Tagged with Personal

Working Parents Adapting to COVID-19 - An Update

On March 17, shortly after schools and creches closed in Ireland in an effort to contain Covid-19, I wrote a post about how my wife and I were attempting to adjust to cope with the need to fit full-time childcare into our already busy schedules.

After the first 30 days (by mid-April), we needed a serious reset of our nutrition, exercise, and sleep habits. This stopped the sense of our lives spiralling out of control. However, the Irish government's May 1 announcement of its "roadmap to easing Covid-19 restrictions" put the whole situation in a new light - we potentially had to continue adapting to a lack of childcare support for months to come.

As we spent the weekend thinking through our situation, it was clear to us that the previous plan - working 6 days per week, sharing full-time childcare - just wasn't sustainable. And, as a business owner, my wife was under especially intense pressure. Even though I also had a lot going in work, with somewhat of a change in role in progress, it seemed like the right time for me to take some time off. Especially when we imagined looking back on this period in 5 years from now. We decided we must somehow carve out some more time to focus on our family.

In Ireland, we have a Parental leave entitlement - you can take up 22 weeks unpaid leave for each child before they are 12 years old. And so, working with my manager, I put together a plan for me to take 2 weeks leave in every 3 week period until mid August. We spent some time discussing how to fully offload my responsibilities and set things up so I could effectively contribute on my weeks working. I put together a document with a detailed plan including my schedule for the months ahead, and shared it with close colleages. Everyone was super supportive. My out of office would read "out of office, returning on August 17th" but those close colleagues would understand that I would be returning to work regularly, looking for ways to contribute.

By the start of June, I had completed my first 2 week period of leave and 1 super effective week back at work. The plan was working! And so too was Ireland's containment of Covid-19 working! We were due to move to "Phase 2 plus" on June 8! I took this as sign that we could start thinking about re-hiring a nanny for the kids and, sure enough, we found someone suitable and very local quite quickly.

This meant that one month after turning on my out-of-office, and 2 months before I was due to return to work full-time, I somewhat embarassingly was able to revert the parental leave plan and life at home was able to return more-or-less to normal. And life has been manageable since then.

I decided I should write this update because it's clear that many others are struggling to understand how to make their situation sustainable where - elsewhere in the world - they may be facing the prospect of a return to lockdown restrictions and schools/creches not reopening for months to come.

There are no easy answers to the conundrum of how to sustainably look after young children while continuing to work full time. Extended periods of unpaid leave is a luxury that is not available to everyone. Employing a fulltime childcare worker in your home is a luxury that is not available to everyone, or may pose too great an infection risk for some.

My one piece of advice - use a long-term view to put your situation in perspective, and be honest with yourself and your colleagues about how sustainable that situation really is. Certainly, at Red Hat, I felt confident that everyone around me would instinctively understand the need to think this way - no matter how pressing our short-term priorities might be, none of us would want a colleague to put their family under undue stress, damage their health, or risk burning themselves out. If you work in a healthy organization, then you can be sure that the organization can adjust quickly to your absence if needs be. Trust this fact, lean on it, and talk to your manager about how you can prioritize yourself and your family.


Working Parents Adapting to Social Distancing for COVID-19

I've seen all sorts of humor, tips, and ideas from folks as we all learn to cope with these strange times, but somehow I don't feel like I've had a lot of insight into the practicalities of family life for folks in a similar situation to us. So, five days into our new situation, I thought I'd share.

Who are we? We're a family of two adults with full-time jobs, two young girls (9yo and 4yo), and a recent addition of a 4 month old Miniature Schnauzer. We live in Dublin, in the coastal village of Raheny.

Usually, our kids are looked after Monday-Friday between 8.30am and 6.30pm each day (school, creche, childminder at home) and we have some outside help with housework. Lucky us! Starting Friday, March 13, we're learning to cope without any of that help, while continuing to work our two busy and responsible jobs from home.

So, last Thursday evening, we found ourselves in front of a whiteboard trying to come up with a plan. Our basic idea was:

  • We needed a predictable daily routine to keep everyone sane
  • We'd experiment with keeping that routine 7 days per week, and not adjust much at weekends - this was to avoid putting ourselves on too much daily work pressure with a strict 5 day work week
  • Each of us would get a uninterrupted chunk of 4-5 hours work time every day, either in the morning or afternoon
  • One parent at a time looking after the kids, not attempting to get any work done at the same time
  • Start every day with one of us leaving the house by 9.30am with the kids and dog, to visit any one of the local parks and beaches
  • Early to bed, early to rise - no compromising on sleep!
  • We'd carve out uninterrupted time alone for short at-home workouts

The key question each evening for the next day is which of is working in the afternoon (Parent A), and which of us is working in the morning (Parent B). With that decided, we know the routine.

