The productivity strategy you do not need to feel guilty about

FullSizeRender-3When people track time, they discover all kinds of things, but one of the most common is that they do not work as many hours as they think they do. We (and I include myself in this statement after analyzing my 8784 hours -- yes, I overestimated too!) have a tendency to remember our busiest weeks as typical. Not only that, our mental image of a typical week does not involve anything unusual pulling us away from work.

In life, however, these things do happen, both the planned (dentist appointment) and the unplanned (a quick Friday morning trip to the urgent care clinic!). If someone generally works 8-6, this would seem to be 50 hours a week. Yet often there is at least an hour of non-work stuff (lunch, breaks) during a day, bringing the total down to 45 hours. Leave early on Friday and the total comes down to 43 hours. If every other week brings at least a 2-hour diversion, you are down to 42 hours on average.

I don't know that there is a good way around these diversions. You can minimize some with back-up care, but not all. For the kid-related ones, it seems fair for couples to share, but this is often not the way it goes. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, women with full-time jobs are more likely than men with full-time jobs to have worked fewer than 35 hours during the week due to absence. The absence rate in the particular comparison I am linking to (granted, from a few years ago) was 2.7 percent for men and 5.1 percent for women. To be sure, this is not all family-related. Nonetheless, in the various ways that inequality gets exacerbated, this is a real one.

So what to do? I know many of my readers are committed to keeping their careers going full-throttle during the little kid years. Success does not require working around the clock, but it does require intense hours at times. It also requires that one not feel constantly frantic about falling behind. The strategy many parents use is to purposefully work late one or maybe two nights per week.

Sometimes this is a source of guilt, but I do not think it should be. First, there are 7 days in a week. Working late 1-2 nights (which could include working late while traveling) means you are not working late 5-6 nights. 5-6 is a lot more than 1-2. Think 168 hours, not 24.

Second, if you fall behind, you are going to wind up working late right before deadlines anyway. Planning the late nights ahead of time, before the situation is dire, means less stress for you and your family. Kids know that Tuesday is coming, and Tuesday is the night they go to Grandma's, or it is the night Daddy makes pizza, or that Gail comes and they all play Monopoly after doing homework.

Third, while the usual narrative is that a late night means work is encroaching into family time, if you are the primary parent (or even an equal one) of young children, family will encroach into work time with some frequency. Sometimes, for people with job flexibility, this is for fun, wonderful, chosen reasons (attending the school play!). Sometimes it is for soul-crushing ones (the vomiting child who must be picked up after you have driven an hour in the opposite direction). Smart workplaces take this in stride. Others require formal write-ups if someone shows up at 8:02 instead of 8:00. But in either case, working late is evening the situation back up.

Many people use a "split shift" (working after the kids go to bed) to increase their hours. That can work too, but working straight through on one night might buy you an evening off for a little leisure time -- no small thing for a working parent. Working late one night a week can also allow you to be seen, and if you are needing to dash off to pick up a sick kid here and there, being seen working late some nights has major political benefits. Perhaps it should not. But it does. And many people have told me that it feels incredibly nice to get caught up at 7:30 P.M., and then be able to start thinking of big picture stuff while still functional. The split shift is great for routine work, but seldom for deep thinking.

Do you work late on a regular basis? Or schedule a weekend shift (which is another option)?

In other news: Do you live near Connecticut? Are you recently back in the workforce, or pondering going back in? I am speaking at the 9 Lives For Women "Make Work Fit Life" conference in Stamford on May 12. This conference is focused on women who have taken a pause in their careers and are re-starting. Let me know if you will be there!

Photo: You can skip the bedtime routine some nights.

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19 Responses to The productivity strategy you do not need to feel guilty about


  1. Jenni Levy says:

    When I was in private practice, I had evening hours one night a week. That bought me one free afternoon when I could easily get home by 3:00, and meant that all my other days were more manageable. It also improved patient access and patient satisfaction.

