When you are overwhelmed, it is all too easy to focus on busywork like reading and answering emails instead of the tasks that really matter. You probably have your email program open all day long, and you may even have pop-ups or audible notifications set up to alert you when a new message comes in. Email can contain important information, but it is likely the single biggest distraction of your workday!
You may think you can check or compose emails while you are doing other things throughout the day, but Gary Keller says in his popular book, The One Thing, "Multi-tasking is a lie." What he means is that we cannot truly do more than one thing at a time. Productivity psychologist, Dr. Melissa Gratias explains it well, "Our brain does not perform tasks simultaneously. It performs them in sequence, one after another. So, when we are multitasking we are switching back and forth between the things we are doing." The price we pay for attempting to multi-task is called switching cost.
"Switching cost is the disruption in performance that we experience when we switch our attention from one task to another," explains James Clear, author of the New York Times bestseller, Atomic Habits. Just think of how many times a day you check your email! A study published in the International Journal of Information Management in 2003 reports that a typical employee checks email nearly every 5 minutes and it takes over a minute to get back to what they were doing before the email interruption. Do the math - that's a waste of 10 minutes every hour which equates to an hour and 20 minutes out of an eight hour workday just getting our brains reset back to what we were concentrating on before we stopped to check email.
To combat this distraction, start by choosing one hour of your workday to NOT check email. Trust me, I know this is hard! I picked a hour in the morning because that allows me to get important tasks done without distraction early in the day. Select an hour in the portion of your day where you feel the sharpest and most awake so that you can leverage that energy and get meaningful work done when you are at your best. It would would be a shame to waste the best part of your day on your inbox!
To really make this hour productive, make sure you have a task list in order of priority handy so that you can jump right in doing the thing that matters the most. Next week's post will be about how to do first things first (I'm pretty excited about this one!)
If you get really good at a "no email hour" in your workday, you may want to try increasing that time. Depending on the type of work you do, it may be detrimental to be 'off the grid' for too long. Some experts suggest only checking email a couple of times a day, but in my day job, that would just not be acceptable. If I do need to be away from email longer than an hour or so, I sometimes set a temporary automated out of office message to set the expectation that my response will be delayed. The message can be very simple like, "I'm working on a high priority project and will not be checking email until 2 p.m. If you have an urgent need, please text me at ###-###-####."
One caveat that makes the "no email hour" tricky is that many tasks may require sending emails, so be careful not to get sucked in to your inbox when composing a new message. To avoid the temptation, try these shortcuts to open just a blank message instead of your entire inbox.
Outlook - When you want to send a message, simply right click on the Outlook icon on your taskbar, and choose new message. You could also create a desktop shortcut to compose a new message (instructions here.)
Gmail - There is a handy dandy Chrome Extension called Quick Compose for Gmail that allows you to open up a blank message withOUT going to your inbox. Once you've installed the extension, there's even a keyboard shortcut!
iPhone Mail App - Use 3D or haptic touch (which basically means that you tap and hold) on the mail icon until a menu appears, and then select new message. This brings up a blank message without taking you into your inbox. NOTE: if you have multiple email accounts set up on your phone, the message will be automatically from your default account, but you can easily change that by tapping on the from address and choosing the proper account.
These are the three mail apps I use most often, but if you use others, I'm sure a quick Google search of "how to compose a message without opening my (insert mail app) inbox" will bring up tips to help you.
Try the "no email hour" for a week and let me know how amazing it feels to get an entire hour's worth of work down without email interruptions!
Clear, James. ATOMIC HABITS: an Easy and Proven Way to Build Good Habits and Break Bad Ones. RANDOM House BUSINESS, 2019.
Clear, James. “The Myth of Multitasking: Why Fewer Priorities Leads to Better Work.” James Clear, 4 Feb. 2020, jamesclear.com/multitasking-myth.
Hoyt, Alia. “How Multitasking Works.” HowStuffWorks Science, HowStuffWorks, 27 Jan. 2020, science.howstuffworks.com/life/inside-the-mind/human-brain/multitasking.html.
Jackson, T., Dawson, R. and Wilson, D., 2003. Reducing the effect of email interuption on employees. International Journal of Information Management, 23(1), pp.55-65
Keller, Gary. The One Thing: the Surprisingly Simple Truth behind Extraordinary Results. John Murray Press, 2019.
Photo by Austin Distel on Unsplash
We woke up early on the first day of the 2020-2021 school year only to learn that our home internet was out! Since we were all planning to spend the day learning and working online, we had a few moments of panic. Luckily the internet came back on before long and held steady the rest of the day!
