I asked my roommate about getting a few food producing plants for the front yard and patio area after seeing photos from the yards of friends on social media and hearing my friend Mary describe the beautiful strawberries and tomatoes that she was harvesting from both her hanging plants and her garden. Envisioning topsy turvy tomato abundance and baskets of bright red berries, I added a stop at Buchanan’s Native Plants to my “to-do” list for that afternoon. She brought me up short with her rejoinder: “only if you want fatter squirrels”. It’s true, we have roaming hordes of Pirate Squirrels inhabiting the trees and green space of our front yard.
It’s their Shangrila, an urban retreat where they can polish off anything edible that takes their fancy. The available diet here is nutrient dense and delicious, historically composed of miniature apples, purloined pecans and treats from our experimental trash can vegetable project where celery, spring onion, tomato and other specimens were decimated by Squirrels Seeking Snacks.
We all have these pillagers running amok in our lives, siphoning off our attention, energy and focus. Some of them are short and beguiling, such as our children, grandchildren or youngest clients. Some of them share our beds, couches or dinner tables. Spouses, partners, lovers and assorted other intimates sometimes claim more of our time, space, money and attention than was allocated to them. Ditto for bosses, colleagues and customers who are often more high-maintenance than is desirable. Leaks in the energy budget are just like leaks in the fiscal one; they have to be addressed before too much of a deficit accumulates. Or else- drama, dysfunction and disaster may ensue!
With the advent of Covid-19, most of the energy drains, leaks and losses already in place have accelerated their respective rates of consumption. Parents are educating their adolescent and young children at home. Even if online school is in session, there are few students who attend to the lessons and remain engaged with the learning that is being offered independently. Those who are facilitating the at home education of students with special needs are suffering the loss of specialized supports that go beyond access to a teacher. The absence of an aide, suitable modifications to their daily work, therapies designed to enhance academic, cognitive and social performance make learning a challenge. Add in the stress of their children’s reaction to an unprecedented disruption to the normal school day and stress levels are elevated for many families.
These same parents are trying to perform the routine functions that once occurred in the relative quiet of an office, supported by access to people, systems and tools that helped them to accomplish their work. Now, they are limited in terms of their access. But- they are still expected to fulfill the requirements of their roles. Some of them have been subjected to intrusive monitoring via apps on their phones or computers. Some have been required to leave video streaming on in order to verify that they are in work mode. Still others are out of work and facing the loss of cars, homes and medical care. Covid-19 has been unkind and the impacts of the pandemic’s requirement that we all stay in our homes has taken its toll on all of us. Every one of our contexts and roles has been affected and resources are overtaxed.
Like the squirrels that eat produce that was intended for human consumption, these circumstances have eaten into our resources of attention, energy, patience and resilience. On the whole, we are more depressed, less hopeful, more isolated and less optimistic than before Covid-19 mowed its way through our homes, schools and places of business. So- how do we fight back? We can’t always stop the circumstance that’s taxing our resources. Getting rid of the squirrels isn’t a feasible goal, barring the deployment of some sort of squirrel bait with a level of toxicity commensurate with that of nuclear fallout. Since eliminating the leaks isn’t an option, mitigating their impact is the next best actionable priority.
First- EVERYTHING cannot be the priority at the same time and yet all of the roles that are required to pay the bills, parent the kids and promote a clean, organized, safe household have to happen. There has to be some stack ranking of priorities and some consciously made choices about things that can be allowed to come off of the “to-do” list. If there are two working parents and both are workingfrom home with children, things can get pretty chaotic. The only way to untangle tasks is to do ONE thing at a time. Being a little more slow and a lot more mindful will eliminate some of the errors and omissions that come with stress and fatigue.
When all of the work that is to be done occurs in a single setting, it can be tempting to conflate roles. They used to call it “multi-tasking” and it was a thing that people were expected to be adept at. In line at most fast food places and with many retailers, you still see it. Online tech support chat? Same. One person is expected to handle money, take in an order and answer customer questions all at the same time. Or to manage five chats at the same time. Guess what? NO! It’s a horrible system that presumes on the time of others and masks itself as a way of offering support to more people in a shorter interval of time.
