Working after the kids go to bed? Be sure to do this one important thing.

My take-away from my Fast Company essay on working after the kids going to bed being shared 25,000 times: There are a lot of us out there catching up on things at 10 p.m. Such a “split shift” — some work during the day, evenings off with the family, then some work at night — is often the key to getting it all done. You log the hours, but you see your family too.

But as I am relying heavily this week on the 8:30-10:30 p.m. slot, I’ve realized this: Split shifts must be planned like any other shifts. If not, you lose a big chunk of the productivity gains.

Here’s what often happens. I stop work at 5:30 p.m. I am not done. So when the kids are in bed (hopefully by 8:30, realistically by 9 p.m.) I start hacking away at various things that pop into my head or my inbox, without the time blocks I structure during the day. Eventually, I look at the clock, realize I’m tired, and haul myself to bed.

I wouldn’t let 2-2.5 hours progress this way during the day. I also wouldn’t have vague and unrealistic hopes (I’ll get caught up on everything!) To get the most out of a split shift, I need to structure the second shift much as I would the first. I need a priority list for it, and ideally that priority list should be created by mid-day. That way I can relax during the evening, instead of running over to my desk randomly to write down things I think of. Another upside of the list is that if the kids all get distracted by their allotted TV time in the evening, I can get started on something I’ve deemed important to do, rather than dithering in my inbox.

Tonight I had such a list: finishing and editing an op-ed, sending 3 emails that needed to go out, proofreading something, sending out an invoice. And let’s not forget moving the *#!@$&% elf (The Elf on the Shelf was the first book we opened in our literary Advent calendar). I got through all these things in roughly 2 hours. The shift felt fairly productive.

I go back and forth on whether this working style is ideal, but it’s also just life. I had a dentist appointment today. I took my daughter to her eye surgeon for another follow-up appointment (all good! She’s out of her glasses, and in fact has now near perfect vision. They used a letter eye test and she recognized her letters. I was so proud). My 5-year-old had a meltdown upon going to school in the morning, so I elected to be the one to pick him up at 3 p.m. and I spent 20 minutes talking and reading with him before his sister’s doctor’s appointment, trying to shower a bit of attention on him. These are all important things, but they also meant I worked maybe 6 hours during a “work day” that stretched from 7 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Getting 2 more hours at night is great, but getting 2 productive hours is the best solution.

13 thoughts on “Working after the kids go to bed? Be sure to do this one important thing.

  1. I’ve been thinking about this a lot as I settle into my new job, which does require some work outside of normal hours to a) make up for time lost to meetings or personal distractions and b) goes with the territory of having a job with significant responsibility. I struggle to tee up the right work for my energy post bedtime. I am on an early sleep cycle, and I’m fearful of doing things that will make it hard to fall asleep. Most nights, I can fall asleep hard by 9:30, but I wake on my own around 5 a.m. after 7.5 hours of sleep (and catch a nap or two at other times during the week) and use the early morning hours to read, catch up on email, and exercise for about 45 minutes before getting ready for work, etc. (sometimes I’m up because of a toddler who has not been sleeping well lately, but that is another story.) Messing with this sleep schedule really throws me off; it’s as if I can’t fall asleep if I stay up late, making the next day a complete disaster. I also don’t think trying to work in the early morning hours is a sustainable habit. I LOVE this time for me, and it keeps me going all day to know that I’ve had this time, especially when I multiply it out across the week and can say, “hey, look at all those morning hours spent mulling things over, reading, sipping your coffee.”

    I’m not sure I’d know at Noon the 1-2 things I would like to accomplish at night but I might know at 5 p.m. and could use the 5-5:45 time slot before I leave to tee up something that would make me feel good to accomplish between 8:30 – 9. I experimented with a solid four hour block on Sunday, which was incredibly productive but also has the effect of my saying “well, I already did that extra shift.” I am in the camp that you’ve written about who simply maxes out at a certain level every week, due to both other obligations and brain capacity.

    1. @Griffin – it is a tough issue. If you want your morning time as personal time then yep, that’s not a great spot for a split shift. There’s nothing wrong with doing a 4-hour shift on Sunday if that’s what works for you. If you got enough ahead, you might be able to just do a quick email check at night or something during the week. This also doesn’t have to be an every day thing. You could do a Sunday shift and then one longer split shift on, say, Tuesday. One not-so-great night might be tolerable in the grand scheme of things. You could also decide this just doesn’t work for you. I have seen a few people consciously structure their work days to be longer so that when they are home they are truly home. Yes, it means less time with the kids, but that’s an option. It also doesn’t have to be every day. You could work 8-7 two days a week or so, and use the hours of 5-7 when the office empties out for the stuff you would be doing during a split shift.

  2. When I had one kid who went to bed reliably by 7:00-7:30, I got a ton of work done at night without compromising my ability to wind down before bed (pretty critical for an insomniac!)

