How Parenting Makes You More, and Less Productive, and What You Can Do About It.
For many of us, work’s a big part of who we are. Then a child comes along and turns your world upside down. Mine totally changed me. Work is still a very important part of who I am, but through trying to make the most of both parts of my life, I’ve learned a lot about parenting and productivity. In particular I’ve noticed two rather large issues with the current discussion.
Much of what’s said on the subject takes a very broad brush approach. Work comes in many different forms, with different tasks. What a writer needs and does to be productive will be different to someone in a big company. Parenting an infant is a different task to parenting a seven year old, at each age our children’s needs are different. The discussion needs more nuance.
Implicit bias is the other huge hill. Parenting is always presented as a thing that infringes on work. A thing that holds people back from fulfilling their potential. Work has somehow gained dominance over life. Yes, work is important, but is it what life is all about?
Do people exist to serve the economy, or does this social construct we created exist to enable progress
Do we get our sense of self-worth from the size of our bank balance or the quality of our relationships and the intensity of our experiences? Both of the latter can come through work of course, but parenting is a much richer source.
If you’re looking to understand how parenting helps you be more productive, not just at work, but in life too, then I’ve done some thinking on the subject. Let’s begin.
Parenting does make you less productive, in the early days, but it teaches you a lot about yourself
Six months after I returned to work following the birth of my first son (he’s 11 now), my boss at the consulting firm I worked for said ‘welcome back’. I was confused. She laughed, telling me I hadn’t been fully there since my son was born. Nothing went wrong, no balls were dropped, I performed when I needed to, I just wasn’t full of energy, didn’t bring the same focus and energy she had come to expect.
The first year of parenting is an exhausting one. Broken sleep and tectonic shifts in your identity and priorities all impact on your ability to function and focus. Yet we manage, we cope.Of course our productivity is impacted. But we get so much from it. It’s a time when your child needs you to be responsive to their basic needs, to cuddle them and connect with them, to be that calm, consistent presence they can depend on.
I learned a huge amount in those six months.
I learned how to manage my energy and use it at the right time for the right task. I found my real limits. They’re about 80% past the point I had previously thought. I also know how to look after myself when I’m near the bottom of my energy (lots of water, fruit and a little caffeine, but not after midday and the promise of something nice, like a beer or slobbing out on the sofa) to get through until bedtime. But that’s not all I learned.
Parenting taught me flexibility, maturity and ruthless, but nice, prioritisation
Human development is rather slow. Speech can take off quickly, but proper conversations only get glimpsed four years in. The brain function that governs emotional regulation doesn’t mature until 21. The next layer of benefits for the parent take some years to manifest too. In part due to sleep deprivation easing off, something that drags on for about six years. Sorry. Although this persistent sleep deprivation does teach you one thing fast.
Being a parent teaches you to match tasks to the energy you have for them — a creative or deep piece of work when you’re well slept and more administrative tasks when you’re less so — the next step is getting flexible with time.
I get my best work done in the morning, but I also do more than half of the school drop offs. Plus I work hard to get back to dinner and bed time. For many years this meant logging on when the kids were in bed to check everything was on track and catch up on emails. Sometimes I’d have to put in an hour or two in to finish a piece of work, but I found I could do it in half the time if, instead of ploughing on into the evening, I went to bed early and woke up early (4:30/5) to get it done. I know for some just staying up later works well, each to their own. So parenting teaches you flexibility, but this only works if you’re good with boundaries.
If you’re going to leave on time, or a bit early, and do a little more in the evening, you need firm boundaries. I believe the whole notion of work-life balance is a fraudulent concept. It implies balance is a norm, a natural equilibrium and that the individual is at fault if balance isn’t achieved.
For a boundary to be effective, it has to be explicit to those it impacts. This means good communication with the people you work with, blocking out your calendar and using out of office notifications. A personal touch goes a long way in all this, something that says what you’re using the time for and what it means to you. My favourites also challenge the receiver to consider their request and makes it clear you won’t respond until the next day. That way, you don’t log on in the evening, then spend hours writing email. Something along the lines of –
‘Thanks for your email, I finish work at 5:30 so I can be home to spend a little time with my children before tucking them into bed. I’ll check my messages around 8pm, all going well. If your query is so urgent it absolutely can’t wait until then, or the morning, then try XXX on XXX until 6pm. Otherwise I shall get back to you when I’m back in the office tomorrow morning.’
When it comes to communicating with colleagues, this starts far earlier than you would imagine. In the morning preferably, then a check in the afternoon if needs be. Each time focused on the work — ‘Will you need anything from me for Y? I’m leaving at 5:30 to get back for kid bedtime, so let me know by Z if you do. I’ll be checking messages later briefly, so can do some thinking on my way in if it’s needed, let me know.’
All you’re really doing with setting clear boundaries is being mature about your responsibilities. You’re owning them, making it clear to everyone you’re on top of what needs to happen, by when and playing your part in the team. With clear boundaries and proactive communication, you then find yourself ruthlessly prioritising.
Ruthless but nice prioritisation.
You’ve got a job to do, and limited time to do it in. This means taking responsibility for how things get done, chairing that meeting that often drags, so it stays on point and gets finished faster. Making clear to people what’s being lost or given up by choosing to do a new thing — the opportunity cost. Thinking strategically about what’s really important, and what you’re seen to be doing (the theatre of work is important, we’ll get onto that).
