Tuesday, May 07, 2013

Sick Kids, Productivity, and the Importance of Prioritization

I was home with a sick girl today- Petunia's been running a fever for two days. Mr. Snarky stayed home with her yesterday, and today was my turn. To be honest, neither of us really minded our turn, because we're both sort of sick, too. We have an annoying low grade cold that includes a headache and a cough. And my voice is doing that thing it does when I get sick and it decides that by the end of the day I should sound like a cross between a frog and Kathleen Turner playing a role in which she is only allowed to whisper.

When she is sick, Petunia mostly wants to sit on the sofa and snuggle while we watch shows. I was able to piece together roughly 1.5 hours of work today, but that came in bits and pieces, mostly spent sending emails that would help keep my various projects on track. And of course, I had plenty of time to think about both my work and home projects while I sat on the sofa and snuggled.

I think it is interesting to look at what I do when my work time is severely compressed like this. Today, I focused on three projects. We have a big upgrade scheduled for this weekend, and I am "quarterbacking" it (tracking the tasks and making sure everyone knows when to do their part). I sent emails to make sure we were ready to go, and then sent out the email notifying the rest of the company of the outages that would be required. We have another project that is trying to get started. I read the technical specification so that the kickoff wasn't held up waiting for my input. And we have a third project that is struggling to finish, so I sent a couple of emails trying to get it over the latest hurdles. The rest of my time was spent clearing out administrative emails, so that they wouldn't consume too much time when I get back to work.

There is nothing surprising in that list- it is just an intensified version of my standard prioritization process. Every weekday morning, I write a to do list of the three to six things I want to accomplish that day. Sometimes, I'll jot down items for the next day's list towards the end of a day, but for the most part, I write the list while I drink my morning tea. It contains the most urgent and high value things that I can do that day: things in which I am holding up a project, or things that I can do that will help a project along. There is a bit of an art to writing that list- sometimes the items are obvious, sometimes they aren't. It is similar to what I said in a Twitter exchange with @creakyvoice after my kanban post-  with any project management technique, there is skill in figuring out how to structure the work, and that skill is something that gets better with practice.

Given my approach to to do lists, it is not surprising that the section about to do lists was one of the many parts of Laura Vanderkam's latest eBook, What the Most Successful People Do at Work, that really resonated with me. One of the women she profiles limits her to do list to 6 items: 3 "must dos" for the day and 3 small tasks towards bigger goals. I am not that rigid in how I structure my daily list. Some days my list skews more towards immediate deadlines, and some days my list skews more towards longer term goals. But I have always had a short daily list.

For awhile, I started letting my daily list get longer, and it crept into a two or three day list. I realized that was decreasing the utility of the list, but wasn't sure what to do about it. Then I started reading about kanban, and realized I needed a list to explicitly acknowledge the tasks that are in progress, even if they aren't on that day's to do list. I created a personal work kanban board with my backlog and in progress tasks, and switched back to true daily lists, and I have felt my days get more productive.

Maybe the years of practice in identifying the three or four top priority items makes days like today easier, or maybe it doesn't. I obviously can't do the controlled experiment. Certainly, knowing my top priority tasks (at work and at home) helps me to make the most of small pockets of time, and that is one of the things that eases the inevitable stress points in my life as a relatively ambitious and career-focused mother of small children. Kids get sick, and they rarely consult your work schedule before doing so. Petunia doesn't really care about my work deadlines, and I don't want her to. If she wants snuggles when she is sick, she mostly gets them. But even with a full day of snuggles and the fact that I also napped through half of her nap, I was able to get enough work done to keep things on track. I didn't really make any progress, but I didn't lose ground, either.

The idea of "quality time" has been so overused in the parenting realm that it has become a semi-ironic cliche, but for me, applying the same idea to work can really pay off.

What do you do when you or your kids get sick? Do you try to work, or do you let it slide?


  1. I am a big fan of short, highly prioritized to-do lists. If it's short, you can get everything on the list done. When you get everything on the list done, you make steady progress. And progress is key to feeling happy and satisfied at work (see Amabile, Kramer on this).

    On days when I am taking care of the kids, I'm amazed how much I can get done during nap times, or during an afternoon television show. But yes, I recognize that what I'm getting done is more of the treading water variety. There's no forward progress. That tends to require a whole workday for me. Probably not for everyone. But for me.

  2. The one thing I make sure to do while at home with a sick child is keep up with my emails - even if that just means reading them and not responding to them right away. Otherwise, it can be very overwhelming to come back too. In general, though, even if a task is "pressing", I'm not in an industry where lives are at stake or something - so things can wait a day or two if necessary.

    As for my to-do list, it is rather extensive and split into several sections (activity ideas to develop, grants to look into and/or apply for, supply lists for upcoming events, etc.). At the top, I have my general to-do list, and then I bold things in that list that need to get done this week. Once I get those done, I work on other things in the list. I don't feel as if my job requires me to do a daily list.

