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Inside: New to working from home with kids? A real life mom shows you how – with 12 practical tips that actually work, from ending snack whining to how to be productive.
Do you feel like you’re drowning trying to work from home with kids? I hear you, I feel you. For the past 6 ½ years, I worked full-time managing a remote team of 4 people. I’m also a mom of 2 kids, and I often had to work full time and watch them while they were sick.
Now under quarantine, my husband and I are working from home with kids all the time. Between my two experiences, I’ve learned 12 real-life strategies that work for parents who can’t follow “ideal” advice.
And no, I didn’t and don’t have a nanny or a big house or “easy kids.” My kids are among the highest energy, most creative and daring children I have ever met. They also don’t sleep a lot. Let me show you how to make the best of a really hard situation. I believe in you!
1. Make a Place to Work From Home with A “Cue”
If you read any article on how to work from home or how to work from home with kids, they will say “have an office.” I mean, great idea. What about me who has a 700 square foot 2 bedroom apartment?
I do have a desk – it’s in my living room/playroom/office. It was fine to use it while I worked remotely without kids. Now that they are home all the time, I have to be more flexible. I set up a card table in my bedroom. The thing is, my bedroom turns into the quiet time room for an hour in the afternoon (more on that coming). So I need to be able to work anywhere that I can in my house.
Having a “work place” is important for our bodies. It helps our minds focus and switch into “work mode.” How can you do that when you have to work everywhere from the kitchen to the bedroom to the dinner table or couch? Use a “cue.”
You need to have something that you see or hear that tells your body “this is work time.” In the past, my cue was my desk. Now my cue is sound. Any time I have dedicated “work time” I turn on my work music. If you’re not a music person, I get it. I’m not either, but I’ve learned to make it work. Spotify has a “deep focus” playlist that mostly doesn’t have words and is helpful.
Music also helps because it drowns out whatever else is happening. Obviously don’t use it to drown out noise if you are supposed to be watching the kids, but if you’re off the hook for a time, drown out background noise. I don’t have fancy headphones either. This cheap pair works great.
2. Put your kids on a meal and snack schedule to work from home better
This may sound surprising. Why a meal and snack schedule? Well, let’s just say my kids don’t whine about food very often. Sounds nice, right? It would drive me crazy and I’d get nothing done if they kept asking me for snacks all day long. This is a huge part of my strategy. Bonus, it also helps picky eaters, reduces stress in the house, and can improve kid’s nutrition.
Every family is different, but I recommend feeding toddlers every 2 – 3ish hours and older kids every 2.5 – 4 hours. That means you’ll have 3 meals and 0-3 snacks depending on how much your kid sleeps and what your family schedule is.
Your kids may be angry at first when you switch to a schedule, but stay strong for 2 weeks. Once you make it clear that food isn’t always available, they will get used to it. You can also learn more about what quick snacks can help your child stay full to the next meal.
3. Use the “Focus Trick” to Work from Home with Kids
Trying to work and take care of kids at the same time makes it hard to keep things straight in your brain. It’s hard to change gears, especially if you had a hard time putting your child down for nap time or bedtime.
I use a “focus trick.” I do something to help me focus and clear my mind before I sit down to be productive. Some people recommend fancy “morning routines” or meditating for 20 minutes. That advice is absolutely great. That said, it may not be practical.
If you have a 1-hour work block, I recommend setting your timer for 3 minutes. Close your eyes and count “one” every time you breathe out. Then when the timer goes off, look at one small thing ahead of you and focus hard on it. Boom, you’re done. Say “I’m focused.”
If you have a 2 hour block or longer, set the timer for up to 12 minutes.
4. Pick Your Work Blocks When the Kids are Asleep
Map out when your child sleeps. Mine don’t sleep all that much. They wake up between 5 AM and 6:30 AM completely unpredictably. It’s not practical for me to wake up before them. I do know when they go to bed and I have trained them to have a quiet time in the afternoon (I show you how to do this next). I plan on using quiet time and after bedtime as work blocks.
5. Use a Quiet Time to Work from Home with Kids
When my kids were toddlers, it was a lot easier to find sleep blocks. Eventually, the first one stopped napping and the second one doesn’t always nap anymore. That’s when we needed “quiet time”. Here’s how to train your child to do a 1-hour quiet time.
- Make sure their room is safe and child-proof. The dressers should be anchored to the wall, no cord ties on the windows, and nothing that they could hurt themselves with.
- Collect a few “special” quiet activities. These are only available during quiet time. I made a special set of blocks available, and some other toys that were only for quiet time. For a 1-hour quiet time, I provided 4-6 different toys/activities.
- Have a pre-quiet time routine. We read a book, go to the bathroom, and gather quiet time activities before quiet time. Nothing fancy.
- Start short! This is the most important thing. Tell your child “It’s time for quiet time now. You will go in your room and stay there quietly until you hear this sound.” Set a sound timer for 3 minutes.
- Let them out when the timer goes off. You are establishing trust!
- Increase the time every day. You can increase by 1 or 2 minute increments every day. Next thing you know your child trusts that you will come get them, and they have learned to play by themselves for a longer amount of time.
- Have a sand timer for kids who are age 3 or 4 plus. I love a good sand timer. The kids can “see” where the time is and see when the time runs out that they can come out. It also won’t wake them up if they fall asleep during quiet time! Use a 60-minute sand timer after you have worked up to 60 minutes with the sound timer.
