Making Work Work

I’ve drifted a bit lately from my larger purpose of talking about how work-at-home and full-time parenting work together and what things I’m learning.

One thing I’ve learned these last few days is that when a kid is sick the work has to be fit in around the kid. Ben has been feverish and generally just ill for the last couple of days. Right now, he and I are cozied up in a recliner in the way that he wants while I set up to evaluate some papers. Of course, I stopped to blog first because, well, I wanted to.

The notable thing, of course, is that the work doesn’t stop just because I’m at home or he’s sick. So, I work with what he’s willing to accept. Right now, I’m typing one-handed and holding onto him with the other. Would he prefer I put the computer down? Probably. Does he understand that sometimes this is the best he can have at this moment? I think so. We’ve worked on connecting my work to things he likes. You get X special thing because Mom works. If Mom didn’t work, you wouldn’t be able to have the special things.

I know some would say that what he needs most is undivided attention. I don’t essentially agree. He gets a great deal of attention, even with a baby sister. He’s started going on errands with me on the weekends, and he’s learned that it’s okay not to get to go every time. He gets to go sometimes and that seems to be enough.

Work is steady and I can’t complain. There are times when it seems like a lot of things all pile on at once. I’ve been moving back toward my “full” load slowly. I teach less than many people I know, but I’m juggling different things than others are. I know many work-at-home types are advocates for having a set work day, turning off the computer, hiring someone to watch the child, and so on.

For me, that defeats the purpose of working from home. I want to be with my kids as much as I can for as long as they want me. If they get a little less attention because I’m working while I’m with them, then I think that’s okay. Ben is most relaxed if I’m there to see things when he’s done with them.

While he’s been in the sickbed, he’s been doing a lot of building with his duplo blocks. Yesterday, he build a staircase. It was wonderful. He didn’t talk to me or really pay attention to anything but his blocks for a bit. Then said, “MomMom, look.” I looked, complimented his work, and he went back to what he was doing. He needed me in that moment, but not for the moments around them.

I do have the luxury of figuring out where and how I want to get the work down around specific deadlines. Grading is challenging, but doesn’t necessarily require the extreme concentration that some other professions may require (numbers and the IRS come to mind). I recognize that I’m extremely lucky to have a job that a love in an industry that’s stable that allows me to spend my time as I choose (at least to a degree).

There are times when I have to work and I have to lock myself in my office and let my husband handle our kids. And there are times when I’m desperate for an adult conversation. But, contrast that to this morning when I put Katie down for her nap and I get to hear Ben call, “See you later, Sunshine.” I’ll trade the adult conversation for that.

“One Year,” Priorities, and Introduction

I confess that I’ve lost some momentum this week with my One Year to an Organized Life plan. It was finals time at one of the schools I teach for and that makes for some crazy long days, very little sleep and some truly dreadful eating habits.

The good news is that grades were turned in yesterday but weren’t due until 11:59p CT tonight, so I’m early. Or, put differently, I didn’t procrastinate, which was one of the things I was supposed to be working on in the one year plan. The other good news is that the bathrooms were the target area for this month. P and I had already done a major bathroom clear out a few months ago — before Katie was born. We chose to do this because we wanted to make room for newborn diapers and all that fun stuff for the time period where she would be sleeping in our room. She didn’t sleep in there with us for too long. Maybe six weeks, and then she moved to her crib and has been happy sleeping there ever since.

I guess I’m fortunate that the procrastination thing and the bathrooms fell where they did so that I could finish strong with the course I was teaching and really work on not procrastinating my way through my work. Normally, at this time, I would be grading like a crazed woman fueled on terrible food and enough caffeine to light up a small country. I did do the bad food and caffeine but I managed to finish faster, so it all worked out well for me and I’m pleased with that.

I’ve decided to take a break from the school that just finished for a bit. I’m not as strong as I would like to be and I feel like I can’t give the students everything that they deserve right now, so I’m just not going to teach there until I feel like I can do that. It’s what’s best for me and best for the students even if it’s not necessarily best for my bank account.

I’m thinking again about doing more writing, so we may see an upsurge in talk about fiction and such things. Then again, we may not. I’m more than willing to admit that I haven’t been feeling like writing and that I need to get myself back together on that.

