This past January, I traveled to Seattle to visit a friend of mine. She always makes fun of me for checking a bag, so I committed to fitting everything in a carry-on. Even though my suitcase fits in the overhead, I often have to check it because they run out of space before I get to board. So, I managed to fit it all in a tiny duffel-sized bag that could even fit under my seat if needed. My friend was so impressed by my packing until she helped me with my tote bag. “What is in here?!” she asked in shock at how heavy and full it was. “Oh, not much. My laptop, my work calendar, my project calendar, my dreaming goal calendar, a bag of pens, pencils, whiteout, and erasers, a baggie of fun markers and gel pens, my speaking notebook, my contract notebook, my meal planning journal, and an empty pad just in case I run out of paper.” I just love writing, dreaming, and planning. Give me a calendar, and I can dream for days.
As the world entered into The Great Quarantine of 2020, I slowly watched my calendars empty. Splotches of whiteout and eraser marks covered blank pages that activities and plans once filled. My fridge calendar became our daily menu, my daily calendar became a weekly outline, and my dream calendar started to feel like a nightmare. I tried to replace my planning with scheduling for my family, but I was met with frustration when they opted to do their own thing rather than follow my outline. I was further disappointed when I couldn’t even stick to my own plans due to all of the extra “things” that accompany this new way of life we are all in.
The first two weeks, it was okay just adapting to what was going on around us. It almost felt like summer or an extended stay-cation. The third week, I noticed we were all starting to realize this might drag on a bit longer than we originally thought, and we started thinking we should figure something out. Now, in the fourth week of quarantine or self-isolation if you prefer the softer terminology, it’s time to start creating a new normal for this season. It’s time to get back into a routine and settling in for the long haul.
For the first three weeks, I was just living in the chaos of my home, trying to do it all while also working my regular hours. I would get to the end of the day and despite having sat at my desk quite a bit, I didn’t get a single thing done. It wasn’t working for me. I felt exhausted and frustrated. I was running around doing a lot of things, but I wasn’t sure I was doing any of the things that actually mattered. I knew this plan was not sustainable, and I needed to do something about it. Although we may not have activities to plan for and Tetris into our week, there are several things we can do to pull ourselves out of the chaotic place we may have started and into a sense of routine and normalcy. I have compiled seven tips to planning in the midst of uncertainty.
Create a Realistic Week Each and Every Week
When it comes to productivity, many experts promote the design of an “ideal” week. This is where you sit down and sketch out what an ideal week would look like for you. When you would work, play, exercise, spend time with family, give back, worship, etc. I have never loved the idea of the ideal week, especially as a mom with two preschoolers working primarily gig- and contract-based assignments. As hard as I tried, I could never even get close to my ideal week, and I always felt like I was missing the mark.
Instead of an ideal week, I moved to a “realistic” week, and I set it up every Sunday with what I knew that week held in store. Many categories fell in similar time slots from week to week, but rarely did my weeks look the same. As a planner, preparing my weekly outline gave me a great sense of peace and, dare I say, joy. I loved mapping out when I would work and what I would work on during each time slot. I found peace in knowing that each activity had its own space, that each project had an appropriate amount of time dedicated to it, and that everything did indeed fit within the confines of a week.
Although I have often run into weeks where my schedule was completely blown up due to sickness, my boys needing a little more “mom” time, shifting priorities, or any number of distractions, I have never run into a season as difficult to plan for as the one we are currently in. We are in waters none of us have ever navigated before. We are suddenly wearing all of our hats at once rather than setting one down and picking up another as we leave home and walk into the office or drop the kids off at school, daycare, or Grandma’s for a few hours so we can get some things done. I often talk about balance not as juggling all of the balls beautifully but as focusing on one ball at a time and giving it 100% of your attention. Man is that hard to do right now.
Each week, I encourage you to go ahead and create a realistic plan for that week based on what you need to get done to feel successful and productive. Be sure to build in time for yourself, for your family, and for your work. Don’t be tempted to pack it too full. Remember, this is an unprecedented time. You need more buffer time than you think.
Identify What is Most Important Each Day
If you and your spouse both work full- or part-time with children at home to school, entertain, and feed, it is not realistic that you will both be able to work 8 hours during typical working hours. Identify the few things that MUST get done each day (preferably at the start of each day), and do those things first. Even in the most consistent of times, we tend to over-estimate how much we can get done in a day. In these chaotic times, it is more important than ever to clearly define what must be done each day and tackle those items first. Chances are high that distractions will take your attention away, and you won’t get back to it. Knock those things out first to help ensure you continue to move in the direction of your goals each and every day.
