One thing at a time

Detail from Jan Steen “The dissolute household”.

Paradoxically, having kids can be a great way of learning to deal with overstress. 

People with one kid move slower than those with none; people with two or more kids move slower still. 

But it’s not that they themselves have slowed down – if anything, it’s the opposite. Parents are so time-impoverished that they have to do everything at a higher tempo, so the impression is a bit like with racing drivers – because they’re capable of functioning in situations that require near-superhuman levels of reaction time, when they’re operating in an everyday environment they seem to be relaxed and moving rather slowly. 

Parents have to be operating at racing speed at home when it comes to changing nappies (“No, don’t pee now!”), making dinner (“Please, just try it, it’s good for you”), doing the laundry (“Do we have any clean outfits left?”), playing games (and providing both voices in a “What did he say?”/“What did she say?” dialogue is EXHAUSTING), telling bedtime stories (“No! One book and one book only!”), battling domestic entropy (“How did the toys get strewn all over the floor AGAIN?”), doing domestic chores, and trying desperately to maintain a loving relationship with their spouse/partner (“I’m sorry I’m so tired”)…so that even the most frenetic work environment seems somewhat placid by comparison. 

Arguably, the hardest thing with parenting is accepting that you no longer have complete control over your own life. Whatever plans you might have had, prepare for them to be cancelled at the last minute. However much you were looking forward to an occasion, prepare to have your enjoyment dashed. And no matter how much you would like something to happen now, prepare to wait until your dawdling offspring is ready.

You can’t fight it, you’ll go mad if you do. You accept, you adapt. 

A cynic would say this is learned helplessness; a pragmatist would say that this is learning that you can only control events to a certain extent. Either way, you absorb the lesson that certain things can only happen at their own rate, and that your ability to influence events is not as profound as you’d like.

This letting-go is hard, but – as is so often the case with parenting – yields unexpected psychological benefits in the workplace. The overflowing inbox is still a cacophony of urgent requests, but – as you, the parent, wryly take on the perspective of the infant – those people will just have to wait. You will get to each item as quickly as you can, but only when you can and not before.

You can’t get stressed about things you can’t control. Just prioritise and focus on getting one thing done at a time; each item dealt with is one item less, and if the size of the pile stays the same or even increases, as long as you are steadily ticking items off then forward movement is maintained.

In so doing, you learn that only certain deadlines are immovable, you learn that most timings are flexible, and you can even afford a kind of detached amusement at how seriously some of your colleagues treat tasks that, seen from the proper perspective, are almost trivialities. And you learn how to prioritise, instead of trying to take on everything at once.

High-achievers are generally not used to surrendering much control, so these compromises, these inevitable compromises, at first feel like a betrayal. But the alternatives are worse: absenting yourself from your kids, blowing circuits as you attempt to juggle too many things, and doing so is unlike to actually make the pile in the in-tray get any smaller. 

So much of the modern workplace is built around reverse-engineering Parkinson’s law, that the way to get things done as fast as possible is to give people more work than they can reasonably handle, in order to stimulate a faster rate of task completion. It’s a hydra. No matter how many things you deal with, more keep springing up. Weirdly, it’s by having less time, by having the responsibilities of parenting deprive you of time, that you gain this clearer perspective. 

You don’t stop caring, you just start prioritising. And in a way this is one of the most important skills to develop as a professional. Nowadays, with all the advantages of 21st century technology, it’s possible to do so many things that the critical question at work is generally not what can we do, but what should we do. It’s about developing a sense of what moves the story or project on (to be clear: this is not an advocation of cutting corners!). And it’s that instinct that parenting forces you to develop. You no longer have the time to try multiple things, you have to choose one thing. The way that children take away your options actually forces you to become better at choosing.

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