Working from home with children can be tricky, to say the least. After over a decade of home-based self-employment, never have I got so little done, yet at the same time been so productive, as in the last two and a half years since my first child arrived.
There is no denying, the actual number of hours I clock up per week is significantly less than it used to be, and my 'to do' list is always at least 3 pages, whereas it used to just be one. However, in what little precious work time I do manage to glean each day, my new found 'speed working' skills put my pre-children productivity levels to shame. It's an ability to blitz three hours worth of work in one, and a natural side effect of the subconscious starting pistol in my 'work brain' the moment baby's nap time begins, or the nursery drop off is complete.
For me, it's about finding a 'power hour' each day where I can press on with the most time-sensitive and fundamental tasks on my list. Anything crossed off beyond the highlighted, asterix marked scrawlings on my pad are a just satisfying bonus, and something less to tend to the next day.
The advantages of this time-pressured, sporadic, fragmented and unpredictable work schedule are many (or so I convince myself,) and are as follows:
1 Less faffing
When I had all the time in the world, my work would be interspersed with the odd bit of social media surfing, online shopping, and general dithering. When there is no time to think or procrastinate, productivity prevails, and pointless spending (of time and money) on inane things declines.
2 Focus and a clear vision
Prior to having children, I had many business projects on the go all at once. I went with every idea that I had, and spread myself thinly across a whole array of ventures. All the plates were spinning, just about, but it was anxiety-inducing to have the weight of so many commitments on my shoulders, even if I did have so much more time on my hands to invest in them. When baby no.1 arrived, several projects went on the back burner, and then 6 months later several more, until two and a half years later, I am down to two work 'babies' (to match my two actual babies). It was a natural transition that didn't require very much analysis in terms of where I should be concentrating my attention. A testament, perhaps, to the power of instinct.
3 Learning to say 'no'
If there is one thing juggling work and parenthood teaches you, it is that it is absolutely necessary to limit what you agree to. For me, the 'saying no' was mainly to myself. As somewhat of a perfectionist, it was my own demands on myself that needed curtailing more than anything. I had to consciously tell myself not to respond to every email, and not to read every proposal, for fear of a thousand email backlog building up if I didn't get more ruthless, quick smart! I have become more assertive with myself, that's for sure.
As frustrating and challenging self-employment is alongside stay-at-home motherhood, it does show you the value of being 'present' - and not just in the sense of the breakfast times, bed times and everything in between. Those heart-warming moments of adoration and pride that punctuate the daily mummy minutiae (nappies, sick, mess, tantrums and so on) are the 'why' that drives me to get up at 4am the next morning, even if an hour earlier 'Tantrum Gate 2018' had left me wanting to throw in the towel and run for the hills. In the additional 'zen' sense of the word, presence has proved just as valuable, and this is not something I would have learned had the need for such a coping mechanism not arisen. With the mix of children, chores and work initially very overwhelming, learning to curb my instinctive stress response to the mounting washing, tumultuous toddler and unfinished business was a slow process, but a vital one. Particularly when, in hindsight, so much energy and health was wasted by not surrendering to the chaos that I have come to realise is an inevitable part of daylight hours.
You never get to finish one project, in one sitting
This can be frustrating, as just as you find your flow, you are forced to hit save, not knowing when you'll be able to pick up again.
Zero down time
The old adage 'sleep when baby sleeps' was certainly never intended to apply to anyone endeavouring to keep a business afloat after giving birth. 'Work when baby sleeps' is the reality which, most of the time, I wouldn't have any other way.
The unpredictable nature of working for yourself in not necessarily conducive to financial security.
The 'how to' of working at home with children
The 'how to' of working at home with children is less easily defined, since it will inevitably vary depending on the type of work you do and the age of your children. For me, the following techniques worked wonders:
1. Get up early
Painful as it often is, getting up before the children awake is often the only and best time to get anything done. I find if I get up at 5 after the baby's morning feed, rather than rolling over and going back to sleep, I can cram what I would normally achieve in a whole morning into the space of the one/two hours until everyone else gets up.
. Use the 'power hour' wisely
That one hour where you have complete solitude and silence to work is precious. Use it wisely. I use this time to respond to emails and focus on the writing and design aspects of my work that requires concentration, and sitting at a desk. All the other jobs, such as social media, I can then complete on-the -go or via multi-tasking (see below).