Bucket Activities Based on Realistic Allotted Time
I am a huge advocate of chunking or bucketing your time. This is the practice of organizing similar activities together into a sizeable chunk of time. Rather than detailing each activity to accomplish in that timeslot, you define the general category of work that will be done (e.g., administrative, creative, project, family, personal). Administrative work could include checking email, paying bills, assigning tasks to others, etc. By grouping similar activities, your brain can more easily stay focused rather than losing time moving from one type of task to another.
At this time, we may not have large chunks of time to devote to various activities. When we first started the quarantine, I would try to work on the book I’m writing because it was at the top of my priority list. I would end up making no progress during that brief time and would end up responding to email for the first 30 minutes of my two-hour block and check out the latest COVID update for the remaining 90 minutes.
You may very well only have small chunks of time available to you right now. I encourage you to not try to do creative work when you don’t have the time to get into that space. Carefully and realistically plan your work for the time you have available during any given time slot. If your children will be asking for schoolwork help in the morning, plan to be interrupted more regularly, and plan to do work that your brain can more quickly get back to after a break in attention. If that means tackling creative work at the end of the day or early in the morning while everyone else is sleeping, it will be a much better use of your time to do that than to try to fit it into little bits and pieces. Your sanity will thank you too.
Don’t be Afraid to Shake it Up
Whether sitting, standing, walking, or reclined, most of us typically work at some sort of indoor table or desk. Unfortunately, we are not in typical times. If your current working situation isn’t working for you, don’t be afraid to shake it up. It is often impossible to concentrate in my bedroom/office with my in-laws watching TV, my husband talking, and my boys yelling. There is always something going on. What used to be a place of creativity has become the center of chaos. It just isn’t working for me right now. After a particularly tearful breakdown, my husband offered to set me up an office in our SUV. He doesn’t know it yet, but I am definitely taking him up on that this week. If you need to work in the car, work in the car. If you need to set up a desk in your closet, do that. If you need to sit on a picnic table at the park, go. Do whatever you must to focus on what you need to get done. You and your family will thank you for making the most of the time you are away from them working.
Keep the lines of communication open with your spouse, roommate, kids, parents, or anyone else in your home. Let them know when you cannot be disturbed. If you are doing creative work and only have a couple of hours, you cannot afford to be interrupted even once. Perhaps there are times it is okay to come in and ask questions and times it is not. If you are on a training call or webinar versus a conference call where you need to pay close attention, the rules may be different. If you need them to not mow the lawn outside of your window during a certain time, tell them that. Don’t expect the typical rules of “mom’s working” or “dad’s in his office” to apply here, especially if you do not typically work from home. Everyone is adjusting. It feels to your children like you are ALWAYS working because they are used to having your attention when you are home. Now they have to notice the time and remember that it is work time. Your spouse may feel that they are suddenly parenting alone and need some extra support from you. Whatever the case is, clear lines of communication are crucial right now. Don’t be afraid to OVER communicate right now.
It may feel pointless to make plans right now when we don’t know how long this season will last, but we must keep moving forward. It is crucial to get back to some sense of normalcy in our daily lives and routine. If all you can do is plan for today, then tomorrow, keep doing it. Make the plans, write out the schedule, and do your best to stick with it. For those of us who thrive on plans and routine, we need that structure and that vision for our mental well-being. Don’t give it up.
Give Grace Freely
Through it all, give yourself and others grace. This is a hard, challenging, difficult time. The way we handle the challenges and respond to others will define where we go from here. Our children may not remember much about this season, but we can set things in motion that will impact the memories they do have. I’m not so much afraid of running out of food or toilet paper, I have accepted that it might be pretty uncomfortable at times, but I am afraid of damaging relationships because I let myself get stretched too thin or because I snapped when I should have walked away. Everyone needs a little grace right now, and that includes yourself.
We are still adapting to a new normal while wondering how much of life we will recognize when all of this is over. It’s okay to feel lost, to mourn the loss of this time, to mourn the loss of dreams or plans. Be patient with yourself and give yourself permission to feel all of the feelings without judgment. Give yourself permission to try new things. Give yourself permission to not be okay at times. I pray that by implementing a few of these tips, you will begin to feel a sense of normalcy enter back into your life, but I pray that you have peace with however long that takes.
None of us knows what tomorrow holds. We make plans despite the fact that we have no control over what actually happens. Even in the best of times, we live in a world of uncertainty. Just because we are suddenly acutely aware of those uncertainties doesn’t mean we can’t or shouldn’t still look to the future with optimism and excitement. Whatever the “new normal” looks like, we can begin thinking about it, planning for it, and working toward it right now.