“Good morning, Mama,” my three-year-old says as he climbs up next to me on the couch. I woke up early to write, but he has other plans. “The end!” he cheers, closing my laptop. “Let’s make banana muffins!”
This will be the first of many interruptions today.
For many parents, a work-from-home job seems ideal. No commute. No dress code. Low-to-no childcare costs, at least for part-timers with flexible schedules. But here at the start of summer vacation, work-at-home parents are facing down three months of interruptions.
Fortunately, productivity experts have been working on this problem for decades. Their strategies, built for the workplace, can also help parents make space for work at home.
More work hours, less productivity
Leslie Perlow, professor at Harvard Business School, has been studying how technology, especially the 24-hour availability it has created, has made workplaces less efficient. Her 2012 book “Sleeping With Your Smartphone” helped people carve out uninterrupted, tech-free time, which appears to make people both happier and more productive.
One of Perlow’s earliest studies, “The Time Famine,” focused on software engineers at high-tech firms. Her findings will likely sound familiar to parents struggling to work from home. Perlow describes three problems that lead to longer hours but less overall productivity in the workplace.
First is the “crisis mentality.” For the software engineers Perlow studied, a new crisis was always brewing, like a serious bug in a product about to ship. Workers often had to abandon their planned work in order to deal with that crisis. That planned work was ignored until it eventually became a crisis, and once things reached crisis level, work was rarely efficient or thorough.
A second problem is “individual heroics.” Engineers at the company Perlow studied were rewarded for responding to crises by “doing high visibility work, accommodating the demands of the work, and being present.” Engineers rarely felt that they could say “no” to a work request. That was the case even when an engineer knew from experience that a new project or approach would not succeed or could not be completed in the expected time frame. When the engineers accepted such requests, they ended up putting in extremely long hours at work, even when they could have worked remotely, because they perceived being seen at work to be important to their success. Because being seen at times seemed more important than actual work output, the engineers also devoted more time to projects that were more visible, but not necessary more vital.
Both the crisis mentality and the concept of individual heroics lead to a third problem: a constant cycle of interruptions. Workers trying to solve the current crisis or appear as individual heroes tended to interrupt their colleagues more frequently, leading to decreased productivity for all.
As other researchers have found, all those interruptions add up. Gloria Mark, a professor at the University of California Irvine who researches how people interact with computers, found that each workplace interruption cost an average of 23 minutes and 15 seconds. That’s how long it takes people to get back on track when their work is interrupted.
A “vicious time-work cycle”
A crisis mentality. Individual heroics. Frequent interruption. These three elements make up what Perlow calls the “vicious time-work cycle.” Each new crisis creates more individual heroics, which causes more interruptions, which makes work take longer. Work piles up, setting the stage for a new crisis next week.
Work-at-home parents might see themselves in this time-work cycle.
Parents certainly adopt a crisis mentality. In addition to all of the actual crises parents have to manage, parents often drop everything for imagined crises. It’s all hands on deck when a child has to potty train before preschool starts in two weeks, or when another child outgrows a wardrobe and her shirts are hovering near dress code violation, or when the band concert is tonight but the kid just split his last reed.
Parenting is also built on the concept of individual heroics. Parents often jump in to resolve all of a household’s imagined crises, whether it’s intervening in a sibling fight, dropping off homework, or making bake-sale cupcakes. But in attacking these problems parents are putting in more time for less output. They are not focusing on the most important tasks to complete, just the most visible.
Like the workers in Perlow’s study, parents deal with near constant interruption. Even the simplest cleaning tasks are open to interruption. A stray banana peel on the counter distracts a parent from vacuuming. How did this get here? It’s cut. Did my three-year old reach a knife? Now she’s neglected both the floor and the counter to re-kid-proof the kitchen. That’s to say nothing of work time interruptions, like doorbells, or questions hollered down the stairs, or a guilty-faced kid hovering at the office door.
The solution: “Quiet Time”
Perlow found that workers stuck in the time-work cycle were working incredibly long hours, but had relatively little productivity to show for it.
Perlow’s solution for the engineers borrowed a strategy parents have long-relied upon to get things done. She implemented two blocks of “quiet time” into the workday, during which engineers were expected to work without interruption from colleagues or managers.
