Working on the Fringe When You Can’t Roll in the Deep

It’s 7:30am on a Saturday and I’m sitting in an old camping chair, sun beating down on a crisp fall morning, watching my son warm up for his flag football game. I’m sitting as far away from the noise of the boys as possible, drinking coffee and trying to write a paper in response to all of the reading I’ve done this week for a class I’m taking. The reading has come easily. I can squeeze it in between meetings, over breakfast, at night when the house is quiet, or sitting in the car waiting to pick up the kids from one thing or another. I can process what I read in those short bursts of learning – underlining notes, writing in margins, thinking deeply before the spell is broken by a child or a dog or a coworker. The reading is truly the easy part.

It’s the writing that gets me. The writing requires deeper thought, more time and mental space. Mental space that I just do not seem to have. At least not in sizeable chunks like I would need to string 750 words together into coherence. But moments like these, during football warm ups in the sun, inspiration strikes and I am happy to have my composition book tucked into my pocket, ready to capture all of my words and thoughts for transfer to the computer later (during a moment of time but perhaps not peace, when I can do the menial simplistic task of typing).

Even after four weeks of practicing deep work, “the serious efforts that produce things the world values,” as Cal Newport defines it, working in this way continues to be a deep struggle. The desire for uninterrupted stretches of time continues to grow against a constant onslaught of requests and requirements from the world and people around me. During my workday as a college professor, I am able to create focused chunks of time for grading papers, advising students, and adding new content to my courses. These chunks are easily blocked out in my schedule, adhering to Newport’s “Bimodal Philosophy,” where time is divided between deep work and other more shallow tasks. There are times set aside where my door is closed, email is shut off, and I can dig into the deep work of providing feedback to my students. These are my most productive times, Monday through Friday, in the heart of each day. I have the physical space and the ability to shut out interruptions. And deep work does get accomplished.

But once that 2:30 school bell rings, and the kids are released from their own daily grind, large blocks of time are rare. In the afternoons my strategy for deep work follows Newport’s “Journalistic Philosophy,” switching into deep work mode at a moment’s notice, whenever and wherever that moment might suddenly present itself. It helps to identify these opportunities ahead of time when planning out my week, or at least anticipating where and when they might occur. And of course it helps to always be prepared, with a notebook and pen shoved into my purse, “just in case.”

In her 2015 book, Jessica Turner describes these tiny slices of time that pop up in a busy, working mother’s day, as “Fringe Hours.” The fringe hours are “those little pockets of time throughout the day that often go underused or are wasted altogether.” She continues, “when fringe hours are recognized for their collective potential and leveraged for pursuing passions, life change can happen.” For me, these fringe hours are the only time that my graduate course homework can be completed – when the kids are involved with homework, sports, or their own hobbies. I keep an eye out for these moments when I can steal away and get something done, crossing micro-items of reading, viewing, and writing. In order to successfully maximize the potential of these times, I need a clear vision of what it is I am trying to accomplish. I rely on a structured, itemized to do list which quickly gives me a glimpse of what needs to be done, by when, and how much time it will consume. This enables me to chip away at the work, slowly but steadily, until the larger project is completed.

There is no one way to balance your work and home lives, and in fact balance may very well be impossible. It’s more likely that at any given point you’re leaning to one side or the other – focusing on career or focusing on family. It’s a constantly shifting, constantly evolving arrangement of time. Priorities change from season to season, with each growing age of your children, with each new activity they add (or remove) from your daily schedule. Therefore it’s essential to understand how to manage your time in ways that create opportunities for your own growth and development, your own “deep work.” As mothers we owe it to our kids to continue to learn and evolve, and we owe it to ourselves too. It’s important to take a moment and evaluate how and where we might get our work done, and make a plan for how we’re going to do it. Blocking off time as needed, and filling in those fringe hours with meaningful activities whenever possible. It’s the only way to get anything done in our busy bustle of the child raising years.

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