Posted in Blog

How Do You Move from Thinking Operationally to Strategically?

A colleague recently asked me this question, and I’ve been reflecting on my answer. It’s a good one that I’ve never asked someone else before nor thought about conscientiously.

I feel like my comfort zone, especially in this shelter-in-place time with no childcare while working from home, is to just focus on daily operations. Make a reasonable to-do list of the work that has to be done today and get it done. But, my role on projects and as a consultant is to be strategic and support my clients in developing and delivering on a strategy every day. I need to see the forest and the trees. How do I make sure the strategy isn’t forgotten?

First, let me define how I use the terms operationally and strategically in this context. Operations is the trees, the work that needs to get done now for the deliverable that’s coming due soon. It may include teamwork, doing the work myself, or collaborating with others, but it is focused on keeping the project moving forward. Strategy relates to the forest and thinking about the big picture, like ensuring the project team is solving the real problem, involving the right people, and anticipating how to overcome obstacles.

Now, some strategic work is built into project management tasks. Just the act of creating a project plan with a work breakdown structure, schedule, budget, staffing plan, etc. leads to the need for a strategy. It’s also not uncommon to analyze financial reports, create risk mitigation plans, and make adjustments based on what is learned throughout the project, which may cause you to tweak your larger plans.

Here are some concrete ways I’ve expanded beyond daily operations to think more strategically about my work. These tiny, regular habits have impacted how I approach all of my work.

Tip 1: Schedule Time for It on Your Calendar

I set aside 30 minutes a week on a Friday afternoon to schedule my work to dos for the next week. I block out time in my calendar to focus on major deliverables across projects and schedule meetings with people I know I need to coordinate with to improve the work. Although this practice is rather tactical, it’s also at this time that I’m asking myself what to anticipate for each project, what risks exist that may throw off the plan, and what can I do to mitigate any risks.

Tip 2: Delegate

Delegation is an age-old tip, but I had to make this practice a daily part of my work processes for it to occur more often. I’ve done this by adding “What can you delegate?” to my daily to-do list. By asking myself this question, I’ve added a forcing mechanism that allows me to support other’s professional development, offload work that I really shouldn’t be doing at my level anymore (even if I’ve done it before for years), and frees up my brain for more strategic work.

To delegate, though, you need someone who is available to take on the work. That’s not always easy if you don’t have people who report directly to you, so it comes from fostering relationships on your project teams to understand everyone’s strengths and weaknesses, figure out what their professional development goals are and how you can support them, and then build a network you can access over time. The bonus is that this network can also help you find professional development opportunities too.

Tip 3: Constantly Communicate and Connect Others

I’ve made it a habit every time I finish a meeting, read an email, or conclude a phone call to think about what I learned and who else needs to have the information. I’m trying to think about how information relates to each other, how the people connected to the project work together, and what impacts there will be based on what I just learned.

Now, I’m certainly not trying to overload people’s inboxes with unnecessary information. Instead, I’m trying to connect people. For example, if we’re updating a training course that’s based on a policy we’re rewriting, then I need to make sure the training team knows when the policy changes. If I suspect more changes late in the development cycle, then I need to make sure leadership knows of the risks and impacts and come up with a plan to help mitigate the risks.

Alternatively, if I’m in a meeting and learn about a new innovation another project has adopted, I’m thinking about how it will benefit my other clients. I then have to add items to my to-do list to make sure I follow-up on those thoughts or they will escape my brain, never to be thought about again. I live and die by what’s on my to-do list.

I think it’s important to conclude that during this turbulent time in our work lives and careers, that it may be difficult or impossible to think about long-term strategy in the same way or as frequently. But, if you want to add more strategic thought to your work, then I suggest developing tiny, regular habits like these examples I provided. They don’t have to be the same habits because they have to work for you, your workflow, and your needs. Once they become habits, though, you won’t have to think twice about it.

Photo by Anastasia Petrova on Unsplash

Posted in Blog

“You Do You” – My Motto for the Latest (and Every) Parenting War

I see it starting now: another great debate for parents to fall into camps regarding how to “best” raise their children. When schools starting closing a couple of weeks ago, it started. There have been articles all over my newsfeeds claiming how parents should approach homeschooling their kids during the coronavirus shutdown.

One side of the divide is to just focus on play and not worry about educational activities. Teachers are professionals, and they will catch students up when they return to school. Focus on making family memories and having kids feel safe and emotionally secure during this turbulent time. Academics will come later.