I had planned every detail of virtual learning at our house, but there was still something out of my control. It's good to be reminded that no matter how well we plan, the unexpected still happens. I think this school year may teach us all that lesson many times over! Because there is so much in life that we cannot control, it is helpful to be organized because that gives us the capacity to handle the unexpected when it comes our way.
Whether your kids are doing virtual learning at home full-time or their school has a hybrid approach where just part of the week is e-learning, being a parent of a school-aged child this school year is going to be a challenge! I am trying to use organization to help make the experience as smooth as possible, and I thought I'd share some of my ideas with you.
Challenge # 1: Not enough workspace
We are excited to have my older son's best friend and his younger sister joining us for virtual learning. It gives our kids some socialization and makes their school day much more fun! But we had to get creative to fit everybody in our home and still keep distance between them.
We live in an 1800 square foot, nearly 150 year old house with no spare bedroom or office. On days when I work from home to help supervise the school day, there are six people to fit into the space! We decided that we wanted everyone on the same floor, so we are not using bedrooms as classrooms. Because of that, not every kid has enough room to have all of their books and supplies next to them at all times. We solved that problem with a set of plastic drawers labelled with each kid's name. The drawers are on wheels so if I want to get rid of the school look, I can roll them into the laundry room!
We decided that since most of the school day will be spent on Google Meets with headphones on, it didn't really matter if kids were in the same room because they rarely have to talk out loud during live class. We set the two older kids up in the kitchen and the younger two in the living room in a configuration so no one gets in anyone else's videos!
My husband works in our bedroom on a slim table that we set in front of a window, and when I'm working from home, I work in my craft area. Even though it's a little crowded, I made everyone their own nameplate for their space to define it as theirs. I got acrylic frames for photo booth pictures for less than a dollar, then used scrapbook paper and some markers to make every "desk" a little special. At the end of the day, the kitchen kids have to put everything in their drawer so my family can eat dinner at the same table, but it works!
Challenge #2: Confusing schedule
We have two different schedules with different break times for the elementary and the middle school, and then there are alternating days for certain classes - it gets confusing fast! I got two white boards and two inexpensive easels (check the photo frame section for these) to display the schedule. I used different colors to help the kids easily find their next class. For the schedules that alternate, there is a magnet that indicates what day it is. We have one white board in each room to keep kids on track.
I also created a printable daily schedule that lists each class time, class, and code for the live video session as well as check boxes for other daily requirements. These were great for the first week while everyone was getting used to their schedules. After the second week, we probably won't need these anymore and can just maintain a list of codes for the videos.
One thing I love about virtual learning is how much extra physical activity the kids are getting because they can go outside and play, go on a bike ride, or just get some sunshine during breaks. But it's important for them to stay on schedule, so setting timers is a great way to help kids manage their time and get back to their seats in time for the next session.
Challenge #3: Tech Issues
I work in IT for my day job, so I am used to tech issues! The biggest lesson here is to teach your child how to fix issues rather than fixing them all yourself. It's amazing how even young children can learn to troubleshoot an issue when you take the time to show them how. Before school starts, go through their device with them and explain the basics. Don't assume they know how to open a new tab on a web browser or even turn down the volume. Chances are you may have to show them a few times, but if you take the time at the beginning to teach them how to help themselves, you won't be needed as much later on.
We've already run into broken links, unknown passwords, and pictures and videos that wouldn't display. Teachers have been very honest that this is all new to everyone, so don't feel bad about asking them for help or letting them know when something isn't going quite right - but be nice!! Taking a photo of exactly what you are seeing on your kid's device may be more helpful than trying to explain it in words.
Slow or overloaded internet will surely be a problem at some point. If that happens, try limiting video to only when it's needed. Most teachers have a recording if something goes wrong and you can't participate live. You may have to roll with it!
"Chances are you may have to show them a few times, but if you take the time at the beginning to teach them how to help themselves, you won't be needed as much later on."
Challenge #4: I have to work!
Many of us are working parents, and work doesn't just stop when school starts. We are in unprecedented times, and employers are trying to make accommodations but still stay in business. There are some who can't work from home because of the nature of their job. This is where we have to stick together and help each other out! I'm fortunate because my husband works from home, but I am trying to be very aware that he has a full time job and as willing as he is to be a teacher as well, I need to pitch in where I can. I occasionally work from home to give him a break, and I also review schedules for the next day and make lists, monitor homework assignments, etc. the night before so the days are smoother.
