Let’s face it. No matter how productive we wish and vow to be, as parents, a lot of those good intentions end up down the drains…
Cooking gets done, but laundry piles up. Kids get dropped off and picked up, but the grocery trip gets nixed. You manage to prepare for that all-important meeting, but just can’t find the time to file that expense report.
I bet you’ve been there at some point or the other.
Have you ever wondered why this happens though? Why is it that we parents seem prone to being unproductive in spite of the desperate need to be as efficient and effective as possible?
Here are some of the common mistakes I believe are the culprits, and some possible fixes. Check it out and see if any of them are bringing you down. And if you have other reasons for your productivity slumps, do let us know in the comments below –
#1 Trying to be a super parent
There are so many times when I’m going about my day that I wonder “What did I do with all my time before having my daughter?”
There seems to be an exponential relationship between the size of your family, and the size of your to-do list – for every new addition to your family, the to-do list multiplies a hundred fold.
Add to that the unreasonable expectations that are placed on parents, either by the world around us, or our own aspirations to be awesome parents, and we trap ourselves in the unattainable goal of becoming super parents. And that doesn’t bode too well for our productivity.
Face the fact that your desire to be a super parent is as absurd as your daughter’s desire to become a unicorn princess.
You can’t be a working mother, and at the same time the mom who does Pinterest-worthy crafts with your child. You can’t be a dad who attends all of your kid’s school activities, and at the same time be the go-to guy in the office who scales the career ladder 5 rungs at a time. No matter what personal super powers you possess, you just can’t be at two places doing two different things at the same time.
There are only so many hours a day. Something’s gotta give. If you don’t want important things to fall through the cracks, set your priorities right and focus on getting what matters done.
#2 Not outsourcing/delegating enough
Not only is there this unrelenting pressure to be a super parent, but there is also this crazy notion that we must do it all by ourselves.
Openly, or secretly, many of us believe that the less we seek help, and the more we do everything ourselves and the more we sacrifice ourselves at the altar of parenting, the better parents we are.
Call me a heretic, but “made from scratch” is severely over-rated.
So is “do it yourself”.
As you make your to-do list, keep track of how much time it takes to get a task done. And be ruthless about outsourcing as much as possible without severely compromising the quality or your bottom line.
For instance, I love to do crafts with my daughter. However, rather than hunt the net for ideas, and the storeroom for supplies, I’d rather stock up on a few of these Alex Little Hands craft kits whenever I find them on sale. This way, when the urge to do cute stuff strikes, or a small window of free time presents itself, we are ready to get going.
Similarly, a clean house is high on my priority list. Spending hours scrubbing the shower and toilets isn’t. So I’d rather do some quick preventive maintenance on the house on a regular basis, and call in the maid service for the big tasks every so often.
#3 Chasing perfection
Close at heels to the above two is the need to get things done just right.
For instance, not only do we want to be the super parents who can juggle a dozen different activities at the same time, but we want to make sure that we do it all perfectly well.
Seriously, how many hours have you spent on “researching” just the perfect art class for your child or poring over the reviews on Amazon before buying something?
As I mentioned in the title, this was the biggest drain on my personal productivity. I’d spend hours poring over the reviews and looking at similar products on Amazon before buying anything — be it a simple toy or a book or a craft kit or a gift. Before organizing a birthday party, I’d spend weeks finding the perfect theme, the perfect location, the perfect goody bags and the perfectly priced deal on that perfect theme, location and the goody bags. And gosh, you don’t even want to get me started about vacation planning.
Here’s the deal though — when I took a step back and was really honest, my gifts were no better than anyone elses, my parties weren’t any more spectacular than the others and the vacations… well, they were great, but I’m sure it really didn’t have much to do with how much I obsessed over it.
Have you heard of the 80-20 rule? It states that we spend 20% of time on completing 80% of the task, and then the next 80% of the time on polishing up the final 20% of the task. What if 80% done is good enough? Not perfect, but enough. Couldn’t we just stop after spending 20% of the time on a task, and move on to the next item on the list?
I now have a simple rule. When I start shopping online or planning a party or a vacation, I start by allocating a fixed time for the task. When I find something I like, I add it to the cart. If I find something “better”, I replace the one in the cart with the one I just found. And so on until time runs out. And when it does, I just buy whatever is in the cart and move on. If I abandon the cart, I don’t get to buy the item.
It’s unbelievable how much time I’ve been able to salvage from this one simple change in the way I buy/plan things!
(PS: Just before publishing this article, I read something about Parkinson’s law which states that “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion”. Well, that explains a lot! Cool, huh?).
#4 Not Taking Enough Down-Time
And then there’s the case of down time (or the lack there of)…
Not only do we want to do a lot, do it all ourselves and do it perfectly, but we want to do it without ever taking a break.
See how ridiculous that statement sounds when it’s said out loudly?
And yet, if you’re honest and look back at the last 3 days of your life, I can bet that that statement pretty much summarizes what you’ve been doing.
