I call it the third shift. It’s the period after my kids are in bed, when I get back online to start the third “half” of my day. The third shift can sometimes take the form of a quick check-in to tie up any loose ends I left when I jetted out the door just in time to make it to pick-up. But more often it’s another 3 or 4 hours online – roughly the same as the length of time between arriving at work and lunchtime. I meet lots of other people there, in that third part of the day. Those who instantly answer my emails and proceed to engage in high-level work-related correspondence as if it’s the middle of the afternoon and not 11 p.m. Almost all of them are parents.
I love the extra time, when things are relatively quiet and I can finally devote a few concerted hours to projects that require the kind of heads-down attention I just can’t manage during the chaotic daylight hours. The only struggle is getting there in the first place. After spending hours wrestling kids from school to home to dinner to bath to bed, it takes a truly herculean act of will to shift gears back into work mode.
As working parents, our days are filled with context switches, large and small. If you’re like me, the context switching starts early every morning, when morning email traffic contends with the melee of getting the family out the door, and doesn’t end until those blessed peaceful hours every night when things quiet down and I can finally find a few hours in a row to focus.
We all know that context switching is frustrating and stressful, even when we are managing it relatively well. But research shows that it can also slow us down – and sometimes even be dangerous.
So, in the spirit of recapturing some lost time (and maybe even saving our lives), here are some ideas for reducing the cognitive load caused by our inevitable daily context switches:
Group Like Tasks. If you can manage it, organize your day so that you do all similar tasks together. If the morning is spent getting the kids to school, follow that up by doing all the kid-related administrative tasks (checking in with updates from teachers, making arrangements for child care or after school activities, etc.) immediately afterward. It may seem counterintuitive to spend more time on kid-related stuff when you already feel like you’re behind the curve on your day, but starting your work day with a clean slate on the home front can reduce kid-related interruptions and distractions once you’re ready to get down to business.
Be Here Now. When you are in full-on family mode, own it and be present in it. Signal to yourself that you’re in family mode (or heads-down work mode) by turning email notifications off (whether on your computer or your phone). If it makes you feel better, set an auto-responder during dinnertime hours, letting everyone know you’re taking a break for dinner. (When I do this, it feels like I’m being cheeky, or like an act of rebellion, but it really does allow me to feel more present with my kids.)
Take a Breather. As much as context shifting can take its toll, the shift from hectic work/life chaos into (and out of) a quick mental health break is like a daily spa treatment for your brain. Even a 5-minute meditation exercise or walk around the block can rejuvenate you enough to triple your capacity for multitasking.
If you’re a parent, your life is, by definition, a study in multitasking and context switching. But I find that the more I can fully invest myself in the task at hand – even knowing that I’m likely to be interrupted at any minute – the more restorative even the most challenging activities can become.