When the Federal Government first floated the idea of indefinite working from home, a collective gasp of horror arose from parents. That’s because every working parent knows that work + home + kids ≠ productivity. In fact, it’s more than that, it means a steep dive into unproductivity coupled with rising anxiety and eventual insanity. But that is where we find ourselves, and so four weeks into this madness what exactly have we learned about the holy grail of maintaining productivity under siege?
Firstly, let’s deal with the novel idea of multitasking. As I left the office four weeks ago, I received more than enough cheerful slaps on the back from unencumbered 20-something-year-olds helpfully pointing out that I will just have to learn to multitask. ‘Multi-task?’ I grumbled ‘This isn’t just juggling a few plates, this is running the whole goddam circus!’
Interestingly, study after study has shown that there is no such thing as successful multi-tasking simply because the human brain cannot perform two tasks that require high-level brain functions at once. In fact, some estimates suggest that when you attempt to multitask you actually end up taking 40 percent longer to finish than if you had given one task your complete attention. You are also more likely to make mistakes.
So if indeed humans are that terrible at multi-tasking, and given there are now so many things competing for our limited attention, how do we muddle our way through these days and remain productive?
To help you out I’ve trawled through pages and pages of advice (whilst sorting out three very important Lego disputes) and these are the ones that resonate with me. Have I mastered them? No, I have not. But they make sense to me and by the end of the lockdown, I am hoping to have nailed a few of them. I wish you the same success.
Find a place in your home where you are separate from everything else. Treat it like your desk space at work. Set it up for business with all of your normal work tools around you and none of your households’. My brother-in-law initially set himself up on his ironing board with limited success as he competed with two weeks of ironing and structural instability. It didn’t end well.
Set your time and stick to it. If you are a 9-5 sort of person, stick to it. If you are a 7-4 early bird, stick to that as well. Stay as close as you can to what is familiar. Now is not the time to see if a 4 pm start time could herald a paradigm shift for the rest of your working life. When you sign off for the day, turn off your laptop, get up, and walk away. Close the door and padlock it if you need. Maybe even go for a walk around the block, just to put a physical and mental distance between your work and home life, even though they are now so indistinguishable it isn’t funny. When you return, announce “Honey, I’m home” and ask how their day was. Sure, it’s bordering on unbalanced, but you get my point.
Given your attention span will be severely compromised, now is the time to really understand what is the most critical part of your job. Or on the Eisenhower Matrix, whatever sits in the urgent + critical quadrant. Attend to that. Ask yourself the hard questions – is reviewing last year’s expenses policy as important as dealing with a diminishing cash flow position? No one is expecting the same level of productivity during the lockdown, so understand what matters and deal with it first. The upside is, by the time this horrid affair is over you may well return to work with a lot more clarity about what is business critical activities and what is meaningless padding.
Obviously, this is not going to apply to every reader, but if both of you are working from home and you have a couple of small people harassing you, having both of you part-parenting isn’t going to work. Agree with your partner on a timetable when one of you is ‘On’. In my experience from pre-COVID parenting, having both parents trying to co-parent at the same time achieves nothing but accusations of inaction, vague boundaries, and general grumpiness. Instead, agree to share the ownership in time blocks so the other can disappear and really crack into some seriously productive drinking work.
And if you aren’t the one working, use that time to engage with your kids. At the risk of sounding a bit sentimental (and a whole lot hypocritical), they are just as much put out by the whole affair as you are. And who knows, over time you may even remember their names and (gasp) discover you quite like the little people you have been working so hard to keep alive.
And finally …
Homeschooling + working from home. Nope. Not possible. But add a Prozac and neither will matter anymore.
Of course, I’ve more to say on the matter, but there is a strong smell of burning from upstairs and my ironing board is sagging again. I wish you well.