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The Dissonance of Parenting and Productivity

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This is a guest post by Joe Buhlig. Joe is one of those technology geeks that loves to build systems. He’s always exploring new ways to use (or not use) the digital to welcome real life and loves helping others do the same. He writes about his experiences and systems at and talks about them on Twitter.

As a productivity nut, I want everything I’m going to or want to do in some kind of system. From strategic planning at work to annual maintenance on the house, I want it all organized.

So it was natural for me to try to systematize my role as a dad. I wanted to lay out the process of teaching life lessons to my daughters. I wanted to guarantee that I would be a great dad.

Being an Omnifocus addict, I added my folder for “Father” and went to town with the list-making. I had lists of games, pictures to take, gifts to buy, and even character traits I wanted my daughters to have.

And then I deleted them. Not all of them, but most of them are gone. It simply didn’t work.

Productivity Defined

Productivity isn’t about apps and tools. Those are often used in order to be productive, but they don’t inherently make you productive. Here’s how I like to think about it:

Productivity is the continued use of systems to help you accomplish tasks/projects more efficiently.

Note the words are “continued use of systems,” not “building systems.” You have to build them at some point, and they can make you more productive later, but you’ll have to weigh the cost of building them versus the time/quality gained by using them.

Parenting Defined

This could get dicey, but stay with me. Defining what it looks like to raise kids is a challenge. There are so many lessons to teach, trials to face, and stages of life, that it’s darn near impossible to put it all in a single sentence. But for the sake of this conversation, here’s my attempt:

Parenting is the process of helping your kids succeed.

You define what success is for your kids. It could be excellence in a career, a mindful life, or spiritual devotion. It could be all of these and more. Or it could be much less.

And parenting never stops. Note that it says parenting is the “process” of helping your kids. You can argue that the parenting role is complete when the kids leave the house. But that’s just the point where your kids start paying bills and make harder decisions on their own. You still need to parent. It just looks different.

This could mean helping them move, watching your granddaughter while your grandson is being born, teaching them about home-ownership, or helping pay for your grandkids college. All of these continue the process of helping your kids succeed. And sometimes that means letting them make mistakes.

Productive Parenting?

Productivity is ultimately about cutting the time needed to accomplish a task and completing more tasks in less time. Parenting typically means taking time for your kids. The term “productive parenting” would then be a process of cutting the time needed to parent and parenting more in less time. Does that sound strange?

There are a lot of articles out there about being productive and being a parent. I’m all for that. Building rituals that work for the family and learning how to accomplish personal tasks while raising kids are big. That’s not what I’m talking about here.

I’m talking about using productivity to teach kids the deeper lessons. It doesn’t add up. How do I use a system to teach my daughters integrity or confidence? How do I use a system to teach them character and modesty? You can’t. These are things that kids learn from watching their parents in everyday life.

Cutie, our two year old, loves to close doors. If you open a cupboard door in the kitchen (that she can reach) and walk away without closing it, she will go over and close it. She’s been picking up this habit from watching me. It’s something I do all the time. I put caps back on jars at the dinner table. I close the baby gates to the stairs even though we don’t need them right now. I’ll even close up the bag of bread on the counter while we’re making toast. Yes, we’re still using it, but I’ll re-open it when I need it.

This sounds OCD now that I’m writing it. But it’s a small piece of a larger habit of mine. I love putting things away and keeping things in order. It’s so prevalent that my wife will even “fill my love bank” by cleaning up the toys in the living room.

And now, our oldest has picked up the habit. She’s watched me do this long enough that she’s doing it. I couldn’t teach her that by laying out a list of tasks. She wouldn’t learn it through some elaborate plan that I put together. Frankly, I’m not smart enough for that. Instead, it took time. I wasn’t even trying to teach her this, but I did.

Time for Your Kids

I’m a systems guy. I’ll put a system together for anything I can. Just ask my wife.

But one thing I need to remember is that I can’t systemize my kids. If I want to build in a routine for what we do in the afternoon, I might as well make it a one-step routine: play. That could mean so many things to a two year old.

Yes, there are times when I need or want to get something done around the house, like building cold frames in the backyard. I can still do that, but I need to make sure I’ve given myself extra time so I can keep my kids involved in the project. But I can’t always count on doing these projects. There are times when my girls just need me to read books with them or my wife needs a break, and I can’t predict when that will be.

Quantity vs. Quality

My wife and I recently welcomed our second daughter, Sweetie, into the world. To help our oldest, Cutie, with the transition, she was given a baby doll to take care of, (I guess that’s a normal thing to do when the second child comes along). She changes the doll’s diaper, wipes her face, and puts her down for a nap all the time. She’s learning how to take care of a baby. It’s great because she’s now transitioning to helping with her baby sister!

Every once in a while, Cutie will decide that it’s time to put her doll in her “bucket.” If you’re like me, you start envisioning a water pail or a five-gallon bucket of some kind with a baby in it. But that’s not what she’s talking about. She’s referring to the bath tub that came with the doll. She wants to give the baby doll a bath. I’m not sure why she calls it a “bucket,” but we know what she’s talking about.

I could tell story after story like this. There are so many nuances with her communication methods and how she does things that it simply takes time to understand them all. It’s why I take exception with research that shows quality time being more important than quantity of time. Quality time matters with kids, but quality is worthless if there’s no quantity. I only know what a “bucket” is because I’ve spent a lot of time with Cutie and built a relationship with her.

Productive Parenting Revisited

You could argue that raising successful kids is a massive project with a long string of tasks. You might have a list of things that you want them to learn. You might have a list of potential activities to do with them like I do. And you might have a list of actions to take in order to teach your kids integrity.

If it works for you, great! But I’m betting that the amount of time it will take to plan “Teach Integrity” will be obscene. That’s a character trait that your kids will catch from you. Let me put it this way:

If you have to put “play with kids” on your to-do list, something’s wrong.

Your kids need unplanned time with you on a regular basis. And that time needs to be open and flexible.

My Broken Plans

I was just off work and walked into the living room. Both of my girls were wailing. I needed to get some supplies to fix our foundation (that’s another story). My intent was to take Cutie with me since she loves getting out and helping at the store. But the look on my wife’s face and the state of our house told me I needed to wait on the supplies.

Instead, I stayed home with the girls and my wife went to get groceries. I took Cutie to the backyard and we pruned some bushes while Sweetie hung out on the deck. Every once in a while we would go sit on the deck and read a book to take a break.

My wife was able to get the time away that she needed. And I was able to get some time with the girls that I wasn’t planning on. As a bonus, they learned (hopefully) that sometimes you need to put yourself and your goals aside to help someone else. You can’t teach situational character if you never flex to the situation.

It’s Ok…

Are you starting to get this? Plan activities with your kids. Decide what you want to teach them and do it. But don’t be married to the plan. Be flexible and give your kids a lot of time. Just remember:

  • It’s ok if they’d rather go outside than build a lego truck.
  • It’s ok if they want to go to the baby animal fair instead of the beach.
  • It’s ok if they don’t want to go to the store with you.
  • It’s ok if your spouse has had a rough day and you need to give them time.
  • It’s ok if you need a break.

Be the Parent

Your kids should not dictate every move you make. Boundaries need to exist and you need to uphold them.

If you need to get groceries and the kids don’t want to go, it’s ok to make them go with you. Certain tasks and circumstances dictate a need to complete a task today. And it doesn’t matter what your kids do or don’t want to do. The point is to flex to them when appropriate and to hold strong when needed.

Cutie loves bread. Plain, buttered, jam, or jelly. It doesn’t matter. She loves bread. And we enjoy having bread with meals. It’s not something we do every meal, but a couple times a week is about normal.

It doesn’t happen much anymore, but Cutie used to throw a tantrum when she finished her bread and we didn’t give her more. We started telling her at the beginning of the meal that the bread on her plate was all she was going to get. That way it wasn’t a shock when “more bread” didn’t happen.

We would comfort her when she didn’t get what she wanted, but giving her more bread would only show her that throwing a fit gets her what she wants. Life doesn’t work that way.

Instead, she’s learned that what you want doesn’t always happen. She still tests that limit in other areas (she is two, after all), but she’s slowly learning to be content.

Approach this like GTD—make a decision up front and follow through. Decide what the rules are going to be and stick to them. Yes, they will test you and see if you mean business. That’s to be expected. Set your boundaries and stand behind them.


The underlying theme of all of this is connection. Connection allows me to see the difference between Cutie needing discipline because she’s testing me and her needing a hug because I was out of town for a few days and disrupted her routine.

Connecting with my kids daily is one of the greatest gifts I will ever give them, but I struggle with knowing how well I’m doing. Are my girls getting what they need from me? I know that as their dad, I have a very important role to play in their lives. I want to make sure I’m doing my best for them.

The only way I know to check in on this is to stop each day for a couple minutes and reflect. I typically do this during my Evening Routine and as a part of that routine, I ask myself three questions:

  1. Did I connect with Cutie today? How did it go?
  2. Did I connect with Sweetie today? How did it go?
  3. Did I connect with my wife today? How did it go?

This isn’t about tasks accomplished. It’s a relationship question. I want to know if I had a true connection with each of my daughters and my wife. Sometimes, the answer is “no.” It’s those days that I need to step back and ask why. Why didn’t I connect with them?

Not a Guilt Trip

This is not about feeling bad about yourself or your parenting. It’s hard to connect with kids when you’re traveling for work. It’s difficult when your work schedule doesn’t align with your kids’ schedule.

The point of these questions is to make myself stop and at least check in. Am I making a point of spending time with my family?

A Challenge

Every night when bedtime came, our oldest used to run and hide. I get it. Her mom and I are so fun to play with that she just doesn’t want it to stop (I suppose it could be that she just doesn’t want to go to bed).

We tried a number of tactics to get her to bed on time. One of which was to physically pick her up and carry her to her bedroom. I never liked doing it that way.

My wife eventually figured out that asking her to get her “gangkets” (blankets) and take them to her room worked! Cute loves her blankets and would rather take them upstairs herself than have you take them upstairs. She’ll go to bed voluntarily before she’ll let you take her blankets upstairs.

I tell you that story because parenting is messy. It’s true figuratively and literally. Sometimes you have to work with your kids to find what works for them and for you. Again, remember that you are the parent and you need time with your kids. Kids aren’t going to learn these lifestyle lessons unless they pick them up from you.

My challenge to you is this:

Your kids are not a task, they are a person. Spend a lot of time with them.

And please don’t put “play with kids” on your list.

This is a guest post by Joe Buhlig. Joe is one of those technology geeks that loves to build systems. He’s always exploring new ways to use (or not use) the digital to welcome real life and loves helping others do the same. He writes about his experiences and systems at and talks about them on Twitter.

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Posted by Devin Baillie  | September 26, 2015 at 1:38PM | Reply

I know I’m a little late to the party, I saved this to pocket and have a rather large backlog of articles to read.

There are some really good points in this article. I’m stealing the 3 questions for my own evening journaling routine (insert joke about connecting with your wife here).

However, I can’t agree with not having a “list” of things that you want to do/accomplish with your children. I think it’s great to have a list of tasks to do with your kids, as long as you remain flexible. I’d like to teach my oldest son (how to code/woodworking/gardening/touch typing/whatever), and I keep a list of activities to do with him. Every morning, as I prepare for the day, I look at that list, pick out a couple that I’ll try to do with him that day. Later on, if we’re looking for something to do, I have a few suggestions: “Hey, would you like to help me build these shelves I’ve been working on for your room?”, “It’s about time to plant the garden, what would you like to grow this year?”, “Ok then, I’ve got this cool new game we can play on the computer called Mavis Beacon.” Often times, we end up doing none-of-the-above, and playing a board game, reading a book, building Lego, etc. And that’s great too. Sometimes he’ll come back later and say “Hey dad, what’s that new game you wanted to play with me?” and we’ll do it then.

Keep your plans, but make them flexible to account for your children’s changing whims.

Also, I can’t agree with the last bit. For many people, putting “play with kids” on their to-do list or calendar is one of the best things they could possibly do as a parent.

Posted by Bruce Harpham  | July 28, 2015 at 8:55AM | Reply

I very much liked the 3 questions you listed as part of your evening routine. Do you look back from time to time and see what the trend has been?

Also, thank you for bringing a thoughtful perspective to the complexity of parenting. It gives me plenty of food for thought (especially as a fellow systems guy!)

Posted by Joe Buhlig  | July 23, 2015 at 10:26AM | Reply

Annie, it always amazes me how much kids learn by watching. As a parent, it’s also scary. How many of my bad habits will they catch?! Free time with them is one of the best gifts we can give them.

Thanks for reading!

Posted by Joe Buhlig  | July 23, 2015 at 10:24AM | Reply

Thanks for reading, Nate.

I get your point on productivity versus efficiency. It’s sometimes hard to see the difference.

Developing relationships *can* be a goal (and I do have those), but it’s a bit strange to have them as tasks. Great insight here.

Posted by Annie Mueller  | July 21, 2015 at 11:05AM | Reply

Great post, Joe. Love your point that the deep things of life, the things that ultimately matter most, are the ones we teach daily by our example and time and connection – we can’t plan “teach kindness” or “show kids how to take personal responsibility” – we either live it or we don’t, and we either spend significant time with our kids (so they can pick those things up from us) or we don’t. I love using systems for the repetitive parts of household life/parenting (e.g. meals, laundry, organization, etc) so I can free up more time to just hang out with my kids at the pool, take a walk, read books, talk, etc. Great reminders, great insight. Thanks!

Posted by Nate  | July 17, 2015 at 12:46PM | Reply

Joe, great post! Love the heart of it – What it boils down to is connection, aka relationship. Possibly the pinnacle of human existence. And the responsibility/privilege of getting to raise children is incredible. Like you said, it is not something we can take short cuts on. The only thing I might disagree with is your definition of productivity. You state “Productivity is ultimately about cutting the time needed to accomplish a task and completing more tasks in less time.” Replace productivity with “Efficiency” in that definition, and you’d be spot on. There’s no such thing as efficient parenting because relationships take time! Productivity, however, is spending your time on your goals. And although I agree “play with kids” should not be on your task list, I do think that “develop closer relationship with wife and kids” should be on our goal list.
Looking forward to checking out more on your site!

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