Space to work

In many of my time management talks and workshops, I wind up helping people with demanding jobs figure out ways to make space for their personal lives. Here’s how you can spend more time with your kids. Here’s how you can make time to exercise. Here’s how you might build more reading time or hobbies into your life.

I’m currently facing a different challenge. My personal life is crowding out space to work. Some of this is the result of a toddler who doesn’t sleep well (though I got the guest room again last night and slept 10:30 p.m. to 5:45 a.m. straight, got up to go to the bathroom, then slept again until 6:30!) Some of this is seasonal — the end of year pomp for four school-aged children. With five kids, there is just a lot going on in general: playdates, activities, appointments. I choose to be involved to a high degree, even with a high level of household support. And then there is the house. Oh my goodness, the house. This week’s issues included, among other things, discovering that a bathroom had been mis-measured, requiring a different door on the toilet room. I chose upholstery fabric and will be approving the location and number of electrical outlets in the kitchen tomorrow.

Anyway, it’s all good stuff. It is all freely chosen. I’m very efficient, and with my type of business there are dividends paid on work done long ago. I can work less than I used to, while earning more than I used to.

However, I am writing Tranquility by Tuesday this summer. This is my top work priority for the year. I want to do a good job. And while I am more efficient at writing books now than I was 15 years ago, writing a book does take time.

So I’m trying to figure out how I can expand the hours available to work. I’ve worked a few “split shifts” this week (after the baby goes to bed) and I’ll probably employ that old standby of getting my husband to take the kids out of the house for a few hours on weekends. We can even trade off (he is dealing with a not-dissimilar time crunch, because guess who else is driving kids to karate, making home renovation decisions, etc….). It just requires some planning.

I also need to make my during-the-workday work hours more productive. I should preserve morning hours for writing, and then save those random tasks that arrive (yet another camp form!) for my Friday punch list. Batch the little things, as the TBT Rule #8 puts it. But I won’t get to that chapter until late July…

How do you find extra hours during a work crunch time?


12 thoughts on “Space to work

  1. Why don’t you just outsource some of the child-related stuff? Isn’t that what you’d tell a reader with the same issue? That is of course, unless your life priorities have shifted, which… fine. But if that’s the case, maybe just own it?

  2. Could you book yourself on a writing retreat? I find them super helpful to get out of my house and remove all responsibilities (write, eat, sleep, and go for walks). I’m booked for early September.

  3. No great suggestions but I do love how you always share this in a positive light and that these are all choices you have made. Too often we talk about both personal and professional commitments negatively – I have to drive the kids or meet this deadline when really we choose how to set up our life, what activities and how many to sign kids up for, what profession to go into, etc. It’s refreshing that you don’t cast yourself as the victim and one of the reasons I like following your work.

    1. Agree! This reframing is definitely a trick I use as a pick me up sometimes. A friend and co-worker once told me that on tough mornings, instead of saying to herself, “I have to go to rehearsal.”, (we work in theatre) she says “I get to go to rehearsal!” I find myself using this reframing sometimes too, and it always reminds me how fortunate I am to be able to make the choices I do.

  4. Some ideas for creating mental space: Can you put a few weeks’ moratorium on optional child activities to cut? And reschedule appointments for a month? During the moratorium, you can also encourage your children to play independently, have the older ones taking turns watching the toddler, etc. Cultivate their creative sides and get them into projects (ex: write and act out a screenplay, which could also entail designing the sets, learning how to make videos, etc.)… Your nanny can also help them plan and prep for project-related activities that they can do outside nanny hours.

    Generally speaking, your kids might appreciate having more unstructured time as well.

    Also, consider in “pre-designed projects” like model-building kits, or STEM kits with various options, etc.

    Finally, if the grandparents are up for it, consider having them take the kids for a few hours, so you and your husband can get some work done.