Perlow found that employees who had guaranteed quiet time reported more job satisfaction. They also completed their work in a much shorter period of time. Perlow has extended this work to many other businesses, many of which find that employees can actually reduce overall work hours by implementing quiet time in their offices.
Making time for “Quiet Time”
Work-at-home parents probably cannot declare five to six hours of uninterrupted quiet time per day, as Perlow did for the engineers in her study. But we can adopt Perlow’s strategies to accomplish more work in less time, as long as we establish some quiet time best practices.
1 | Set a specified quiet time.
The first thing work-at-home parents need to do is designate specific “quiet time” blocks. Although many parents rely on naptime for their most pressing tasks, the findings of interruption science researchers like Gloria Mark demonstrate the problems with depending upon that daily of free work time. Assume that your nap-taking children spend about an hour napping on average, and, for the sake of argument, we’ll assume (delusionally) that if you have multiple children, they all nap at precisely the same time. It will take 10 minutes to settle into a task, so in the best case scenario, you’ll have 50 minutes of solid work time.
But it will rarely be the best case scenario. If you’re interrupted even one time, according to Mark’s research, you’ll need another 23 minutes or so to settle back into work. So for that hour of naptime, you might get 27 minutes of work done.
Instead of relying upon infrequent naptimes, or squeezing in hours at the start or end of your long parenting days, set a specified quiet time and rigorously defend it. Perlow discovered that when quiet time was held wasn’t as important as the fact that quiet time was honored. So start by carving out whatever window of time works best for your family. If everyone in the family has work to do, quiet time can be a specified time on weekday evenings. If you’re a parent to young kids who don’t yet have homework, quiet time might require more creative manipulation of the schedule. You might, for example, pay for three hours of child care two days a week to get six uninterrupted work hours.
If this seems impossible to you, consider that data about naptime again. Let’s say that your part-time job requires 10 hours a week, which you try to squeeze in during the early mornings and naptimes. But let’s say that half of those mornings and naptimes are interrupted, a generous assumption. All of those interruptions are killing your productivity, and if you’re getting up early or staying up late for some of that time, you’ll lose productivity to sleep. So skip all of that and get yourself just three hours of uninterrupted time, twice per week.
2 | Head-off crises
The engineers in Perlow’s study did not succeed at quiet time right from the start. Many found that they were unprepared for long stretches of uninterrupted work time because they were so unused to having it. Once they made strong to-do lists, however, they found quiet time to make a significant impact on their productivity.
If you are working in the same space as your children, you’ll need more than just a to-do list to get things done. One small step with potentially large rewards is reorganizing your common spaces. If your quiet time is in the mornings, consider reorganizing your dishes so that young kids can get their own cereal. Keep non-toxic cleaning supplies within reach so they can take care of their own spills. It also helps to be invisible. If your workspace is within view of your kid’s play space, enlist them to help you make privacy blinds. If they see the blinds, they’ll know you’re not ready to play yet.
3 | Halt the heroics
As a parent, you’ll have to weather the real crises. But you don’t have to be the hero of imaginary crises. Parents with children of all ages are guilty of feeding the flames by responding to the crisis du jour. For parents with toddlers, it might be responding to every tantrum. For parents of older kids, it might be driving in forgotten homework. For high schoolers, it might be last-minute essay editing. In all of these cases, your quiet time should not suffer the consequences of their choices.
4 | Hold the chores
Quiet time and chores don’t mix. This doesn’t mean that the dishes can wait. It just means that during your scheduled quiet time, there’s no room for housework. This includes parents’ favorite multi-task, the laundry. Yes, parents have mountains of laundry to do. And tossing in a load between other activities can feel like effective multi-tasking. But if you’re switching over laundry every 45 minutes, you’re costing yourself 23 minutes and 15 seconds of work time. Switching your laundry to a different time of day may make it easier to avoid laundry-based interruptions. Better yet, delegate the laundry so that older kids are responsible for taking care of their own. Doing a 12-year-old’s laundry is an excellent example of unnecessary individual heroics.
This list is just a starting place to make quiet time work for you. As all parents know, a shush can be short (SHHH) or long (SHHHHHH). Add as many Hs as you need (hold this, halt that) until you’ve made the space you need to work productively.