No matter what kind of job you have or how high up you are in an organization, all employees are just people and many of them are parents dealing with virtual school. Even those who don't have kids themselves, have a child or teacher in their lives and can understand the challenges of juggling work and school responsibilities. Several times a week on conference calls, I hear someone's child in the background or someone on the call has to excuse themselves to help with a school issue. It doesn't bother me a bit - I get it! We are all trying to do our best, and no one can deny that our kids' education is important.
To help stay focused at work when you are at home with school-aged kids, set them up with everything they need before you start your workday. Designate your own workspace and clearly communicate when kids are allowed to enter that space and at what times they need to be quiet. You may consider a sign or visual reminder of these things for younger children. Schedule your breaks around the kids' breaks so you can check homework, answer questions, and enjoy seeing their faces in the middle of they day. You may need to talk to your boss about working an alternate schedule. If there are hours that you need to dedicate to school, is it possible you could work some in the early morning or late evening to make up for that time?
None of us know how long we will be dealing with virtual school, so I encourage you to identify your top challenges and come up with strategies to address them. Organize yourself in other areas of your life to give you more room in your day to deal with the challenges at hand.
Have a great school year!
I am not a morning person! I like to BE up early, but I don't particularly like to GET up early! Because of that, my mornings go much more smoothly when everything is ready the night before. Getting into a habit of preparing for the next day the night before was one of the single biggest boosts to my productivity!
When I was primarily working from home this spring, evening prep was pretty simple - a list of my most important tasks for the next day and sometimes I laid out a letter that needed to go to the mailbox. Since it didn't really matter what I wore and I didn't need to pack a lunch, there really wasn't that much to it. Don't get me wrong, doing that little bit of prep for the next day still went a long way, but it wasn't as critical as I knew it would be when I was back to working in my office most of the time. To set myself up for a successful transition, I really embraced evening prep - almost too much because soon it felt like my evenings were focused around tomorrow.
That first week back to the office exhausted me. Between working the same full day, commuting, wearing office appropriate attire, showering EVERY DAY, fixing my hair and makeup, packing up my breakfast, snacks and lunch, preparing my work supplies, not to mention trying to spend quality time with my family - it was exhausting! I was trying extra hard to make everything run smoothly, so I was spending 30-60 minutes preparing every detail of my morning the night before. I felt robbed of my evenings and the time with my family, so I decided something had to change!
There were two key areas I identified as time suckers, and I made a plan to fix them!
I am on a mission to get healthier and slimmer by the time I turn 40, so I take my breakfast, snacks and lunch with me everyday. For breakfast I make a protein shake, snacks are usually fruit, nuts, cheese, and lunch may be leftovers or a salad. Previously, I was spending a good 30 minutes an evening preparing food. I analyzed my evening food prep routing, and found the areas that were taking the longest and came up with ideas to streamline the process:
I now pack my lunchbox immediately after I empty it. I make my shake the night before as well and just shake it up before I drink it the next day. I've gone from 30 minute lunch prep to less than 10
I lay my entire outfit the night before - complete with jewelry, shoes - everything. I used to do it right before bed. First I would have to look at my calendar to see what was going on the next day so I dressed appropriately. Then I'd pick something out, find all the coordinating accessories, and a good 15-20 minutes later, get to bed. I wanted to get more sleep, so I decided to try to win back those few minutes before bed.
Now I pick out my clothes for the next day as soon as I change out of my work clothes, which is usually very soon after I walk in the door. Since I'm already in my closet hanging up clothes or putting them in the hamper, it makes sense to just grab an outfit for tomorrow right then. Because I always look at my calendar for the next day before I finish my workday, I can skip that step since it's fresh in my mind. By the time I'm in my comfy walking clothes, I am done preparing for the next day!
Your pain points may not be the same as mine, but take some time to think through your routine and identify what is taking you the longest or what frustrates you about your morning or evening routine. Think about the problem and how you would tell someone else to solve it. Track your time savings and celebrate the extra time in your evening - and spend it well!
Quick and Easy Protein Shake
Puree all the fruit you will need for the week ahead of time and store in airtight container in the refrigerator.
The night before combine almond milk, fruit puree, protein powder, and chia seeds in a shaker cup, put in the shaker ball, and SHAKE! Store in the refrigerator and shake well before drinking.
A woman with many roles in life who knows the necessity of keeping things in order!