6. Work with Your Partner If You Can To Make Working From Home with Kids Easier
If you have a partner working from home or not working from home, see if you can work something out so that they will watch the kids for part of the day – or even on the weekends. If your partner is watching the kids, this is your time to work, use it! Don’t go put in a load of laundry.
Alternate “shifts.” Right now our routine is I have my primary work block in the morning for 4 hours. Then he has his primary work block in the afternoon for 4 hours. We also alternate other times during the day (he stays up later, I wake up earlier, etc.) We also now have a 6-day work week so that we can get all of our work hours in.
7. Use Your Locks to Work from Home
Go into a room where the door locks. Lock the door. Do your focus trick. Put on headphones. Do not open the door for anything – if there is a real emergency, you will know. You are training your family to know that when you are working, you are working.
If you don’t have a room where you can lock the door, is there something else you can do to signal you are not available? Other things that may work:
- Hang a curtain to block off part of a room
- Sit at the table in the open, but wear your headphones or special clothes that show you are not available
- Work outside
- Work in the car
- Work in the basement
Staying firm is what’s most important. If your family tries to interrupt you, hold up a sign that says something like “I’m at work, I will be back at 11 AM. I can’t wait to play with you!” Even for toddlers who can’t read, it may be helpful.
8. Help Your Boss with the “Start Work” and “Finished Work” Email When Working From Home
The most challenging part of being a “boss” when everyone is working from home is that you have no idea whether people are actually working unless you hear from them. I managed a remote team, so I understand this. Here’s what you can do to make sure your boss knows that you are working and doesn’t get suspicious.
- Send an email to your boss at the start of the work day. It can be anything. Save up a list of emails that you need to send to your boss, and space them out over several days. Send them within 5 minutes of “starting work.” Honestly, it doesn’t matter what happens in the next 30 minutes, but your boss knows you are there and working.
- Send a deliverable to your boss on as many days as you can. Again, it can be anything. Something you did. If it’s insignificant – pretend like you think it’s significant. It’s better for your boss to think you are being weird than think you are not working. If you’re using strategy 11, then save up the deliverables you did over the weekend and space them out over the week.
- Answer every single phone call from your boss. Use tip 9 to set up your kids in mayday fashion in front of a screen and answer promptly.
- Don’t be late for a conference call. While you may understand what chaos is going on in your house, the people around you may not. It’s actually better to log on without video and say you’re having “technical difficulties” with video, than be late because you didn’t have time to put on clothes because of the kids.
9. Save Screen Time for the Kids for When You Need it Most
Nothing is worse than having a kid who watched too much TV already and has lost interest, and then having your boss call (trust me, I know). Screens will be your lifesaver, as long as you use them at the right time.
I need to be able to have my kids sit in front of a screen for up to an hour if there is a meeting. They won’t if they already watched too much TV earlier in the day. I “save” screen time for my planned important calls, unexpected calls from my boss, and video calls where I need to be paying attention.
I also use screens when my kids are making me absolutely crazy and I need a mental health break.
Note: Some shows make my kids overstimulated and grumpy after watching some shows. On work days, I only let them watch slower moving shows that they can handle without being scared or becoming grumpy.
10. Save “Easy Tasks” for When You have to Watch Your Kid and Work at the Same Time
I remember one morning, it was 5 AM and my 8 month old was up and ready for the day, but I had to work. I put him in the highchair next to my desk. I held a bucket of soft toys on my lap. Every minute or so I would give him a soft toy. He would play with it and then drop it off his high chair. I also put a bucket where he dropped it. I answered emails while we did this.
Trying to watch kids and work at the very same time is the worst part of working from home with kids. If you have a flexible job or work for yourself, you may not have to do this as much. If you have a boss who expects you to be answering all your emails every day, you may have to do both. I like to refer to this as the “I feel like a bad parent and a bad worker at the same time” feeling. It feels crappy. If you are in this situation, I feel for you. It’s okay though. The reality is, you’re keeping your job, which supports your child. You’re also keeping your child safe, which makes you a good parent. Here’s how to make it less painful.
Think about your job. What necessary, but easy tasks do you have? Plan on doing those tasks while you are watching your kids. Email is often a good thing for this.
Have your laptop open and carry it around the house a few times a day, keeping the kid busy and also answering emails. Do this as little as you can, but if you have to, you have to. You aren’t alone and you’re not a bad parent because you have to do it.
11. Work Around Your Unreasonable Boss
You may have a boss that does not understand your situation at all. They may expect you to be doing everything that you would be doing if you were still at the office.
First, admit that they are unreasonable. Keeping your child safe, paying attention to them, and caring for them, is more important. That said, so is keeping your job.
If you have an unreasonable boss, I recommend a few things. First, turn your work week into a six-day week. Plan on working on Saturdays and treating them like another work day.
Use your first weekend to do Monday’s deliverables. Use that first weekend to get ahead as much as you can. Do whatever you have to do with your child to get ahead.
From that point on, have your work ready to go ahead of time so that you can turn it in at the right time. Send your “start work” and “finished work” emails 8.5 hours apart. Send your deliverables the day they are due (but that you finished ahead of time). Carry your laptop around a few times a day and answer emails. You may only be working 6-7 hours per day during the week though.
Save any time blocks for projects that you need to concentrate on.
12. Let Everything Else Go to Make Working from Home with Kids Actually Work!
Cart your kids around with you while you shower, cook, and clean. You need to use their sleep time and screen time for work. Let the laundry pile up. Simplify cooking and mealtime to save time.
It’s okay if you can’t do everything. No one else is doing everything either.
There are many many parents dealing with their own struggles at this time. You’re doing a great job!