Discover more from The Jungle Gym
Practical Productivity Advice for Parents with Small Kids
How to carve out time and show up in the right headspace to do what needs to get done
👋 Welcome to the latest issue of The Jungle Gym – the newsletter that helps you build a more fulfilling career by integrating your work and life.
✨ If you’re a new reader, thanks for stopping by. Feel free to check out this introductory post, which explains what The Jungle Gym is all about.
📬 To get future issues delivered to your inbox, enter your email here:
Productivity is a whole new game once you have kids. Before parenthood, it felt like I had endless time to get things done. But today, with two kids under two, focus time has become my most scarce resource.
The stakes for my productivity are high these days. As Co-founder of Exec, my personal productivity determines the growth and profitability of our business, which in turn impacts my family’s ability to pay for all the expenses that accompany parenthood.
At the same time, I never want to regret missing out on my kids' formative years. Balancing work and family isn’t just a luxury—it’s a necessity.
In this post, I’m going to share with you the things I’ve had to re-learn about what it takes to be productive as a parent. I don’t promise that I have all the answers, but I will share the practices helping me navigate this high-intensity period of life
Relevant Core Beliefs
Taking advice from internet strangers is risky. You never know if they’re playing the same game as you are. Before we delve deeper, let me lay down some of the foundational beliefs that shape my approach to productivity:
Cultivate a Portfolio of Meaning: Some people work to live. Others live to work. I get meaning from both domains. That means I will be less enlightened than some and less impactful than others. I’ve come to peace with this tradeoff.
Multitasking is Misery: Remote work makes it easier than ever to try working while parenting. In my experience, this never turns out well. The work always seems to take 4x as long and every parenting interaction feels doubly stressful. Maybe multitasking works for some parents, but you won’t find it on my list of recommendations.
Prioritize Your Energy: Whether I’m working or with family, I aim to spend my time in ways that help me bring energy to the rest of my life. This may sound selfish, but I don’t see it that way. When I’m feeling energized, I’m more likely to produce quality work and quality time for my family.
Now that you have a better understanding of where I’m coming from, let’s talk about how to set up the conditions for productivity well before putting your hands on the keyboard.
Build a Support System that Sets You up for Success
Your productivity hinges on the hours you can commit, and the energy you bring to those hours.
I do my best work when I can set aside a continuous block of 3-4 (relatively) uninterrupted hours. For that time to bear fruit, I need to be somewhat well-rested and not ridden with guilt about being a bad husband or father.
Before kids, my ability to have one of these magic blocks of time mostly came down to good habits like sleep, exercise, and effective calendar management. Now, all those things pale in comparison to the strength of my support network.
What do I mean by support network? I’m talking about the humans that are watching my kids so I can work with a guilt-free conscience. Here are some principles for building a good support system:
Align with Your Spouse – Every couple divides family responsibilities differently. Whatever you decide will require open and honest conversations about priorities, what to outsource, and how to divide up the rest. When you’re having these conversations, be specific about expectations and agreements. Create chances for check-ins and feedback so resentment doesn’t build and praise can be given.
Live Near Family – Outside of me and my wife, there aren’t many people in our lives who are willing to spend hours with our kids without asking for anything in return. Family is the exception. My parents babysit weekly and my wife’s parents fly down for a week each month. Living close to them is a game changer, and lets us have the guilt-free date nights and weekend trips that keep our marriage healthy.
Earn Enough to Fill in the Gaps – Childcare is expensive. Between our nanny, our night nurse (for the new baby), and a regular babysitter who can handle certain nights and weekends, we’ve got enough support so that we can take extra hours for work when needed. Putting this together is not cheap. Keep this in mind when aligning with your spouse on a plan.
Give Yourself Grace – The most important member of your support system is you. If you’re letting the voice in your head guilt you about your shortcomings all the time, you’ll never be able to bring your best self to the present moment. Treat yourself with the grace you’d give to a friend in a similar situation.
The 80/20 of Using Your Time Well
If you can somehow manage to cobble together enough uninterrupted hours to feasibly accomplish your work, you’ve won most of the battle. From here, it’s just about putting those hours to good use.
There’s a lot of productivity advice out there. But I’ve found that the following three practices have been the most impactful for me personally.
Capture all your open items – Tasks can come at you from lots of places. If you don’t track them, they will create open loops in your head and distract you from more important things. Whether you decide to use an app or a paper notebook, find some external place to capture to-dos. This practice will ensure that your sleep-deprived brain doesn’t forget important things and has the cognitive resources to devote to the task at hand.
Design every minute of your day – To use your time wisely, calendar your priorities. By blocking off specific time to accomplish things you make a commitment to yourself that you’re actually going to do them. This practice allows your responsible reflective self– the one who has your best long-term interests at heart– to take control of your most valuable resource.
Automate without shame – You live in the age of AI. That means you have an army of semi-smart robots waiting around to respond to your emails, draft your documents and perform research for you. Incorporate these tools into your workflows without shame so you can use your time as impactfully as possible.
I’m not going to lie, during the time between when I started writing this post and when I finished my first draft, I’ve had to stop and restart at least five times, including moments to hold my screaming daughter and prevent my son from drowning in the pool.
Despite my earlier warnings about multi-tasking, I’m literally finishing this draft poolside so I can be near my family and not feel like I’m missing out on the fun.
The truth is that being a productive parent is hard. Even the best systems fail the pressure tests that come from real life. The best thing you can do is get comfortable with the tradeoffs and celebrate the small victories along the way.
Thanks for reading today’s issue of the Jungle Gym. If you enjoyed what you read, I’d really appreciate it if you could forward it to a friend, family member, or colleague who you think might like it too.
Or, if you’d like to share it on one of your social networks, that’s always great as well.
Until next time,