Have a Baby and Still Want to Get Things Done?

Embrace the ‘split shift,’ focus on high-value tasks and, above all, lower your standards.

By Laura Vanderkam


  • Embrace the “split shift” — flexibility matters more than total hours worked.
  • Make the most of your mornings — anything that has to happen probably should happen first.
  • Choose child care that supports your life — long term, this is an investment in career and life satisfaction.
  • Plan for things to go wrong — true time-management masters understand that life happens.
  • Work at or above your pay grade — don’t waste time on things that don’t advance you toward your goals.

Shortly after having the first of my four children 12 years ago, I encountered the sociologist Arlie Hochschild’s famous line about mothers in dual-income households: “These women talked about sleep the way a hungry person talks about food.”

On parenting blogs and in mainstream publications, much of what is written about working parents and time is profoundly negative. Bleak headlines — often based on dubious data — abound. For instance, after a 2014 survey found that moms had just 17 minutes of “me time” per day, it was reported in dozens of outlets. The poll, commissioned by a British furniture retailer, was hardly rigorous or scientific, but the figure nevertheless pops up in writing on the subject to this day.

Having studied thousands of time logs for my books, and having tracked my own time for four straight years, I’m inclined to believe that while stressful moments happen, it’s possible to fit work, family time, sleep and leisure into the 168 hours we all have each week. A few strategies can help working parents feel less busy while getting more done.


Embrace the “split shift.”

Some children (e.g. mine) don’t sleep much, but many babies and toddlers go to bed early. This presents a problem for working parents whose jobs require longer hours. Get home at 6:30 p.m. and you might have only 30 minutes with your children. But if your job has some flexibility, you could leave the office before all the work is done (at, say, 5 p.m.) and then do more work at night after your kids go to bed. By splitting your shift, you trade off work time for TV time, as opposed to work time for family time.

A few years ago, I collected time diaries from 1,001 days in the lives of women with both professional jobs and children at home. I found that about half the women I studied worked this “split shift” at least once a week. People who made extensive use of the split shift could work 50-plus hours per week, yet still preserve family time.

One caution from split-shift veterans: Treat the night shift with the same intention as other work. You won’t clear a 1,000-email backlog from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., and you won’t from 8:30 p.m. to 10 p.m. either. Lori Mihalich-Levin, a partner at the global law firm Dentons and the founder of Mindful Return, which runs courses for new working parents, sets an Outlook appointment for 9 p.m. for her split-shift tasks. “It then pops up right when I’m ready to sit down and work, so I don’t get sidetracked on my priorities for the evening,” she said.

A side note: There’s evidence that some men perceived as clocking long hours work this split shift and just don’t tell people that’s what they’re doing. They let emails sent at 9:30 p.m. be interpreted as evidence of having worked straight through.

Make the most of your mornings.
Mornings set the tone for the rest of the day. Since young children often wake early, you can choose to view the hours before work as family time, and play or read stories with your kids, and have family breakfast (a great substitute for family dinner if that’s tough to pull off). You can also tackle personal priorities during this time when most people have the most energy; one white paper from the Johnson & Johnson Human Performance Institute found that a higher proportion of people reported feeling an eight or above on a 10-point scale rating their energy levels before work and at the beginning of the work day than reported such levels later on in the day.
If you can trade off with a partner, you could run outside twice a week. If your children rise at a predictable time, you can get up before them and run on a treadmill or do a yoga video. Sarah Hart-Unger, a Florida-based physician and mother of three (and my co-host on the Best of Both Worlds podcast), said: “I feel so much better when I use my early mornings to plan my day and get in exercise — a priority for me that becomes infinitely more difficult to fit in later in the day. If I’ve gotten in a workout and spent 15 minutes planning out the rest of the day, I feel like I’m on the offensive and set up for success. I may not be able to control everything that comes next, but I’ve set myself up to have the best chance of accomplishing what I want to.”

Choose child care that supports your life.

High quality child care is expensive, but it means you can focus and work more predictably, which boosts income over time. Track your time (and ask your partner, if you have one, to track his or her time) for a few weeks so you can be realistic about how many hours of care you need. If you and your partner regularly have work commitments at 8 a.m., choosing a day care that opens at 8 a.m. will result in more time stress than one that opens earlier. A day care located by one parent’s workplace will be convenient, but also means that parent will always do the drop-off and pickup. The other parent may need to do something else to equalize time commitments.

Hiring in-home child care (i.e. a nanny) can make morning and evening routines easier, and an employee might be able to take on errands and household tasks, thus freeing up parental time. Payroll services can help you set up systems for withholding taxes. However, nannies can’t work excessive hours; in my time-diary study, I found that many families with two big careers “stacked” child care coverage to get the hours they needed to support their career requirements. They would host an au pair and put their children in part-time day care or employ a full-time nanny for 40 hours and enroll a child in preschool. Mihalich-Levin suggests hiring neighborhood teenagers to come over on weekends for an hour or two while you are home, so that you (and your partner, if you have one) can tackle domestic tasks that are more challenging with toddlers underfoot.

Plan for things to go wrong.

Life happens. Many new parents are surprised by how frequently young children get sick; children with stomach bugs and fevers can’t go to day care. Nannies can care for moderately sick children, but nannies can get sick or have family emergencies too. Parents catch the same illnesses as their children. Bad weather can close day cares and schools. Even someone who’s never missed a day of work before kids is likely to need a lot of paid time off (and sometimes, unfortunately, unpaid time off) in the first years of parenthood. It’s possible to keep from falling behind, but you need a plan. Which parent covers which sick days? Some families alternate weeks each parent is “on call.” Maybe one parent’s job is more flexible, but how will you ensure that parent still has enough time to work? Who could serve as backup care in the event a regular caregiver can’t work? Kate Muller, a Seattle-based global health communications professional, reports that her family joined a backup nanny service in which a membership fee secured access to a group of screened, insured caregivers. “It was pricey, but really worth it for the week-plus our regular nanny had pneumonia, and neither my husband or I could stay home with our (healthy) baby for that length of time,” she said.

At work, set weekly priorities (I plan my weeks on Friday afternoons) and schedule as many of these priorities for the beginning of the week as possible. That way, you’ve either accomplished these goals before the emergencies happen, or if the emergencies happen on Monday, you have the rest of the week to try again. Leave plenty of open space. When kids are in the picture, it’s more challenging to make up for a backlog at night and on weekends.

Focus on high-value activities.

Parents and non-parents all have the same 168 hours per week, but parenthood creates enough time demands that hours can feel in short supply. Smart time management means focusing on the highest impact activities both at work and at home. Lauren Smith Brody, a former executive editor at Glamour magazine, and founder of The Fifth Trimester, which guides parents and companies through the months after parental leave, said, “It’s really about spending time on things that are at or above your pay grade.” At work, many parents “take on lesser tasks they shouldn’t and once you’re a parent that’s unsustainable,” she said. “Do not do things that don’t add value just because you feel like you are ‘supposed to’ or because you did them years ago in your previous role.”

This applies at home as well. Time spent reading and playing with kids is more valuable than maintaining a daily vacuuming schedule. Simple meals will suffice. Outsourcing chores costs money, but it doesn’t cost anything to lower your standards. So that’s an option anyone can try.

Laura Vanderkam is the author of “I Know How She Does It: How Successful Women Make the Most of Their Time” (Portfolio, 2015), and “Juliet’s School of Possibilities” (Portfolio, 2019).