I Used to Love Productivity Advice. Then I Had Kids

February 6, 2020

I have always enjoyed productivity strategies. I eat up advice around how to best manage my time, tricks for getting more done, and how to set myself up to reach my goals.

But after I had my kids, when I was trying to raise two toddlers and be not just coherent but valuable as a leader at a fast-growing startup, I suddenly saw productivity advice in a totally new light.

Every time I read something about how you should get up at 5am to get an extra hour in or read a book a week to add to your skill set, I didn’t feel inspired.

I felt rage.

I suddenly realized the entire business world was built for someone who was NOT a parent. Almost all of those productivity hacks — with a few exceptions, like advice from Laura Vanderkam and the Lazy Genius — are offered by people who are not the default parent at home.

None of them share this fact. But you can tell by the way most of this advice is dished out that none of the people giving it have actually tried to apply it after not sleeping all night or dealing with an all-morning tantrum or losing half a workday to a sick kid.

Like, what would they do if their kid threw up all over the car on their way to work… two days in a row? 

How would they get out of bed at 5am to practice gratitude if they hadn’t actually gone back to bed after a 1am wake-up?

What if they had to dedicate 45 minutes three times a day at the office to pumping milk?

It’s time to reframe business advice so it’s not just for men without kids

The truth is, many of the strategies the Internet suggests simply aren’t possible while working and parenting young kids.

And yet here’s a shocker: many parents are ambitious, just like we were before having kids! We love spending time with our families, but we also have dreams for growing meaningful careers, building companies and writing books that bring value to the world. Parents of young children want to be productive, too.

But the business and working world’s mainstream advice simply doesn’t fit. Which is crazy, because working parents aren’t exactly a rare breed. Just like the traditional way of working is set up for employees who are childless or supported by someone who’s the default parent, most productivity advice assumes you have full control over your own schedule. Ha.  

So here’s my productivity advice for ambitious, career-loving parents of young children. 

And let’s be real: this is just as much a pep talk for myself as it is for you. I struggle with these things every day. But now that I’m beyond the worst of the sleep deprivation (my kids are ages 2.5 and 4.5), I can at least think clear enough to remind myself of these things on hard days.

1. Ignore mainstream advice

It’s not written for us. Instead of being helpful, it might make you feel worse about how much you’re able to achieve.

You, my friend, actually do way more than the person who wrote that book, because you’re taking care of human beings AND inching forward on your projects (even an inch counts). Which brings me to…

2. Count managing your household as an achievement

I am the worst at this. When I take stock of what I’ve achieved at the end of each day, I often only look at my “paid” work or work that will eventually bring revenue to our family. 

I gloss over all the things I did that kept our family running: got the kids fed and out the door to pre-school, cleaned out the bathtub because our toddler pooped in it (my husband actually did this the morning I wrote this), ran a load of laundry because our other child’s night diaper leaked, figured out what we’re eating for dinner and what the kids are eating and whether we have all the ingredients we need to make those things, discussed medical codes with a health insurance rep for 47 precious minutes to sort out an unexpected bill… the list goes on and on.

When I list out these things, they are tremendous! I achieved a ridiculous amount! And yet somehow when I look at what I’ve done for the day, I treat these items like they don’t count. Why? Perhaps because society tells me every day that unpaid work isn’t valuable. So even when I remind myself that’s not true, I can’t get myself to believe it.

Let’s work on this together, friends.

3. Prioritize sleep

When mainstream productivity advice tells you to get enough sleep, they make the assumption that doing so is as simple as deciding to go to bed earlier rather than staying up late playing on social media. 

But what if getting even six hours of sleep requires climbing into bed 10 hours before you have to get up? What if getting enough sleep means literally not doing all the other things that get-more-sleep strategy was supposed to help you achieve? What if you have to choose between sleep and a shower?

I’m not making this stuff up; these are the realities for parents of young children. Being up half the night and then having to function the next day is hard. Really hard. And then many of us add a full-time job on top of it. If you haven’t experienced this yourself, it might sound like I’m exaggerating, but this is exactly what it’s like going back to work with a three-month-old baby (which is considered normal in America).

If you find yourself in this position, prioritize sleep above all else. Don’t feel guilty about it for even a second. When you’re exhausted, it’s hard to make smart decisions. You’re helping yourself out by sleeping first, even if that means accomplishing nothing else.

I had to give myself this pep talk for the first 18 months of my second baby’s life. I was working full time in an office with a team that looked to me for guidance, and my kid was getting up a few times every night. Every weekend, when my husband or I put our two kids down for a nap at 1pm, I collapsed into bed. I slept through every Saturday and Sunday afternoon. 

I always wanted to use that time for something “productive,” since both kids were sleeping. But the truth was, I was tired, and my body knew sleep had to come before everything else.

If you are at this stage, consider this your permission to sleep every second you can. You need it, and that’s OK.

4. Remember this is temporary

That not-enough-sleep phase? It’s temporary. I mean, it could be years-long temporary and feel like it lasts forever, but eventually it will get better.

I went through a period where I was busy at work and exhausted at home, and I literally wondered if I had lost my capacity to come up with good ideas. It sounds ridiculous now, but I actually thought it might be possible that I would never again feel like my brain was brimming with good ideas like before kids.

