Productivity lessons from maternity leave (repost)

I’m on vacation this week and so am recycling some old posts. This one ran in November 2009, shortly after I had my second child. In light of all the to-do about Marissa Mayer taking a few weeks of maternity leave, I was curious what my own mindset was during those early weeks. Here it is – Laura

I have been trying to work a lighter schedule since Sam’s birth on September 24. I’m feeding him every 3 hours during the day, plus he seems to subscribe to the attachment parenting philosophy, which has sort of forced me to as well. Somebody needs to be holding him most of the time he’s awake. I’m trying to create enough mommy-and-Jasper time so my first born doesn’t feel too resentful. Oh, and lose the remainder of my excess pregnancy weight, too.

And yet the crazy thing is that, when I was sending out some invoices the other day, I realized that my reduced hours hadn’t drastically changed my output in terms of articles or projects. How is that possible?

The answer, I think, is that what happens during a self-employed person’s “maternity leave” (as long as you have a few hours of childcare) may be good conditions for productivity. Here’s why:

1. People assume you’re not working, so they don’t bug you with stupid things. That means limited interruptions. Interruptions suck up vast hours during a normal workday if you’re not careful. Also, people don’t expect you to show up at meetings or on conference calls. These waste incredible amounts of time, too. You can get the summary later.

2. You don’t have huge expectations for yourself. I mean, if ever there were a time to cut yourself some professional slack, it’s when you just gave birth, right? As a consequence…

3. You don’t try to do too much in any given day. Right after Sam was born, I’d put about 3 things, max, on my “to do” list for any given day. One might be working out, another might be to do a phone interview for a column, and another might be to write  a blog post. That’s it. The next day I might only need to send an email about a pitch, do another interview, and write in my journal. In 24 hours (and with a newborn, you see a lot of those 24 hours) you can usually get three things done. But here’s the key part:

4. Because you’re only trying to do 3 things, you choose them wisely. They tend to be the most important things for you to be doing–the things that are most likely to advance you toward your professional or personal goals. You ignore all the other noise. It can wait. If you wait long enough, it will probably disappear. But the funny thing is, if you honestly get 3 important things done per day, that’s 15 things per workweek, or about 20 if you continue to the weekend. That’s 1,000 things a year–quite a bit!

I’m trying to keep the lessons from this fundamentalist version of time management in mind as I slowly gear back up. Now I might put 5 or 6 things on my to-do list for any given day, but I try not to go much beyond that. If you maintain a very focused list, you know what you need to do whenever you have a free minute. That clarity of strategic intent increases the chances that what needs to get done gets done.

Whimsical owl photo courtesy flickr user toadstool ring

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