Taming the Chaos – 10 Tips to Help You Navigate Work-Life Balance in a Pandemic

At the end of 2019, my family and I took a mini-vacation to the mountains with the intent of having a couple of days to do a digital detox, reflect on 2019, plan for 2020, and spend some quality time together. 

The last quarter of 2019 roared by as quickly as the months before it. Business travel, end-of-year school events, choir concerts, shopping, decorating, baking, and the surge of activity that leads up to Christmas had left us all longing for a few days without structure, commitments, or a long list of things that needed to get done. 

Over the course of the next few days in between family games and a lot of Hallmark Christmas movies, I took time to inventory 2019 and set my vision, goals, and strategy for 2020.

I don’t know about you but COVID-19 was not part of my plan! Nonetheless, here I am, navigating working from home, homeschooling four kids, trying to figure out how to make the most of birthdays and graduation that will happen while we’re in quarantine, and trying to help our high school senior navigate the college admission process and uncertainty around the fall semester.

Taming the Chaos – 10 Tips to Help You Navigate WFH, Homeschooling and Leading a Team Through Change

I’ve been doing this now for seven weeks. The first two weeks were supposed to be our Spring Break but plans changed as restrictions were placed on where we could go and what we could do. Spring Break then morphed into ‘distance learning’ and we adjusted to homeschooling and working from home which will last through the end of the school year. 

As a change leader and someone who has experienced a lot of change in the past 18 months including an acquisition, two spin-offs and a merger, I approached this pivot with the same mindset, tools, and processes I have used to successfully manage other pivots and transitions. Here are my 10 tips to tame the chaos. 

1.      Attitude is Everything. 

If you know me, you know that I’m a planner. I plan out our vacations (complete with a spreadsheet of options for activities to avoid the pointless exchange of “What do you want to do? I don’t know, what do you want to do”). 

I have a plan for my career. I even planned the birth of my oldest daughter so that she would be born in the narrow space of time between my law school graduation and when I took the bar exam. But, as John Steinbeck said in Of Mice and Men “even the best-laid plans of mice and men go astray.” 

We can’t always control our circumstances but we remain in control of our attitude, and our attitude influences our response. Moreover, if you’re a parent, your attitude sets the tone for your children’s response.

2.      Prioritize Self-Care

This goes hand-in-hand with the first point. If I’m going to show up in a positive way for my family, my employees, and my colleagues and model the right attitude I need to prioritize self-care. 

If you’ve ever been on an airplane before you’ve no doubt heard the instruction to put on your own oxygen mask before helping others with theirs. Why?, because you can’t help others if you’re passed out from lack of oxygen. 

The same concept applies here. I need to ensure I’m practicing good self-care so that I can help others. For me this means I get outside in nature and walk every morning. This exercises my heart, my lungs, and my muscles but it also provides me with quiet time to set my intention and my attitude for the day.

I also drink a lot of water (and tea) throughout the day. This serves two purposes: first, it hydrates my body, and second, it keeps me moving throughout the day. 

If you find it hard to make time for exercise, consider habit-stacking. For example, every time I get up to go to the bathroom, (because that happens frequently when you’re drinking a lot of water), I try to do some body-weight exercises like lunges, pull-ups, push-ups, or a plank before I sit back down to work. I’m a fan of burst exercises because I don’t always have time for a full workout but I can always find time for a few reps here or there throughout the day.

3.      Communicate

I can’t overstate the importance of this one. Communication is fundamental to successfully navigating change. 

There is a lot of uncertainty right now and your employees and your family need you to communicate regularly with them. I am purposeful in establishing frequent meetings with my team (either in groups or one-on-one) to flow-down information and engage in a dialogue with them so I know how they and their families are doing, what they are struggling with, how I can help them, and what questions/concerns they might have. 

I don’t always have the answers they’re looking for and sometimes I can’t share all the information I have, but they know if I know something and I can share it I will and that goes a long way toward building trust. Nobody likes to be left in the dark. 

This also applies in the context of family. One of the positive benefits of COVID-19 is that families are spending more time together. It’s equally important that we’re having age-appropriate conversations with our children about what’s happening and taking the time to understand their thoughts, feelings, fears, disappointments, and concerns.

4.      Maintain a Regular Schedule

Life doesn’t look the same as it did seven weeks ago and your schedule probably looks a little different post-COVID than it did pre-COVID. That’s okay. 

Make adjustments where you need to but try to maintain a regular schedule to the best of your ability. I still get up before 5 am but I allow the kids to sleep until 8 am on weekdays since they no longer have to be at school at a certain time. This allows me to get some work done in the morning before they wake and keeps our family on a manageable schedule. 

If I did not impose this structure our younger kids would be up at day-break and our teenagers would sleep until noon (or later) then want to stay up until the wee hours of the morning doing their school work, watching TV, or playing video games. 

This schedule ensures that the kids are getting their work done when their teachers are available to help them, increases family time together at the end of the day once we’ve all finished our work/school-work and provides predictability and structure, especially for the younger kids who are used to following a certain sequence of activities in the classroom. 

While I don’t micro-manage our older kids, our youngest (1st grade) requires more support and engagement. By writing down the schedule at the start of the week, she knows the expectation, knows what she needs to complete, and knows when I’m available to help her.

5.      Have a Plan But Be Flexible

You have to know your destination but there are many ways to get there. Be flexible where you can and adjust as needed. 

