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Can I Be a Good Parent and a Productive Person?

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father and son

First, the bad news: being a parent will, most likely, cause your productivity to decline.

The good news: that decline doesn’t have to last long, doesn’t happen to everyone, and is, in short, under your control.

With the information you find here and throughout Asian Efficiency, you can end that decline now and start increasing your productivity while still being a great parent.

Are you ready?

Revisiting What Productivity Means

Measuring productivity is not as clear-cut as you might think. Most studies of productivity begin by defining their terms. That’s because there is no universal way to measure productivity. For example, one study measured the productivity of its participants – all working in academia – by their rate of publication in academic journals. While that is a fair measure of career productivity for this group of people, it certainly doesn’t apply to all.

Your productivity, and how you measure it, is a very specific and personal thing. It is something you must determine for yourself. But we do have a starting point here:

Productivity is spending your time working toward your goals.

If you know what your goals are, then, you can get a pretty good idea of whether you are working toward them or not. With this definition as a guideline for measurement, we can take a look at how we, as parents, manage to be productive. Or not.

The Initial Effect of Parenting on Productivity

stern girl

At first glance, it seems that becoming a parent is going to be detrimental to your productivity.

A recent study concludes that productivity for both parents tends to decrease when they have young children, especially for women.

However, the decline in productivity is not all the same across the board. In fact, certain groups in the study maintained or even increased their productivity within the first year of becoming parents. Possibly, the study’s authors posited, the first-year increase is due to planning ahead for the demands of parenting.

Or possibly the effects are not the same for those who continue to apply productivity principles just as they did in their pre-parenting days. Other studies have shown that the productivity of some people increases when they have children, leading researchers to wonder whether parents learn to “overcompensate the negative resource effect associated with childbearing by working harder” or whether only people who have learned to be productive will “self-select” into doing demanding work while also raising children.

So which is it? The short answer is that we don’t know yet. There is a consistent enough decline in productivity in various studies to say that becoming a parent will probably cause your productivity to plummet, at least for a while; however, there is enough variation to say that this decline isn’t a sure or unavoidable thing. You can plan, prepare, adjust, and design a parenting lifestyle that helps you to maintain or even increase your productivity. Even without a full-time nanny.

The Power of Information

Parenting has always been a fluid practice, and how we parent has changed dramatically in the last century, as our capabilities of collecting and analyzing data have increased and a new, corresponding interest in child psychology has grown.

I love that I can research any possible symptom of any childhood illness. I love that I can find the answers to the impossible questions my kids ask me: How do fireworks know when to explode? Why does oil spilled in water make it shiny?

Information is helpful.

Information is also overwhelming, especially when we don’t know how to judge the accuracy or authority of the information.

Is this valid? Is this unbiased? Is this based on anything but your own one-time experience?

These are good questions to ask, because if you start looking around for parenting advice, there is plenty to be had. As author Dana Mack notes, “In recent years, the credentialed experts on child-rearing – the psychologists, educators, and pediatricians who once presumed to dispense the bulk of American parenting advice – have been pretty much tossed to the sidelines and replaced by bestselling memoirists who offer ad hoc counsel to a public hungry for parenting tips.”

Varying opinions and sources may give us a more comprehensive view of parenting, but the ease of self-publishing means that anyone with an Internet connection can proclaim herself to be a parenting expert and broadcast her own brand of parenting methodology, no matter how ineffective or even harmful it might be.

The problem is that parenting is such an important endeavour, and we want so badly to get it right, that we often listen to others when we should listen to our own instincts instead.

In the end, like it or not, the whole parenting thing is going to come back to you.

How to filter all the information

Parenting (as much of life) usually involves very few choices that are absolute. A lot of this stuff is about preference, not principle.

When I start to get confused as a parent, when I feel overwhelmed by the sheer amount of advice that I can access, this is what I do.

A Simple Values Exercise

As quickly as possible, write out your answers to these questions:

What do I value? What do I want my children to value? What are the most important things that I can teach them? What do I wish I had learned as a child? What do I want to give my children? What matters most in my life? What do I hope will matter most for my children?

