Tips for Working from Home with Young Children
Balancing your kids and your occupation.
Posted March 23, 2020
What does it mean to work from home?
It feels like we have two sets of bosses now, right? The kids and who we report to for work.
This piece and the corresponding document at the end empowers parents to pursue careers without compromising parenthood. What does it mean to work from home in tandem with a child/children? You are taking on the grand task of being a caretaker and educator while maintaining a career.
Think about what that means; it is truly an accomplishment.
Topic 1: Finding the time to work from home — scheduling tips
Set expectations accordingly (with yourself and others). Do some micro project management. Do not commit yourself to five days-worth of work when you only have five hours a week. Be honest with yourself about how much you can get done in an hour. Perhaps do some trial tests to assess this (e.g., I need one hour per day to respond to emails properly, two hours to create a 10-page report, etc.).
Start small. Start by carving out at least an hour per day (over one week) to focus on work. This number sounds small, but I find that low expectations get surpassed because when you are in the zone and enjoying making real progress, you always hit your deadlines early, which boosts your self-worth.
Think about rising early. Getting up early in the day may be difficult, but starting a project or answering emails is a great way to spend the morning with your hot beverage of choice. Plus, you get clarity in your thoughts from the silence.
Work during nap time (limited to only half or 75% of it): Nap times are great for getting work done. Try to schedule a call at least 30 minutes after your child is laid to rest, in case he or she has trouble getting to sleep. Save the project and deadlines for focused attention here, but know you can pick up work again if needed later in the evening after bedtime. Try your best to save some “me time” at the end because this may be your only chance in the day. And if doing dishes makes your “me time” better, go for it.
Deeper into the productive workday as a stay-at-home parent:
- Early mornings, naptimes, and after bedtimes.
- Late evenings (your spouse/partner can help put your child to bed to provide you with more work time or some peace while they slumber).
- Calculate approximately how many hours you get in each period of work time, then how many hours per week you get if you stick to that schedule.
- Do a little bit of project planning to see how much work you need to get done, and compare it with how many hours you have.
- Start small and then pay for additional hours of babysitting to add to those hours, as your work needs become more demanding (this can be done after careful thought/comfort of the situation, of course). During these times when sitters are not free, try having a video chat session with a loved one—for example, storytime with grandma for 60 minutes each day.
Don’t expect to finish massive projects when you first begin in a single sitting. Many of these guidelines follow a “learning by doing” format—where you dive in without a script. Thus, the first few times, keep your expectations low. You might simply catch up on emails, have a few casual conversations with coworkers, or check off a few client phone calls. Larger projects should be done or finished at home during naps or in the early morning or evening hours if need be. That is life, and it isn’t your schedule forever because your schedule is flexible day by day.
Topic 2: In the home—building an environment for productivity
Think of your home as a learning environment. You are an activity tool and resource. Some suggestions:
Prep before a workday. Before the workday, prepare independent play activities for the next day. Also, it might be helpful to make lunches and snacks as if you were dropping your kid off at an outside care facility. Then, when lunchtime hits, you are ready to feed the troops.
Bring out a small blanket or mat with arranged toys, coloring books, and the like around near where you work or in your office. Creating a small play area on the floor will let your child feel welcome and part of the environment and provide them with a space of their own.
Stock a reading area with books about healthy habits, play, science, mathematics, and literacy.
Give yourself a proper, uncluttered workstation even if it’s the kitchen table. If you’re hiring care, find a quiet and productive space outside the home to do work. It may help to have this space very close to your child, either in a nearby room or somewhere visually accessible while sitting.
Remove digital devices and delete social media apps, if necessary, in your workspace (but not your work computer if you need them for digital networking — I am talking about those OTHER accounts).
Topic 3: Becoming mentally disciplined
As with any other type of discipline, there are no shortcuts. Here are two key skills you’ll have to master to work from home productively:
1. Train your brain for switching between tasks.
Plan ahead. Prepare the night before, so you are familiar with the day’s flow and order of events. It is perfectly fine to have a list of to-dos near you during the day.
Categorize your to-do list. By creating separate lists for work and home tasks, you can organize your responsibilities into clear areas. It’s hard to quantify the importance of a weekly conference call compared to joining your child in an art activity. Creating two separate lists will prioritize the categories, not rank those you care about the most (perhaps emotionally). By having lists in general, you can reward yourself mentally by seeing your accomplishments and reduce your likelihood of forgetting items.
Capitalize on small increments of time. Any working person with lots to do can take advantage of 5 minutes. When spare moments materialize, use the time to accomplish a task. When you have “only got five minutes,” sometimes you can surprise yourself with how much you can get done. On the flip side, when you are time-limited, say to yourself, “I will work on this task for just five minutes.” Mentally, you will feel better carving out a few moments to focus.
Capitalize on Divided Attention Work. Divided Attention Work is done with what I also refer to as “Ping-Pong Focus”—tasks you can quickly pick up and begin again. Client calls or quality work/reports may need early or late hour work time. However, when you have children nearby, you can get some of this type of work completed as they are easily put down and picked up again.
Be utterly absorbed in the current task. Try your best to forget about parental guilt while working, and do not let your upcoming deadline bother you while you’re engaged with your child(ren). Practice compartmentalizing and put the guilt out of your mind.
2. Be more present and focused on each task.
Mind your body and mood and be self-aware.
Exercise. Working out saved my sanity and self-esteem. No matter how athletic you are, find something to do to move your body, and get your blood flowing. It can only elevate your mood and make your home a happier place for all. Get the stroller out, go for a walk, help your spouse/partner, or play with the kids for 20 minutes. Anything!
Socialize. Having meetings/playdates with friends that have children (or don’t have children) is a helpful way to care for your kids and talk to your pals. A change of environment is always beneficial for the mood. Have a digital storytime.
Sleep. A person (in my mind) needs at least eight hours of sleep with thirty minutes of wind-down time before bed. Going right to bed with your laptop is a recipe for problems and tasks that haven't been worked out in your head eventually invading your dreams and reducing the possibility of quality rest. I make that my goal most nights – but I am guilty of working late during finals (grading papers and such, or writing script notes for kids’ television shows). There are days when this doesn’t happen. But, if you follow an 80/20 rule of devoting time to sleep vs. late nights, you should have happier days.
In sum: Work-from-home parting advice
Talk with other work-from-home caregivers. It doesn't have to be strictly about kids. It can be about work! Build a community to know each other more deeply.
This is part of a longer workshop and can be found here. This can be helpful for anyone working at home with young children and can be used as a sharable resource or as part of a development training program.
Rubinstein, J. S., Meyer, D. E., & Evans, J. E. (2001). Executive control of cognitive processes in task switching. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, 27(4), 763.