Advice that works for anyone, including parents
Until my 30s, I’d never read a single productivity guide. Then we had a kid, and time pythoned us. Every minute I turn around now, there’s a fresh mess. All of the advice out there thinks I’m some slacker in my 20s — not the caretaker of a Tasmanian devil.
So how do you finally get stuff done if you’re already productive and ambitious, but just time strapped?
Cook in bulk
Ask yourself what’s more important, eating something exciting for lunch every day — or launching a product? You can save time and mental bandwidth by sparta-fying your meal prep. Decide you’re going to eat oatmeal for breakfast every morning (or cereal), and buy a big tub of it. Make six spinach salads with chicken for lunch, and be done. You can do the same thing with dinner. Big pot of communal chili, anyone? You can splurge. When you reach a milestone, treat yourself to some sushi.
Gamify your chores
Maybe you’ve heard of Parkinson’s Law — which says that work expands to fill the amount of time available. So take the opposite approach. See how much you can get done in a single hour. It works well for simple stuff. So far I’ve managed to wash all the dishes, do two loads of laundry, sweep the floor, and shred a month’s worth of mail in 67 minutes.
Cluster your errands
It’s hard to think outside the box and innovate when you’ve got a dozen little things nipping at your heels. So just bundle them up, and knock them out as fast as you can — then get back to your real work. Bonus, your mind can incubate ideas while you’re running errands. Some of your best thinking happens when you’re away from your computer.
Learn to handle distraction
Phones and email aren’t the only thing competing for your attention, especially as a parent. There’s a difference between distractions you seek out, like Twitter, and the ones you endure while trying to focus. Lucky for us, your brain has a way of adapting. You actually can get work done while bouncing a kid in your lap, especially if you’ve got the intrinsic need — like an idea that’s bursting to get out. It just takes practice.
Actually read parenting guides
A lot has changed since we were raised. Science and psychology have found ways to make your kid happier, less fussy, and slightly less demanding. They also explain why your kid is such a jerk sometimes — and why you shouldn’t get angry at them. All of this makes life easier.
Keep an old fashioned notebook
You can even keep two, one for ideas —another for all those little things you forget, like license plate renewals. You can cluster them, or just knock one out when a few minutes opens up in your day.
Organize your work space
Clutter stresses us out. Even if you have a kid, it’s a good idea to clean up their messes and put away all their toys when they go to sleep. It helps you focus. Ignoring a mess actually drains your bandwidth. Also: stock up on supplies and buy lots of little baskets and jars to put things in.
Put a premium on sleep
There’s no point trying to work when you can barely keep your eyes open. It doesn’t matter what’s due this week. You’ll produce crap. Go to sleep now, even it it’s only 8 pm. Worry about everything else later.
Don’t skimp on your tools
For years, I bought cheap $30 shredders. They kept jamming. Then I tried sneaking my junk mail to the office, which just ate up even more time. Finally I bought a heavy-duty shredder, and it’s lasted for almost two years now. It’s paid for itself in time saved. So, think about how much you’re wasting by trying to save a few bucks.
Keep an eye out for apps
For me, nothing beats a good bookmarking tool to organize all the websites I use for my job. (It’s a lot.) It saves me time and stress having them all in one place, including all my research journals. A good app can automate busywork, or just keep the chaos a little more contained.
Use your fringe time
Maybe you don’t have two hours to concentrate on your brilliant idea right now. But you have 15 minutes before your next meeting, or 24 minutes before it’s time to pick up your kid. Know what you can get done, like cleaning out your inbox, or just staring out the window if you need a break.
Don’t get hung up on a masterpiece
Everything gets easier the more times you do it. The more articles you write, the more times you perform a solo or sales pitch. Improvement means going through the entire process and watching the results. The point is to have lots of ideas. Every single piece of art or product you make has its own peak state of quality. At a certain point, you don’t make it any better by tinkering. You make it worse, and jam up your idea machine.
Avoid other people’s drama
There’s no bigger drain on your time and bandwidth. Complaining, or listening to someone else complain, damages your brain and slows down your thinking. Sometimes, people come to you with problems and expectations you can’t do anything about. There’s nothing wrong with shrugging and suggesting they handle their own crisis. Your time is valuable, and you should reserve it for people who’ve earned it.
Just do one thing
Everyone gets overwhelmed when their list gets long. You don’t know where to start. So, start anywhere. Just take one thing off your list at random, and do that. Organize old files. Clean one drawer. Go from there. Every single thing you get done unravels your stress knot.
Finally, keep a list of things you’ve done this week. You can do it on paper, or with something like Trello. Do this for two reasons. First, sometimes we get so busy we actually forget what we did. Second, it’ll remind you that you’re actually a pretty productive person.