    Of course “mental space” can be increased by more sitter coverage, but I get the sense that you’re looking for other ideas…

  5. One strategy I have used for a work crunch is what I call “clean slate project planning” where I start with a theoretical clean slate and schedule the work first: how many hours a day, days of the week, and optimal time of day for that work. Then I look at family/kid obligations during the crunch period, focusing on anything that lands in my “project hours” and determine the following: 1. Does it have to happen? 2. If so, does it have to be me. From there I decide what can be moved or outsourced and of course make space in the work schedule for the items that must happen by me at that specific time. I go through the same process for other categories of current life activities; some lower priority items are nixed for the crunch period AND I remind myself that this not forever, just a temporary shift to get it done. Does this yield a perfect work schedule? Not a chance, but doing the clean slate project planning helps me turn up the burner on a work project when needed. P.S. Everything I know about time and resources I learned from the Bible (Proverbs) and Laura Vanderkam; I am incredibly thankful for both.

    1. This is really good advice! I worked a period of 12-hour days, 5-6 days/week for a couple of months at home during lockdown (kids home) and relied on getting up early, so I was not working late every night. This helped me feel like a person during that stressful time along with maintaining activities that were important to me (e.g. exercise), but doing a burst of 15 minute HIIT versus an hour run. It was not a fun period tbh, but I maintained my sanity, accomplished a ton of work, was still able to parent, had good things each day, and most importantly realized it was temporary.

  6. I’d leave the kids and take myself out of the house. My first pick would be to try to set up an office in the new house you and your husband could share. Sure, the workers might be noisy (headphones!) but they won’t need you to stop and break up a fight or make them lunch. Know anyone needing a pet sitter or friends on vacation? They might like someone trustworthy in their house for a few hours everyday while they are gone!

  7. Ditto the retreat suggestion. It could literally be somewhere 10 minutes from your house. I know you have a writing schedule that stretches over the summer, so maybe a concentrated amount of time wouldn’t actually be the right fit – but it feels like getting round-the-clock childcare for a few days so you could a) get a solid night(s) sleep and b) have zero interruptions during working hours could be a great reset and be a great time of productivity? And there is just something about not having someone under 20 calling your name or touching your body for 24 hours that is naturally restorative. Is Henry close enough to being weaned to accommodate this? I think Sarah when away when G was close to being weaned and said that sealed the deal!

    That said – this all takes time. The investment needed to sort out logistics of planning time away can eat into the benefits gained from it.

    I remember going away a few years ago to the Dominican Republic with my husband and being EXHAUSTED by the time we left because of all the work it took to get things set up for our trip. Advance meal planning, calling schools/doctors to let them know about the childcare arrangements. My kids were also younger than they were now, so all the routines and such had to be written up. But, if your husband is still going to be home, you might be able to leave without too much prep work on your part?

    Other thoughts:
    1) What problem can you throw money at? Maybe you want to do drop-offs because that time in the car is a great source of bonding with your child, but if not, could you hire ANOTHER person (in addition to your nanny) for the morning to help with shuttling kids to activities? Could you hire an interior designer to help with some of the aesthetic/management things happening for the renovation? Instead of you having 100 decisions, they could vett things and bring you 10 options, along with their professional opinion.
    2) What are your priorities? Is there anything sucking a disproportionate time that doesn’t really match with your values/end goals? Of all people, I think you’ve likely curated your life very carefully to accommodate only what serves you, but it never hurts to re-evaluate.

    Good luck!

    1. @Elisabeth – thanks for this thoughtful response! We are throwing money at a ton of things — there is definitely already an interior designer, in addition to a general contractor…can’t imagine if I were handling all those things as the primary point of contact BUT it is also a huge project. I continue to ponder ways I can outsource more!

  8. I love the idea mentioned above of a writer’s retreat (or two) – can you ask your parents to help out too? When I needed a few extra hours of work time, we hired a sitter for a morning just 3 hours per week and it made a world of difference (in addition to the part-time daycare we had at the time). But I think I only had one kid then, so that may not be a workable solution for you.

    Now if it’s busy, we go into “survival mode” and eliminate unnecessary activities to drive to (even stuff we paid for), get food delivered, and hunker down to just get through that week. I used to do this when I had a toddler and a baby and my husband had to travel for work but we also do it now sometimes when we both just have to get some stuff done at work. Now the girls are old enough to entertain themselves (and be safe about it alone in another part of the house) which makes a huge difference, of course.

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