Ah, the time management struggle. Do you ever find yourself looking at a working parent and saying, “wow, how do they DO all that?” Today, I’m thrilled to invite one of these inspiring mamas to the blog, to explain how she thinks about managing her own time. Christina Shenvi, MD, PhD, is an emergency medicine physician, assistant professor, associate residency program director, mama of 4 children, and founder of Time for Your Life. She’s here today to break down post-baby time-management into three helpful strategies. (Join us for a free time management webinar on January 5, 2021, too!)
Each of the four times I brought home a new baby I found myself wondering: What did I used to do with all my free time!?
As I adjusted to the new normal of sleepless nights and constant awareness of “who’s watching the baby?” I wondered at how it was always possible to insert a whole new human into our already busy lives. Before the new baby we’d felt that we were maxed out with work, other young children, school, or residency training. Yet we managed to squeeze a newborn in. And then another, and then another, and then another.
When a new baby comes, everything changes. With the new time pressures, you have to hold everything you do up to scrutiny and figure out what can stay in your life and what has to go. Here are three lenses that have helped me think about time in any phase or stage of life.
Time Management Strategy #1: Have a Strategy!
Having a newborn often means anything not absolutely necessary has to be set aside. Imagine you’re a general considering how to deploy your troops. (Here, our troops are our time and effort.) When the pressure is on and you have limited resources, that’s when you must be the most strategic with your choices.
Ask yourself: What are the high-value activities and tasks I must do to take care of my family and myself?
Next, think about what things can only be done by you. And what things you can outsource or delegate. If you’re a nursing mom, only you can nurse or pump. But any number of stores can deliver your groceries. So strategically create time to nurse. Ditch the trips to the grocery store if you can get delivery.
If you used to take leisurely trips to the gym, you may have to replace them with quicker, more efficient workouts. Being strategic means cutting the slack, the waste, and the inefficient times from your schedule to make time for the new important things.
For me, with each kid, I had to take a look at my free time and see where I was wasting it. I had already cut out TV, but I realized I was wasting more time than I needed to on social media. So I became more intentional about creating time to be present with my kids and power down the phone.
Think strategically about your own renewal, too. What things do you need in order to keep your sanity? Is it time alone? Time at the gym? Or time with friends? Create that time strategically. This may mean negotiating with your spouse or finding a babysitter.
Spending time renewing your own mind is critical. Also, be aware that while binge watching Netflix, scrolling social media, and vegging out on the couch may be relaxing, they are not always renewing for our minds. Focus on renewal, not just relaxation.
For me, renewal meant time for reading. The late-night nursing time was a special time when I would dive into and lose myself in a great book. I was still tired in the morning, but felt more refreshed than if I had just stared at the ceiling wishing I were sleeping.
Time Management Strategy #2: Prioritize
Once you decide what things you must do, the next step is to prioritize them. Remember Tetris? You had to fit different shapes together to optimally fill space. That’s what your time management is like now. Look at your day. What tasks do you have to get done for yourself, your work or your family?
What shape are those tasks? By that I mean: how long will they take and what type of focus will they need? Some tasks require only a shallow focus. They can be done while also watching the kids or doing other things. Certain tasks need a deep focus and a quiet space.
Make a list of the things you want to do, then number the top three to five things in order of importance. Next, think about how you can fit them into your day, matching the tasks that need a deep focus with the times when you are able to focus.
During nap time, can you do the work that requires a deep focus? Can you swap off baby duties with your partner and close the door for your deep work? Can you get shallow work done quickly by shooting off emails or ordering groceries while nursing, pumping, or rocking the baby?
The new-parent-Tetris game has the added complication that the pieces keep changing shape, moving around, or refusing to stay put. They may have new needs that pop up unexpectedly! So be prepared to be flexible and to change your plans.
When plans or needs change, remember: you are the general deploying your troops. Reassess your plan and move the pieces around in real time by re-applying the concepts of strategy and priority.
For me, when I get to the office I make a list of the things I want to get done and then number them in order of importance. I intersperse 1-2 hour blocks of ‘deep work’ with 20-30 minute blocks of ‘shallow work.’ This lets me make sure I get the most important things done. It also ensures don’t fritter all my time away on email or other shallow tasks.
Time Management Strategy 3: Focus on Efficiency
Efficiency is key when you have a new stressor on your time and more than you can do in a day. However, the question of efficiency always has to come after strategy. First make sure you’re doing the right things, then work on making sure you’re doing them efficiently.
To be efficient, you have to plan ahead and be intentional with your time. You also have to be honest with yourself. Look back on the last few days. Where was there time that was wasted? Where could you use your time better? When you were trying to do a task that required a deep focus, were you focusing well, or were you also trying to multi-task or scroll on your phone? By focusing well on tasks that require a deep focus, you can get work done more quickly to create more margin later.
When I work, I keep a close monitor on how well I’m focusing. And I use specific tactics to help focus deeply. When I’m at the office, focused on an intense task, I turn off all my notifications. I take off my watch, stow my phone, and set an alarm for 5 minutes before the next meeting I have to be at, so that I don’t have to keep track of time. That allows me to work with a deep focus and get things done with higher quality and in less time.
Most people feel like their plates are full or overflowing with things to do. With a new baby, your plate likely just started overflowing, and you now have some difficult choices to make.
How can you take certain things off your plate (strategy), move things around on your plate (priority), or grow the size of your plate (efficiency)?
You will find that with time, it gets easier, you get better at it, and you learn to fit things in creatively. Using these three concepts will help speed that process along. Eventually, you’ll hit your stride and feel pretty good about your time… just in time for the next baby.
Christina Shenvi is a practicing Emergency Physician, educator, writer, speaker, and mom of four. Dr. Shenvi received her undergraduate degree from Princeton University, her PhD from UC-Berkeley, and her MD from Yale. She is currently half-way through her executive MBA from the UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School. She has a passion for helping other busy professionals gain more peace, feel less stressed, and manage their time better. Dr. Shenvi blogs at: www.timeforyourlife.org, and offers workshops and coaching on time management.
Want more practical tips on working parenthood? Check out my book, Back to Work After Baby: How to Plan and Navigate a Mindful Return from Maternity Leave