Focus, mama: 6 tips that will make you work more efficiently

The best tips for multitasking mamas from the book Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World

Focus, mama: 6 tips that will make you work more efficiently
“To succeed you have to produce the absolute best stuff you’re capable of producing—a task that requires depth.”
Cal Newport

Three pages into Cal Newport’s newest book Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World my phone rings in the other room.

Whoops. Not off to a good start.

I walk over and turn it on silent before heading back to my reading chair. I lean forward and close out all of my open windows on my laptop—Facebook, Gmail, Twitter, my blog’s dashboard. After a moment I lean forward again and close my computer for good measure.

As a self-proclaimed master of multitasking (aren’t all moms?), I was dreading that the “rules” on the pages that followed would be a collection of criticisms accompanied by unrealistic suggestions on how to follow them. I mean, how am I supposed to get everything done in a day without multitasking?

What I found instead was a thought provoking, albeit challenging guide for finding success without giving up my multitasking ways completely. I learned that by incorporating regular “deep work” into our lives, we find purpose and productivity that ultimately brings us happiness. Well, I definitely want to be happy.

So what is deep work? Newport defines it as:

“Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit.”

His assertion is that deep work in incredibly rare and valuable in the workplace, so by honing in the ability to do deep work you will find both a more meaningful career—and some serious job security.

As a working mom, I read the book with my “work” hat on, but quickly began to think about how Newport’s concepts would greatly benefit me if applied at home—where I do a majority of my multitasking. (There’s some pretty solid parenting advice to be found, as well).

Here are 6 takeaways from Newport’s book that will help you go deep to be a better mom, a sought after employee and a more successful person.

1. Ditch distractions

You get settled at your desk with a fresh cup of coffee and immediately start scrolling through emails. You reply to a few then open up the project you were working on yesterday. Your computer pings so you hop back over to your email and type out a quick response before returning your attention. This happens a few more times and by the end of the hour all you’ve accomplished is a handful of insignificant emails.

Now imagine that you sat down at your desk and spent a solid hour straight plugging away at that project. I’m willing to bet that time would have been much more productive without the distraction of email.

While working moms will find it difficult to remove the infinite distractions to focus at the office, moms who work from home or take care of their children full time might find it nothing short of impossible. (In fact, when Newport first introduced the idea of “uninterrupted concentration” I about laughed out loud because hardly a bathroom visit can go by uninterrupted in my house.)

I would argue, however, that much of our stress as moms is self-imposed from these types of distractions (don’t get me wrong—motherhood is hard). We crowd our day with guilt and obligations and it doesn’t leave enough room for fun and productivity. You can’t enjoy an afternoon at the park with your child if you’re on your phone the whole time or distracted by what you’re going to make for dinner.

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2. Be busy no more

There’s a quote out there in cyberspace that says “You have the same amount of hours in the day as Beyoncé.” Look at the empire she was able to build (with a lot of help, no doubt) in twenty-four hours a day just like the rest of us mere mortals! My guess would be that Bey doesn’t complain much about a busy schedule, but that she is incredibly strict with how she spends her time so that she’s productive.

Busyness seems to have become synonymous with motherhood to the extent that when many of us are asked how we’re doing, we reply that we’re “staying busy.”

But what are we busy doing? If you just spent an hour on Facebook before reading this article (no judgment!), Newport would call this “busyness as a proxy for productivity.”

While a number of mom-duties are undeniably unavoidable (picking up your kid from school, for example), it’s worth taking a closer look to determine if any changes can be made to alleviate the busyness feeling. Keep a journal for a week so you can look at where your time is spent, and then make some choices (which may mean your kid takes the bus or you set up a carpool rotation), so that your schedule reflects what really matters to make your life productive and meaningful, and not just busy.

3. Take control of your time

When I finally got to the part of Newport’s book where he talked about how to go deep and he brought up time blocking (he calls them “task blocks”), I got really motivated. If moms know how to do anything, it’s schedule a calendar. But time blocking means much more than making sure your daughter doesn’t forget about her dentist appointment.

Time blocking is designed to protect your time.

For example, when I started working from home in January I knew that I wasn’t going to be able to sit at my computer five days a week without engaging with the outside world beyond the scope of email; however, if I was out and about meeting with people at coffees and lunches every day, I would never get any work done. So I quite literally block time (I used Google calendar, because it creates actual blocks and can be color coded and shared as needed) for various work projects that have to get done. Other blocks are set for meeting with people outside of the home (as needed), multitasking (yes, multitasking!) through minor tasks like replying to emails and social media comments, and even taking breaks for lunch or a quick workout.

Be strict with your time blocking, whether you chose a set schedule for the week (waking up at 5 a.m. each morning to work out before the kids are up) or if it varies from day to day (Mondays are my tush-glued-to-my-desk to write days) and ask others to respect your time, as well.

4. Practice disconnecting regularly

Have you ever left your phone at home for the day when out running errands or in the office all day? Did you completely panic and feel naked and alone? Or were you calm and maybe, dare I say it, relieved that you were temporarily unreachable and undistracted?

I must admit that even though I feel a pang of nervousness that the day my phone is missing from my side will be the day there is an emergency phone call from my kids’ school, I usually love the relief that I get from (temporarily) not being constantly connected.

When I came across Newport’s chapter called “Quit Social Media” however I thought I was going to have to stop reading. (I’m a digital marketer and blogger for goodness sake!) Newport quickly clarifies that he’s not leading the revolution to end social media (or the Internet), rather he encourages us all to give ourselves plenty of opportunities to resist it. In others words, trying leaving your phone at home.

The problem with constantly being tuned in to social media and infotainment sites like BuzzFeed and Huffington Post is that it takes us away from more meaningful interactions like reading a book, lunch with a friend, or a puzzle with your child.

As Newport said in Deep Work, “your world is the outcome of what you pay attention to.” Do you really want that to be your Twitter feed?

5. Shut down completely

It’s likely that if you have young kids in your house like I do that you’ve given them a bedtime, right? We don’t impose an arbitrary time just so we can kick back with a glass of wine for some alone time (okay, maybe that’s part of the reason); we have a set bedtime because we know that our kids need a certain amount of sleep to perform their best the following day.

As adults, we’re less likely to take care of ourselves in this way.

What Newport is talking about is more than just a bedtime (although I’m betting he clocks a healthy number of z’s per night). It’s a “shut down” time. It’s the time when you say I have done all I can do today (so long mountain of laundry), and focus on recharging for the next day.

Whether leaving work at work when you head home at 5:30 p.m. and resisting the temptation to log back in when the kids are asleep, or walking away from the household chores you’ve yet to tackle, it’s having the willpower to shut down (and not just right before bed) and stay down (don’t even peek at that email inbox!) so that you can get back to performing your best tomorrow.

6. Create a Routine

Speaking of willpower, it turns out that we have a limited amount of this self-determination that becomes depleted as we use it. Newport compares it to a muscle that tires, but I’d prefer to think of it as our resolve to resist our children’s whining.

What’s the best way to not cave into a tantrum-thrower?

To have routines—and stick to them.

Our willpower to battle our children over bedtime, for example, is quickly drained if there isn’t a bedtime routine and a practiced response to any disputes. Routines give kids (and adults) a sense of security and help them develop self-discipline.

This is Newport’s case in a nutshell when it comes to deep work: you have to do it habitually, which starts by incorporating it into your daily routine.

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There's a reason why every mom tells you to buy a sound machine.

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This article was sponsored by The Kroger Co. Thank you for supporting the brands that support Motherly and mamas.

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