You have been up since 5am.
You did extra work before the kids woke up. You snuck a few quick emails in while they ate breakfast. You absolutely crushed your kid-free work windows during the day. (And by “crushed” I mean didn’t even give yourself breaks to go to the bathroom.) You let the kiddos have a little extra screen time at night just so you could squeeze in a little extra work time. You stayed up late to work after the rest of the house was asleep.
…yet as you finally stumble into bed, you still somehow feel like you didn’t get enough done.
WHY IS THAT?
Seriously, you worked your sleep-deprived butt off all day! There was nary a game of Candy Crush or a Netflix episode in sight. So why is it that you can work as hard as you do and still not feel like you get enough done?
What’s the Problem?
There are several possible diagnoses for this particular ailment.
The Joys of Being a Working Mom
Whether you work at home or from an office, there is a very real possibility that you just don’t have enough time to work.
It happens. You’re a mom. There is some (sadistic) unwritten law that you have to put your kiddos first and your own priorities last. You probably wouldn’t have it any other way, but some days it leaves you with the feeling that there’s just no way you can do everything you have on your plate.
This is a very real feeling (and you’re not imagining it), but even without increasing the amount of time you have to work, there is still a way for you to feel productive.
Why This Sucks
So, yes, it is hugely unfair that the rest of humanity gets to judge productivity solely based on accomplishment while you have to add a disclaimer about how much time you have.
You can thank ridiculous societal expectations for women to be able to “do it all”, blame the fact that you don’t have Hermione’s time turner, or curse the deity of your choice, but the facts don’t change. Sorry.
However, as lifelong student of productivity with a PhD in business psychology, I would actually bet a huge amount of money that even without increasing the amount of time in the day you have to work, you can still go to bed feeling like you actually accomplished enough during the day.
*record scratching sound as the music grinds to a halt*
Seriously. Imagine going to bed feeling like you did enough, like you did well, like you actually pulled off a day of being a mom and a real productive human at the same time.
If this idea makes you laugh (or possibly sob quietly) you are my people.
It is possible to take the tiny amount of work time our kids/spouses/lives allow us and move mountains. You just have to know how to do it.
How to Handle It
Okay, first things first we have to do a few important definitions.
Important versus Urgent
At first glance, these words look pretty synonymous. I mean, if something is urgent then it’s an important thing to get done…right?
The difference between important tasks and urgent tasks is actually what gives you that “holy crap I didn’t even stop working to eat and I still got nothing done today” feeling. Once you learn how to tell the difference (or practice distinguishing between) the two types of tasks, you will start noticing that feeling of paralyzing unproductively starts to dwindle.
Urgent Tasks: Meet the Daily Whirlwind
One of my favorite management books is called The 4 Disciplines of Execution by Chris McChesney, Sean Covey, and Jim Huling. I highly encourage you to read the whole thing. Even though it’s technically for corporate managers, the basic strategy actually one of the most helpful parenting techniques I’ve ever encountered.
However, for our purposes here, I want to mention one concept they discuss in depth: the daily whirlwind.
Any job, from parenting to being a CEO, has a daily whirlwind.
This is the busywork, the invoicing, the mindless emails, the cleaning, the tasks that get magically recreated every night as we sleep. Nothing in the daily whirlwind is really all that exciting or life-changing, but it’s absolutely mandatory and usually pretty time-sensitive.
The tasks that compromise your daily whirlwind are the definition of “urgent” tasks. You have to get them done, usually the second they are presented to you….but are they really that important?
Before you jump to defend your whirlwind, let me define what I mean by “important”.
Defining Importance (by Your Goals)
If someone asked you where you wanted to be in 5 years, what would you say?
(Other than “well-rested and on a beach somewhere”, that is.)
You’d probably say something about success in your career. Maybe you want to start (or grow) your business. Maybe you’re gunning for a big promotion. Maybe you just want to be able to consistently make ends meet without the constant worry taking years off your life. As a mom, you’d probably mention something about wanting happy, well-adjusted kids that end up productive members of society (not in jail or living out of your basement).
These things are your long-term goals. The details of how they manifest themselves may change over time, but our big picture goals, ambitions, and drives don’t usually change too drastically over time. (Exception: when you get married or have kids…everything changes.)
Now, think back to your daily whirlwind, the tasks you thought of as “urgent”. How many of these tasks actually push you closer to the long-term goals you were just thinking about?