I remember the moment this fog began to lift and I thought, omg! It’s still there! I can still think! I was so relieved. I just needed space in my brain and sleep in my tank.

5. Consider interruptions to be constant, not deviations

While most life phases are temporary, here’s what’s not: you will never again work without interruptions. Once you have children, things will almost never go as you planned, for better or for worse.

Once you start seeing that as the norm rather than a deviation, you will feel far less frustrated. If you expect something unexpected to pop up during your day that needs your attention for a few hours, you leave bandwidth in your brain for that unknown thing and better adjust when it comes along.

I’m telling you this because I believe it to be true, but I haven’t mastered it myself. This is a hard one for Type-A parents.

6. Find your people

Talk to other parents about how they manage the juggle. Some of the best strategies tend to be invisible because we’re not always comfortable talking about them (hiring help is a great example). But once you establish relationships with other ambitious parents, some of those walls will come down.

While in-person groups are great if you can find them, I’ve had more luck with online communities, like Facebook groups and podcasts, even a mastermind for entrepreneurial moms. Here are some of my favorite online resources that provide support.

We are here! You’re not alone! But sometimes it can feel like that when everyone’s tweeting about how they ran a half-marathon last weekend. You and I know the real hero is the woman who’s running in the park alongside her dog while pushing a double stroller.

7. Communicate

This is one of the hardest things to do when you’re sleep deprived and stressed. Especially when it requires saying things delicately in a way that will maintain relationships that are important to you.

But forcing yourself to do this is a productivity hack in itself, because it will make your life easier. Household management is the No. 1 stressor for my husband and me, and so far we’ve only found two solutions that work: 1) hiring someone else to do some of the work and 2) checking in regularly about what needs doing, who’s doing it, and how we both feel about who’s doing what.

This is best done during a regularly scheduled meeting with your spouse, and yes, put it on your calendar, just like you would a work meeting. These topics aren’t easy to talk about, and we found if we don’t have a pre-arranged time to discuss them, we simply don’t do it.

Of course, not everyone has a spouse, and some people find themselves in the position of having to do everything as a single parent rather than having to negotiate who does what. Single parents, you amaze me.

8. Look at what you’ve built

No, I don’t mean your most recent work project. I mean that little person you brought into the world and are now turning into someone who will contribute to society in a meaningful way, long after you’re gone. 

It feels good to build a company or a career, but it feels way more amazing to build a human. 

This should be obvious, but for those of us who enjoy our work, it’s not always so. I’m listening to Clayton Christensen’s book, How Will You Measure Your Life? (audiobooks = parent productivity hack) and he talks about how high achievers tend to make the mistake of focusing too much on their work rather than family. We do this in part because it provides immediate returns, whereas the hard work of raising good children can take longer to yield positive results. 

I feel kind of guilty admitting this resonates with me, but it does. While I love hanging out with my kids, our everyday two-steps-forward, one-steps-back dance is often at odds with my high-achiever mindset.

His point is that all that time and energy we put into children — it matters. It might limit our capacity for paid work, and it might mean we can’t get up at 5am to meditate or read 52 books in a year. It might mean we’re exhausted and just getting through each day, rather than “maximizing our potential.” It might mean we want to punch the well-meaning childless coworker who suggests we “take care of ourselves first.”

But raising kids is important work, enriching work. So, too, is filling our own cup by growing a rewarding business or career. 

If doing just those two things is taking everything you’ve got, I’m with you.

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8 Replies to “I Used to Love Productivity Advice. Then I Had Kids”

  • Tamara says:

    Love this post. While I’m not a parent, I’m someone that is trying really hard to balance a big job with having a full, meaningful life. I think it’s because our culture prioritizes anything that makes money over everything else (Like sleep! Or caregiving! Or mental health!), even though those things are essential to a functioning society, our happiness and, yes, creating economic value. I watched this TED talk recently that you might enjoy: https://www.ted.com/talks/marilyn_waring_the_unpaid_work_that_gdp_ignores_and_why_it_really_counts?language=en

  • Peggy Frezon says:

    Great points. Sending this to my daughter.

  • Corene says:

    Yes, Yes, and Yes!!!! Thank you for writing this. As a stay at home mom and entrepreneur, I resonate with every bit of this!!

  • THANK YOUUUU ALEXIS! Thank you so much for this article. I’m currently 6 1/2 months pregnant and my child isn’t even here yet but I have felt all of that high achieving pressure as I prepare for baby. All of the.. “but I didn’t make money today all I did was grow a freaking baby” haha. Thank you for writing this, it will be bookmarked for when she arrives and I can re-read it over + over.

  • Kelley says:

    I’ve got a baby and a toddler and I feel this SO HARD. Thank you for writing it; it feels nice to know that someone “gets” it!

  • You need to understand that with kids comes responsibilities that are sometimes overwhelming that you start wondering what’ going on. It takes a high level of discipline to stick to your goals

  • Such a lovely article and i can totally resonate with you, myself being a mother of two. I want to have an ambitious career and also peaceful parenting. but, these two always clash and i end up confused and depressed. Thankyou for your article with some handy tips. This has changed my way of thought largely.

  • Mia says:

    Thank you – I needed this today. With a meaningful full-time job I love, also trying to be a full-time wife, mother, homemaker… insane. It’s good to hear that the brain will function again eventually. Still waiting for that to return.

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