During the little kid years, it’s easy to feel like we’re just hanging on at work. Then, as the kids start getting older, time can start opening up. Sometimes people want to put their feet back on the gas. But, practically, how does that work?
That was the question facing Racheal Kendrick, who volunteered for my “Tranquility by Tuesday” time makeover project. Racheal is a pharmacokinetic scientist with three girls, ages 6, 4, and 2. “I have worked at the same company doing drug research for 10 years and my hours are incredibly flexible,” she wrote. She could often work from home, and had a lot of control over her time, “so much so that I am afraid I let my ‘home from work’ slip more than I would like,” she noted. “Now that I have had my last baby I would love to ramp up my career path, but executing that is difficult and I am constantly wearing multiple hats.”
She agreed to try tracking her time for a week, though “honestly, I am scared to track my time, to see the numbers face to face,” she wrote. “How ridiculous does that sound?”
It does sound a little ridiculous, especially given how much good stuff showed up on her time log.
She was a committed morning exerciser, rising at 4:30 a.m. every weekday morning to hit the gym for such lovely sounding workouts as “10 4-minute heavy weight stations” and “2 23-minute obstacle course stations.” She volunteered extensively with her church. She listened to audiobooks while walking the dog.
Clearly she thought a lot about how to spend her time. She was also working reasonable amounts on rather complex sounding problems, but her work time itself was quite fragmented.
This started with spinning her wheels in the morning. She got home from the gym around 6:15 a.m. Her mother-in-law watched the girls several days during the week, generally taking them around 8 or so, and then bringing them to her house or school. This time — which would have been some of a morning person’s most focused time — was often spent puttering around (it didn’t take them that long to get ready in the morning).
Then, during the day, she often had to wait for projects that were in different stages to come to her. “Unfortunately, this isn’t atypical, but one challenge is that I have a hard time switching gears when I am waiting on something else.” This showed up in a lot of “work?” entries on the time log. She knew she could think about long term projects or career development, but instead, she often wound up doing what was easiest: things plucked from her never-ending personal to-do list.
So, on Tuesday morning, she spent half an hour hunting for pirate costumes on Amazon. Another work day featured a break for kitchen counter wiping and floor sweeping. There was an elaborate lunch involving greens and quinoa and shuttling people around at various points.
I want to stress that Racheal was getting her work done. She was absolutely meeting all professional expectations. Her personal to-dos never kept her from meeting a work deadline. The problem was that the long-term, important-but-not-urgent, career-developing stuff was not getting done. “I suppose this would be fine if I had no desire to expand my skill set and advance my career, but this is obviously not the case,” she wrote.
So we talked about how that might happen. I had two time mantras that I thought would help.
The first: Plan on Fridays. Long-time blog readers know that I always suggest people plan their weeks on Friday afternoons. This is a great time to look through the upcoming week, and make a list of top professional and personal priorities. Racheal needed to get serious about the professional side of that. What would future Racheal like her career to look like? She could make a List of 100 (Professional) Dreams if she wished. She could figure out steps to get there, and what steps could happen in the next week. Maybe it was reading a specific journal, or working on a particular skill, or meeting with a mentor. But if she identified a few career-advancing steps for the next week, she could make a plan to build them in. One option for timing? Making better use of her mornings. She was so happy about her mother-in-law providing childcare that she hadn’t really asked about shifting the time a bit. There were no guarantees. But she could ask.
The second: Batch the small stuff. In her case, this meant setting a time for personal tasks. The work of running a household is never done. These little tasks can be annoying, but they are also often discrete and doable. You order a pirate costume on Amazon, it shows up two days later. This sense of accomplishment is not necessarily as obvious with, say, drug discovery. To avoid procrastinating with personal tasks, Racheal needed to set a specific window each day in which to do these things. She could time this with when she needed a break, like mid-afternoon. If a task occurred to her at another point, she could write it down, but then not hunt for a pirate costume until the appointed time.
Racheal agreed to try these things. She found that her mother-in-law was happy to get to the house 30 minutes earlier. This bought her more deep work time right there. “Starting earlier reminded me what my focus should be and set me on the right trajectory for a successful work day,” she wrote. “It is amazing how much more I can get done when I start off in my efficient morning mode.”
She began planning her work weeks on Fridays, making a list of goals and setting aside chunks of time for these tasks.
She then began making a list of all the personal things that needed to be done and completed this list around her usual afternoon slump (1:45/2:00 p.m.). Her time log showed this batching. On Monday, she signed one daughter up for basketball, checked out at Stitch Fix, and did some planning related to an upcoming cruise. On Wednesday, she used the window to deal with school picture orders, enrolling in an insurance program, and reconciling the budget. Another day she reserved books at the library and chatted with her husband about an upcoming Legoland trip’s logistics. This war on distractions went so well that she decided to go a step farther and block Facebook during work hours. This forced her to use those little 2-3 minute chunks of time elsewhere in her day to do things like talk to a co-worker, or read a little bit in a paper. Interestingly, one thing that helped with all this was “being accountable to ‘future Racheal’ as my boss,” she noted. “She is very strict. Ha!”
I asked her to reflect on why she thought she’d gotten into a habit of letting personal tasks crowd out deeper work. She wrote back that “Professional development in my field involves a pretty steep learning curve and diving in to this type of work in little 20 or 30 minute intervals seemed daunting. So instead of building my skill set, I paid the water bill or ordered the Halloween costume on Amazon or prepped dinner. Typing that is almost laughable, now that I see how ridiculous that sounds,” but I get it. Without being intentional about our time, this can happen to any of us with the ability to work flexibly.
But with a few schedule tweaks, she had a different perspective. “Setting my goals for the week the Friday before made me feel in control of my time,” she said. Now, rather than reaching for something easy when time opened up, “I knew exactly how I was going to spend the 20 minutes I had in between meetings: reading the paper I had added to my goal list or meeting with my mentor.” As a result, “I feel much more purposeful at work and am surprised by how much ‘extra’ I can do when I limit my personal tasks to a certain time in my day.”
There’s nothing quite like feeling less busy while getting more done. Indeed, Racheal was even “much more efficient with my personal tasks,” she noted. Focus is good in all spheres of life.
Do you batch small tasks? How about planning on Fridays?