    Now I use “date night” for the same purpose. Our regular date night activity starts at 6:45 about midway between home and work. I usually try to leave work at 5:30. When I’m overloaded, I stay until 6:30 on date night (when our daughter isn’t expecting to see us anyway) and have an extra hour to get caught up. If I’m *really* swamped, I skip drum class and meet up with my husband for dinner afterward. Same thing with my choir rehearsal – if I’m busy, I don’t go home for dinner those nights and instead catch up on work and save the drive back and worth (work is in between home and choir.)

  2. Katy says:

    I track my work hours, and I know exactly how much I work. For a one year period, I retrospectively tracked the random stuff that happened (so I did have to make some approximations), and on average, Ā¾ of the time, stuff popped up that took 10 hours of my time each week. The biggest part of this was 6 months of remodeling after a major fire at our investment property, and the other main factors were a kid who gets sick a lot and my recurring health issues.

    This led me to the opposite conclusion of what you’re advocating. Seeing it so clearly, I felt better about the decision to continue working part-time, at least for another year. I can absorb a random 10 hours because Iā€™m working 20 hours/week (flexible) with my kids in full-time daycare. The weeks when nothing goes wrong? I go to the gym an extra time, visit a friend who lives across town, or work on projects around the house.

    • @Katy- I’m not surprised that non-work stuff would take 10 hours/week — especially if we’re talking a remodel and kid health issues. I think it sounds like you’re doing what I’m talking about, albeit from the perspective of a part-time base. You work “late” to make up the time. Since you’re working part-time, the “late” is part of what most people would consider normal work hours (when you have childcare) but it’s adding on to the normal window when work would happen.

  3. beth says:

    Working the split shift always seems like such a good idea but I rarely do it. Mostly because I am tapped out by the end of the day and really do not focus well. I get up at 5AM and am at work by 7:15. I have found that trying to get something useful done at 8PM just doesn’t work for me. It’s still a good strategy though.

    • @beth – I’ve been doing a lot less of it lately. If I do, it’s a fairly short shift of checking email and such (like half an hour). I think if I start some bigger projects in the near future I’ll feel more excited about it.

    • Ana says:

      I can’t do it either, especially for anything that involves critical or creative thinking. I’m done with any productivity for the day around 9pm (when my kids are finally done with coming out of their room for the millionth time).

    • TK says:

      This obviously won’t work for everyone, but I get around the problem of motivation by arranging my weekly team meeting on Monday night. This works because my team members are all in their early 20s and happily come to a night meeting, but it has turned out to be a benefit for me, too, because I have a standing commitment on Monday nights that I can’t bail on which frees up more of my day time hours for actual work.

  4. Meghan says:

    Add me to the list of people who can’t do the split shift often. Instead, I routinely work 2-3 hours each weekend day. Because I work from home, that’s a little easier, and it helps me keep my head in my project so I’m not lost on Monday. I do try to front-load work at the beginning of each assignment, pushing my daily quota by 10-20 pages (I index nonfiction books). If nothing comes up, I beat a deadline and have some space before the next one. Then if I have a week like last week, where I was solo parenting, came down with strep, and had to take the dog to the vet twice for an unexpected problem, I can still make my deadline with a bit of room to spare. My motto is to work as hard as I can when I can, because I never know what could happen next!

    • @Meghan – very smart to work ahead when you can. This is the secret of people who meet their deadlines even when life throws curveballs. (Well, at least manageable curveballs).

      Maybe I should do a post on strategies for the split shift. I think limiting it to certain low-energy activities, making a to-do list for this time (as you would any other work time) so it doesn’t stretch endlessly, and not doing it every night are key.

  5. TK says:

    Since my 1st child was a baby, I have had a Board meeting to attend one night a month. Over the past year, I’ve added a weekly work night on Monday nights. This means every week I am out 1 night and once a month I am out 2 nights. Rather than dread my absence, my kids look forward to it. That’s because since they were babies, the night I was out was “boys night” (I have two boys) and daddy makes hot dogs and the kids get to watch their shows during dinner (they aren’t normally allowed to watch shows during the week). This strategy has made it easy for me to keep to my schedule because my kids are literally asking me when I am leaving as evening approaches (I work a split shift on Mondays so that I can pick my older son up after school).
    The success of our strategy hit me years ago when my then 3 year old (first born) looked at me one night (on a night I was home) and said: “Don’t you have anywhere you could go mama? I want to have a boys night.”
    The other benefit of this strategy has been that my husband has always been equally capable of putting the kids to bed.

