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Time management is not enough

Dr Duncan Forgan
Dr Duncan Forgan Tech Lead



I don’t know about you, but the last few months have been really, really hard. 

Dayshape went fully remote as a company on the 16th of March, and my daughter’s nursery closed the week after as the UK went into full lockdown to weather the oncoming coronavirus. From that moment, my wife and I went from a relatively structured 9-5 workday, into a maelstrom of nonstop childcare, fleeting unsatisfying snatches of low quality work time, and a solitary hour outside every day. 

At the end of that first week, we realised that we needed to start managing our time as a family unit. We drew up a work schedule that would help us split our time fairly; give our daughter the attention she deserved while giving us some time to work. Dayshape’s working family policy meant that I could reduce my working hours (at full pay) to help manage our childcare needs, so there were (nearly) enough hours in the day.

But we still spent our days filled with guilt about doing too much work and not enough childcare, and vice versa. We would put our daughter to bed, then work until the early hours of the morning, crawling into bed filled with a growing dread about what was happening outside. 

This is not a way to be productive. 

Recognising my problem

It’s been argued that productivity should never have been the aim for those of us in lockdown. To an extent, that’s true; the aim is of course physical and mental health. 

Mental health is very personal. I like to work. I derive huge satisfaction from it. For me, a productive day at work leaves me feeling happy. A frustrating day that didn’t move the needle can be a tough knock. I had been with Dayshape for just over a year when lockdown hit, and joining Dayshape was a big career shift for me. A string of unproductive days can compound quickly, and impostor syndrome is a difficult demon to slay. 

That first month of lockdown was a long stream of unproductive days. When I wasn’t working, I was trying to explain to my toddler why she could only see her friends and her family on FaceTime, trying not to worry about her grandparents and my friends who were shielding, trying not to be disheartened by how tough things were. 

I was at a low ebb. From an outsider’s perspective, we were doing well during this pandemic. My wife and I both had secure jobs where we could hide from the virus, we didn’t have nursery fees so our bank balance was much healthier than usual, and our family and friends were safe. So why was I feeling this way? That was when I realised what was happening. 

The solution

As a family, we managed our time very well, but time management isn’t enough. You have to manage your effort as well. 

Completing any task takes time and effort. It’s practically a cliché. When we plan out our work, we usually think about how much time we have in our workday, what other commitments we have, and what needs to be prioritised. What I had been ignoring was how much effort I was able to give. 

All of us have a finite amount of effort, and a finite time to spend it in. External factors can chip away at our effort, just as they can chip away at our time. A global pandemic is a monstrous, unthinkable external factor that doesn’t just chip away, it pulls off huge steaming chunks of time and effort. 

In those early days, I wasn’t looking after my effort reserves. When I was at my desk, I wasn’t totally present. I couldn’t get stuck into tasks – I kept bouncing off the surface of them. I was distracted – physically and emotionally exhausted. At the end of a working period (which was at most 3 hours), I felt deflated that I’d achieved nothing. I ruminated on this long afterwards, while I should have been focusing on being with my daughter. Seeing myself do that made me feel even worse. 

I decided that I needed to spend time on how to improve my effort management.

I replaced my impromptu desk (a camping table) with an actual desk. I had a monitor and a chair delivered from the office. I assigned myself to-do items based on the time of day – complex challenging things during the day, and easier tasks later in the evening. I decided to work less – going to bed earlier, and writing down what was stressing me about work so I could put it aside. I relearned lessons from my time in academia, and committed to doing less work. Importantly, I started enjoying my time with my daughter more, making it now feel less of a chore, and more of a way to heal and recharge. 

When I was at my desk, I worked fewer hours but they were supercharged. When I logged out, I left “Future Me” better instructions for what to do next, screamingly obvious breadcrumbs so that I could pick up quickly where I left off.

I paid attention to my effort reserves. When they started to dip, I took time for self-care. I got in touch with friends I hadn’t seen in years. I rediscovered music I used to love. I took more time to exercise, and spent less time on Twitter and more time reading the pile of books I panic-bought at the beginning of lockdown. 

Most importantly, I gave myself permission to have unproductive days. We can’t always be firing on all cylinders, and now more than ever we need to be kinder to ourselves.

Defending effort and time

Things are a lot better now, but we’re not out of the woods yet. COVID-19 is going to be with us for a while yet. My daughter is back at nursery, but that could change soon. 

But there is something positive I learned about my working life during this gruelling year: productivity requires you to manage all your resources – your time and your effort. We only ever have a finite amount to give of each, and we have to split them between our work and the rest of our lives. Your effort reserves need you to be physically, emotionally and mentally fit, or they’ll be constantly drained. 

From now on, I’ll be as defensive about my effort as I am about my time. 

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