When we first started homeschooling I wrote out a daily schedule that accommodated my calendar, scheduling learning activities for our youngest around my conference calls and meetings but the daily changes to her schedule were too disruptive and she struggled with the lack of consistency. As she sat at our kitchen table singing a little song she had learned at school “the first thing we do is always the same, we take out our pencil, and write our name, number, and date” I realized that I needed to make some adjustments. 

We restructured our weekdays so that they follow a consistent schedule. She and I sit down at the end of each week and talk about the week ahead and plan the week’s schedule together. Then, each day I go over when I’m going to be on calls and when I’m available to help her. 

As a manager, I need to keep this in mind where my employees are concerned as well. They know when they can reach me and we communicate about times we will be offline to take care of family or other needs. We’re flexible in meetings where we can be and how employees structure their days but clear on the expectations and the deadlines.

6.      Time Blocking

Time blocking is one of the key practices that help me get it all done. 

If you aren’t familiar with the practice, here’s how it works. First, I am intentional (where I can be) in how I schedule things. I try to group or schedule similar activities together (meetings for example). Then, I block out time on my calendar where I am not available for meetings so that I have uninterrupted time to accomplish tasks or activities that require focus.

This also allows me to manage my energy levels in addition to my time. For example, I am the sharpest in the morning so I try to protect that time for complex or creative work that requires focus. This is also the quietest time of the day at my house. The kids are usually sleeping but if they wake early, they know they can have free-time or watch TV until it’s time to start their studies at 8 am. 

In contrast, I have less energy and less ability to focus (both internally and externally), in the afternoon so I typically try to focus on administrative tasks, answering emails, and less complex work for these periods but sometimes this too requires an adjustment. 

Since the temperature is now over 100 degrees in Arizona, I’ve been working on our patio in the afternoon while the kids swim. Using time blocks allows me to get my meetings and calls done in the morning and work quietly at the table in the afternoon while the kids swim.

7.      Turn Off Email and Notifications

We are an "always on" society but we don’t need to be. You control your email not the other way around. Set aside time blocks during the day to check and respond to email then turn it off

This allows you to be fully present in the meeting you’re in or focus completely on the task at hand without distraction. While we all think we’re good at multi-tasking, the cold, hard truth is we’re not! I’ve been in meetings where informal culture or the leader hosting the meeting had a “no device” rule and the engagement and productivity that comes out of those meetings is so much higher than a meeting with a dozen half-interested individuals checking their emails or working on other projects. 

The same concept applies when you’re working to complete a task. Think about it; add up all those tenths of seconds from switching back and forth between email and whatever it is you’re working on and the time adds up. According to the American Psychological Association, the result can be a 40% drop in productivity. You control this so take charge and manage it so that it works for you not against you.

 8.      Brain Dump

While we’re talking about distractions I want you to consider keeping a pad of paper nearby as a location for your brain dump--you know, all the thoughts that come up throughout the day like “remember to send out mom’s birthday card” or “I forgot cotton balls at the store and my kid needs them for their science project next week” or “don’t forget to schedule a meeting with X to talk about Y”. 

Whatever it is, write it down on your brain dump pad and deal with it later. At the end of each day, I set aside time to review my brain dump and figure out what I need to do with each item on it. 

Some of those items may end up tomorrow’s “today-list” (we’ll talk more about that in a moment); some I may take care of as I’m reviewing my list (such as sending out a calendar notice for a meeting with someone), and others items I put on my to-do list. 

So what’s the difference between a today-list and a to-do list you may be asking. My today list contains my three priorities for the day. That’s it; three things I am going to prioritize and commit to getting done that day. All the other stuff that has to get done goes on my to-do list. 

 9.      Don’t Forget To Have Fun

Last week our youngest was struggling to get her schoolwork done. She needed to write a paragraph using first, next, then, last. She procrastinated, whined, negotiated, and tried every other trick in the book to avoid doing the work. 

Shortly thereafter she asked me if I would make her a fruit smoothie for a snack. I suggested that she write out instructions for me on how to make the perfect smoothie using first, next, then, last and she jumped at it. Throughout the week we found other ways to incorporate fun into our learning like planting a DIY garden as part of her science learning on the plant life cycle. 

This also works with older kids (we set up an investment account for our kids on Robinhood to teach them about the stock market and investing) and employees. 

Before COVID we would schedule employee engagement activities (a ballgame, or an outing to Top Golf) with employees periodically. It was a great opportunity to get to know each other outside of work and bond as a team. Now we’re all quarantined in our homes and the only connection we have to each other is through video conferencing. 

Turn the camera on! Use this opportunity to see your employees face-to-face and engage with them. As their children or pets come into the room take the opportunity to ask how they’re doing in quarantine.  Set time aside to just talk, not only about work but about other things as well. 

10.  Work-Life Integration Is A Long-Game

Some of the best advice I ever received was to stop measuring work-life integration on a short-term basis. 

More often than not you end up feeling like you failed in one area or the other if you try to measure it on a daily basis. Some days the scale tips in favor of work (like when I’m working on a project with a short deadline); other days the scale tips in favor of home (like when I’m home with a child who can’t stop throwing up). 

You can do both well, but you’ve got to play the long game. For example, look at your calendar over the span of a month and see how well you did at dividing your time among your priorities. Act, assess, adjust, and repeat.

Original article published in LinkedIn:https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/taming-chaos-10-tips-help-you-navigate-wfh-leading-team-radcliffe/

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