Is your home now your office? Learn how to bend time to your advantage

I planned my entire career around my daughter.

I started a Ph.D. when she was two years old. Earlier that year, I finalized my divorce from her father, and she and I moved to a city where my major professor and dissertation advisor were the only people I knew. You might think the most critical skills for success during those doctoral years would be ANOVA or another I/O psychology statistical hurdle. Not so. The two essential skills for MY success as a single parent working on a Ph.D. turned out to be relationship-building and time management. I will explain more in a minute.

After completing my Ph.D., I worked in various internal and external consulting roles. Over those years, I learned many lessons about how to excel while working from home as a single mother. However, it turned out that the two essential skills for my success as a single parent working as an external consultant from a home office were those two skills upon which I had relied in graduate school: relationship-building and time management.

I am sharing these thoughts because the pandemic has thrust many friends and colleagues into an unplanned working-from-home, educating-from-home, child-rearing-from-home, and elder-caring-from-home situation. This “from home” era is even more challenging than what I dealt with when my daughter was of grade-school age. Still, the relationship-building and time management lessons I learned through single parenting and consulting might be helpful. I’ve provided details about the top four tips. The remaining six are self-explanatory.

  1. Time management: Organize your work days into thinking days versus delivery days. The biggest challenge for us knowledge workers is that to do great work, we need some concentration time. When you can, arrange your calendar, so there are at least two days in the workweek where you do not need to have client or colleague meetings. You’ll need to gerrymander your time to accomplish this. Here is how I have done it. First, pick the two days you think would be your best thinking days (Mondays are bad because clients and colleagues always come up with things over the weekend that they want to ask you on a Monday. Fridays are good because, psychologically, who wants to have meetings on a Friday anyway)! Then, block the time on your calendar so one of your colleagues cannot grab the time for another purpose. Third, tell your colleagues not to book you on Tuesdays or Thursdays without first checking in with you. Finally, when clients and colleagues ask for a meeting on one of those days, respond with something like, “I do not have any time open on Tuesday, but here are some times I can meet on Wednesday or Thursday.” Once you do this consistently, you will feel energized on those thinking days and will more easily reach “flow”. And on the other days, when you have meetings and interruptions, you will be more relaxed knowing you have already set aside time for the thinking work.
  2. Pay yourself & prioritize your time: My grandmother instilled the benefits of saving money for a rainy day. And thanks to my first post-doc job, @Raymond James Financial, Inc, I learned about the benefits of compounding. Compounding is one of the most straightforward, elegant, and impactful ideas I have ever retained. I apply it in my financial life and as a time management tool. The sooner you set aside a small amount of something (money, time), the sooner that something can grow. Through the magic of compounding, even a small investment can grow to a large amount over time. The secret is to start as soon as possible, consistently add whatever amount of the resource (money, time) you want to grow, avoid touching the principle, and re-invest the interest. I applied that lesson in my financial life and used it as a time management technique while working from home. First, building a financial cushion enabled me to think less about money. Then, applying the compounding idea, I learned that setting aside chunks of time for concentrating (start with a couple of hours if that is all you can get) paid more significant dividends as time went on. I could build out bigger and better ideas, and one idea would spark another! Idea compounding is how I eventually wrote a book that had been on my to-do list for years!
  3. Develop a network bubble: One downside of working from home can be the sense of disconnection from coworkers and friends. To counter this, keep a list of your core squad and check in with them regularly. Then, create a second list of people you want to meet, people you want to get to know better, or people you wish were on your personal “board of directors .” Finally, reach out and invite one of these people to meet with you (virtually or face-to-face) each week. If you maintain this practice for a year, you will have built a robust “board” of mentors and sponsors, or at the very least, you will have some new professional relationships.
  4. Cook only on the weekends. Buy some good food-storage boxes, grab some recipes from the internet, cook, store, and move on!
  5. Simplify and amplify your wardrobe: I bought a few “power blouses” – you know, ones that have one saturated solid color, preferably in a jewel tone (blues are great), an interesting detail. I need fewer jackets.
  6. Rotate your toddler’s toys: Children are the best. However, it pays to outsmart them by curating the toys they have at their disposal. First, try removing some toys (one by one so they don’t notice). Then re-introduce some of those toys on a Friday (or whatever day you designate for thinking). Often, children will respond as if they are seeing the toys for the first time! Rinse and repeat. This 2-fer tip saves time and money!
  7. Avoid Zoom virtual backgrounds. No one looks professional when the “space” behind you is moving unnaturally. And, have you noticed how much virtual backgrounds make hair look like helmets? The blur feature is a little better but use it sparingly, too. Instead, invest in a printed backdrop (you can get one printed here).
  8. Try to get a formal 4-day work week. Even then, you still need to set aside a thinking day! That thinking day becomes even more critical in a compressed work week.
  9. Go back to telephone calls. Do you need to be on camera for every meeting? Nowadays, I focus more easily and get to solutions more quickly on good, old-fashioned phone calls!
  10. Keep the wine bottle corks! Instead of out throwing out cork stoppers, cut them in half and put them in your fruit basket to deter summer fruit flies!

I hope these ideas help you as much as they helped me over the years! Be kind to yourself.