Deep Work for Parents: A Two-Step Strategy for More Effective, Efficient Work
I sit on the patio swing on our back deck, laptop balanced on my knees. A breeze blows over the yard. The air carries the aroma of lilacs, cut grass, and turned soil. A neighbor's lawnmower hums and bellows. I squint at the screen. The sunlight isn't ideal for laptop work, but blog posts don't write themselves, and the sunlight is ideal for young children playing in the lawn, chasing bubbles. They're sufficiently distracted; I can write another paragraph.
This is one of the carefully snatched work moments amidst the customary chaos of our days. This kind of work doesn't always work. Some days, if I try to accomplish anything while the children are awake, it would be to the tune of hollering and shrieking, a drumbeat of a toddler smacking my face with a pencil or stuffed kangaroo, sticky fingers smushing into my glasses. Those days, I don't try; I wait until they're asleep (or find someone to help me).
Finding work time as the primary caregiver of three small children isn't an effortless endeavor. I like writing and working on my book; I like my workoutside full-time academia and the flexibility that gives us. Finding time is important.
Cal Newport, author of Deep Work, divides work into two broad categories: shallow work and deep work. Shallow work is emails, filling spreadsheets, printing things out, scheduling meetings, organizing your desk, all the "noncognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted," that are easy to replicate and don't create much value.
Deep work, conversely, requires intense focus and distraction-free concentration. During deep work, you're creating value or improving your skills, and it's hard for someone else to replicate the results: planning projects, thinking through hard problems, understanding theories and arguments, strategizing, writing, creating art. You get into flow.
Deep work is the big fish you're trying to catch.
To do deep work, you need to first tackle making blocks of time, then using that time effectively. How do you do that as a parent—especially as a parent of young children?
Make blocks of work time
You can work while you are with your children, you can work when someone else is with your children, or you can forget the idea of work entirely.
If you work with your children, the simplest time is when they're asleep—either early in the morning or later in the evening. My personal favorite time to work is early morning, but because my children, like me, are early risers, I rarely wake before them. Instead, I can scrunch an hour or two out of my evening.
Sometimes, like in the anecdote above, I work when the children are awake and playing, or when the youngest is napping. This isn't ideal for deep work, since I'm often interrupted, but is just fine for shallower work. I may also voice type parts of a first draft and write on my phone while with the kids.
You can schedule time for someone else to watch your children while you work—a babysitter, your spouse, a grandparent. For example, if the baby is asleep on me, my husband could take the older kids for some fun dad time (like cleaning the garage or going to the park) while I work. (This is, incidentally, how we ended up with backyard chickens.)
When making blocks of time, recognize that you may not get as big a block as you might desire. Sure, five hours uninterrupted would be superb, but an hour or two is sufficient for a burst of undivided effort —if you use the strategies below to maximize your effectiveness!
Work effectively and efficiently
Task switching has immense overhead. It drains your attention and slows work. Switching activities frequently means some of your attention is still on the previous task. Most people lose time on transitions and task switching.
Because of this, Cal Newport advocates for time block planning—i.e., schedule your tasks for the day into time blocks, then only work on those tasks during those times. For example, set aside extended blocks for deep work during your most productive hours. Schedule your shallow work in between, e.g., ten minutes for email.
Giving yourself time limits, small goals, and deadlines can increase productivity. However, you don't have to stick to the schedule like glue. If you're in a deep work session and being incredibly productive, or if you finish a task early, just update your schedule when you have time. You can also modify this method to include multiple shorter, focused work sprints, like in the Pomodoro technique.
I was a big fan of time block planning, up until I had a baby. Post-baby, it was untenable due to the unpredictability of my schedule. Which time block would be "baby nap time / work on dissertation"? Would my son wake up early, or have two short naps instead of one long one? What about the inevitable interruptions? I needed a more flexible approach.
I kept a couple elements of Newport's methods: minimize transition time, minimize time to productivity, avoid unnecessary distractions—with a few twists. Here are my top five tips for making the most of the time you have:
- Start working immediately. If I'm not in the mood to write, I start writing anyway; sometimes, five minutes is enough to get into the rhythm and keep going. You don't have unlimited time. Every minute counts.
- Write notes to yourself to make it easier to slip back into context faster. I leave comments in my papers and blog drafts about what I was thinking, why I was restructuring a section, what references I might want to add, or what I ought to work on next. All of this makes it faster to get back into the right headspace when continuing work later.
- Match your work to your energy level, the work's urgency, and the time you have available. For example, if my energy level is low, but I have daily writing goals to meet, I might work on less cognitively demanding portions of the work, such as chasing down references or finding a new example.
- Never look at social media during work time. Don't switch tasks or contexts.
- Use in-between times—such as in waiting rooms, in the kitchen waiting for a timer to beep, nursing a baby, any time frequently frittered away on social media—for little pieces of work, such as high level planning, answering a couple emails (write them short!, or squeezing in reading. I always have a book with me (a physical one or an ebook on my phone).
Diving into work
If your work matters to you, you'll find a way to fit it into your life.
I wrote this blog post over several work sessions. I brainstormed on my phone. I let the idea sit for a while, then came back to it one day, outside on our deck while the kids played. I continued writing at the kitchen table while my husband wrestled with the kids. I finalized it and posted after they were asleep at night.
Making time for deep work takes effort. Doing deep work in that time takes practice—to learn how to ignore social media, to be still and concentrate fully when you have the time to sit and do so. I highly recommend Cal Newport's book if you want to delve into the topic further. As he writes,
“Your goal is not to stick to a given schedule at all costs; it’s instead to maintain, at all times, a thoughtful say in what you’re doing with your time going forward." —Cal Newport, Deep Work