The other side of the spectrum includes a focus on academics. There are articles advocating color-coded schedules, sharing lesson plans, and talking about the benefits of creating academic structure. These parents have scoured the Internet for educational activities to keep their children on track academically. They may come across as too rigid and inflexible during this unprecedented time.

I just want to put this out there now, before the flames of this debate ignite, that parents need to do what works for them. Find what your normal looks like right now. We’re all battling different needs, ranging from the needs of others (kids/parents/employees/employers/etc.) to our needs (don’t forget about yourself).

Ultimately, come up with something that works for you and your family. Give yourself some grace. Recognize that what may work for you this week isn’t necessary going to work for you in a month. Try to roll with it.

I think many of these articles touting how to handle this situation are trying to offer support. If you’re overwhelming yourself searching for ways to educate your kids or up late at night thinking of ways to teach Timmy how to grasp common core math, then cut yourself some slack. On the other hand, if you’re unsure of what you can do to support your kids so they’re not watching TV or playing video games all day every day, there are articles offering ideas and schedules for your consideration.

Although my personality certainly leads toward structure in an effort to save my sanity, I’m trying to be flexible and follow my children’s needs. I typically work in some activity or lesson (requiring very little prep and low stress) with my kids sometime between 8am and 10am every Monday through Friday. (Support from my kids’ schools is now rolling in and supplementing whatever I plan for the day.) One day this week Mr. 4-year-old wouldn’t have it. He took off to build a train track instead. I let him go, called it a STEM activity, and focused on supporting Mr. 7-year-old one-on-one instead. Last Friday, I wanted my house cleaned. It’s irrational and not REALLY necessary, but I wanted it done. So, we spent 30 minutes working on schoolwork and then worked as a team to tackle the cleaning to-dos.

Ultimately, each day I’m trying to focus on being present with the kids sneaking educational activities into play. I’m trying to take Mr. 7-year-old’s advice that he wrote on our driveway earlier this week: HAVE FUN! I think, from the kids’ perspectives anyway, that it’s working. Mr. 7-year-old notes in his homeschool journal almost every day that he’s happy. That’s success enough for me right now.

Posted in Blog

The New Normal: Our Coronavirus Isolation Schedule With Young Kids and Working From Home

I’m always interested in the details of others’ daily routines because there’s always something new I can tweak in my schedule by learning from others. Assuming others might be like me or just be curious, here’s our newest normal.

My husband and I are both authorized and encouraged to work from home for at least the next severals weeks (thank goodness!), so we get to tag team Mr. 4-year-old and Mr. 7-year-old. We tradeoff two-hour shifts and aim to maintain some flexibility as work calls and issues come up. Here’s the nitty gritty.

6am – 8am – I’m still getting up to an alarm just to get a few hours of work in before others start to stir. As much as I hate waking up to the beep of an alarm, I love having the quiet time for deep work, without IMs, emails, and other distractions. The kids wake up at some point during this time and play ABC Mouse.

8am – 10am – My husband logs into work while the kids and I eat, get dressed, and sit down to tackle whatever my one big learning activity is for the day. This is when reading and writing occur because I’ve already learned Mr. 7-year-old is exhausted after lunch and less forgiving of his errors. We’ve researched animals and started a book documenting where they live and what they eat, read books about how the human body works and then drawn diagrams, charted the colors of a basket of Easter eggs, and played with STEM toys to learn about electricity.

10am – 12pm – I return to work to respond to emails and take meetings. My husband is with the kids, typically having them complete worksheets, running around outside, or whatever. He has his work laptop with him since he’s always on call for spontaneous needs, so he’s focused on keeping the kids occupied with self-directed activities. If he has to take a call, the kids get educational screen time with PBS Kids or ABC Mouse.

12pm – 2pm – Sometimes I rejoin the family with lunch on the table, thanks to my husband, or sometimes I’m starting this shift making food. (I’ve been having the boys take turns making sandwiches for lunch too. They love the responsibility….for now.) When the weather is nice, post-lunch is outdoor time. We play games in the backyard, take walks throughout the neighborhood, or ride bikes. If we can’t go outside, then we find indoor activities like reading, playing with Play Doh, drawing or painting, hiding Easter eggs, doing household chores, whatever.

2pm – 4pm – This time slot is essentially a repeat of 10am – 12pm.

4pm – 6pm – My husband returns to work until everything he needs to do for the day is wrapped up. I’m back with the kids keeping it low key at this point. The kids will read me stories to earn marbles. If they haven’t gotten any screen time at this point in the day, they’ll likely get some now. I also have Mr. 7-year-old write a few sentences as a journal entry about his day. I’ll aim to have dinner ready by about 6pm.