Now read what you have written and look for the common themes. What word or concepts keep showing up? Make a short list – try to keep it to 5 items or less – of the words or phrases that capture those common themes.

These are your parenting values.

Now the standard you have for all parenting advice and information is your set of values. You need to keep that list handy, so you can refer to it whenever a new parenting method comes down the pipeline.

For example, I recently read an article that advised parents to “Schedule fun activities with your children at least every 20 minutes and do something exciting.” Wow. Every 20 minutes I should have an exciting, fun activity ready to go?

Really?

One of the parenting values I consistently come up with is freedom. Scheduling an activity every 20 minutes does not promote freedom for me (too much work and unnecessary time restrictions) or for my child (who might like to make his own choices about what he wants to do instead of doing my planned activity).

If a method does not support your values, don’t waste your time on it. If it does, great. Adopt it if you want to. But remember that methods, which will change, should be subordinate to your values.

Your kids aren’t going to remember or care how you potty-trained them. They will remember (and care) that you taught them cool stuff (value: skills), spent time together (value: relationships), gave them lots of space and time to play (value: freedom), or took them along with you on trips (value: experience).

The Right Environment for Your Child and Your Work

family in living room

What do the children need?

When you look outside of a particular culture or time frame, there is really no such thing as a typical childhood. Within huge variations, however, there are a few constants, and those are the things that we should and can focus on.

The few constants that children need include time to play (preferably outside), enough sleep, good food, stable routines, plenty of affection, a friend or two, a way to contribute to family (e.g. doing chores), and a larger community. And… that’s pretty much it.

What do you need?

In order to be productive, you need to know what you’re trying to do: you need to know your goals. Then you need to know how you’re going to reach them, and be able to dedicate time regularly to doing the work that is required. Just as important as doing the work, however, is managing yourself: you need downtime, adequate sleep, good food, strong relationships, a way to contribute, and a larger community.

Interesting. Turns out that a good environment for your child is also a good environment for your productivity.

Applying Productivity Principles to Your Life as a Parent

Okay, okay, that’s great and all, but my kid is whining and I still need to finish this project, so how does this actually work?

Let’s take a look at 7 truths about productivity in the context of parenting.

1. Time management is really self-management.

This hasn’t changed. The amount of time you have in a week now is the same as what you had in your pre-parenting life. What you do and how you do it will change because your priorities have shifted. You need to know your own limits so that you can say no when you need to, whether that no is to yourself, to your child, to a friend, or to a new project. Saying no to most things is what allows you to say yes to the few important things.

The biggest challenge for me as a parent is to make sure that I go to bed on time (soon after my kids do) so that I can get up early enough to have quiet, focused work time in the morning. That’s not the only work time I have, but those two – three hours give me the best productivity. So I need to say no to all the distractions and jump into my evening routine, because if I don’t, I won’t be able to say yes when my alarm clock rings in the morning.

Sometimes the most productive choice you can make is to go to bed. Sometimes it’s to schedule a babysitter, because you know your child and your own limits. Sometimes it is to take your child to the park. The point is that you don’t need more time (and you’re not going to find more time). What you need is to know what to do with yourself in the time that you have.

2. There is no perfect system.

Perhaps you have a good bedtime routine going for your child, but then two or three nights in a row, things are terrible. Your child is pitching a fit, won’t go to sleep, and you don’t know what’s wrong. So you start analyzing the system: maybe we need to go to bed earlier? Change the lighting? Sing a song instead of reading a book? Get a music player?

If you analyze and adjust the system, however, without getting to the underlying problem, you’re just wasting time. If the routine normally works but then, for no apparent reason, doesn’t work, there’s something going on. Why? Maybe you were out later than usual and your child was over-tired. Or perhaps he has started teething (those two-year molars are pretty awful). Or maybe you are a fatigued and under-the-weather, and your stress is affecting everyone.

Sometimes we blame the system for what is a user error, not a system fault. Even though systems are not perfect, they are good tools; but the best tool will not be effective if you are misusing it, or not using it at all.

The flip-side of this principle is that since systems are not perfect (ever), you shouldn’t be afraid to throw one out when it’s no longer working.

3. Sex is Important.

This doesn’t cease being true after you become a parent, but it can become a little tricky. Suddenly there is another person in your life with total access. How do you guard your time and space for intimacy when you are also responsible for a tiny human?

You start by communicating with your partner. Voicing your needs and frustrations to each other, in a positive way, can put you both feeling like you’re back on the same team. (A good thing to be if you’re wanting to get to third base together.)

Then you begin adding boundaries into your life to guard the space and privacy you need. This is good both for you and for your child. The sexual creature that you were pre-child is still who you are post-child. It takes time to establish boundaries, but you can. Slowly and with consistency.

4. More time doesn’t equal being more productive.
woman in bed

As a work-from-home parent, I manage to get 4 – 5 hours of solid work time in on most weekdays. I used to feel a little bitter about this, and think about how much more I could accomplish with a good 8-hour work day, uninterrupted, in an office somewhere. But some research purports that employees only manage to do three hours of productive work in a day. Other surveys show that some employees spend up to 2 hours a day on personal tasks at works, and that lots of employees are frustrated by the meetings, annoying coworkers, and office politics which eat up their time.

A half-sized workday, when done on your terms and with a clear focus on your priorities, can be more productive than a full day at the office. Furthermore, when you know you only have an hour or three, you are more conscious of how precious those hours are. You’re not going to waste them doodling around on Facebook. You’ve got things to do! Your time is precious! You learn this, and then you start learning how to use the hours you have.

5. You are what you eat.

Don’t let parenting be your excuse to start eating cheap, processed junk food. Your kids need good food to fuel their growing bodies, and you need good food to stay focused, energetic, and healthy.

Though some children do have more sensitive taste buds, which can make vegetables unappealing to them, not all children do. If your child is wary of complicated dishes or strong flavors, that’s okay. Just keep the choices simple. Fresh, healthy food can be simple, appealing, and very easy to prepare. Children usually prefer repetition when it comes to food, which can make your life a lot easier. Find a couple of good lunch options and rotate them through the week. Do the same with dinner.

Knowing that you will need to feed your child can help you put a little more effort into planning and shopping for the food you will need. That means you and your child will benefit from a healthy menu and an array of good choices.

6. Technology is a catalyst, not a fix.

One of the biggest temptations I face as a work-at-home parent is the use of tech as a babysitter. I can switch on a video or pull out my phone or tablet, and count on them mesmerizing my kids so that I can get some stuff done.

And sometimes that’s what I do. We know that overuse of technology is detrimental to kids, in a lot of ways. But in limited, thoughtful ways? It can be useful. Funny, it’s the same story for teenagers and adults.

Technology is a tool to help you achieve certain ends; it is not an end in itself. With a child in your house, watching and imitating how you use tech, you have a built-in accountability system for how you use your tools.

Use technology, certainly, but be mature enough to know when to put it away. Set up automations to streamline your online life. Simplify your workflow. Reduce the social media platforms you use, and then just spend a little focused time on them each day instead of constant checking and updating. Your child will see you using technology properly: as a tool, not as a distraction, a remedy, an unending source of entertainment, or a means of avoidance. And you will be more productive for it.

7. Your psychology and skills need to be addressed first.

One of the most common hurdles to productive parenting is the “But you don’t know my kid” line. It is not that there is no truth to the idea that some children are more difficult, more energetic, or more stubborn than others. Kids are people; they are all different, which means they all have amazing personalities with strengths and weaknesses.

But guess who sets the tone in your house? You do. And even though it is true that you cannot (and really should not try) to control everything about your child, that is not the point here. The point is that by choosing to say, “This issue is not about my child, this is about me,” you find the power and the means to move from being frustrated as a parent to being proactive in your parenting.

There is no magical formula to transform your energetic, demanding, and stubborn toddler into one who contentedly plays by herself while you whiz-bang through your workload. But when you say, “This is about me and how I am handling my life as a parent,” rather than, “This is about my child’s unchangeable personality,” you have found a starting point.

Responsibility gives you power, so take it.

What are you struggling with as a parent? Is it her temper tantrums, his fights at nap time, her need for attention, his whining? Okay. Sure, that’s your kid, behaving that way. But how are you handling it? Are you learning about good methods? Are you being consistent? Are you asking for help? Are you being proactive? Or are you waiting until it happens again, getting frustrated, reacting, and chalking it up to your impossible child?

Nobody gets helped by that box you are drawing yourself into, so open it up and get out. Look at the situations and ask yourself:

  • What can I do differently?
  • What can I learn?
  • What can I change?
  • What skill can I gain?
  • How can I be more prepared?
  • How can I defuse or avoid this situation?
  • What am I doing to contribute to this situation?
  • What is the best response when this situation occurs, and is that the response I am giving?

This is a lot to think about, but it is good news. It means you can alter what is happening in your life and your child’s life, not by altering your child, but by learning better methods, better habits, and better responses.

The Tough Questions

family and kids

“I have a kid that’s very demanding – how do I find time to work on my own things?”

First, look at the root of the demands coming from your child. Some ages are more difficult for children than other. Sometimes big changes in life can stimulate neediness in your child. And sometimes – okay, all the time – children just like having their parents’ attention.

Routines help children to feel more stable and secure. Do your best to establish consistent routines which include focused time on your child and focused time on your work. It won’t be easy, and your child will likely resist at first. But if you are consistent, your child will come to know and expect the routines that you have set up. (Just don’t be surprised if he decides to test you on them for a while first.)

Second, find a way to establish some alone time for your work.

It doesn’t have to be much, but if you can get up a little earlier, trade off with your spouse for some kid-free time, or afford a babysitter for a few hours a week, do it. Use that time to focus on the most mentally demanding aspects of your work, and save the other stuff for your working time at home.

Third, lay off the guilt. We want to give our kids a safe childhood, great opportunities, and preparation for life; we also feel a pressure to constantly entertain them, make them happy, and protect them from all pain. The truth is that you cannot accomplish all these noble parenting goals. They are counter-productive. A child who never encounters limits or disappointments is not prepared for life. A child who is constantly entertained will not know what to do with opportunity when it comes her way.

Children do not yet have the sense of proportion that we develop as adults. That means you are the one who gets to teach them: time for play, and time for work.

How do I know what routine will work best for me and my child?

The best routine is the one that you stick to. Really. The key successful component of any routine is the stability of it, and that stability is achieved by sticking to the routine consistently.

You know what’s great about this?

A consistent routine is beneficial for your child and a consistent routine is beneficial for your productivity. When you have already made decisions about how your time is spent, you don’t have to spend your time and energy making them over and over again. You save your brain space, and your willpower, for the actual work you’re doing in that time, whether it’s finishing up a personal project, meeting a work deadline, or helping your child learn how to share with the other toddler at the playground.

My friend/colleague parents in a totally different way, should I be doing that?

Before you change your parenting style or methods based on what someone else is doing, ask yourself these two very important questions:

  1. Are your friend’s goals and values the same as yours?
  2. Are your friend’s methods working? Is your friend reaching those goals?

If the answer to both of those questions is yes, then call up your friend, sit down together, and ask him/her every question you can think of, then take home and use what you think will fit you, your style, and your child.

But if the answer to either one of those questions is no, leave it alone. Why copy someone’s methods when their goals are different than yours? Or why copy someone’s methods when, as far as you can tell, they are not effective?

I’d like to get some childcare, but I can’t afford it and I just can’t get enough done at home with my child there.

Time to get creative. In the last decade of working as a freelance writer, from home, with 1 then 2 then 3 then 4 kids at home, here are some methods I’ve used:

Call on family. Tell them that for birthdays, Christmas, whatever, the gift you want is the gift of free babysitting.

Look harder at your budget. You can eat beans & rice for a couple of meals a week (reduce your grocery budget); downsize your phone’s data plan (use wi-fi instead); eat out less (it’s usually healthier too); research a lower premium on your insurance (call and ask). If you can shave even $5 to $10 off several categories in your budget, you can accumulate enough ‘excess’ to buy several hours of childcare a month.

Trade with friends. Don’t have any friends with kids? Find some. Join a playgroup, go hang out at the park more, find family-friendly community actitivies, search for meet-ups in your area. Make some friend with kids, and start asking: who’s interested in free childcare? Answer? Every parent in the world. Find one who’s willing to trade, hour for hour, and do it. You watch their kids for 4 hours a week, they watch yours.

Barter with childcare providers. What is the work you do? Are you a designer, copywriter, app developer, marketing specialist, blogger, musician? Talk to the owners of a local daycare center about exchanging your services for theirs. You can make the same offer to individual childcare providers. Maybe your favorite babysitter needs help with her college admissions essay, and you’re a writer. Or the sweet lady down the hall could use some help on her financial planning, and you rock at that.

Designate some ‘work-only’ toys and activities. When you do need to work at home with your child around, save some special and especially interesting toys and activities for that time. This could be the time when you let your child watch a movie, play on the tablet, get into that new game, use the new play-dough. The key is to not let these things be available any other time. They have to be special. My youngest takes a nap every afternoon for about 2 hours. During that time, I let my older kids take turns playing games on my tablet. That is the only time they get that privilege, so they’re fascinated with it. If I let them play anytime, the fascination would be gone. It has to be special or it won’t work.

Trade off with your significant other. My husband travels during the middle of the week most of the time, but Mondays and Fridays are usually flexible, work-from-home days for him. So I take the “morning shift” of parenting, and he takes the afternoon shift. We both get about a half day of work time and about a half day of time with the kids, and then we all hang out in the evening either doing something fun, catching up on house projects together, or hanging out with friends.

Truly productive parenting means setting your own standards for both what it means to be a good parent and what it means to be productive. Trust yourself. You are the best parent for your child, and your child will benefit from seeing you commit time to the work you love.

Guest post: This is a guest post by Annie Mueller. She is a writer and mom of four. She blogs about productivity for creatives at FreakishlyProductive.com.

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9 Comments

Posted by Michael Devitt  | August 1, 2014 at 2:53PM | Reply

Wow! I wasn’t expecting that type of post. I am not sure what I was expecting though. Very deep. I guess as always you go with the flow with kids and teach them all you can. For me productivity is mostly based around work commitments and I use it loosely for personal projects that incorporate kids activities.

There is no doubt that your time is precious with them and as a result going for that jog is not as important or the guilt experienced when you do so at the detriment of quality time with kids. It’s striking up a balance with the typical cliche of maintaining a healthy work/life balance.

Posted by Annie Mueller  | August 1, 2014 at 6:45PM

Hey Michael, thanks for your comment. I think you’re right, as you summed up, that it’s basically about finding the balance in what you do. I work from home, so learning how to be productive with my kids around – while also knowing when it’s time to stop working and focus on them – is an important skill for me. Hope you found some takeaways for your life in here.

Posted by Robert O'Neill  | August 2, 2014 at 7:39PM | Reply

Parenting is certainly a huge subject to tackle in a post considering the wide variety of people that are parents. So, one’s perspective on parenting is going to significantly affect their notion of productivity. As was implied, the first step is always to define the problem. In my mind I believe that productivity is doing whatever is necessary to move you and your life forward. That will vary according to your situation in life (e.g, health, finance, relationships, etc) Goals are good but many may not be reached for years and that can lead to discouragement or depression in the meantime. But if you see your life moving forward (better, wiser, stronger, calmer, cleaner, healthier, whatever) each week and month you will be energized by it to do even more.

Secondly, a critical part of my idea of productivity is my children moving forward as well. I have always praised their progress, reveled in it and then soon after challenged them to do more, (go further). I am convinced that not only is it a good idea; it is essential for happiness but many resist it. Going forward takes work and sacrifice, putting off pleasurable things for the sake of productive things. But it is worth it, because in the end, going further brings more happiness than some temporary “fun”. For instance, many children will resist learning in school, (they don’t want to go further in knowledge) because of the work involved, all they want is pleasure (fun). But every child who does not learn will be miserable down the road when their peers are ahead of them in reading, math or whatever. The cause?… they did not grow, go further and consequently, they discover that others did. This is one of the reasons for much childhood misery and misbehavior, they can’t deal with the embarrassment of their inabilities.