  3. I try to keep my main priority list short with the top 3 method, but it's amazing how long it can get and how many items are waiting to be bumped up!

    I keep up with emails if the kids are sick. Lately work has been spilling over into home time (after kids are asleep) but i find it's the only way to do research/planning that makes my job more interesting.

  4. Anonymous10:11 AM

    For me it depends on the age of the kid and how sick the kid is and how sick I am! So... how much interaction does the child need vs. sleep, and how muzzy is my brain.

    I do tend to catch up on work reading when I'm muzzy, so long as I'm not also trying to keep a toddler from hurting hirself (you think you've baby-proofed the entire house...).

  5. Email is a constant no matter who's sick. I've been near delirious and still did emails. (BUT not recommended. If the work can wait, I've learned to let it wait. A day in the grand scheme of things rarely does too much damage).

    I always have a list going..or several. Every once in a while when I feel totally out of control, I write a big mongo list with everything that's in the backlog..work, home, kids, etc. Then I make a mini list off that.

    When the tasks are particularly numerous, I tend to try to do the fast/easy tasks first, so that I can tick off a big volume of stuff. Somehow, achieving one bigger goal is less satisfying than getting 10 housekeeping type easier goals completed. (things like expense reports and routine tasks fall into this list).

  6. Email is about all I'm capable of when I'm at home with sick kids. Right now I'm at the hospital, at which I'm valiantly trying to keep working, with some success. (My dad was in an accident.)

    I keep two lists going, one long one on my computer, and a shorter one that I write in my calendar of the specific 2 or 3 tasks I need to accomplish/work on in one particular day. I love lists.

  7. This doesn't specifically answer your question, but I use workflowy (workflowy.com) for my to-do list. My to-do list is extremely long but every night I hashtag my list for the next day with #today, and then I can do a search and only those items pop up on my screen - so I find it really helpful for keep track of my gazillion outstanding small to-dos, while also keeping a short daily list. The last thing I love about it is I can tag other people in my list - my assistant shares my list and if I hashtag her name on anything the night before, she can run her own search and pull together a list of tasks that I have assigned to her. It's great. It's the first system that I have found that works better for me than the yellow notepad with the handwritten list.

  8. Definitely email. I also do a lot of stuff that does not require serious brain engagement like file travel reimbursement, write abstract for upcoming talk, send payroll paperwork for group members, approve their travel reimbursements, order toner/computer/software/paper, review abstracts for conference where I'm on the program cte, I even do some grading (I am having students submit everything online now so I can grade in little pockets of time on a tablet if need be)... Of course, if the kid is not super sick, we can do errands together, or he can help me clean.

  9. There were several times where TJ and I split sick kid duty on the same day because we'd each have *something* that absolutely had to be done, and each getting a half-day was better than one person sucking it up and trying to get it done.

    My old job had backup care for kids too ill to go to daycare (nanny who came to your house), but I couldn't bring myself to use it when T was already sick and in a crappy mood. But it was nice to know we had the option if we HAD to use it.

    Today was the first day T was too sick for preschool since I quit my job, and let me tell you, it was SO nice to not have the mad scramble in the morning on who needed to stay home. There are things I miss about working, but this is NOT one of them.

  10. Thanks for all the comments. I'd like to respond to each one, but... today was even worse than yesterday! Petunia's fever spiked up again, and we spent 95% of the day on the sofa snuggling. The remaining 5% was spent at the doctor's office, where we learned that she probably has a virus and we should come back if her fever isn't gone by Saturday.

    Also, my own cold is to the "my asthma is bad and so my back hurts because I'm working harder than usual to breathe" stage, which is exhausting.

    I will say, though, that I also love Workflowy. I use it to keep a list of post ideas. I tried using it more generally, but it never "took." It is an awesome straightforward to do list tool.

    Also, it was generally easier to work when home sick with Pumpkin, because she was content to have me on the sofa next to her. Petunia wants to be touching, and she will reach out and try to close (or kick) my laptop if I don't comply! She doesn't mind the Kindle, though, so I got lots of reading done. I finished Bird by Bird (the book about writing by Anne Lamott), The Partners (the fantasy mystery book I mentioned in a recent weekend reading post), and am now reading Quiet (the book about introverts). I've always considered myself an extrovert, because that's how I score in Myers-Briggs. But her list of traits puts me more in "ambivert" territory, which is interesting. And I guess, not surprising, given some of the things I like to do. There was a lot of blog fodder in my reading... I'll add the ideas to my list!

  11. Anonymous6:08 AM

    Hope you all feel better soon!

    At casa grumpy1 we're going to see what happens ourselves... DH & I have to get grades for graduating seniors in today and poor baby girl has thrown up in at least 3 separate episodes since 5am. Poor darling.

    Back to problem 2H now that my breakfast larabar is finished...

    1. Anonymous6:09 AM

      Captcha: Cold ralysad

      Yes, having a cold is raly sad.


Sorry for the CAPTCHA, folks. The spammers were stealing too much of my time.