A depiction of semi-productive and frustrated parents in LEGO

The multiple hats we wear during a given day have seemingly never become more apparent than now; simultaneously juggling so many personal and professional responsibilities during a pandemic. Normally, we live our roles as professionals and employees when we go to our workplaces and then largely transition to our roles as family members when we go home. There’s some semblance of separation. However, as ‘pandemic parents,’ we are now wearing more hats than ever within the confines of our homes as we work, parent, and have suddenly become homeschool teachers.

And while this has been a struggle, its also been somewhat reminiscent of when I gave birth. As a Chinese-Canadian, the tradition within my Asian heritage necessitates that mothers stay home for 30-days post-labour – essentially quarantine. While I was quickly learning about how to care for this new life form, and to live without the comforts of my favourite coffee shop or restaurants, I was also determined to complete my Doctor of Education program.

Spoiler alert: My son is now 2.5 years old, I survived the month of isolation, and I did manage to complete my dissertation on Career Influencers (albeit about a year after I had initially intended. But I did it).

I’ve often been asked how I made it all happen. Now that we’re in this pandemic, the advice I have been giving may be transferable to the situation we have found ourselves in where work and life have truly become integrated out of necessity.

Embrace the adjustment transitional period

As a professional who has been accustomed to having agency and control – and sleep – the initial days of being a new parent threw me off my ‘A-game.’ My mistake: believing that I could still perform to the same level as I did, and when I didn’t, working three times harder to get to where I thought I needed to be.

In hindsight, I wish I had given myself more time and space to adapt and accept the motto “this too shall pass.” Sure enough, four or five months into parenthood, I started to develop confidence about parenting and began to embrace my new life role. Likewise with COVID-19, we need to recognize that the tension between our parental, professional, and other roles – along with the expectation for us to perform them all in a confined space – is temporary.

Recognizing that there is an adjustment period will enable us to adapt to the new normal and start to find our stride and take things one day at a time. Due to much uncertainty, it isn’t feasible to plan for the long term, but rather, manage the day to day as effectively as we can.

Stay in mot(ivat)ion

An important piece of advice I received from my ever insightful academic supervisor, inspired by the law of physics: things that are in motion stay in motion, while things that are static also remain that way. Momentum, no matter how little, gave me the motivation to keep going when every ounce of me wanted to quit writing my dissertation.

My daily goal then was to write 50 words per day, which eventually became paragraphs, sections, chapters…gradually then suddenly, becoming a whole thesis. In the moment, those 50-word days left me feeling pathetic and unaccomplished, but now in hindsight, I really was given the gift to slow down, examine my progress, and chart my next steps.

Turns out, there are many business articles written about this, including this one that I often share with my students: What Millennials Can Learn About Motivation From Newton’s Law Of Motion.

As you develop a general rhythm to your day (and come to accept that your day-to-day likely changes as a parent), you can start setting small goals to reach, and consider how you can pair them up with your child(ren)’s daily activities. For example, as our screen time policy has relaxed due to COVID-19, when my son is immersed in a movie, I know that I have approximately 90 minutes to be productive. And, if I’m lucky, I may find smaller pockets of time – known as “time confetti” – throughout the day to work at my small goal.

Daniel Pink’s new book “When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing” demonstrates that people have certain times of the day where they are most productive. So, if you can, find your “power hour” (and if you are lucky, hours) and see how you might pursue your daily goal during this time.

Recognize that insights can take place anytime, anywhere

Insights naturally happen as your mind shifts between focusing and roaming modes while you juggle priorities and activities.

Recognizing that the only time I had for myself was generally in the washroom, between feedings, etc., I started putting notepads and pens all over the apartment to capture fleeting insights for my dissertation (fun fact: ideas for this article were brainstormed over a couple of days on the same notepad!)

It may have been a short sentence, or even just a key word, but it was something that I knew my baby-brain would likely not retain and that I felt would be important later. Sure, at the time I didn’t write a paragraph, but jotting down these snippets did inspire many paragraphs when I eventually found the time to sit down and focus.

Let sleep solve your problems

Thomas Edison once said, “Never go to sleep without a request to your subconscious”. The last thing I do before I go to sleep is to identify a problem I’m stuck on; it could be how I could better structure my sections to make my dissertation flow, or how to tackle a difficult conversation – and I let it sink in and go to sleep.

Our unconscious mind operates in mysterious ways and I often find that somehow new insights are waiting for me when I wake up (and yes, sometimes in the middle of night, so I capture it on my nightstand notepad and go back to sleep).

In Barbara Oakley’s TEDx Talk on “Learning how to learn”, she discusses the necessity for our brains to transition between relaxed and focused states, in order to be productive and learn effectively. So, give your mind the freedom to roam freely and you’ll never know what it might find.

WOOP – There it is!

The Wish, Outcome, Obstacles, Plan Coaching Model – or WOOP – can help you engage in self-care. Use it to identify a wish you would like to see fulfilled that might be challenging; consider the best possible outcome from fulfilling your wish; consider your main obstacle that might get in the way; and then formulate an if-then plan to tackle those obstacles.

For example, my summer plan pre-COVID was to submit some of my research for journal publications as I’d have time to write while my son was in daycare. Now finding myself as a full-time caregiver again, I’m going to employ the WOOP model as follows:

  • Wish – I would still like to submit at least three written articles for publication.
  • Outcome – Journal editorial boards accept my submissions, leading to further momentum to keep writing and publishing throughout the year.
  • Obstacle – I no longer have the headspace and time as originally planned as my son is at home full-time.
  • Plan – If I can’t dedicate a prolonged period of time to write, then I will jot down my ideas on notepads in sprints, and organize my thoughts when I can afford the time. And, if I become frustrated and stuck on my writing, then I will either meditate, go for a walk, or sleep on it to relax my mind.

Ultimately I choose to be optimistic during this trying time, and choose to see – after the shock of staying at home 24/7 – that we’ve been gifted the wonderful opportunity to spend more time with our increasingly adorable toddler at home…most of the time anyway. Nothing is more soothing for the soul than a toddler’s cuddle.

What additional strategies do you use to juggle your multiple life roles at this point?