Efficient Inefficiency

I’ve found it dismaying and frustrating to discover that much of the time, efficiency isn’t very efficient anymore.

"Work in Progress" sign

Oh, some of my favorite productivity ideas still apply, but others just no longer work. Being smart about how high I set my standards and making a start on big projects that matter by breaking them down into concrete steps… check. Prioritizing fiercely and taking on work only if it really matters… I’m still all about that.

But calendaring chunks of time for projects? I still do it, but the amount of time for which I can reliably do that is very scarce these days. Doing similar tasks in batches instead of separately? A much better idea when you aren’t being interrupted unexpectedly mid-task and forced to constantly find your place again or start over.

So these days I often find that I need to deliberately let go of my preconceived notions of the efficient way to do things. Rather than doing all my errands in one day, I do small short errands several times each week, with baby A in tow, in between his thrice-daily naps.

This approach takes more total time than it would take to do one longer run, but since I was able to use my scant baby-free hours on other projects, get something done sooner than I might otherwise have checked it off, and keep A happy by being mindful of how his natural flow works, in the long run I’m better off for having done it efficiently. And we do a lot of our errands by foot, so I get exercise and he gets fresh air. It’s inefficient by my old standards, but efficient by my new ones.

Writing projects take me longer when done in chunks that might be as short as 10-20 minutes if A sleeps badly. A draft that would take me an hour and a half if done in one sitting can take me 10 or more 10-20 minutes chunks if things go badly, which is frustrating because it seems like such a long time. But if I keep at it I can usually finish such a project in a few weeks. The reality is I often don’t know how long I have to work, and if I wait for the perfect time when I know someone else is caring for A, I might not finish my hour and a half project in months. I only have dedicated help with A for five hours per week, and on the weekend when my husband and I are both home, we are often doing chores while the other is the main baby-minder.

For me getting things done as a work-at-home and stay-at-home parent has involved letting go of 90% of my plans and expectations. During the five hours per week that I have dedicated childcare or when my husband is home from work and is taking care of A for a while, I make the most of that time with great focus or if needed, I soak in the rest and self-care that I am giving myself instead of working just then.

The rest of the time, I make do as all parents must. I break projects down into tiny actionable steps with a level of granularity I never would have needed before, and I take baby steps when I can. I prioritize fiercely and keep my to-do list meaningful and clean. If I’m too tired to make progress, A is refusing to nap or to cooperate with my plans for errands or chores, I take a deep breath and trust that I’ll get to it all later. Over time, I’ve increasingly revised how much I think is “reasonable” to accomplish. Some days end up more “reasonable” than others. And how good I feel about all of it depends in part on how much sleep I’ve gotten!

Of course, plenty of times I don’t try to “get things done” at all. I just get down on the playmat and sing silly songs, or breathe in the scent of A’s hair while he nurses. I try to be fully present when I am doing things for and with A, even if I’ve just shifted gears unexpectedly from something else.

It’s easy to get caught up in the lists and the projects, but the lists are only there to help make life easier, not to take on a life of their own. It’s hard to break down love into actionable steps, but if I somehow wanted to, those spontaneous moments with my son would take a central place in the project plan.

And yet still… so much stuff to get done, and it’s amazing how much longer things take now even when I know I’m being as productive and efficient as I can. This is the new efficiency, I tell myself.

How have your notions of efficiency and productivity changed since you became a parent and as your child has grown?

Image above by Grant Kwok used under Creative Common License

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2 Responses to Efficient Inefficiency

  1. Vera says:

    “…the lists are only there to help make life easier, not to take on a life of their own.” So true, and so hard for me to remember! Great post about setting realistic expectations for yourself past the first three months of motherhood–thank you!

    • Thekla Richter says:

      Thank you Vera! I so look forward to hearing how motherhood goes for you and to meeting your little one when he arrives :)

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