    Now that there are two and even the little one isn’t asleep until 8:30ish, I don’t plan on doing anything at night. If I can read 30-60 minutes for class, it’s a bonus. But I don’t count on it. Counting on it–and not getting it–just makes me crabby with them. I use a babysitter Sun afternoon to handle this overload…

    1. @gwinne – this counting on it, but not getting it, aspect is certainly a downside that you wouldn’t experience during dedicated babysitting time. I’ll admit that I am not always the most cheerful person at bedtime if I really need the kids up in their rooms.

      1. Oh, I struggle with that. I get in a real bad mood very quickly if my kids aren’t to bed on time. I don’t care if they lay in bed with the lamp on and read – they need to be out of sight and quiet. It doesn’t matter if I’m trying to work or relax – I need my daily “no children” time or things really get ugly.

        1. @Tana – In my post on doing a solo weekend with the kids a few months ago, I mentioned that I’d gotten a babysitter for a few hours on the weekend. I used it to exercise and work and it was great. I was much more present the rest of the time as a result. On a normal weekend, I might assume my husband and I would trade off, but both of us are thinking it’s the other’s turn, and then we wind up sticking the kids in front of the TV and still not really getting to focus. I think biting the bullet and hiring a sitter, or otherwise figuring out agreed upon times to cover for each other, is the better way to go. We all do need our no-kid time. No matter how much we love them.

  3. I work after the kids are in bed, but only if I have a defined goal. Otherwise, I find the work just expands to fill the time I give it, but I’m not necessarily doing anything that HAD to get done. I find the benefits of downtime are far more than the benefits of whittling away at low impact things on my to do list. If I give myself some real downtime, I’ll start the next day refreshed and will be more productive. My method for keeping after hours work in check is the to do list. When I was a fulltime employee, I’d write a list of what absolutely had to be done that evening on a sticky note before leaving the office- and then do those things and only those things. Now that I work for myself, I still use that method if I’m bringing work home from a client. If it is work for a self-directed project, I write myself a list at some point during the dinner/play/bath/snack routine and then come back to it once my part of the bedtime routine is complete.

    1. @Melanie – I do think the list is key. And if you make a list and notice there’s nothing that really has to happen, that’s a good sign that the list can be added to the next day’s list.

  4. For me, there are a few big reasons a split shift isn’t ideal. First, my husband is an 8-6er, and when he’s done at work, he’s done. Night time is personal time. Second is that I won’t enjoy my free time after work because I’ll be dreading my second shift. (I can hear you saying, ‘If you loved your job…’!). Third, there are so many other things I want/have to do with my time in the evenings! My solution to the second shift has been to consolidate it all into a traditional work day, 7:30-5:30ish and then be done. Being on billable hours makes it especially tough (few breaks and no time wasting!), but it’s been worth it to me to have my evenings my own. When I need to work extra, I will do it first thing in the morning on the weekends… get it over with when I’m fresh!

    1. @Mary – you can love your job and still want to be done at 6 pm 🙂 There are real upsides to confining work to traditional hours. It’s not how I tend to work, but there’s a certain simplicity to having work be work and home be home and not trying to cross the two.

  5. I agree with those above that have trouble working the second shift these days. My energy and attention are very low at that time, and I also need downtime to be able to go to sleep at night. I envy those who can just work until they are tired and then go to bed, but my brain doesn’t work that way. I would also be one to dread the evenings if it always meant having to go back to work. Maybe 1-2 nights a week, working an hour a night is doable, especially when I have specific things that HAVE to get done that day, and bonus if they are mindless (editing slides for a lecture, fixing spreadsheets for data analysis) For more intensive stuff, I prefer to work on the weekends, because 2 hours on a day when I can spend the rest of it with my family doesn’t feel at all like a hardship, while sacrificing my “whole evening” (even if its only an hour) does.

    1. @Ana – there are certain kinds of work I can do at night, and kinds I can’t, and yes, answering an email or light editing is much more doable than first draft creation or intense editing. If I need to do those I will but it’s not ideal.

  6. Thanks for a great article, Laura.

    I totally agree on your take on split shifts. The second shift should be planned a thorough as your first shift.

    I use the following time management tips planning both shifts:

    1. An easy temporarily to do list
    When I am in a hurry, I write notes on my phone, and I transfer those notes to my master to do list at the end of the day.

    2. A master to do list
    I use a excel spreadsheet (which is my master to do list) – saved in dropbox (so I can access it from anywhere).

    I prioritize the tasks using the ABCDE method:
    A :Tasks I must do – serious consequences if it doesn`t get done
    B: Tasks I should do – mild consequences if it doesn`t get done
    C: Tasks I could do – no consequences if it doesn`t get done
    D: Tasks I delegate
    E: Tasks I never do

    Here is the kicker: you never do a B task before you have done all the A tasks and you never do a C task before you have done all the B tasks, etc.

    Apply the 80/20 rule: you need to identify each day, which 20% of the tasks on your to do list will give you 80 % of the results.

    My mantra is to help people work smarter, not harder – so they can achieve more by doing less.

    Tor Refsland

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