Parent A Parent B
6.00 Wake up, coffee, email
7.30 Kids up, prep breakfast Work
8.00 Breakfast together
8.30 Get everyone ready,
9.30 Adventure with kids and
dog at a park or beach
11.30 Prep lunch
12.00 Lunch together
12.30 Work Housework,
free time for kids,
ideally 4yo naps!
13.30 School time
15.30 Arts & Crafts
17.00 Prep dinner
17.30 Dinner together
18.00 Housework Walk dog
18.30 Family play time
19.00 Kids: screen time, and off to bed
Parents: email on the couch?
21.00 National evening news
21.30 Chillax
22.00 Bed!

This has been working reasonably well, with some caveats:

  • The "uninterrupted" chunk of work time is your main opportunity to do anything that would be difficult to do with the kids - e.g. workouts, grocery shopping, etc.
  • We're not robots, so the schedule does flex - e.g. the snooze button is as tempting as ever, and I'm probably playing too much Minecraft with my eldest!
  • It can be hard to organize all work meetings in your chunk of work time, so we do adjust a bit for super important meetings that don't fit
  • It's only day five!

Reading back through this, it's clear this will be quite a grind if it continues for more than a few weeks. But we have so much to be grateful for, and there will be many others with far worse to deal with. Take care of yourselves!


Calm, Focused, and Deep

As part of switching gears at work from a hectic management role back to an "individual contributor" role as a software engineer, I've read a couple of books based on recommendations from friends. First, It Doesn't Have to be Crazy at work by Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson (thanks Paschal!) and, second, Deep Work by Cal Newport (thanks Fred!). Below is my attempt to summarize some key points I'm taking away from these books, if only to prove to myself that I was concentrating!


Why "deep work"?

  • The ability to quickly master hard things, and to perform at an elite level in terms of qulaity and speed, will set you apart

On choosing what to work on:

  • Deliberately work on getting better at picking what to do
  • Don't simply work on things that are easiest in the moment
  • Understanding what really matters - embrace "good enough" for the less important things
  • Drucker - "There is nothing so useless as doing efficiently that which should not be done at all"

On achieving intense focus:

  • The rate that high quality work is produced is proportional to the intensity of your focus - or "Work Accomplished = Time Spent x Intensity"
  • Aim for "Rooseveltian" style "blistering intensity"
  • You can't achieve such intensity with "residue slathering interruptions" from constant context switching
  • Spend your time and attention "in large bills, not in small change"
  • Don't let your hours become fractured with "calendar tetris" (see also "Maker's schedule")
  • Careful management of your attention as the key to a happy and fulfilling life
  • "Ruthlessly culling the shallow and painstakingly cultivating the intensity of my depth"

On a cadence for your work:

  • Work on projects in iterations - go deep, then take time to decompress
  • Finish what you started, and let new ideas wait

Embrace real downtime:

  • Downtime aids insights - Unconscious Thought Theory (UTT) establishes that some decisions are best left to your unconscious mind
  • Downtime helps recharge the energy needed for deep work - Attentional Restoration Theory (ART) establishes that - like willpower - we have a limited store of "directed attention" that needs to be recharged
  • The work that would replace downtime tends to be shallow and unimportant - if you have the capacity for, say, a maximum of 4 hours per day of intense concentration, you're not going to squeeze more focused time out of downtime

On the type of co-worker you aspire to being:

  • Aim to leave a lasting positive impression on people
  • Be a good person that others can rely on and enjoy working with
  • Set an example for others to follow

On living a good life though depth:

  • Aspire to a craftsman's work ethic - finding a connection between deep work and meaning in your life, as a path to living a good life
  • Medieval quarry workers creed from The Pragmatic Programmer
  • "We who cut mere stones must always be envisioning cathedrals"
  • The best moments occur when a person's body or mind is stretched to its limit to achieve something meaningful
  • Humans are a species that flourishes in depth and wallows in shallowness


Schedule your time:

  • Schedule large blocks of time for deep work
  • Allow the schedule to flex - the goal is not coerce your work into a rigid schedule, but rather to be thoughtful about what you are spending your time on

Work environment:

  • Work in a private office, and close the door when working deeply
  • Or, in an open office, try to set the expectation of "library rules"

