The Productivity Myth: How My To-Do List Haunts Me During Distance-Learning

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Every morning starts the same way. I wake up before my children and brew a round of delicious, warm coffee. I breathe in the energy of a Pacific Northwest morning, and I meditate on the wonderful day that awaits me. With all these hours of at-home learning and more flexible schedules, it feels we can conquer the world.

Sometimes, I even make a list of my goals before my small humans surface. Today’s example: write two articles, attend three conference calls, make blueberry pancakes using hand-milled almond flour, take my children on a scenic hike to collect local plants for later study, go on a 6-mile run, and sew myself a capsule wardrobe using only sustainably-harvested organic cottons.

What a glorious list; I can’t wait to start the day.

To do list, journal, coffeeI open my journal for some reflective time in the calm quiet of morning. Sigh. These are such challenging times, I should start a gratitude journal; I am thankful for so many things despite the world falling apart around us.

My youngest stirs from her slumber, looking at me through half-opened eyes: “Mom,” she mumbles, “Can I have some tacos?”

Oh, what a love. She experiences a rude awakening as I explain that we don’t have tacos for breakfast. Tears ensue. No problem, none at all. Let’s scrap this gratitude task and start our day! Good timing, too, as I spot my second-oldest is emerging from his lair.

“Hi, honey!” I exclaim, and, suddenly aware of the time, I realize online classes somehow start in just 40 minutes. “Would you like some breakfast?”

“I don’t want to deal with any of this; I hate online school,” he growls, as he drops onto the couch and falls back asleep.

So much joy in his heart on this wonderful day. I make a mental note to include this moment in the gratitude journal that I will certainly start tomorrow.

Looks like it’s time to wake up the other two kids so we can all prepare for our day of family togetherness. Hand-milled almond-flour blueberry pancakes, amirite? There’s still time.

blueberry pancakesOne of them refuses to wake up and the other won’t put on pants, hindering our collective progress. The youngest is still a little teary about the tacos and, as the pantsless one helps himself to a bowl of Rice Krispies, she requests some, as well. Yes, cereal is great; we can do pancakes tomorrow right after the gratitude journal.

The kid on the couch is still deep in sleep when I realize it’s somehow now two minutes to log-in time, so my voice gets a little shrieky as I ask him why he is sleeping. “It’s time log in!”

He stumbles and grumbles to the desk, getting online a moment behind schedule and with the camera off, suddenly self-conscious about his bedhead situation.

Two more kids still need to log in and we’re batting 50% for those who have put food in their stomachs, but I plop them in front of their devices all the same. The two who ate apparently left their bowls on the table; it looks like the dog is now helping himself to leftovers. I will get to that in a minute; I am busy helping one of the kids with login troubleshooting. The child without pants still remains without pants.

Ok! Yes, three kids are all logged in and the dog only toppled over one bowl in the process. I’ve got the youngest set up with a craft project that she can manage fairly independently. All four kids are engaged and doing their thing.

Ahhh… this is a magical moment. Who ever said online learning was difficult? The kids are learning from the comfort of their own home! I might even re-heat my coffee in celebration.

Time for me to get cracking on that first article, the top item on my list. The one that is due in about 24 hours. I know what I want to say, just need the time to write it…

“Moooommmmm!!” yells one of the kids from the other room. I can’t even tell them apart anymore in the blur. “My headphones are broken!”

Quick jump up to fix that situation, no sweat! Yep, all taken care of now, fantastic. As I slink away, my teenager asks for help with his math homework.

Ten minutes later, he has all the evidence he needs that he is smarter than me. I had been hoping to make it a few more years. I will be sure to make note in my journal of how grateful I am to have made it this far.

I settle back in front of the computer and peek at my email to see 423 messages letting me know assignments were submitted or schedules have been modified. Check, check, check, ok… a quick skim reassures me everyone is mostly on-task. Oh, except this one, here, from the school counselor about discussing strategies to help one of my kids focus during online learning. I make a mental note to respond.

Rut right now, the youngest is frustrated because she doesn’t know how to use scissors yet. Wonderful to have this opportunity at home to share life skills with her! Another entry in the gratitude journal.

It turns out that teaching a lefty to cut with scissors is new to me and more challenging than I had thought. We persevere, trying to cut out the fancy leaf she just made from a template I downloaded at midnight. Leaf-cutting requires more than entry-level scissors skills can handle; I take over so she can continue onward with next steps.

“Mom! Am I done for the day?” yells the nine-year-old from his Chromebook, who still has three live sessions to attend and a sea of work remaining on Seesaw.

It’s 9:30 a.m.

“Um… no.” I answer from the other room, still cutting out the leaves, mulling over the emails, and working on my article in my mind. My various mental notes are now morphing into a second to-do list I have started alongside my initial goals for the day.

“What do I have next???” he asks.

“Look at your schedule,” I say cheerily, hoping my enthusiasm spills over into his class meeting, as he rolls his eyes at me.

Is it already time for the breaks and the transitioning of 2/3 of my online-learners?

Welp, now it’s 9:45 and my conference call is at 10:00, and I need to swap duties with the husband who has been hiding in a quiet room so he can hold his own early morning calls.

Hustle, hustle over to the other room, still cutting out the leaf shape, as I set up my computer and ask the husband to emerge for child management. It took some complicated coordination well ahead of time to allow me 30 uninterrupted minutes, as this call is being recorded.

Thirty minutes later I emerge with a longer list of work-related tasks and I still have not started the capsule wardrobe. I will also have to put my family guided botanical hike on the backburner, as the article deadline is now several hours nearer and, somehow, I have not made any progress towards getting my thoughts on “paper.”

“Mom!” says the pantsless one, “This room is freezing!”

“Mama???” asks my daughter, “Can you help me glue the leaves?”

“Hey, Mom,” chips in my teen, “We’re out of milk.”

“Mom,” says the fourth-grader, again, “Am I done for the day?”

It’s 10:30.

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Lee Ann
Lee Ann moved to Portland in 2008 following an eight-year stint in Paris, France, where her first son was born. Though she thought nowhere could compete with the City of Lights, the City of Roses immediately stole her heart. As a great place to raise kids, she loves getting out and exploring the city and region with her husband and four young children. While in France, Lee Ann earned a B.A. in Journalism and a Master's in Linguistics at the American University of Paris and L'Universite de Paris - La Sorbonne, respectively, before returning stateside to become a Speech-Language Pathologist through the Portland State University graduate program. Throughout her studies, she kept one foot in the digital world, writing content for publications and creating websites for clients. After many years as a medical Speech Pathologist, she left to the field to continue freelance writing, become the owner of Portland Mom Collective (!), and eventually to open Make + Take Studio, a community crafting space in North Portland. As a small business owner and mother, she strives to get some occasional "me" time in, which she likes to spend geocaching, jogging, sewing, and staring at the wall with no small humans talking to her. Get in touch by sending a note to leeann {at} portlandmomcollective {dot} com, or follow her on Instagram.

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