The Myth of Deep Work While Breastfeeding

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A typical WFH workday…includes a mix of work gear, baby gear, and an always-jammed schedule.

I’m a new mom with an 8-month-old baby girl at home.

Well, technically, since I’ve been working from home, she’s always “at work” with me, too. One month after I returned to work from maternity leave, I got a new job, and for a long list of reasons, I decided to spend the following three months transitioning out slowly, doing a little of both. To top it off, I decided to keep breastfeeding, which, at six times a day, was essentially another job of its own.

Since then, I’ve learned a lot about time management and prioritization. But I also noticed that, particularly when breastfeeding, it’s been hard for me to find any time for “Deep Work” — those super focused periods where you get strategic thinking done. So I thought it might be helpful to share my experience — and what few tips I’ve learned along the way.

The Importance of Deep Work

As a writer-turned-businessperson, I’ve always loved time for Deep Work (preferably with a whiteboard, a notebook, and lots of Post-It notes), which Cal Newport describes in his book on the topic as “the ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task.” In all likelihood, your job requires that you spend some amount of time on both Deep Work and Shallow Work (the kind of work you can take on in spurts, or while multitasking a bit, like clearing an inbox).

I’m sure everyone’s “flow state” for Deep Work is different, but for me, I need at least 90 minutes uninterrupted, up to a max of three hours, at which point I lose the ability to focus deeply. In an office setting, I’d regularly “hijack” conference rooms for hours on end, scrawling out plans and diagrams and charts with the intensity of a mathematician solving a complex theorem on a chalkboard.

On weekends, I’d simply “disappear” for a whole day, hopping from coffee shop to coffee shop, lunch spot to bar, noise-canceling headphones blocking out the world, while I’d plow through an 8-page document to present on Monday morning. One of my favorite weekend hobbies — something I used to do at least 3 or 4 times a year — was to buy a new book and read it, cover-to-cover, over the course of 24 hours. I got into the habit of using cross-country flights at least bi-monthly to clear out my inbox or take on a Deep Work project uninterrupted. (Airplane flights, by the way, are another great option for reading books cover-to-cover.)

Making the Time

Before the baby, it was easy to find time for Deep Work. I perfected my own schedule so that it included a little bit of both each day. I’d get up at 6 and work straight through until 10 or 11 a.m. when I’d have my first meeting of the day. Or I’d stop meetings at 4 p.m. and then work until 8 or 9. I’m a pretty fast worker, so I knew, as long as I got 2 hours of Deep Work each day, I’d be able to stay on top of things. But after the baby, everything changed.

Today, my baby still eats 6 times a day — essentially every 3 hours from the minute she wakes up at 6:30 a.m. until the minute she falls asleep at around 7 p.m. During the day, after you factor in the time it takes to actually *feed* the baby (or pump), my longest stretch of time before needing another baby-related activity is about 2.5 hours.

To say the least, this has wreaked total havoc around any possibility of achieving a flow state of Deep Work during the typical 9 a.m. — 5 p.m. workday. Here’s a sense of what I mean:

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A day in the life…here’s a snapshot at how much my workday is impacted by the simple act of breastfeeding.

Needless to say, I feel like I’m always getting interrupted. My workday has become a constant juggle of breastfeeding, inbox triage, meetings, and repeat (and — let’s be real — sometimes all three happen at once). I’ve noticed, if I don’t immediately start in a “Deep Work” mindset immediately after one breastfeeding session, I’ve completely blown my chance to achieve any strategic work for the rest of that timeblock. Then, I really only get one more chance during that workday before the baby bedtime routine takes over. And after that, it’s looking like a 7 or 8 p.m. block of time is what I need to do in order to stay on top of things.

I know at least some of you are probably thinking a couple of things by now, so let me just get ahead of you and address them here:

  1. “Breastfeeding is a choice. If you care so much about Deep Work, you’d just give the baby formula and cut out all the distractions.”

    First off — I prefer to think of breastfeeding as my biological right. Keeping a baby alive is hardly a choice. Second — You might also consider that it’s partly due to the ever-growing list of other technology-induced distractions that’s cutting down “thinking work” time in the modern workforce at all. When it comes to deciding which is more natural — intermittently breastfeeding your offspring, or responding in a Pavlovian way to the sound of Slack messages for 8 hours a day — you tell me which one feels like it should carry a greater priority.
  2. “You must be so lucky to be at home with your baby! You can breastfeed all the time and not have to worry about pumping.”

    Yes, it is lovely to be home with the baby all the time. But it doesn’t make it easier to get work done. Babies become attached to their moms. They are squirmy and delicious but distracting. A breastfeeding session of 15 minutes can easily become 15 minutes, plus a diaper change, plus an anxiety-inducing separation period when I tear her away from me again. Plus, I’ve found that it’s way more awkward to be on video calls with a wriggly baby than to simply pump. The short story is — there’s no easy answer here. It’s all just different types of accommodation.
  3. “Pumping milk only takes 15 minutes. Even if you do that during the workday, you can jump right back in without too much distraction.”