3. Know your multi-tasking moments
Once you know your children's routines, you may be able to find a window of opportunity for some simultaneous working and 'Mumming' action, again depending on the nature of your business. Social media is a big part of what I do, and it is the one thing that is actually easiest to do from my Smartphone. The key is finding the opportune multi-tasking moment. I am conscious of not using my phone in my children's company unless absolutely necessary, not only because I don't want them feeling neglected, but also due to the split second rule of danger I have discovered to be true of toddlers, especially when out and about. The multi-tasking moment for me is therefore when I'm cooking dinner, in the kitchen and out of sight of my techno-curious two year old who would no doubt swipe said phone for his own entertainment given half a glimpse of me using it.
4. Perfect the art of working anywhere
Working from home with children teaches you to perfect the art of working anywhere. That is, anywhere where you unexpectedly find yourself alone and with a moment's head space. Use this time to research, make notes, write.... whatever the 'small things' are that collectively drive your business forward. If you have a young baby and are breastfeeding, this is often the best time to plough through emails and do social media activities, as it gives you 20 minutes or so uninterrupted sitting time. All you need is a hands free cushion if you're working at a desk, or a tablet or smartphone if you're sofa bound, and away you go!
Become more tolerant
Pre-children, the slightest noise in the house or outside would throw my work momentum completely off kilter. I'd get impatient, and couldn't concentrate. Oh how things have changed? In keeping with my 'take every moment you get' motto - and my hearing's natural acclimatisation to noisy toddler life - there is nothing the neighbours, the neighbours' builders or even my own children (when they are being looked after by my husband or mum in the next room) could do to throw me off focus when the opportunity to get on arises.
5. Lower your expectations
Accepting that you can't do everything, all of the time, is fairly essential to working at home with children. This is likely one of the hardest pills to swallow, as the need to 'do and get done' is a defining characteristic of being self-employed. The inability to achieve as much as we might like or feel necessary can and does lead to frequent feelings of failure, which are often far removed from the reality. Learning to focus on what you HAVE done, rather than the remainder of the long list that awaits you tomorrow, takes some practice, as does quietening your inner critic who often detracts from the sheer volume of 'background' work that subconsciously goes into even those written-off, seemingly under-achieving days. By background work, I mean head space - thinking, planning, contemplating - since it ultimately all leads towards the next great idea or direction. Perhaps not immediately, but eventually. The collective of those bare minimum days - defined by a few stolen ten minutes here and there - also often amount to a) more than you thought and b) more than some defined work hour roles. Ironically, since having children, I have come to try and view my work efforts as baby steps - 'tentative acts and measures in the long and challenging process' of self employment.
6. Feel the part
Working from home may make it perfectly acceptable to pitch up to your desk in your pj's, and although this might be considered an occupational perk, it can be at the expense of productivity. That being said, I have found spending too much time getting ready to also be detrimental to the end goal of getting as much done, in as little time, as possible. A middle ground of self preparation - involving perhaps half of what you might do before going into an actual office - seems to be the key to feeling work-ready enough to be efficient, without having wasting precious time in the process. The mental acuity and productivity gains of a four step shower, teeth, hair and clothes routine are likely to outweigh the 'lost' - and comparatively half-hearted - work time that you might have had extra if you'd simply thrown on a dressing gown before clocking on.
Working at home with children is by no means easy, and it requires some huge adaptations, compromises and sacrifices, mostly in terms of self-care. I realise this is a statement which does - given the popularity of this recent 'buzz word' - invite a certain level of critique. After all, looking after oneself is first and foremost, isn't it? My response is, of course! However, self care for me means ensuring sufficient mental stimulation each day. To sacrifice my work time for an extra ten minutes in the shower, or twenty minutes preparing a superfood lunch, all in the name of 'self care', would ultimately be counter-productive to this end goal, which for me is largely achieved by 'power hours', not power naps!
Yet while the 'self-care' that self-employment represents in relation to identity - and sanity - is undisputed, the tight rope we walk between challenged and overwhelmed is a very fine one to navigate unaided. Take inspiration and support from family, friends and peers, an tell yourself regularly 'I AM MY OWN REAL BOSS. I CAN MAKE A LOT HAPPEN'. Been there, brought the t-shirt... literally!