Work deeply:

  • Develop your own philosophy for integrating deep work in your life - Newport describes "monastic", "bi-modal", "rhythmic", and "journalistic" styles
  • Add routines and rituals that minimize the willpower required to enter a state of unbroken concentration
  • Consider the use of "grand gestures" to help motivate you into deeper intensity of focus - I loved the story of JK Rowling finishing the last Harry Potter book in an extravagant suite in The Balmoral
  • Don't work alone, but separate the pursuit of serendipitous encounters from your efforts to think deeply
  • Try self-imposing an extremely tight deadline for some projects to force yourself into working with "blistering intensity"

The 4 disciplines of execution (4DX):

  • Focus on the wildly important - a small number of ambitious goals
  • Act on "lead measures" - new behaviours that will drive success, ultimately reflected in "lag measures"
  • Keep a compelling score card - a visualization of your progress
  • Establish a cadence of accountability - e.g. a weekly or monthly review where you examine your progress and make a plan for the coming weeks
  • Compare 4DX to OKRs to SMART goals

Embracing downtime:

  • Add a "shutdown complete" ritual to end your workday
  • Put a hard constraint on your work day - e.g. finish consistently at 5.30pm

Managing distraction, and thoughts on social media:

  • Make a daily mental practice of weaning your mind from a dependence on distraction - got a free moment? Don't pick up your phone, essentially begging it to distract you
  • Take a complete break from social media (or "distracting services", more generally) and only re-enable them as you find you need them
  • Avoid taking an "any benefit" approach to how you consider the value of these services - consider the opportunity cost, what else you could be doing instead
  • Schedule the use of these distracting services
  • Networking tools are just tools - they can be used to enhance your professional work, but you should assess their impact in terms of a small number of goals and activities in the vein of "the vital few" or the 80/20 Pareto principle

Meditate productively:

  • Try bringing your attention back again and again to a pressing problem as you are occupied physically - this requires practice
  • Avoid distractions from the problem at hand, and avoid looping on information you already know

Structure your deep thinking:

  • Identify the variables, identify the next step question, and then consolidate your gains

Set yourself a "shallow work budget":

  • What proportion of your time is acceptable to spend on "shallow work"? 20%? 50%? 80%?
  • This gives you a heuristic for saying "no" to shallow work
  • Evaluate the shallowness of your activities by how long it would take to train a bright, recent college graduate to do it
  • You should aim to reduce the amount of time spent not using your expertise


  • Fixed deadlines, but allow the scope to be reduced - "narrow as you go"
  • Break big projects up into smaller chunks - "scope hammer"
  • Use time budgets, not time estimates - "what's the best widget we can build in 2 weeks", not "how long will it take to build a widget?"

Instant messaging:

  • Realtime sometimes, async most of the time
  • If it's important, slow down
  • If everyone needs to see it, write it down

Become hard to reach:

  • Make people who send you email do more work
  • Avoid making it easy for people to rob big chunks of your time with little investment of their time
  • "Process-centric approach to email" - with your reply, consider what will bring the project represented by the email to a conclusion. Avoid bouncing back and forth
  • Develop the habit of accepting that small, bad things happen, for example if you don't reply to email. If you don't allow small, bad things to happen, then you won't leave room for good, big things

In Summary

Reject crazy, distracted, and shallow. Embrace calm, focused, and deep work.

Deep work is important simply because it enables you to get useful things done.

"I'll live the focused life because it's the best kind there is".


Dublin Marathon

Thanks to Olav, I can post here again after nearly 10 months (!). Not that I had anything to say anyway :-P

But for the past couple of months I've been writing about stuff like hiking, running and sailing on another blog and today's tidbit is that I finished my first marathon yesterday.

Happy Finisher



The Wind That Shakes the Barley

We went to see The Wind That Shakes the Barley last night. I went along expecting some Michael Collins or Braveheart romanticised brit-bashing light entertainment, but no.

This one wasn't easy to watch. It's set during the Irish War of Independence and Irish Civil War which is only now about to drop out of living memory in Ireland. The emphasis isn't so much on the fighting, but on the heartbreaking impact it had on families.

I like this comment on the IMDb page:

I saw this film at a private screening and found it difficult yet beautiful to watch.


This film is a template for what film makers can achieve with a small budget, dedicated performers and a timeless topic.


The sacrifices made 80 years ago still resonate today but the Republic of Ireland is now the third richest country in Europe. The question still debated is Was it Worth it? The question we ask is how's Scotland and Wales doing?