in the use of a planner. I realized that I was spending lots of time each day recording things into a paper planner from digital systems that were already in place. While they’re pretty to look at and I love any excuse to use my collection of colorful markers and pens, the paper planner wasn’t keeping me more organized, it was using up my valuable time and getting in the way of getting work done.
Utilize batch work.
If you, like past me, are a planner-user, you’re probably wondering how I keep everything straight without one. The following combination has kept me far more organized than a planner: a notebook with a running to-do list, and batch work.
In a highly popular blog post and podcast episode, Jenna Kutcher defined batch working as:
highly-focused, topic-specific forms of working. It is dividing your workflow into different days/hours of one topic instead of jumping around from task to task.
This method of working has drastically changed how I schedule my day. I no longer have chunks of general work time, but instead set up my Google calendar into two categories: meetings and tasks. Meetings are one color, tasks are another. At the beginning of the week, I look at my task list and break things down by category. All of the bookkeeping and finance work, writing and editing, etc. each have their own block of time. Here’s what it looks like: