9 Productivity Lessons from the First 2 Months of Parenthood

Warning road sign showing mother duck and ducklingsA few weeks ago I was due to run a workshop on Time Management for Creative People, based on my e-book of the same name. Normally, I arrive for presentations at least an hour early, to set everything up, deal with inevitable technical hitches and get in the right frame of mind for the session.

Not this time.

For once, the audience arrived at the venue before I did. In fact, they were all sat there waiting and chatting, with less than a minute to go before the start time – and I was nowhere to be seen.

With just 30 seconds to go, I burst through the door, apologising to my host as I strode to the centre of stage. After frantically fumbling my slides from a USB stick onto the big screen, I laid my notes on the table, took a deep breath and turned to face the audience.

Good evening ladies and gentlemen, my name is Mark McGuinness. I’m sorry for cutting it so fine this evening.

I know what you’re thinking – “Time management trainer late for his own workshop?!”. It doesn’t look good, does it? However, I do have a good excuse …

I’ve just come from the hospital where I’m pleased to say my wife has just been delivered of two beautiful children.

Cue the biggest standing ovation I’ve ever received.

Like many of you, I now know that parenthood is a wonderful thing. And like many wonderful things, it’s full of challenges. This isn’t a parenting blog, and I’m a rank beginner at the art, so I won’t venture any advice on that subject. What I will do is share some of the lessons I’ve learned from road-testing my productivity system in a high-demand, low-sleep environment. Extreme conditions are great for revealing truly essential behaviours, so most of these lessons should hold true for ‘ordinary’ life as well.

And for those of you who haven’t yet experienced the joys of parenthood: just imagine a very large, charming, fluffy, Godzilla-sized creature picks up your house (finely-tuned productivity system and all) shakes it, turns it upside-down, and plonks it back into place. Several times a day. Then several more times a night. For weeks on end. Meanwhile, the rest of the world is carrying on as usual, and expects you to do the same…

1. Forget Your Routine

Some creators thrive on chaos, others prefer order and routine. I’m definitely in the latter category – I’ve written before about the importance of routine and ritual to my writing process. My ideal working day kicks off with coffee and Google Reader, before proceeding to several hours of uninterrupted writing. Sadly, that sentence now reads ‘kicked off…’.

I’m writing this at two o’clock on a Sunday afternoon, the first chance I’ve had all week to settle down to writing Monday’s piece for Lateral Action. The only remnant of my previous routine is the fact that I got up not long ago – after spending half the night ministering to my twin bundles of joy, I needed a couple of hours’ kip over lunch before my brain was fit for writing.

Funnily enough, it wouldn’t be so bad if it were like this every day. But every day is different. Tonight the babies could sleep reasonably well, and I could find myself happily ensconced at my desk at breakfast time tomorrow. But there are no guarantees that would continue into Tuesday. And so on.

But here I am, writing away – if you’re reading this, then it must have got written somehow. And I know you’ll let me know in the comments if it’s not up to the usual standard. ;-)

Takeaway: A routine is great, but not essential. Don’t get too attached to yours. A master works with whatever tools are available.

2. Prioritize

If the doctors hadn’t shoved me out the door of the delivery suite with the words “Your babies are fine – go and do your work!” I would have cancelled the workshop. When they’re yelling and I’m ‘on duty’ at home, I drop everything and pick them up.

When I’ve made a commitment to a client to get something done, and my e-mail inbox is filling up, then I let the inbox overflow. When I look at my day’s work, I took out two or three big items that must get done today. Everything else can wait its turn.

I’ve been consciously prioritising like this for several years now. It’s fair to say this habit has saved my bacon over the past few weeks. Even with little time and less sleep, I’ve been able to pick out my top priorities, which has made it easier (if not easy) to get them done.

Takeaway: Keep up – no, get ahead – with the big things. Catch up with the small things.

3. Systems Are More Robust than Routines

Inevitably, my children’s arrival coincided with a particularly intense period of client work. As a result, I have a backlog of 167 e-mails, several guest articles, and a long list of to-do items. You may have noticed that recently I’ve been slower than usual to reply to comments on Lateral Action. Clearly, this isn’t an ideal situation for a productivity teacher!

The good news is, I know exactly what to do about it. Having a well-established productivity system means that:

  • I’m clear about my priorities – so I’ve kept up with the really essential stuff.
  • I’ve captured all my commitments in buckets – so I probably haven’t forgotten anything important.
  • Thanks to Mark Forster, I know how to clear a backlog.

Takeaway: A good routine is desirable; a good system is essential. A routine is broken the moment you interrupt it. But an effective system is like good suspension – robust and flexible enough to carry you over rough terrain.

4. You Can Get Used to Anything

One of the best bits of advice I’ve received was from a friend who became a parent a few months before us: “It gets easier once you accept being tired all the time”. She’s right. Mental clarity and focus are essential for my work, as a coach and trainer as well as writer. I could spend my time lamenting the loss of my usual mental energy, but I’m getting a surprising amount done by working with the time and energy I do have.

Takeaway: Even the worst case scenario will have its plus points. Accept your limitations and see what you can do with them. Creativity thrives on constraints, right?

5. Catnap and Sprint

I’ve written before about the productivity benefits of an afternoon nap, including a technique for napping in a matter of minutes. Have I been glad of that technique these past few weeks!

Nothing beats a good night’s sleep, but I’m discovering that ‘little and often’ is the next best thing. I’m being woken up several times a night, but at least I know how to get to sleep again.

And by catnapping during the day – particularly before high-focus tasks – I can regain enough mental clarity for intensive bursts of concentrated work. My work days feel more like a series of sprints than an extended run, but I’m still managing to cover the ground.

Takeaway: Learn to nap (here’s how) and practice regularly. When time is short, work to a timer. Think quality not quantity.

6. Exercise

The gym next to our home has been a lifesaver. I can pop down for a 30-45 minute session and feel totally revitalised, even if I’ve been feeling like a zombie all day. We’ve looked at the mental benefits of exercise before, so it’s no surprise but a great relief to know I can recharge my brain with a session on the bikes or treadmill.

Takeaway: When you’re feeling too tired and busy to exercise, that’s a sure sign it’s time to exercise!

7. Teamwork Works

Any productivity writer who becomes father to twins can expect plenty of jokes about ‘batch processing’. :-) In the long run, I fervently hope that having twins produces efficiencies of scale, but right now dealing with two babies at once as first-time parents feels incredibly hard work. And we’re grateful for all the help we can get.

My wife heads the list of indispensable people, particularly on days of workshops and client sessions (and the nights before), when she does more than her fair share of childcare, to keep me fresh for my meetings. Family and friends have been incredibly generous with their help. And especially at the beginning, when we all spent the best part of two weeks in hospital, I was glad of good business partners, when I was able to leave the good ship Lateral Action in the capable hands of Brian and Tony.

Takeaway: Businesses are like babies – you can’t create them on your own! Make sure you have good people around you, and don’t be too proud to ask for help when you need it.

8. You’re Not Superhuman

As some of my e-mail correspondents will tell you, I haven’t been all things to all people these past few weeks. In some cases I’ve tested people’s patience, and I haven’t felt great about writing so many e-mails beginning “Sorry for the delay getting back to you …”.

But as a recovering perfectionist, I’m trying not to beat myself up too much on that score. We’ve said many times here on Lateral Action that if you want to create anything remarkable, you have to prioritise the big, challenging, inconvenient, exciting projects over the clamouring demands of the moment. And babies certainly fall into the former category.

Takeaway: You can’t please all of the people all of the time. Choose wisely.

9. Some Things Are More Important than Work

I try not to take myself too seriously, but I am serious about my work. We have a lot of fun working on Lateral Action, but we’re also on a mission to change the world, in our own small way – by empowering creative people to create remarkable things. All of which is important.

But there’s a different kind of important – a more everyday, down-to-earth, moment-to-moment kind of important. One with no ambition to change the world, just accept and enjoy it the way it is – and share it with those who are close to you. After just two months, I’m still a novice at this parenting game, but I’ve not found any better reminders of this kind of important than the two little bundles of fun who have just fallen asleep, with impeccable timing, just as I’m finishing my day’s writing.

Takeaway: Sometimes the small things are the big things.

How Do You Manage?

Parents – How do you keep your work on track while taking good care of your kids? All suggestions gratefully received! :-)

How has parenthood affected your creativity – positively and/or negatively?

Non-parents – have you ever had a major disruption to your working routine? How did you cope?

Image: Wikimedia Commons

About the Author: Mark McGuinness is a Coach for Artists, Creatives and Entrepreneurs. For a free 25-week guide to success as a creative professional, sign up for Mark’s course The Creative Pathfinder.

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Responses to this Post

Comments

  1. I’m glad I’m not the only one struggling with these issues! As a triathlete, blogger, family man, and Army guy…I’m out of time for sleep and relaxation and finding balance is nearly impossible. I’m still in awe of guys like Chris Brogan and Gary V that can work on 3-4 hours of sleep. I’m struggling with just 6!

    Congrats on the baby and keeping up with the productivity.

  2. As a mom of three kids under 5 with a thriving PR business, I can say that it doesn’t get any easier. However, you do get better at it. I have also learned the art of “No.”

    I am very careful about which speaking opportunities I accept. Do they fit in with the long term mission? Do they allow me to keep my longer-term priority of putting my kids and family first?

    It is a balancing act to say the least, but one that I feel I am getting better at every day.

    Congratulations on your new journey, so glad you already have the tools available to be successful.

  3. And yet, you still had time to comment on my blog when I referenced you in a post. It was two weeks after I wrote it, but you managed to get to it because clearly you think that sort of interaction is important.

    So- thanks! It meant a lot to me when you commented, and now that I know how busy you are it means even more.

  4. As someone with a rather, um, organic approach to time management, I am in awe of people who can keep themselves organized. Adding a second energetic dog to our household was enough to throw a monkey wrench into the works (I’m self-employed as well), and then I decided to build a blog, just to complicate things further.

    Two dogs are way more work, but lots of fun. The blog still gives me startup jitters. I’ve started making to do lists, and try not to worry too much if a couple of things get carried over to the next day. As long as we’re all fed and watered, life is good.

    I discovered Lateral Action recently, and I’ll definitely be digging into the archives. Congratulations, Mark, and thanks for all the good information.

  5. I am the lucky father of an exuberant 16-month old girl who is what the books politely refer to as a “high-need” child. I’ve certainly struggled with keeping up some kind creative life while balancing all the new challenges and responsibilities of parenthood, so I appreciate reading all the perspectives here.

    Learning to work without a routine has been a big help. I don’t always know when I’ll have time to work, so I’ve learned to grab it when I can and try to go with it.

    Along with that, I’ve learned what kind of work I can do in the time available. Certain tasks lend themselves to quick bursts of work, others need more time. If I know I’ve only got 15-20 minutes, I can sit down at the piano and bang out some exercises. If I want to work on writing new music or work on my improv skills, I need to wait until I’ve got at least an hour or two.

    Similarly with writing, I can do some editing of a mostly-done piece on the bus ride to work, but if I’m drafting something new, I need more time to get myself into a flow.

    And I completely agree with Kami: learning to say “no” is huge! :)

  6. Paul McGuinness says:

    I can completely sympathise with your situation, Mark. I have an elder brother who coaches creativity and has recently become father to twins. I’ve hardly spoken to him since, but I know he’ll get back to me eventually…

    ;0)

  7. Umm, Mark? I think you need to call your brother. ;)

  8. @ Nathan – What I wouldn’t give for 6 hours’ uninterrupted sleep right now! ;-) And I guess point 8 doesn’t apply to Chris and Gary! Glad to hear you’re managing to live such a full life, family and all.

    @ Kami – Thanks, excellent advice re saying “No”. Do the kids ever learn the meaning of that word? :-)

    @ Adam – Better late than never!

    @ Stacey – Thanks! Like you, I got into time management through wanting to do too many interesting things, it was either get organised or give up some of my favourite pursuits.

    @ Darin – Great point about tailoring tasks to the time available. I think I’ve written about 2 lines of poetry in the last 2 months, inspiring to hear musical composition and parenthood are compatible!

    @ Paul – Tell you what, I’ll give you Brian’s number. If it’s really urgent you can ask him to nudge me. :-)

  9. Hey, I’m a bit late, but CONGRATS!

    Good post too – especially the systems vs routines.

    I find that some days I’m chipping away at the little things cos my routine has been interrupted too much and this makes me feel like I’m getting somewhere, but for true, when I get down to the big ticket items, it’s a much better feeling of accomplishment. I suspect they both work in their own ways, but you have to be careful not to let the big things slide because you’re too tired or confused by interruptions.

    Well, good luck to you and yours – may many years of family happiness come your way!

  10. Congratulations on the twins. The thought of two at once make me gulp.

    Parenthood didn’t really kill my creativity. It killed my time and energy. Thus I had to make a choice between putting what remained into creative methods of career advancement or my more free flowing and arty pursuits. Option A won.

    The first four months were pretty awful. The rest of the first year and a bit after was pretty good and I was able to do a number of different things. Then my baby turned into a HIGHLY ACTIVE toddler and for the last eight months I’ve been struggling to prioritize and prune and prioritize and prune.

    I wish I had some good suggestions for you, but I’m still trying to find them for myself. Somehow the most important stuff gets done, but I’m never entirely sure how.

  11. Congrats to you and your wife on your two bundles of joy!

    While we had our babies one at a time, the first one was a tremendous amount of work both because we were new to parenthood and because he cried non-stop pretty much 24 hours a day for about three months. He was allergic to every store-bought formula we tried. Eventually, we switched to Dr. Spock’s homemade evaporated milk formula and he stopped crying.

    Our daughter came along about a year and a half later. She was such a quiet baby compared to our son that we took to calling her Oblivious. By the time our third child arrived a couple years later, we were old hat at dealing with toddlers and had also learned how to be productive with other activities at the same time.

    I’m a fiber artist by training and one of the things I learned is that it’s really hard to set up a loom with kids and cats in the house. (The cats are worse than the kids.) So, instead of feeling frustrated over not being able to weave, I took up other sorts of fiber arts – embroidery & sewing mostly – things I could quickly toss aside if needed – and used those to feed my creative needs. I also learned how to knit.

    My husband and I have also tried to encourage our children to do things on their own, without us having to keep them entertained continually. If we’re working on our own projects, then they can work on something of their own. If they come to me and say, “I’m bored!” I counter with, “Let’s see what kind of cleaning job I can come up with for you.” That makes them find something to do right quick. Not only does this strategy serve the creative needs of the adults, it also gives children time to think creatively on their own.

    If we can involve our children in what we’re doing, we do that as well. Our children helped us tear the plaster out of our house during a remodeling effort. Even toddlers can help pick up their own toys. Children like to be helpful and training them to help at the earliest possible time will instill a habit that lasts forever.

    Perhaps the biggest benefit having children has had to my creativity (other than the way they are always introducing me to new things) is that I’ve learned how to make efficient use of my time.

    Good luck & happy times to your family, Mark.

  12. Babies should be able to sleep through the night by about 4 months. They have to learn how to comfort themselves, which means you have to stay out of the room and let them cry until they figure it out. It’s hard not to run in and comfort them, but they need sleep as much as you do. Don’t wait until they’re 14 months to do this one.

    Don’t stress about what everyone else tells you is “essential” to your kids. I can’t count the number of times people told us what we “absolutely have to do”, only to find out they never did it when they were raising kids. (Yes, the sleeping thing is a “learn from my mistake” lesson.)

    The best advice we got was about the time our oldest started eating solid food. My wife’s aunt told us, “When she’s old enough to tell you what she wants, and she asks for mac and cheese three times a day, let her have it. Don’t worry about having a balanced diet at each meal. Just make sure it balances out over the week.”

    Then eventually they need to outgrow that, and learn to like variety. No child has ever starved to death while sitting in front of a plate of vegetables.

  13. And a big congrats from me too, Mark! I can’t offer any tips in the way of parenthood, unfortunately (or is that fortunately?).

    I hope you get a decent night’s sleep before too long.

  14. What a great balanced post. The art of balancing children and everything else is always a moving target. Prioritization – absolutely. I really like your differentiation between routine and system. Children demand flexibility even though they are receptive to routines. By thinking in systems the tasks (for them and you) stay on the radar and still get done, in their own time. It was the rushing that always got us in trouble as my kids were growing up.

  15. Congrats – I foolishly decided to re-launch one blog and start another in the month before my son was born – 17 months later and I’m still finding the right balance between work, family, and blogging/online creative stuff…

    But all three give me rewards that I wouldn’t want to swap, so it’s very much about prioritisation, making the most of the time available, and learning to let go of things that just don’t make me as happy…

  16. Congratulations, Mark! Enjoy every minute – they grow so fast!

    Cath

  17. Great post, Mark, and congratulations. As the father of 3 month old twins and a 3 year old (all girls) I found your insights helpful and in alignment with some of my own thinking. I have discovered that since the twins came along I have been much more efficient with my time, and do make better choices about high leverage (and more personally satisfying) activities. My organization sometimes prides itself on being able to do anything and everything in the pursuit of a more just world, and I have certainly fallen out of that camp, and am grateful for it. Admittedly I struggle occasionally with the wish that I had more time to change the world “out there.” And then I realize the awesome contribution and responsibility I have in raising these girls well, not to mention the hubris of my world changing aspirations. It’s good to be grounded and brought down to earth. My biggest lesson has really been to be where I am, doing what I’m doing. As soon as my brain starts drifting to thoughts about work when I’m at home, or vice versa, the struggle really begins. Being fully present is a gift in more ways than one! If you are interested, I blogged about my return from parental leave – http://interactioninstitute.org/blog/2009/06/18/daddys-back/.

  18. Mark; The kids do learn the meaning of “No” but only as it pertains to them, as in “mommy, no, I do it!” lol

    @kamichat

  19. Hi Mark

    Congratulations!

    We hit the 6-month mark yesterday and your post really got me thinking about the first couple of weeks which I found, despite the chaos and endless things to do, enormously liberating oddly.

    It felt like you only had to think about what you could do in the next 3-hour window and, I’ve got to say, I was much, much more productive as a result. Really couldn’t believe how much we got done and how, relatively, unstressful it was to do that.

    Not sure there are any lessons in that?

  20. Congratulations for your babies, I am a father of a lovely 5 months baby girl and I can understand you very well. Since she came to this world, I can’t find enough time to do anything anymore. My “usual” evening schedule starts at 11 PM which is not a good thing, after she is sleeping. But you get used to it if you try to exploit every single bit of time you have there. I can only hope it will get better with time ;)

  21. Late to the party (by two months?) – congrats, Mark and mother. That’s pretty cool news.

    As for freelancing with kids… Yeah. Fun times! I’ve learned I can’t write with distractions, prefer morning silence while everyone is sleeping and that the best thing to do when I’m being continually, loudly paged to “COME PLAY! YOU SAID YOU WOULD!!!!” is to accept that setting the work down (for now) is okay and that I can get to it later.

    Plus, kids remind me that I don’t want to look back on life and feel regret that my children’s memories of their childhood involved me working all the time.

    Cheers.