6pm – 8pm – We eat dinner and clean up as a family. The kids then get ready for bed, and we wrap up the day watching an episode of The Great British Bake Off or reading a chapter from one of the Harry Potter books.

8pm and onward – This is my time to catch up with my husband (unless he’s retired to his man cave to play video games), read the news, review emails from the kids’ schools, and read books until I pass out only to wake up and do the whole thing all over again the next day.

I have to say, being thrown this curveball of having the rest of the kids’ academic year cancelled threw me off. I might have driven my husband a bit crazy obsessing about how to create a new normal for us because I’m the kind of person who always needs a plan. I’m open to changing it as we go, but I need an idea of how things are supposed to function. For instance, we started out working half-day shifts instead of these two-hour shifts. We found that too hard to balance work and kid needs, so we switched it up to something else.

We’ll see if or how this plan will play out when Mr. 7-year-old starts official distance learning with his class in mid-April. Right now, though, I’m happy enough with this schedule. Boy do I miss my alone time though.

Photo by Emma Matthews Digital Content Production on Unsplash.

Posted in Blog

Friday Fav: Nights Off

Earlier this week I shared on social media the sad new reality of our family’s monthly calendar update for April — blank and boring while sheltering in place to combat this coronavirus.

Since about the only “event” left on the calendar are mom and dad’s nights off, it sparked some interest. Let me share these with you and how much I love them! I look forward to my night off coming around ever week.

We started these nights off when Mr. 7-year-old was a baby and it’s been a tradition ever since. The person with the night free is off the hook from making dinner, cleaning it up, and putting the kids to bed. Typically, we are free to leave the house and do whatever we please or lock ourselves in the basement and binge watch Netflix or play whatever video game.

Why once a week? It works for us. Typically we share evening duties at home, and it’s a weekly chance to take a break. I know myself. If it’s not scheduled, I’m not going to take time for myself. It’s a way I hold myself accountable.

Of course, we’re flexible. Typically there’s one Friday night a month that I get to hang out and drink wine with my neighborhood friends for ladies night, so we switch off. My husband recently took a weekend off to binge play Dungeons and Dragons, which was completely fine.

These nights off have been particularly important for my mental health now being trapped here homeschooling and working what feels like 24/7. I think I’ll use my next night off to go to bed early!

Photo by Mutzii on Unsplash

Posted in Blog

COVID-19’s Impact at Home

I had so many other posts planned for this blog, and then COVID-19 happened. My other thoughts on my favorite purchases from Costco (not toilet paper!) and ways I aim to maintain my sanity with busy schedules just don’t matter anymore or aren’t important.

In the course of a week, where we live, we’ve had all activities and events cancelled. No cub scouts, no school, no sports, no libraries, no rec centers, no travel for spring break. My monthly calendar is depressingly bare. Schools have been closed until further notice, and the rumors I’m hearing is that teachers are being told to prepare to distance teach for the rest of the year. Our school year ends in mid-June…..

So, I’m sad about this. I’m sad for my boys who don’t get to go back to school and see their friends. I’m sad for those who are or will soon be directly impacted by this virus, either sick themselves, caring for someone who is sick, or mourning the loss of someone else. I’m sad for those who are losing their jobs because restaurants, schools, and “non-essential” services are closed. And I’m tired.

Thank goodness my husband and I each have jobs that allow us to work from home, and I largely have the flexibility to work whatever hours I want. With the kids home 24/7 and with the new plan to homeschool, I’m not getting up before the sun to crank out a few hours of work. Once I drag myself out of bed, it’s kind of nice because I’m the only one awake in the house and online at that hour, so I get a lot accomplished in that block of time.

Once the kids are up, we move on to getting them ready for the day and starting school work. We’re only one week into homeschooling, and it’s very obvious that I need to do the serious school work in the AM when they are fresh. Then it’s back to work to log some hours during the work day (which typically means I’m on back-to-back calls), making dinner, and winding down for bed. My free time to unwind has evaporated.

My opinion and mood of this entire situation changes frequently, even within one day. I do enjoy spending time with the kids. They think homeschooling is great (yay, I’m doing something right!) and will hopefully look at this time as fun-filled and family focused. They have FaceTimed regularly with family and friends, and we get outside every day.

