When my kids were a little younger, and the school day was not yet a thing in their lives, I worked a full time, non-traditional schedule job from home with my then 2- and 5-year-old boys. I almost never hired help for while I was working. They rarely watched TV during the day. And although it is mostly a thing of the past thanks to their school schedules, there are still days that I reach back and use those same tricks.
You want to know how I did it. And I want to tell you.
Let me start by making one thing abundantly clear: what I did may not work for you, and that’s OK. The fact that I could make it work is not meant to be a judgment on you or a commentary of any kind on your level of awesome as a parent or employee. Maybe this will give you some ideas, or inspire you to try ditching the nanny and saving that money for coffee. Because if you work from home my way, you’re going to need it. And if it doesn’t? That’s OK, too.
So how did I do it? Here are my secrets.
How I Work From Home With My Kids and No Help
1. I karate chopped my time into submission.
In my job as a blogger, reporter and editor for Military.com I knew I must get a certain amount of concentrated work done at my desk every day, and spend the rest of the time communicating with readers and sources on the phone, email and social media. I also knew I would spend time waiting on email responses from people, communicating with my bosses and reading stories while I looked for writing ideas.
Since I knew what it was I had to do, I could decide when best to do it. Some of my work – somewhere around five hours – couldn’t be done while I also parented my kids. The rest of it – like sending a quick email reply from my iPhone or checking out Facebook or Twitter for the latest news — fell seamlessly into the cracks in my day.
To harness my time I daily dedicated about four-and-a-half hours of very concentrated time sitting at my desk in front of my computer – about two hours, 15 minutes before my children woke-up at 7 a.m. (I’m a morning person, not a night owl), and two hours, 15 minutes over their daily rest time (both kids spend daily quiet time in their rooms when they are home). Sometimes the afternoon block could be stretched to two-and-a-half as well. I made a to-do list and I hit it like it was my last day on earth. Since I knew I only had a very specific amount of time to do my work in, I made it happen.
What if people called me back when I was not on desk hours? That is where it could get dicey. If I needed to do an interview I’d retreat behind a locked bedroom door with my laptop for 10 minutes and hope my kids didn’t realize I was missing (they always did). I’ve been known to pull over the car into a parking lot, whip out my laptop and ask questions while praying my kids keep the peace in the backseat (they usually didn’t). Most of the people I dealt with were parents, too, or knew that I worked from home. While having my kids in the background wasn’t always the most professional moment of my life, I’ve found that people are more understanding than you would think.
Now that my sons are in school, I also use that quiet time to get concentrated work done. But am I more productive sitting and working all day than I was when I broke it into chunks? I don’t really think so.
2. I said “no.”
Since I didn’t have a nanny or daycare to add flexibility to my time, I had to say “no” a lot. No, we can’t come over for a playdate at 1 p.m. – that’s my work time. No, we can’t come to a party at 8 p.m. – I go to bed at 8:30 p.m. so I can get up at 4:30 a.m. to work. No, I can’t volunteer for that job that requires concentrated computer work, because every second of my computer alone time is already full.
These rules still apply even though they are now in school. Time management is still just as important. I also say “no” to things that are not the best use of my professional time. I graciously bow out of conference calls where I am not actually needed. I don’t answer every single email as soon as it hits my inbox. I don’t worry about responding to tweets in the evening when I’m tired and chilling in front of the TV for 30 minutes or reading a book to unwind.
3. I say “yes.”
Part of making sure I use my time as wisely as possible is making sure I say “yes” to things that keep me from burn out. That’s why my number one priority every day is getting enough sleep. I am in my bed with my eyes closed bare minimum seven hours a night. I say “yes” to fitness and healthy eating. At least an hour of my day six days a week is spent at CrossFit, running or something else.
I also say “yes” to my kids and husband (when he’s home) and the things that are important to them. Story time? Yes! Going to the park (while Mommy reads one of those work-related magazines she’s been putting off)? Yes! Date night? Always, always yes. Mommy needs a beer.
4. I don’t expect perfection.
Even with my kids now in school at least part-time, I am not the picture of awesome. Often my carefully laid plans fail and chaos is my running buddy. Sometimes my job takes more hours than I have allotted in my desk time blocks. Sometimes I have to do an interview while using Jedi mind tricks (that sort of work) to make my sons be silent. Sometimes kids are sick and have to stay home. What happens then? Here are some examples.
First, a little scene from my home office of the time I had to work on a news story an extra hour past nap time. I said “here are some puzzles,” and sat back down. The result? Not exactly housekeeping perfection – and the destruction of a treasured Runners World edition in which I had an article. Bummer.
And then there was the time my then two-year-old silently colored on his hands and shirt with a permanent marker as I helplessly watched while conducting a phone interview.
Here’s what I call my “Chick-Fil-A Office” (win: they have coffee!)
And this is my “Children’s Library Office.”
You get the idea.
Working from home without childcare help worked for me — and still does when needed — because I made it. My kids know that if they are awake before 7 a.m. they can sit and quietly play in their rooms. They knew that if they are awake before I come and get them when nap time is over, they could do the same thing. You may be thinking that I must be just a ball of Mommy fun. But I honestly think my kids are happy and healthy in part because they know what to expect from every day.
Is working from home like this for you? Maybe – or maybe not. If your kids don’t nap or have quiet time or a regular morning wake-up hour, this system probably isn’t going to work for you. And that’s OK. If your job requires you to work a more traditional schedule, it may be hard to convince your boss that you will be an even more awesome employee if you get to set your own hours.
But maybe, just maybe, you can give it a try.