  22. A big thank you everyone for your congratulations and kind words, my wife and I have been very touched.

    I guess I’m walking the talk by taking so long to reply to the second half of this week’s comments. :-) Sorry about that.

    @ Finola – Yes, it’s tempting to chip away at the little things, go for ‘easy wins’ – but you can’t have too many days like that…

    @ Beth – Well, it’s fair to say it made us gulp when we go the news it was twins! Thanks for sharing, glad to hear the important stuff happens ‘somehow’ – maybe the babies bring invisible helpers?

    @ Mary – Thanks for the creative tips, for parenting as well as making stuff. I like the idea of switching to a different branch of your art that requires less setup. Reminds me of Hugh MacLeod drawing his cartoons on business cards so he didn’t have to faff around setting up a canvas in his studio. Or William Carlos Williams doodling his short poems on the prescription pad in between seeing patients at his doctor’s surgery.

    @ Drew – Glad to hear there are no hard and fast rules for parenting.

    @ David – I dream of a decent night’s sleep. Well I would if I – well, you know what I mean. ;-)

    @ Fred – I’m glad there’s some balance in the post, even if life feels a bit unbalanced at the moment!

    @ Dan – Good to hear it can be done!

    @ Cath – Thanks, I’m trying to make the most of it… even the bleary-eyed 3am moments. :-)

    @ Curtis

    Admittedly I struggle occasionally with the wish that I had more time to change the world “out there.” And then I realize the awesome contribution and responsibility I have in raising these girls well, not to mention the hubris of my world changing aspirations.

    Great reminder that there are more important things than productivity. :-) And a nice post, thanks for sharing.

    @ Kami – Hmmm, what are the odds on that being their first word? ;-)

    @ Ruwan – Actually that’s a really good point I didn’t think to write about. Being so tired/overwhelmed that you can only focus on the present and the next couple of hours can be very liberating. Although it would be nice to take the present awareness without the sleep deprivation!

    @ Ovidlu – Thanks, good luck to both of us in finding those scraps of time!

    @ James – Thank you, your comment will be my perfect future excuse to down tools and rush out to play with my kids. :-)

  23. @ Mark – There’s only one downfall to my ‘look back on life’ playtime plan. And I can picture it now:

    “But JAMES told me to do it!!!”

    “Yes, honey, but JAMES isn’t the one who’s going to do the laundry, cook supper and pay the bills while you’re out playing hookie…”

    I take no responsibility. None.

  24. I take no responsibility. None.

    Nice try, but I’m afraid in these cases responsibility tends to be assigned rather than assumed. ;-)

  25. Congrats Mark, since im also looking forward to having the same set of twins as yours, reading this post really did make me shiver but still unrepented about my desires for twins, lol.

    In my opinion, Life will simply be life; ever demanding much more than we are often prepared to give. Like you said in the post, we can all get used to anything -its in our nature as humans to adapt to our immediate environment, and from what i read, you’re pretty much doing fine.

    Thnks for sharing!

  26. Thanks Tito, it didn’t feel like I was adapting particularly well at 4am this morning, but I’m still here so I guess I’m doing OK. :-)

  27. As a new husband (just over a year and a half), and a first-time-father-to-be in March, as well as a full-time entrepreneur in young company (read: unstable income and a very patient wife), I was very encouraged by your post this morning.

    I too am big on “productivity” and I can see, without question, that I need to focus on the systems and not the routine or I am going to be a very stressed man.

    Thanks for a great read. Lateral Action has pleasantly surprised me again and again with the high quality of posts. I’m becoming a loyal fan. Keep up the excellent work.

    Jonathan Wold

  28. I’m a productivity writer and I’m newly married…and newly pregnant. I look forward to all of life’s lessons from these new adventures and I’m glad to learn from yours. I’m glad to see “sometimes the small things are the big things” because I feel like an important flag post for me is to focus on the truly important things. I wouldn’t want my super effective tendencies to lead to hurting / neglecting my family. Thanks for the tips.