I miss my friends and going to the bathroom without someone searching or shouting for me. Quarantine for me means being surrounded by people (I love!) constantly. I’m used to significantly more alone time. My husband and I are hanging in there. It’s a change in routine for us, which neither one of us tends to love, but we’re all home and healthy. We haven’t lost sight of what’s most important. Though, I’m going to continue hoping this virus dies out quickly and normalcy returns soon.

Photo Credit: Photo by CDC on Unsplash

Posted in Blog

Making the Best of Working and Learning from Home

So, this COVID-19 business is taking over all conversation, social media, and the news. It has certainly been the focus of my attention recently because on Friday both of our sons’ schools closed until at least April 10th. Four weeks. That’s four weeks that the kids are home unexpectedly when my husband and I are still slated to be at work.

I know that we’re not unique in this situation and that schools globally are making similar decisions. Really, in many ways, we’re lucky. My husband and I are capable of working from home, and with my part-time schedule, it’s easier to fit in the work hours I need each day while simultaneously keeping the kids alive and educated. I’m fully anticipating it taking 10 hours or more to get 6 hours of actual work done though. Blargh.

This weekend, I took some time to plan out how we’re going to make this work. Mr. 7-year-old and I created a checklist of things to do each day, with a focus on reading and writing and time to fit in whatever academics the teachers eventually email us. Until we hear from the teachers, the boys made lists of topics they want to learn about, like how to stop babies from crying (???) and how marshmallows are made.

With this move to online learning for K-12 kids, a variety of companies are offering discounts and free deals to use their products. Scholastic’s Learn from Home website is one resource we plan on using, and I also downloaded the free 30-day trial of ABC Mouse. The kids tried out ABC Mouse today and loved it! When I asked them why, they mentioned the “fun activities” and “learning path” where you can track your progress and earn digital prizes.

As long as the weather cooperates, I’d like to also get the kids outside every day. I’m keeping a list of what the boys have learned during this “break.” So far, Mr. 7-year-old has learned how to catch a baseball, and Mr. 4-year-old learned how to throw a mean heater!

We’ll see how this whole working and learning from home business goes. I’m sure there will be bumps along the way, but we’ll handle it. I’m such an introvert that it’s going to be strange having people in my space all of the time. Even bathroom breaks don’t see to go uninterrupted. I thought we’d grown out of that phase…..

Posted in Blog

2020 Goals and Progress So Far

As much as I identify as a planner, I never used to be into creating personal goals and New Year resolutions. But, I gave it a try at the start of 2019 and kept it simple. I had goals to drink so many ounces of water a day, cut out evening snacks, and other small steps to lead to healthier life choices. On the whole, I stuck to the plan and am happy with the results.

I wanted to build on my momentum, so at the start of 2020 I created seven personal goals and put them in my planner. I thought about what I wanted to do outside of work that would bring me personal fulfillment that relates to myself and my family. (My professional goals are a separate list.)

Again, I kept them simple or fun. I actually want to do these, not challenge myself so much I get disappointed or feel guilty for breaking them. Here are the goals and my progress so far.

  1. Take a family trip to Florida – On the books, as long as this coronavirus business doesn’t get more out of hand.
  2. Read 25 books – I’m 18 books in already. I’ve cut out a lot of wasted time scrolling online (goodbye, Reddit app!) to read instead and “magically” found the time to devour books. I’ll probably up this goal to 50 later on, if I feel like it.
  3. Donate a set amount of money to charity – This is a fun one! Our family has been discussing what efforts we want to support but haven’t made any final decisions yet.
  4. Go on at least 25 dates with my husband, with at least four of them being to new locations – We are at least seven dates in already, mostly to restaurants. We both work from home on Wednesdays and make lunch a date by going out to eat. So far, we have tried a new Italian restaurant nearby and visited The VOID (an immersive virtual reality experience). Side note, Matt loved The VOID. I was less impressed because it was short and expensive.
  5. Complete two home projects – No progress here yet. At the very least, I want to remodel our half bath and stain our deck.
  6. Complete a 5K race – I have a couple of race options for May. I just need to pick one and register, then I know I’ll train and actually do it. I need a goal to work toward or it will never happen. I’m not super interested in running or exercising in general, but I’m a fan of being healthy.
  7. Floss daily – I have a daily habit tracker (shown above) hanging in my bathroom to remind me to floss. The visual cue is essential or I’d totally forget. I’ve only missed a few days so far!

I review these goals about once a month, just to see how I’m doing and whether I want to focus on any of them for the month. For instance, this month I know I need to actually register for a race and start training. I haven’t run a mile in ages! It should be interesting….