Two years ago I launched Cara Gilger Ministries from home with a preschooler at home three days a week and a first grader who both required my time and attention. Over the past two years I have grown a consulting and writing ministry that is (nearly) full time while still juggling kids after school and during summers. My spouse also works from home so we have been figuring out how to run two businesses from home with small children for a while. With schools either being cancelled or moved to online learning from home due to COVID-19 and employers being encouraged to move employees to remote work arrangements I thought I would share some of the more unconventional tips and tricks to working from how with small (demanding) humans.
There are already plenty of tips telling you to get dressed everyday and drink water and take breaks–so I am skipping all that. Instead here are a few of the nitty gritty tips on how we get it done in a day (or don’t) and how we make peace with the juggling act.
Re-evaluate Your Time
You are likely used to working set office hours during the day. From sometime in the morning to sometime late afternoon to early evening you have time at work to get everything you need done. I love days like those, but working from home I have had to adopt a different mindset to my time. I look at my time in two ways: total number of hours invested in work and fringe blocks.
I keep track of what hours are used for work and what are used for tending to the needs of small people. Yes, you may have to stop returning email to fetch a snack but if the 30 minute increment went mostly to work, it’s work time. Over the course of my 16 waking hours I try to log 6-7 hours of work.
Which brings me to fringe blocks. When I was first starting to build this ministry my kids were little and demanding and had stopped taking naps. If I wanted to get focused, uninterrupted work done I had to consider non-work hour blocks of time. In the summer I wake up every morning at 5am and work until the kids get up around 6:45am, in fact, I wrote a third of my manuscript this way. Did I like getting up that early? Sometimes, but often it was not fun. But I did it and the work got done. I started my day feeling ahead by breakfast time rather than behind.
I also use one hour increments in the evening. A couple of nights a week my spouse and I agree that we need to work–the first hour after the kids go to bed we sit down and bust out a ton of work. After that we put aside our lap tops and have a hour or so to relax, hang out or enjoy one another’s company. Again, is this my ideal time to work? Not always, but I love my work and want to see it grow. While this tip may seem silly, but over the course of a work week that one hour power hour to wrap things up adds up to 20% of a full time schedule. Of course there are times during the day where you have to take calls and meetings and I will talk about those later, but these are ways I have found to get some concentrated and focused work done.
Set Up Specific Space
Several of my friends who are working from home have expressed how hard it is to 1) get the kids to understand you are working and not on Spring Break and 2) stop working and not work non-stop. For me space has played a really important role in addressing both of these issues. I try to have a designated space to work. Not only does it get me in the right mindset sitting down in the same spot each day, but it is a visual communication tool that tells my kids “I am working so whatever you need should be important.” You do not have to have a designated home office space for this to work, you can make this work in almost any size or configured house. We have a home office with doors that my spouse uses because 90% of their day is spent on conference calls. My home office either at my desk that is located in a small nook by the back door or an armchair in the corner of our room. Now that my kids are at home and need to be supervised as they home school my office is the end chair at our dining room table on that days it is my turn to home school.
At the beginning of the day I get out my stuff–laptop, calendar, to do list and glass of water–and set it up in my designated space. Likewise, at the end of the day I pack it all up (usually in my laptop bag). This unpacking and repacking signals the start and end of my day not only to myself but to my family. It is a visual communication cue that says “I am present with you” or “you are only getting half my attention right now.”
Be Flexible and Organized
Sometimes the rigidness of a set space needs to be more flexible when you have kids at home. I have been known to write from the patio table so I can see the kids running around the yard or standing at the kitchen counter while they build legos on the living room floor so I can quickly insert myself to break up fights or grab a snack while keeping my work flow going. Flexibility of mindset is your friend. Just because your work is not between 8am-5pm at a desk doesn’t mean you aren’t working.
However, when your work looks agile, moving between work tasks and childcare it can feel like you aren’t as productive. This is where I find lists to track my work not only valuable for keeping track of to-do’s but giving myself an overview of how my work flow is really going. It can tell me if I need to quit at 3pm to give the kids focused time and plan a post-bedtime power hour of work. Or it can tell me to give myself some credit because despite stopping to help small humans every few minutes.
Keeping a solid list also helps me slot in tasks for certain times–during the morning hours when people are freshly rested and more prone to play well together I schedule my deeper, focused heavy tasks. During the hours of 3-5pm when it seems like my kids are ramping up for the witching hours I schedule my low focus tasks and projects I can pop in and out of with a few minutes of attention at a time.
Expectation Having Them…and Not
Don’t have any. Just kidding, just kidding. But set reasonable ones for yourself and for these tiny humans who are in the midst of experiencing something new too. Now is not the time to win the Pinterest mom awards or start cooking your way through The Joy of Cooking. Be gentle on yourself while at the same time, establish some boundaries.
I have expectations for my kids around how they are to support my work (it after all benefits the whole household, including them) and I communicate those expectations clearly and regularly. This includes having a rough schedule we adhere to each day. It includes the expectation that they get their own snacks at snack time (and that the pantry is not an open buffet for their entertainment). And most importantly it includes finding their own creativity. If you are bored or want to fight with a sibling, I will give you a chore. This standard has made my kids excellent at keeping themselves occupied with the crush of toys they have at their disposal as American kids.
Strategic Screen Time
All of this brings me to screen time. I have seen lots of people saying “don’t feel bad if your kids have tons of screen time.” I don’t think you should feel bad, but I don’t think you should give them tons of screen time either and here’s why. I don’t let my kids have very much screen time in a day. It tends to make them short fused, grumpy, irritable and disrespectful monsters at an increasing trajectory based on how much screen time they have had that day. Instead my kids get barely any and here’s the trick–when they don’t get it ever they treat it special when they do get it.
Screen time should be used strategically to get video and conference calls done. If they are used to the TV being on they are more likely to break into chaos right when it’s your turn to speak. If they never get it then they will treat it like the crowned jewel of distraction that it is and you can impress everyone on your call with your parenting and working from home skills. Or just be present to your meeting.
Because cell phones exist with their incenanst dinging and pinging with emails and whatnot, we create a buffer zone at the end of the day. If we pack up our work space at 5pm there is a 30 minute or hour grace buffer where we may answer calls. After that we set it aside if we can.
My kids can feel like I have left them to go a little feral for the day. Two ways I assure them that I have not is sitting down with them to have lunch and setting aside 30 minutes after work is done to give them my focused attention–to say “I see you and you are important. Thank you for your cooperation and help in making the family run well.” Sometimes we play a family game or sit and read or just share dinner together with no devices and play would you rather.
All of this is to say, be structured yet flexible. What worked before won’t work now and that’s ok. Figure out what works for you now and do that. No one has a rule book for how to do this–but you can write the book for what works best for you and your family. Try something, make mistakes, be curious, try again. You’ve got this.
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