Having said that, I’m going to go back to staring at my beautiful daughter as she works on forward motion and getting tired enough to go to sleep.

Oh, I’ve added a couple of blogs to my blog roll, most notably, Momsomniac. She dropped by here about a week ago, we got to talking, I read her blog; she read mine, and I think she’s good people and worth the read. If you’re stopping by here to read me, you should definitely wander on over and take a look at her, too.

Technology/Review Wednesday

Today, I want to talk about to do lists. Most everyone keeps lists of various kinds and it’s important to find the best method for keeping those lists. I’ve been low-tech for years. I used to use a journal write the list in the journal and away I’d go. This worked well when I was teaching in person and seemed effective the first year or so that I was teaching online. And then Ben was old enough to make off with my lists and suddenly it didn’t seem like such a good idea as before.

I needed something smaller, more portable, and less attractive to a small guy. It also needed to be self-contained. I wouldn’t have to find a pen in order to be able to use it. I have hunted and looked and I’ve tried it all. Kathy Peel has something she calls a Daily Hit List. The form is available here. While the form kind of works, it doesn’t work super well for me because it involves paper and pen and that’s just not what I need.

I’ve tried Anxiety and that was kind of useful when combined with a written to do list. The problem there was that it doesn’t migrate to my handheld device and without the list there, it’s ultimately useless.

I’ve also tried a number of “To Do” apps for the Touch. My main objection to most of those was the fact that they did not sync with my laptop. If I can’t access to dos on my laptop then it’s just not working for me when I have to work.

I had tried Remember The Milk in the past but found it difficult to manage because it also didn’t migrate to my handheld and didn’t have a desktop application to allow me to check it without going to the website. However, recently I discovered that they had made some improvements to the product and it now has the features that I wanted before. So, my solution is Remember the Milk.

What I like about it is the fact that I can send it messages from just about anywhere and it will synchronize across multiple platforms to allow me access to my to dos from where ever I happen to be. It has a clean interface, allows me to put things on the list that happen periodically and makes sure those items appear when they’re needed. It has really simplified that part of my life and allows me to brain dump so I don’t have to remember all the minutia of my day. One of the drawbacks is that to fully utilize its functionality I have to pay for a premium account. I’m really not complaining about that. This is still not my ideal solution, but it works well enough.

My main objection to Remember the Milk is the fact that it simply refuses to sync the To Do list to my calendar To Do list on my laptop. It theoretically is supposed to be able to, but to date I have not been able to persuade it to actually do it. I’m certain it would do it with gCal, but I much prefer iCal so . . .

Ideally, I would have liked to use Evernote for this purpose because it would have centralized my stuff more thoroughly, but at this time Evernote does not allow for addition to formatted lists via the handheld platform. This element is crucial when I’m out or when I’m just not able to use my laptop. For example, when I’m feeding Katie, I can add to my lists because the handheld is *right there* and can be used onehanded whereas the laptop basically requires two handed operation. Thus, until Evernote adds that level of functionality, I will be using two programs to accomplish what I need from them.

My To Do list at this point draws from Kathy Peel in that I divide my lists into categories, which is helpful if I’m in a particular location and need to work on To Dos that are location specific. RTM also allows me to have all the items appear on one list for the day which is helpful when I’m simply trying to work my way through my list.

Overall, if you haven’t tried Remember the Milk, or you tried it but weren’t impressed, I’d say give it another try. It works particularly well for someone who works online and has an extremely active day.

The Absent Minded Professor’s Organizer

We all hear the stories about the absent minded professor. You know the one, the man (or woman) who knows all about his/her obscure field but can’t find a lightbulb in his/her own lamp. I’m not quite that bad, but I have a horrible habit of collecting links and getting bookmark pages that look more like phonebooks than organized areas. I’ve tried a million different methods for organizing links and I’ve finally found the answer.

And, best of all, it does more than organize links. You can keep lists, quotes, etc., etc., etc., and be able to find it all again. What is this wonder method you ask?

Evernote.