The point of all of this is that instilling a good work/growth ethic in your children is a major part of good parenting. You may or may not be able to change their shortcomings but at least if they go forward in achieving abilities, skills, knowledge, manners, whatever, they will not become a burden to you and everyone else.(e.g., the multitude of unskilled or under skilled jobless, depressed and lonely people). This is partly why I follow Asian Efficiency, their work ethic is inspiring and exciting as their productivity has obviously made them happier, wiser and able to help others (instead of needing help like so many today). When I spend the time to make my children to learn and grow in skills, attitudes, tasks, my productivity is actually doubling. Of course, not immediately, but in time it will come and soon they are relieving much of the work load by their ability at home and soon at work. It is the same thing with the insights that I learn from Asian Efficiency. They don’t fix me overnight but each week as I implement their ideas or even contemplating how to utilize them I find myself get a little further ahead each week. Certainly a lot of lower productivity in adults is due to careless disorganized parenting but I would caution the notion that time in parenting is somehow not being productive. At any rate I appreciate this woman’s interest in helping anyone get more productive (we all need it) and especially Asian Efficiency. It is sorely needed and I only wished that I had learned it sooner.

Posted by Annie Mueller  | September 1, 2014 at 4:47PM

Robert,
Thanks for such an insightful comment. I completely agree that it’s so important to instill a good work ethic in our kids. It’s one of the primary responsibilities we have as parents, I think. I tell my kids all the time that work is a privilege and a right, not a burden or a duty.

I feel like that’s also part of why it’s important for my kids to see me working and being productive in my own life. Teaching by example… and, of course, when it’s time to rest & play, doing that together.

Posted by Sam Batchelor  | August 3, 2014 at 4:03AM | Reply

Great post, thank you! I think productivity (or efficiency) for parents is a hot topic. There are a lot of blogs with tips out there but none with a productivity focus, so I’d love to see more posts like this. Ideas like a standardised meal plan, as making everything routine and able to be prepared before it’s needed is really helpful. I’d love to know any specific efficiency tips you have, just to cut down on the time doing things we don’t want to do, so we have more time (and energy) to do the things we do want to do. Thanks again for a great post.

Posted by Annie Mueller  | September 1, 2014 at 4:47PM

Hi Sam,
Thanks for commenting! Those are great topics and ideas. Keep an eye out!

Posted by Nathaniel Scott  | August 9, 2014 at 6:05AM | Reply

Hey, great post! I was really glad to see the topic discussed. As a parent of 8, soon to be 9 (another story for another time), I wrestle a lot with the issue of productivity and parenting – sometimes getting frustrated with my perceived productivity compared to all that I read and perceive about others.
What has helped me most is making the mental mind-shift – changing my GOALS and EXPECTATIONS as the article did a good job of starting out with and addressing throughout. I have to admit to myself that there is no way i’ll get to do all the things that a single (not married, and 0 kids) person will get to do (at least right now). But by shifting my priorities, I become instantly productive. I have to remind myself (frequently) that parenting is now my #1 priority. Sure, moment by moment other things become priorities, but overall, raising these children tops the list above all my personal and professional ambitions. I mean, if i don’t do it, who is going to, right?!
Annie did an excellent job tackling this topic. One of the most important things readers should take away from this – whether parents or not – is stop comparing yourself, especially when who you are comparing with does not have the same goals, values, and priorities. You can aspire, for sure, but don’t compare and get distracted from your own goals, values, and priorities. Those are what make you YOU and the world needs YOU, not a carbon copy of someone else.

Posted by Annie Mueller  | September 1, 2014 at 4:48PM

Nathaniel,
Yes, great thoughts, thanks for sharing! I love this: “Those are what make you YOU and the world needs YOU, not a carbon copy of someone else.”

That’s exactly it, and that’s what I want to teach my kids.

Posted by Lindsey Frost  | September 10, 2014 at 8:46AM | Reply

Annie! This post is perfect, just what I needed to start my day with. It’s good to know that hope exists for my productivity, some days I feel there isn’t. This will be my morning coffee read for a while, maybe if I drink coffee while reading it I’ll become more productive through osmosis. Or maybe I should make some actual effort. Thanks again for a REALLY useful post.

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