    • @TK – thanks for sharing this. A boys night with hot dogs and TV sounds like a lot of fun! And yes, if you are co-parenting with someone, there’s no reason each parent has to be home every night. And there can be some upsides for both parties in trading off to a degree.

    • CNM says:

      My husband and son have a tradition where, if I am busy or not home, they go to the huge nearby grocery store, look at the seafood display, and eat a bowl of soup from the grocery deli for dinner. It’s nice father-son bonding time, and my son has developed a taste for clam chowder and lobster bisque!

    • Danielle says:

      I also think it’s fabulous for little boys to see their Mommies going off to work and their Daddies supporting them in that – and for it to be totally normal. It’s really going to help them have more balanced lives when they’re older, I think. So many men of our generation feel like they have to take the burden of work (just like women feel like they have to take the burden of home duties). Hopefully our sons and daughters will shift that – and that will party be due to the example their parents made and effort to give them. I hope so anyway!

  6. Anna says:

    I recently decided to shift my idea of a typical work schedule slightly and not rush in the morning (I ride the bus to work after dropping kid off at daycare) I don’t stress if I don’t get to work before 9am, but I typically stay until 6pm because I actually focus better between 4pm and 6pm when the office is quieter (folks around here leave between 4 and 5 most days). It’s still almost an hour commute home but that;s when I decompress and check Facebook or social media. Then I can focus on family when I get home. It’s hard, because it feels so late to get home at 7pm but since I also added an hour lunch to go to the gym almost every day, it’s helped me stay on track. There are too many distractions around at home (hubs insists on keeping the TV on constantly or 4 yr old son has to be close to me) to actually get work done at home. So I stay later. Leaving at 5pm feels like a luxury now!

    • Danielle says:

      I started commuting by tram one day per week as well – the day the kids are home with their day – and I also relish that downtime on the way home! For me, i get to read some fiction (and it’s also when i had the time to read Laura’s 168 hours book!).

  7. Jennie Evans says:

    I wake at 5:00. Do my morning routine and get 3 kids to school. I’m at work from 7:30-3:30 Mon-Fri. I hate giving up my weekends. I don’t like working over an hour here and there. So 1 afternoon I leave work for 30 minutes. Run an errand or two and am back by 4. Then I stay until 8. It’s a very concentrated 4 hours. I complete all the busy work that makes my week stressful. My kids love it because they get a special night with grandma. I go home exhausted, but knowing that my week will be far less stressful and I (almost) never have to go in on the weekend!

  8. Danielle says:

    I can’t work late – it always backfires bc I ‘take my work to bed’ (mentally), can’t sleep and am tired (and unproductive!) the next day.

    We have 1 baby and 1 toddler and i’m lucky that their childcare is at my workplace and is fabulous. The downside is i have to do all the pickups, dropoffs, etc. My most productive/alert/focused time of day is 4-8pm – annoyingly, that time of day when i have to do kid picks ups and dinner and bed etc etc. But, now that the baby is almost 9 months old I have started working back late just one day per week to capitalise on my productive time of day (happily my husband stays home with them 1 day per week so i have no pick ups. it’s worth the salary sacrifice he makes for sure). It’s not a lot, but it’s better than nothing: it means that at least once per week i get my hyper productive time (i’m a social sciences academic). I feel like i’m clawing back into normal life. It was so freeing when i realised the baby would now be ok to take a bottle that one night! (Plus, i schedule 2-3 hour weekend work shifts about once a month).

  9. My husband works from home one day a week (Tuesdays) and this used to be my night to work late. But then my Spanish dance lessons moved to an earlier time slot on Tuesdays at 6 pm so I lost the time this year.

    I now take one every week to work from home (some weeks I have meetings every day). The thing is because it’s not a formal arrangement, I feel like I have to work twice as hard (and I do) so I actually get a solid 9 hours in, but uninterrupted. That has meant I haven’t had to work late for months and months this year šŸ™‚

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