Hands down this is the best bookmarking system I’ve ever used. It is web based, but it has a local client for your computer AND for most handheld devices (currently, iPhones, iPod Touch, and Windows Mobile devices, but they’re coming for the rest of you SOON). All of these are synced together so that the site you clip on your computer will be available on your phone and vice versa. You can tag all of your notes so you can find them again. You can organize into notebooks, so similar things are put together.

For example, I have one notebook for each school I teach for. When I come across something useful for a specific course, I clip the site (using the really useful bookmarklet thingy that sits on my bookmark bar in Safari), tag it with the course number and put it in the appropriate notebook. I keep notebooks for each of my children and, again, can drop the appropriate information in each child’s notebook. For Ben, there are numerous links to sources for art supplies, cool little boy’s clothes (and we all know how hard those are to find), and links to some of his favorite websites (why yes, at three my son has favorite websites, doesn’t everyone?).

I also keep useful webpages I’ve come across with information on just about anything. I keep a whole collection of recipes that I’ve seen and think I want to try from the web.

The beauty is that with the tag system I can keep track of WHY I bookmarked the site, which has been my downfall with just using the bookmark feature in my web browser.

What makes Evernote a standout, to me, is the functionality and availability across multiple platforms. However, it’s not perfect. The two things that I don’t like about it?

1) You cannot edit to do lists on the phone versions. You can check things off, but you can’t add to the list. This is obviously problematic for people who get things to add to a to do list away from their computer. Say, when you’re in a doctor’s office and you’ve just been told to make X phone call or Y prescription drop. It’s something I hope to see in the future.

2) On the mobile version, you lose the notebook organization, and I find it difficult to navigate the tags there. Sometimes I need to be reminded of something, but I can’t figure out what it was called, so I can’t find it on the mobile.

However, those two limitations are just not enough to dissuade me from using it. I love it and it has totally changed the way that I approach looking at websites and organizing information.

Saving My Sanity One Program At a Time

I’m the first to admit that I’m a big ole tech geek. I love technology and I’m convinced that there is always a program out there somewhere that can help me with my work or my life or both. All I need to do is find the right program for the right purpose and then USE it. 

Today, I want to talk about TextExpander. This is a program for the mac that does the same basic thing that macros do in Windows. You enter something that you tend to type repetitively (say the school policy on participation, for example) and give that sentence or paragraph a name. I use a delimiter at the end to indicate this is what I want you to do, and when I type in that name with the delimiter, voila, the whole paragraph appears in place of the word.

This saves me a significant amount of grading time and allows me to concentrate on the actual issues in a student’s paper rather than on the grammar lessons or policy errors that a student may have made. You can use this in other areas as well. For example, if frequently write notes or letters on your computer, you can have portions of text that you use frequently (say, a my name is and my issue is type sentence) programmed into Text Expander and you’ll be able to save some time.

There is a Window’s based version of this program known as Shortkeys. It works in much the same way as TextExpander and also works in basically all programs.

Shortkeys

Back to Work I Go

So, now I am back at work and I’m thinking, hard, about how I use my time and what gets my attention when I’m working. I’m working on my focus and trying to make sure that I approach one task at a time. I’m also putting more thought into the tools that I use to accomplish my work.

The two main pieces of hardware that I use are a laptop and a handheld device. In my case, these are a Macbook Pro and an iPod Touch. I plan to upgrade, at some point, to an iPhone and eliminate my separate cell phone, but for now, I can’t quite justify the cost. I’ve used a desktop in the past, and there is a PC desktop on the credenza behind me, but it doesn’t get a great deal of use. Because of the kids, it is so much easier to work from a laptop because I’m not tied to a location.

Ben is the kind of kid who likes to play on his own and just show me what he’s doing. He doesn’t like or want a great deal of input from me when he’s putting things together or working on, so I can sit right near him and work while he plays and he’s perfectly happy so long as I will close up the laptop the second that he wants some attention. How this will work with Katie, I don’t know. Her interactive periods are quite short right now, and I know they’ll get longer as the year progresses, so we’ll see what happens as the year progresses.

Sick Days

Generally speaking, sick days are something that I’ve heard about, but about which I know little. The life of an online adjunct is such that even if you’re sick, you need to find a way to work because, well, that’s what’s expected of you.