How can we stay productive if that’s the mantra guiding our life?
Taking a break however, is easier said than done. How can we take a break when the weight of the unfinished to-do list weighs down on us? And even if we did, how refreshing would it be if that unfinished to-do list hangs on our head the entire time like the proverbial sword?
I was finally able to take breaks, and really enjoy them, when I replaced my to-do list with a weekly actions list with a strict expiry on it.
If a task is still undone on my actions list on Friday night, I trash it. The reasoning is simple — “If I couldn’t find the time to do it, it must be not important. Stop sweating about it and going forward get better at not taking on things that don’t matter”. Very rarely, I add it to my next weeks list with a stern “OK, you can make an exception and move it to next week, but you need to get better at estimating how much time tasks take. Also, next week you MUST take on fewer tasks to accommodate this one”.
And that has gone a long way! Over time, I’ve gotten better at saying “no” to obligations that don’t matter. I’ve gotten better at estimating how much I can realistically get done in one week. And since I’ve had to trash a few tasks that I couldn’t complete by Friday night and wouldn’t let myself have the false satisfaction of adding it to a never-ending to-do list to be done “some day”, I’ve gotten way better at not wasting time when I’m supposed to be working.
So these days, most of the time, I find myself free on weekends to really enjoy time with family and friends, with no pressure from an untamed to-do list.
#5 Underestimating the Time it Takes To Do Things with Kids in Tow
Moving on, the next item on my list is something we all do. I have no idea why we do it but we do it again and again. It’s almost as if we never learn that when we do stuff with kids, things take time. A LOT of time.
And then, when things start to slip we get agitated. And we scream and yell at or kids to hurry up. Which in turn agitates them. And they either explode and create more work for us, or turn into slugs wading through a puddle of tar. Or jelly. Or something.
One way or the other, down the drain goes our productivity for the day.
Start creating margin. For everything that we do that involves kids. For the unexpected. For the inevitable.
Most of the time, we’re likely to need that margin.
And sometimes we won’t. And that’s fine. Those time chunks can either be used to tie up some loose ends, or recharge, or just be with our kids doing nothing.
It’s very counter-intuitive and paradoxical, but intentionally setting aside margin actually helps salvage a lot of the time that would otherwise be spent handling crisis caused by the lack of that margin.
Raise your hands if you believe that for parents, not multi-tasking is NOT an option.
I’m amazed at how many of us have bought into this notion that multi-tasking saves time.
And yet, research has shown consistently that while multi-tasking makes our brains happy, it actually makes us quite inefficient. The human brain is simply not wired for multi-tasking. Trying to do too many things at the same time in the name of productivity, is actually one of the biggest hurdles to being productive.
The fix is simple – stop multi-tasking. As far as possible, do one thing at a time and do it right. When the task is reasonably done, mark it as done, switch it out of your mind and move on the next task on hand.
I didn’t think this would actually work until I made a conscious effort to try it. And while I have still not mastered it, I am amazed at the few moments of hyper-focus I can achieve for the task at hand, when I don’t have to hold 3 other half-done half-assed tasks in my mind.
#7 Relying on Willpower to Get Things Done
And finally, the biggest myth surrounding getting things done is that you need to have a lot of discipline and willpower to actually strike things off your to-do list.
But will power is a depletable resource. It resides in the same part of our brain that handles other executive functions such as focus, short-term memory, planning, cognition etc. So, depending on what else is going on in our life at the moment, we may or may not have any willpower left to nudge us through that to-do list.
Do we really want to rely on something that unreliable to stay productive?
Spend some time up-front in creating a few habits that can help you get things done. For instance, every morning between breakfast and lunch, I sit down to work on this blog. Everything else that needs to be done is handled after lunch.
Set some simple rules to guide you through your choices. For instance one of the rules in our house is “work before play” and so, if there are two mails where the first one needs me to take action and the second is just random browsing, I need to attend to the first one before moving on to the second.
And finally, put technology to work for you by finding a few productivity apps that you like and can rely on to at least get you started on getting things done.
In the end, to me, it all comes down to this – productivity isn’t about getting everything under the sun done. As long I can get what matters done, I’m good. What do you think?
The 2-Minute Action Plan for Fine Parents
So, it’s time to take stock of the current situation –
- How many of these “mistakes” do you make on an ongoing basis?
- Which one of them is the biggest hurdle to your productivity?
- What is the one thing you can start doing now to get over this hurdle?
As always, I encourage you to share your answers in the comments below.
The Ongoing Action Plan for Fine Parents
As you go through your week, be aware of the fluctuations in your productivity and try to catch yourself in the act when you are being particularly unproductive. What might be the reason for it? Could it be one of the reasons listed above? A combination of them perhaps? Or, is it something else altogether? (If so, please do share in the comments below!) What can you do to prevent it from happening again?
While doing an experiment like this, it is important to bring a healthy dose of curiosity. The aim here is not to be critical of yourself for being unproductive, but just be curious to unearth what lies underneath, and how best to tackle it…. good luck!