    You’re right. The task itself is basic and doesn’t take all that long. The problem is what else it introduces. A trip to the kitchen to get your pump parts makes you notice that the dishwasher hasn’t been emptied. On the way back you hear your baby crying upstairs and go up to check on her. And, worst of all, even if you do happen to have found yourself in a rare, midday Deep Work zone, you have to interrupt yourself to gather your baby (or breast pump) to keep yourself on schedule. Deep Work isn’t Deep Work if you’re getting interrupted. Period.

All this to say, four months into this delicate dance, it strikes me that is yet another handicap for working moms — when we come back after maternity leave, we not only need to re-acclimate ourselves to the business, but create an entire new set of professional habits and workflows. And iterate on them in real time while also learning how to keep a new creature alive. That’s a pretty big deal.

Life Hacks for Other New Moms

I certainly won’t pretend to have all the answers here, but I’ve got a few do’s and don’ts that I’ve learned along the way.

1. Cut yourself a break.

I wrote this to myself on October 15 of this year: “As I wear a mask in my own home, pumping breast milk from the bathroom to avoid the contractor who’s baby-proofing our living room, I hastily chew on a piece of string cheese — my only lunch — while checking my Slack messages from two different companies where I’ve elected to work simultaneously. I wonder, is this what it means to have it all? Am I doing it?”

At the end of the day, something has to give. In 2020, I set my New Year’s mantra as, “Lead with Compassion.” And while this year has been For me, it meant saying no to any other creative side projects I’d had going on, and giving myself the grace to do so. As anyone with a baby knows, it’s all just a phase.

2. Block on time on your calendar for Deep Work.

I did this so long ago in my previous job that it had become second nature by the end. But my morning and evening “Deep Work” time pre-baby didn’t happen organically either. In fact, this somewhat enviously simple schedule was the product of years of tweaking and adjusting. Including this fun exercise. After about six weeks of meeting madness, I finally started doing the same in my new role, alternating every other day with morning or evening blocks of 90–120 minutes. It’s not a failsafe plan, but it’s helping.

3. Get better at converting Shallow Work blocks into Deep Work “lite.”

There’s a productivity hack around the idea of “chunking” — when you chunk together similar tasks into one go and then plow through them in clusters. I’ve been trying to do the inverse — pick apart a task that would normally take me 60–90 minutes and decoupling each element apart. If I need to write a proposal and I have only 30 minutes, maybe I just write the outline. If I get another 30 minutes, I’ll start the first half. And in the final 30, I’ll tie up the loose ends. Yes, it’s annoying, but you have to make do with what you have. And just like you can get used to sleeping in 2-hour spurts with a newborn, you can get used to working like this (at least temporarily).

4. Coordinate with your partner.

I wrote a post earlier this year about how my husband and I have been managing Quarantine Life together. By treating our new lockdown life together like a joint challenge, we are united in how we tackle problems. Sometimes this means I need him to take “baby duties” for a 3–4 hour block of time on the weekends so I can get something done. But it also means I need to be open about when I just need a break, which for me, more than anything else, means alone time. Given all the constraints, we’ve needed to get a little creative. After a particularly rocky few weeks of double-job madness, I took 24 hours off, booked myself at a hotel downtown, and spent a glorious day by myself with a book and a glass of wine. It made all the difference.

5. Be communicative with others.

This has been perhaps the hardest of all for me to learn. Before I was a parent, I used to rely on my own flexibility to make my schedule work for me. My Deep Work windows bled into the beginning or end of my work day, but typically involved times of the day when I wouldn’t otherwise be called into meetings. I didn’t have to negotiate with anyone else’s schedule to make this possible. But now, I’m time-boxed at a working pretty strict 9 to 5. The two parts of my day that used to be guaranteed productivity (that’s to say, early morning and late evening) have completely dissolved into mandatory baby duties. Today, if I want Deep Work, I need to declare it. And, at least for now, it’s always going to impact someone other than myself: My husband, my baby, my colleagues. If we’re being honest, probably all three.

A Path Forward

I didn’t write an essay on this topic just so I could point to this as an excuse anytime someone asks me about the status of a project at work. For many of us, 2020 will be forever known as the year we all had to pull through something tricky, one way or another. We’re all getting by, with whatever version of life COVID crazy has had in store for us. I wrote this because I wanted to share my own. (By the way, in case you’re wondering how I had time to write this essay, it’s taken me at least 3 “shallow work” sessions in between weekend naptimes to make this happen.)

So, to all the other new moms out there: This is hard stuff. Lockdown life, when it’s scary to bring a nanny or baby-sitter into your own home, only makes it harder. And if you’re reading this right now, and some of this resonates with you — or if you’ve developed any other “new mom WFH hacks” of your own — please share them below. I’m open to any and all ideas for how to get even better at this new operating mode. Now, please excuse me while I go find my breast pump.

Originally published at Dry Erase.

GM @USV, alum of @StackOverflow and @NorthwesternU, board member at @CompSci_High and @NUalumni, co-founder of #BeyondCodingNYC

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