I used to be a librarian. I used to be a newspaper reporter. I used to be a market researcher in publishing. I used to have offices with doors, access to supply closets, and regular breaks to drink pots of free coffee.
Then I became a parent.
I am happy at this stage of life to claim parenting as my primary vocation, but there are some things I miss about being in a traditional work environment: the freedom to direct my own activity, measurable success when professional goals are met, dynamic cooperation with other people, and the feeling of confidence that comes with knowing I am the expert in my position.
I started to wonder, why can’t I reclaim the passion and enthusiasm I felt in the office? The more I thought about it, the more it made sense to apply certain work strategies to parenthood. Here’s how to do it.
Get clear on your values and goals
Managing a family means managing a variety of competing interests— yours, your partner’s and your child’s. In The Renaissance Soul, Margaret Lobenstine coaches people to find focus among their scattered desires.
The first step is to define your family’s values – more specifically, the three to five ideals that are most important to you. From there, you can gauge whether the energy you spend is supporting those values.
Next, you need concrete goals. We all know how goals work for personal growth and professional objectives, but they’re also important for guiding your family. For example, my family is blessed with acres of closet space but we have no organisation system. Organising the closets has become a family goal because I know it will cut down on our daily frustration.
Define your workday
When parenting is your job, the workday never ends, right? People who work outside of home make a conscious decision to stop work at a certain time or at the end of a task. Why can’t parents do the same?
No, you never really go off duty when the kids are in your care, but an attitude shift can take the ‘work’ out of it. At about 7pm every night, we all transition to bedtime mode.
To-do lists are put away and we try to only do quiet, relaxing activities. I’ve set even tighter limits on activities away from home — no appointments, classes, or playdates outside of 9-5. Working overtime would just leave us all grouchy and stressed.
Set boundaries in your workspace
Rob Walker, Lifehacker’s Human Resource columnist, recently wrote about getting things done in an open office. If home is your office, follow Walker’s advice:
Use headphones as walls (a signal to family members that you don’t want to be interrupted).
Verbally state boundaries. Tell your partner or the kids, “I need to make phone calls to schedule our week. I can give you my attention in about 15 minutes.”
Compromise. Just as with coworkers, sometimes diplomacy can go a long way at home. Give in when you can tell an emotional breakdown is more urgent than returning a phone call.
I apply this technique to both my freelance work and to home and family management. Planning ahead can help you group similar tasks and get into a productive flow.
I plan for the week ahead on Sunday (in my real, full-size, professional person’s planner). With the whole week laid out, you can see where to cut back on optional activities, that Friday might be a good ‘pajama day’ after a hectic Thursday, or when to have a laundry-folding marathon if you are stuck at home waiting for the cable guy.
Be more productive
I am a total nerd for time-management techniques. (One might say experimenting with different time management techniques is my personal procrastination method, but one should not say that to my face.)
‘Multitasking’ has become a dirty word in favour of focusing on one activity at a time. Still, the current popular theories hold that we are most productive when alternating focus and shaking it up.
Managing a family team comes with its own challenges, so much so that expecting thirty uninterrupted minutes can sound hilarious. Sometimes I set a timer for five minutes.
The point is to focus, for whatever amount of time seems reasonable in the situation. Since kids love timers, why not teach them about the Pomodoro Technique?
While you fold laundry, give them a puzzle and explain we’re all going to focus on this one task for 15 minutes. They can look forward to having your undivided attention for five minutes afterward.
In business and psychotherapy, listening well is a real Jedi mind trick. You are speaking to someone, you know they are listening intently, and you pause.
They don’t fill in the quiet space, so you talk a little more. By doing nothing, that person just drew more information out of you. This works with kids too! In Simply Said, Jay Sullivan writes about effective communication.
Eye contact, engaged posture, and asking open-ended questions are important parts of what Sullivan calls “executive presence.” The next time your kid is reticent to share his day, slip into ‘executive presence mode’ and see if you can get them to open up.
With this action plan, you might just gain more clarity and structure in your parenting life. Though unfortunately, you’ll still have to brew your own pot of coffee.