Will answering mindless client emails really move the needle for your business? Not likely. Will making your kids a snack make them happy, functional adults? Probably not. (I mean, it’s important that they not starve, but cutting cute shapes out of their watermelon is not correlated to Harvard acceptance rates…just saying…)
What Causes You to Feel Unproductive
The tasks that actually move you closer to your long-term goals are your important tasks. These may not be urgent or time-sensitive. (In fact, they usually aren’t. They often don’t even make it into the “mandatory” category.)
However, if you let yourself get consumed by your daily whirlwind, without ever ignoring your urgent tasks in favor of some indulgent, long-term, important tasks, then that is what gives you that empty feeling at the end of the day.
So what do you do to fix this?
First, you need to sort out your tasks to figure out which ones are urgent, which ones are important, which are both, and which are neither.
Enter the Eisenhower Matrix
President Dwight D. Eisenhower is quoted as saying that he had “two kinds of problems, the urgent and the important. The urgent are not important, and the important are never urgent”. For this reason, the productivity tool that helps people distinguish between urgent tasks and important tasks has been aptly named the Eisenhower matrix.
By sorting your tasks into one of the four quadrants of an Eisenhower Matrix gives you four clear categories of tasks:
- Essential Tasks: These tasks are both important and urgent. They should go on the top of your to do list and be the first tasks you start on the second you get work time.
- Growth Maximizers: These tasks are not urgent, but they are still important. These are the tasks that might not benefit you today, but will have the biggest impact on your life 5 or 10 years down the road.
- Daily Whirlwind: These tasks are not important, but they are unfortunately urgent. Come up with creative systems to get them done as quickly as possible so you can move on to more important tasks, or use them as “warm up” tasks to decrease procrastination.
- To Delegate: Tasks that are neither important nor urgent are really not worth your time. Try to minimize these, whether by deciding the task doesn’t need doing or by delegating it to someone with more bandwidth (or a lower billable rate).
So What Do I Do With This Information?
I know what you’re thinking: Yes, yes, this sounds great, but it doesn’t make my daily whirlwind tasks any less numerous or any less necessary. I understand that I need to do more of the important tasks, but the whole problem was that I didn’t have time to do more!
I do feel your pain here. People don’t get lost in the daily whirlwind because it’s fun. (It most certainly isn’t.) They get stuck in the daily whirlwind because it really feels like there is no choice.
I’m not asking you to put more on your plate, to work harder, or to magically create more time to work (when you know none exists).
What Productivity and Vitamins Have in Common
My best advice, the advice that has been keeping me going for half a decade of working, momming, getting my PhD, and starting three different businesses (yes, all at once), is that you should think of important tasks like vitamins.
Vitamins are small, but powerful. If you ate nothing but vitamins your body wouldn’t survive long enough to reap the benefits of all those nutrients. However, if you take a handful of vitamins a day (whatever the recommended serving size is) it will help you live a longer, happier, and healthier life in the long term.
This is how you should look at the tasks in your important-but-not-urgent, growth maximizer category. Each day, pick one task that is important but not urgent and treat it as if it was urgent. It may not be something huge. On busy days it could be as small as brainstorming something in the car or writing an outline on the back of a napkin while your kids are finishing (or throwing) their dinner. Remember, vitamins aren’t big.
However, if you make time for at least one growth maximizer task every day, you’ll notice the feeling of “wow, I worked all day and got nothing done” will slowly start to dissipate. Even a bucket that is filled one drop at a time will eventually overflow.
If you add at least one important-but-not-urgent task into your daily whirlwind, it’s not going to break the bank when it comes to a time commitment, but it will make a sizeable boost in your morale and your feelings of productivity.
Most importantly, it will help you slowly chip away at the long-term goals that really matter to you.
Free Eisenhower Matrix
What’s important, what’s not, and what should you give to someone else to worry about?
Not all tasks that are urgent are important, and not all tasks that are important are urgent.
By distinguishing between these two key categories of tasks, you can figure out what is consuming your daily work time and strategically add at least one task a day that will fill your soul and contribute towards your long-term goals…without costing you too much time.
Your ally against the whirlwind,
Liz Bayardelle, PhD
Liz is the mom of three human(ish) kids, three furkids, three businesses, and eight blogs. She also has a PhD in Business Psychology, several published books on parenting psychology, and a serious Chick-fil-a addiction. Hobbies include color coding anything that will hold still, reading textbooks for fun, swearing at her herd of dustbunnies, and nodding off mid-sentence at the dinner table.