Although focus feels elusive, it need not be impossible. As we stare down another semester of virtual and hybrid schooling, now is the time to get serious about managing interruptions. There is no reason to feel guilty about this. Kids need attention, but unless they plan to pay the mortgage, you also need time for deeper work — and they’ll benefit if you feel less harried. These strategies can help parents get more done now and when life gets back to normal.
Schedule the swap. Trying to work while being the adult in charge of preschool-age children is almost impossible. So the simplest answer is: Don’t always be in charge. A few hours of paid child care per day can feel heavenly, but if that’s not going to happen, in two-WFH-parent families, your best bet is to formalize coverage for each other.
Consider an 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. workday. This can be split into two shifts: 8 a.m. to 3 p.m., and 1 p.m. to 6 p.m., with each parent alternating who gets which shift (1 p.m. to 3 p.m. is nap time for little kids, or screen time for older kids, so it can be double-booked, with the 8-3 parent providing “if need be” supervision). When each party truly covers — keeping the kids out of the other party’s hair — each parent will get 25 fully focused, predictable work hours each week, and four to six probable hours with the nap swaps.
While not ideal, this beats both parties being interrupted all day long. This swap could also work with a relative or a neighbor with kids who is co-quarantining with you. Even in non-covid times, formal swap schedules are a smart way for parents to get guaranteed, interruption-free “me time” on weekends and holidays — which can make for a much happier home life.
Match the right work to the right time. Some work requires focus. Some does not. It’s tempting, when the kids head out for three hours of hybrid school, to clean out your inbox first. You see progress! But you can delete emails while sitting next to a first-grader who’s trying to complete an online assignment. You can’t write a major proposal for a new client. So plan each day’s to-do list to take advantage of any focused time — which is a good strategy for non-covid times, too. If your colleagues all become chatty in midafternoon, that’s the time to delete those newsletters — not that precious morning block when most of them are off in other meetings.
Work before the household is awake. Speaking of those precious morning hours, early mornings can be a great time for getting things done. On days when you know the distractions will be thick, getting up early and knocking off the day’s big must-do has benefits beyond the 60 to 90 minutes you’ll actually log.
I once interviewed a business leader who would work for an hour in a Waffle House before going into the office. Once he was at his desk, people would need things. He wouldn’t want to convey that his employees were a distraction from more important work, so putting in that early hour let him relax the rest of the day. Similarly, if you finish something big before breakfast, you’ll be more calm when somebody comes into your home office to ask where the stapler went, even though you know they borrowed it last night.
Analyze and troubleshoot. If you’ve got older children, understanding the nature of interruptions can help you minimize them. Take notes for a few days. If you’re frequently asked for snacks, maybe they need to be made more accessible. If you’re doing tech support, try teaching a troubleshooting session. Check the inventory of school supplies. Post the day’s meal menu in the kitchen. You might also decide that certain bids for attention are best met. Online learning gets lonely (just as working from home gets lonely). You can lose a morning battling a child’s requests to play a game of cards during her breaks from classes. Play on the first request, and she might move on to playing independently.
Use signs (and share schedules). By mid-elementary school, children can understand that there are times when Mom or Dad can’t be distracted. So talk through your schedule over breakfast; kids might appreciate that a call with a new client requires quiet, while a call with a longtime colleague does not. To reinforce this, put a stop sign on your office door when you can’t be interrupted. This works best if you then share the times when you are fully available — perhaps coordinating your breaks with your kids’ breaks and heading outside for some fresh air together. Incidentally, colleagues can be similarly trained when you’re back in the office, with a sign such as noise-canceling headphones (and some schedule transparency, too).
Use a “later” list. Although kids often get blamed for productivity woes, we should be honest: They aren’t the only source of distraction. At home, undone chores can be equally pernicious. You sit down to ponder something important and then think, “Hey! I need to move the clothes to the dryer!” While up, you notice that there is unopened mail on the counter and … there goes 20 minutes. One solution? Keep a notebook next to you while you’re doing any sort of deep work. If a thought or task pops into your brain, write it there. Then you can tackle it “later” — during a scheduled break.
This goes for work distractions, too. Hunting for information you know your colleague sent in an email means going into the rabbit hole of your inbox. So don’t do it until you break for coffee. Focus is hard enough as it is. You don’t want to distract yourself.
Laura Vanderkam is the author of “The New Corner Office: How the Most Successful People Work from Home” and “168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think.” She lives outside Philadelphia with her husband and five children.