Or- you drive up to the pickup window at the drugstore and let them know that you’re picking up a medication. The poor tech working the counter is handling transactions in a piecemeal fashion. One phone call… now on hold. One customer at the counter…waiting. The one in drive-through? Waiting. It takes an inordinately long time to get something simple done because of the circling cycle of interruptions that drags out the process. This is NOT a good model for the home.
If you try to supervise your kids while they are on their Zoom sessions while simultaneously cycling the wash and pre-prepping dinner and attending your own Zoom meeting (without video and muted so that you’re not missed)- the only thing that’s going to get done is NOT MUCH. Instead, let the roles and tasks that you have to fulfill in a day take turns.
You can mix dinner and laundry, sure. Mixing tasks within roles or that align in terms of ability to perform both is something that we all do. What MUST be resisted, however, is the pressure to do ALL the things ALL of the the time. Start the laundry at 7:00 am and keep cycling it all day, piling the clean loads up to be processed later. Why? Do it when you can rescue things before they wrinkle and require ironing. Maybe that’s a good activity for your favorite Netflix binge or to pair with a long homework session.
Or- start that Big Project for work while you’re waiting for some Late Lucy to arrive for her Zoom session. Why? Deep work requires real concentration and the odds of making much progress are slim, unless you’re feeling super Zen about the world. Early mornings or late nights, depending on your energy reserves and overall work style, might be quieter, better times. Whatever strategy you choose to implement, be mindful of its impacts and be prepared to tweak it or retool the system entirely in order to get to where you need to in all of your roles.
Perhaps instead of the anxiety that comes with conflating everything into one lump of hopeless tasks “to-be-done”, set up some intervals for each of the roles that you have and be prepared that there may be more transitions and disruptions overall. But there shouldn’t be an utter hodge-podge of activities going on under the guise that this is the “new normal”. Schedule it out. Make the trade-offs that you must. Maybe you really DO have to cut a few corners on Zoom meetings. Or the kids have to do more of their work in the evening, when you can supervise. Maybe your sanity requires some extra quiet on Sundays or Mondays… in which case you bargain with your partner to trade off some “me” time or you plan some kiddo screen time for that Golden Hour of sanity.
Make use of every resource that you have and get the most out of it. Are you kids old enough to set the table? Make their own beds? Can they be trusted to put towels in the wash, even if you don’t trust them to pre-treat their clothes for stains yet? Can they make a simple meal? Even if it’s just sandwiches or finger foods? Can they feed Fido if you get the right sized measuring cup for them? To any extent that you can, get your kids on board with doing things that matter in the home. Not only will it add a little structure to their day and possibly pay off in relieving you of one or more tasks, it will enhance their felt sense of competence.
Obviously, to pull this off, you’ve got to front load the requests for help with respectful engagement of their agency and use positive reinforcement to help the transition to stick. Notice all of the good things that they do and sincerely praise their efforts and thank them for their contribution. If you’re a kid’s boss, be nice to them in the same way that you’d want your boss to be nice to you. Fair evaluations, rewards, skill development opportunities and nice, juicy projects where they can get some extra attention should all be part of the plan.
You know what can happen, when. And what HAS to happen, when. Wherever those two things work together, that’s a good way to block out your calendar. That covers the “ON” intervals for whatever roles that you have. It’s just as important to cover the “OFF” intervals. We all need distraction. The problem for many of us is that we let our distractions happen to us, rather than choosing them. The time, place and manner of distraction is something worth pondering.
There’s a difference between a good pub burger and your favorite craft beer and the $7 fast-food burger-du-jour at the local franchise of choice. Don’t pick one when the other will do a better job. The nuances of what YOU need in any given moment in order to fulfill your roles and live your life well in the midst of all of the pandemic related disruptions are just as important when you are OFF duty as parent, partner, professional or householder as they are when you are ON. Attending to that dynamic consciously will make the days go more smoothly.
It’s unlikely that we’re going to see the backside of this disruption any time soon. Covid-19 is here to stay for some time yet. On the whole, we see fewer people, have access to fewer places, spaces and tools and have significant deficits to overcome in terms of access to the supports that we need on hand in order to live well. If we do engage with these difficulties with strategic, mindful focus, we will more successfully mitigate the impacts. If you need more support to remain mindfully engaged in these efforts, one of our coaches is ready to help.