This is where the art of asking a question becomes very useful, something you learn fast as a parent. The same principles are at play behind this question –
‘Do you want to put your pajamas on before you brush your teeth or after?’
‘That’s a good idea (to the Director), shall we do it before X, or after X is in place and we can see how it could be best delivered?’
Both are framed to make the receiver happy, one gets some control, the other’s idea is accepted, how those things materialise remains completely in your control. This is the nice part, because you’re being empathic with people, making sure their needs are met alongside yours.
As a parent, the first three to four years are intense. The demands change as they get older, and do diminish post toddler years, but there is a lot. But using the word ‘demands’ implies obligation and infers that the time isn’t well spent, when it clearly is. As your children pass four, you enter the golden years, where their self sufficiency is growing, puberty hasn’t yet hit and they are still orientated towards the family. Once they pass around 12, their orientation shifts outwards to peers, puberty hits and parents lose their sparkle.
Success at work is about more than being productive, it’s about being effective
Success at work isn’t 100% about straightforward productivity. We don’t count the number of timbers we lug around every day anymore. Success in work comes from creating value. In much modern work, how valuable something is depends not on some objective measure, but on people’s perception. One person will pay a lot to see their favourite band, another will switch the radio off as soon as they come on. A well-researched strategy will be disregarded if the consultant hasn’t made it fit the client’s worldview. Here Frederick the Great pops up again with this fantastic example of how he influenced his people’s perception of the potato to make them go from hating it to valuing it.
Key to understanding and managing this perceived value is having good social and political skills. Indeed, as you climb the ladder higher, social and political skills get more important because they’re the key to unlocking the productivity of others. Mastering that means understanding emotions, perspectives and perception, and having empathy.
What better training ground than getting a three year old do something they don’t want to. Or persuading a nine, twelve or fourteen year old that what you want to do might be fun or interesting for them too. Being able to create real connections and persuade people is a real super power. One that I think makes the time constraints of parenting secondary to the sheer volume of practice you get in these social arts. But only if you approach it that way. Only if you respectfully listen to and engage with your children. Not if you just tell them how to behave and use your authority to make it happen.
But your work relationships will suffer
I run workshops for dads. In one, at an investment bank, a young dad had a big realisation.
‘Oh god. I’ve not seen my boss’s boss for months. I used to make a point of passing him in the corridor when he was here for the monthly meeting, so he knew who I was and what I was working on. Since having my son though, I’ve just been so focused on doing my work, I haven’t made the time to speak to him.’
The guy was seriously ambitious, and very smart. He understood that who you know matters a lot, but as a parent, especially in the early years, when you’re sleep deprived, focused mainly on holding things together and making sure you get back home on time, you may well neglect the important relationships There’s a useful framework to help you avoid that mistake, it comes from the worlds of stakeholder management and public affairs. Just put the names of people in the boxes below, based on how much impact they have on your career and how much access you have to them, then you know what to do. It takes a few minutes but could save you years of navigating the world of work.
And it splits your attention
Paul Graham is a very successful guy. He’s built and sold a company, founded an incubator called Y Combinator that carved a path that many other start-up incubators now follow. He’s also a dad. In an essay, which has helped him garner personal prestige, he talks about his kids and productivity.
“I hate to say this, because being ambitious has always been a part of my identity, but having kids may make one less ambitious. It hurts to see that sentence written down. I squirm to avoid it. But if there weren’t something real there, why would I squirm? The fact is, once you have kids, you’re probably going to care more about them than you do about yourself. And attention is a zero-sum game. Only one idea at a time can be the top idea in your mind. Once you have kids, it will often be your kids, and that means it will less often be some project you’re working on.”
I recognise what Paul’s saying, but in my experience, you can find the time to think of both. And, like Paul says in later his essay, much of the time we had before kids, we actually wasted. Of course there are only so many hours in the day, so if you do want to hold two important things to focus on, other things will need to give. Cal Newport talks about this in Deep Work, about cutting out things that just don’t serve us well, social media and watching too much TV (especially episodes of a show on the commute into work — that’s the perfect time to think). Instead of occupying your mind with things, give it the space to think about what’s really important to you.
What’s productivity for anyway?
Finally, being a parent forces you to confront the hardest question. What really matters? We’re driven to optimise, to strive for efficiency in ever shorter cycles. Daily news and share price changes, quarterly returns and reviews, never ending notifications, morning routines, Elon Musk, 10 ways to be more productive/successful/rich/fit…
The most important thing I’ve learned from being a parent has been the thing that’s made me a much better person, and a more productive one. I’ve learned what it means to care about something so deeply that you will go through anything for it. The feeling of ultimate responsibility that, no matter how you feel, you will step up for regardless. Before I wouldn’t act because I’d care what others would think. Now I don’t. I step up, I do what needs to be done because it either matters, or it’s something that’s in the way of getting me closer to what matters, my kids.
I’m constantly researching what it means to be a better dad. Every two weeks, I share the best bits of what I’ve found with loads of other parents (mostly dads). If you want in, sign up here.
This post was previously published on Noteworthy – The Journal Blog and is republished here with permission from the author.
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