Professional Parents who I’ve worked with frequently struggle to find balance in their life where they don’t have to sacrifice success at work for success at home. We know that it takes a certain amount of time and effort to achieve a high level of success at work. After all, if you’ve found that working 12 hour days gets the job done best, you’ll always continue to work 12 hours.
If you’re now forced to work 10 hour days or less, you will feel you were not getting as much done, and therefore not likely to get as much work done.
This leads to a feeling I call guilt-guilt. You feel guilty if you don’t put in the hours. You feel guilty if you continue the way you have been going as you’re neglecting other areas of your life.
Often times, in my clients at least, this leads to in-action and stagnation. Often I’ve found that people will neither progress as fast in their career nor gain that Holy Grail of work-life balance. Your attention is split between work and non-work. And when this happens, neither task gets the focus it deserves.
We’ve spoken about the power of focus in a few other blog posts, so I will not dwell on it here. However, we will look at how this balance can be achieved without feeling guilty and without losing out on either account.
A recent study has shown that most people are only productive less than 30% of the time as work. Productivity time here being describes as time which is spent fully focused on one task. The study found one software firm where productive focused work accounted for an average of only 20 minutes per employee per day!
Another term I use, optimum productive time is time which is spent doing one task and being in a state of “flow” where you literally zone in on that task at the expense of other things happening around you. Have you ever been so focused on something that someone has come up to you, started talking to you, and you weren’t even aware that they were talking until they raised their voice: “Hello?!”Or we’ve responded with verbal nods and then thought to ourselves: “What did Sarah just say?” We’ve all been there! Fortunately for us (and not Sarah), this is valuable time and the amount of work we get done is huge compared to when our attention is split.
Two Projects and a Baby
It has widely been documented that it takes time for us to get into that “flow” state and this ranges from 10-15 minutes per instance of focus. So if you have two projects on the go, you may have booked in some time in the morning to work on both projects and then have meetings relating to both of these in the afternoon.
Your day might go like this: Project 1 is scheduled in from 9am – 10:30am. You switch to Project 2. Before you can do this, you check your emails. It takes 15 minutes to get through them. You move on to Project 2 and it takes another 15 minutes to get into flow. You’re half way through and someone comes over to ask you about plans for lunch. As you’re going into flow, its time for lunch.
When you come back a little early from lunch, it takes you 15 minutes to get back into flow, and 10 minutes of your meeting is spent in pleasantries with the project team and the director of the other department. It takes another 4 minutes before you feel like you’re falling asleep. You find yourself with 3 more tasks to do for the project and as soon as you finish with that meeting, your boss adds on another task – though not before asking you about your recent trip to Malta with the family. You try to get emails cleared before the next meeting and the phone rings. Your partner wants you to come home on time so that you can pick up your toddler from the childminder’s as you’re invited to dinner with a family friend. Before you can get into flow, it’s time for your second meeting. You barely make it on time to the childminder’s place, and all you want to do at this point is sit down in front of the TV with a large glass of wine.
The above is a fairly generous account of how much time can be lost to switching between tasks. And although you managed to get some work done, it was nowhere near as much as you pictured yourself doing when you were planning the day the previous night.
Now let’s chunk together the related tasks so that there is less time lost and rerun that scenario.
You realise you have some natural breaks in your day and decide to plan around that. In the morning, you start work on Project 1. You made a few phone calls yesterday and got the meeting for Project 1 moved to the morning citing other meetings and tasks from your director. No one wants to take it up with your director as to why they’ve given you tasks which overlap with your meeting, so they graciously accept. You’re in flow soon after starting working on the project and you stop by your friend’s desk on your way to the meeting to plan lunch. When you’re in the meeting, you’re already clear on what you need to do so you don’t take on too many more tasks and push back on another department’s requests and ask them to discuss with your manager where necessary. That buys you more time.
You clear and respond to some emails before lunch. When you come back from lunch, your partner calls to ask you to pick up your child on you way home. You start working on project 2. It takes you 15 minutes to get into flow, but your focus hasn’t shifted when you go into the meeting. Someone tries to interrupt your state and when they come and talk to you, you start the conversation with “How can I help you?” instead of “Hey, how are you?” which is an open invitation for more conversation. They swiftly move on to bother someone else and waste their time instead. Your meeting goes well and you go straight home from the meeting. You stop off at the childminder’s place and have plenty of time to have a chat before you have to get home and be ready for that wonderful dinner with great company, absolutely stress free.
As you can see, having fewer transition times leads to better work flow and productivity. As your state is not interrupted, you’ll get a lot more done and be ahead of schedule on a few things without making many other adjustments.
More Work, Less Time
Of course there are other things you can do to make sure you have squeezing the juice out of each day and making sure you have more time for your family on a daily basis. In order to maximise the benefits of the time you save from switching tasks, you must also eliminate distractions from your productive time. Here’s a few things you can do which will save you those precious moments and claw back more time for you:
- Close your Outlook/emails – Having notifications pop up each time we have an email come through (and some of us have easily 70+ emails coming in daily!) can be distracting. Each one of those is screaming at you: “LOOK AT ME I’M THE MOST IMPORTANT THING IN THE WORLD!” Except you know it is not. Unless you are expecting an email which will help you with your current task, close the email program completely. Put on an Out of Office reply stating that you’re not available by email and if it’s anything urgent, to call you or come find you. You will find that most people will be happy to wait for a reply from you.
- Cut out the chatter – We’ve touched on this earlier. People have a habit of wanting to kill time (yours and theirs) by having casual conversations with you. Eliminate these by telling people you’ll be happy to talk at lunch time or during a break. And as mentioned above, start conversations with “How can I help you?” and advise people you are working on a task with a very tight deadline. They will understand, I promise you.
- Mobile phone on silent – This might sound like an obvious one, but as busy parents, we often feel the need to keep our mobile devices near us “just in case”. Very rarely does an actual emergency present itself. However you can prepare for these by giving the important people in your life (spouse, childminder, kids’ school) the number for your workplace so they can contact you in case an emergency does happen. Now you can put the distraction machine away.
- Apply the 80/20 rule. When you have to choose between several important tasks, figure out which task will help you the most. What can you do now that will have an impact on other tasks, other projects or other people the most? What is the hardest task to do? Usually this is also the most important or will yield the biggest return for your time invested.
There are other ways to get the most out of your time too. Of course your mind-set and psychology is a big part of this.
You can find out more by checking out my online video programme: Close the GAP. It’s a short course packed with actionable advice on how you can add up to 2 hours more free time to your day, and how you can double your productivity so that you can excel both in your career, and your non-work life.
This course is guaranteed to free up more time for you to spend with your loved ones.