Most schools require a minimum of five days of participation during the week. One school I work for requires six days of participation — this is defined as posting and responding on the discussion board. Grading and posting grades do not count toward your participation in a course. It generally takes a minimum of two hours to read through all of the postings for a given day and to plan my responses to those posts. Most of the time, this works just fine and all is right with the world.

However, on a day like today, this would not work. I’m just grateful that we haven’t started the term yet. Today, Ben is sick. He is sniffly, coughing, congested, and generally not feeling well. He pretty much wants to eat and rest on the couch. Given that he’s really energetic, this is a little startling.

Katie didn’t eat much for breakfast and is back asleep now. She’s been cranky for the last day or so.

I have taken a Benedryl to try to forestall the worst of how I’m feeling. We’ll see if that works.

The thing is that students often argue that faculty don’t understand the pressures of balancing family life with school. I would argue that we are working from two sides of the same coin. My performance in the classroom is evaluated, just as their performance is, the difference is that the coin in my realm is continued employment, while they earn a grade.

So, what do I do when I’m faced with a sick day and it’s a day where I need to be productive?

  1. I check my email as soon as my eyes can focus and respond to any immediate concerns.
  2. I check the q and a areas in my course rooms looking for any problems.
  3. I make sure all sick parties have received necessary medications and are ensconced in their respective places with appropriate quiet entertainment. For Ben, that’s the couch under blankets with a cup of water, his lovey, a stuffed puppy, some books, and the Disney channel.
  4. I figure out a simple lunch that we will hopefully find palatable (did I mention that Ben is a super-picky eater?)
  5. I grade the minimum number of items to meet my “quota” for the day.
  6. I rest as much as possible (5 and 6 often conflict with each other).

Does this always work? Nope. Do I always try to make it work? Yes. It’s hardest when I’m the only one sick because Ben is really high energy. It’s more convenient if he and I are both sick at the same time. Sad that I look forward to those days, but that’s reality.

Time Off and Laundry

It’s weird to be off for as long as I have. I haven’t taught anyone (except Ben) anything since November 10. I finished course development work on the 16th of November and gave birth to Katie on the 17th of November. I’m starting to work on my organizational plan for the first term back because I know I’m going to have to have one. People look at what I do and think it’s fabulous because I can “do it whenever I want.” This is not precisely true.

Every place I work has deadlines inherent in their scheduling. This includes my house. Thinking about schools, though, they usually have two separate deadlines. One they call the “best practice” deadline and one that is the absolute, we’ll be calling your house if you don’t have things up deadline. The best practice deadline is not always, in my opinion, realistic for the kinds of classes that I teach, but it works to at least increase the stress levels for the instructors and make us work that much harder to attempt to meet them.

So, I’m spending this last week of downtime attempting to craft my organizational plan for returning to work while still in recovery from a rather difficult birth experience. I’ve learned a great deal about the frailty of the human body and what happens when it actually reaches its legitimate limits.

I’m also doing laundry. Somehow, we’d forgotten just how much laundry a newborn can generate. Today, she had a diaper that suffered “epic fail” and soaked everything within a few feet of her, poor child. However, laundry is spinning and I’m going to make more of my favorite fudge (Nigella Lawson’s fudge from Nigella Express). I use semi-sweet chocolate, sweetened condensed milk, and good vanilla. Melt it all together. Pour into a 9 x 9 square pan lined with parchment paper. Cool. Cut. Freeze. Use as a pick me up whenever the grading starts to get me down (or the really late nights with a very small girl).

Who Am I?

I am a mom who works as an adjunct English instructor for a couple of different online institutions. I don’t think my profession is particularly unusual, but I do think that I have something interesting to say about combining work at home activities and stay at home mom stuff. It’s a busy life, but it’s mine and I love it.

I have a supportive husband, two kids — a three year old boy and six week old girl — and two dogs. I also have parents and in-laws living in close proximity who are health compromised. 

I envision this blog as a space to ruminate on how I schedule my work around my family; the tools that I use; the domestic endeavors that I undertake, and so on. There may be recipes and discussions of crafting projects that I undertake.