Step by step guide for parents trying HARD to work from home now (and experiencing that it’s HARDLY working):
Yesterday I was a mum of two (7 and 2,5) and a professional very often working from home. My kids were happily being cute and naughty somewhere else between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. My husband would leave for office on average four days a week and the fifth day he’d quietly hide in the dungeon of our bedroom with his laptop, while I was occupying the vast space between the kitchen and the sofa (including a large and comfy kitchen table).
Today I am a mum of two (7 and 2,5) and a professional working from home every day. My kids are happily cute and naughty at that very home 24/7 now. My husband leaves for office on average zero days per week, occupying the dungeon, as expected, while I’m occupying my usual space, which now has magically shrunk in size twice with all the toys, noises and very mobile human beings (including a tiny and messy kitchen table).
Spot 5 differences…
Does that sound familiar to any of you?
The last three weeks were probably an ultra-hard adaptation phase for all the parents out there, who are still working, just that now with a few new, little co-workers (a.k.a. their kids). I thought I had work from home figured out with years of experience, but the first two weeks of “new reality” knocked me off my feet, put me down in the dirt and sat down on my face with its heavy bottoms. To put it mildly. And that’s when I knew there was a NEW ORDER required. And so we sat, we talked, we planned, we implemented. After a two-weeks-long bloody battle, we finally figured it out for ourselves, so that there’s hope. Maybe by now you also have your new system up and running. Maybe not yet or not entirely… Maybe this little guide below will inspire you to build your own “new order”, step by step:
STEP 1: Call it what it is.
Abnormal? Unusual? Damn difficult? Impossible?
Whatever you call this situation you are now in, don’t be tempted to think “it’s business as usual” and that “it’s just a bit harder now, but I should still aspire to the usual level of ….”. Fill in the blanks with anything: productivity, stress, tiredness, happiness, energy, perfectionism. Whatever you put there I assure you that’s just not realistic. To expect (even implicitly) that now, with only one hand left juggling, the performance will be the same, is a dangerous trap we must get out of as soon as possible! The sooner you (and people around you) realize and accept that it’s a very extraordinary situation we are facing right now and there MUST be some cost to it, the sooner you all get a chance to realistically manage and reduce that cost.
Instead of aspiring to be that 100% perfect mother/father, fully productive employee, a supportive child/friend and (because why not?) a relaxed hobby enthusiast, maybe start aspiring to be as good as the situation realistically allows. So give your 80% (70%? 60%? Less?) in those areas, knowing that temporarily that might be your new 100%.
STEP 2: Forget about multitasking
If “We’ll just have to multitask SOMEHOW” was your first thought when you found out that you have a home office full of kids, you are not alone. That’s what I initially thought as well, that’s what many other parents I talk to these days tell me their default strategy is.
One minor problem with this strategy? Multitasking doesn’t work. Well, at least not like we would want it or believe it works. Volumes of legit research, as well as people’s actual, daily experiences, prove, that multitasking neither magically saves our time, nor helps us to do what we do any better. Quite the opposite- if we try to do two (or more) things that require our mental energy at the same time it:
- overall takes much MORE time (so you waste your precious time and not save it!),
- the quality often drops / more mistakes happen
- we experience a higher level of stress (and also other people around us do – including your kids)
- in the end, we feel more tired compared to monotasking of the same amount of tasks
Enough reasons to ask: in the name of what are we trying to multitask then?
How many times during the last weeks you were reading a story to your kid and at the same time trying to reply to that important e-mail from work? Or when you finally started to have any kind of flow with writing that crucial report, your child would keep coming to you in tears with countless body parts of the spiderman figurine, that somehow tragically kept coming off and needed URGENT fixing? If that’s how your daily work looks like now, you will most likely end up irritated with the child ‘interrupting’ and take it out on him/her in one way or another. Also- you will have to face the fact that work took you at least twice as much time as if it would if you did it during a more quiet moment. So the main idea is to save yourself from the trap of multitasking as much as possible when creating the NEW ORDER.
STEP 3: Create new structures – for everyone
Structure is something that you all will need right now- both adults and children. Just that those structures you create now might have to look completely different than the ‘classic’ work structures that you are used to.
I suggest you take as a starting point the age and realistic needs and abilities of your kids.
With elder kids (on average 4+, 5+) I would suggest using something I’d call regular intervals structure. Those kids generally understand the concept of time well enough now and are used to/ can handle longer periods of independent play/work. It’s basically some form of a famous and very effective Pomodoro technique.
How does it work?
- Divide your working hours into fixed short periods of “deep work” (30-45 minutes) with short breaks in between (5-15 min)
- Plan those blocks of work for your child and together with your child in advance (e.g. in a form of a daily wall table etc.)
- Set a timer (on a phone, a kitchen timer etc.) for both you and kids for each working period
- When it rings- it’s break time! Now you can check on the kid(s), monitor progress, adjust the plan if required, hug and reload the connection bar and of course to rest a bit too before another “deep work” module!
- In the middle of the day plan taking a longer break together (lunch, playing, talking) to divide the day of independent, structured work into two shorter parts (morning and afternoon)- it might be especially important for kids who are not yet used to all-day school routine and those who express the need to recharge the connection bar with you more.
In this method, you must explain to your child that there will be fixed working periods when they do things on their own and you do things on your own and you will require peace during that time (minus emergencies of course!). Reassure them also about the regular break times, when you reconnect – and that’s the best time for their questions etc. It’s also crucial not to cheat with the breaks, no matter how tempted you are to keep working. 😉
If your children have e-learning with their school now, you might want to center the work periods around their lessons.
If they don’t have formal lessons to do yet, create a schedule on your own.
The way we did it with my elder son was:
- We listed all the activities that he likes and that he can do on his own. We divided those into 2 categories (‘unlimited access’ for a play that doesn’t involve screen and ‘limited access’ for things on the screen, like playing computer games or watching cartoons). We also added another category: chores (that included his morning routine as well as any household work he can do on his own). It was a great moment for all of us to re-asses the division of household work and to delegate more to our kids. Yes, for example, I must live now with the fact that the clothes in the wardrobe are not folded as perfectly, as I’d do it myself. Somehow the world didn’t collapse yet because of that…
- We created cards with those activities in 3 different colors (he picked the pictures to be printed himself etc. – to be as much involved in the process as possible)
- Every evening he creates his daily schedule for the next day, according to some basic rules we established (e.g. only two screen activities per day allowed, at least one chore activity apart from morning routine is a must etc.). But it’s him, who decided what exactly and in which order he will do the next day and it worked magic in terms of his motivation to follow through with the board!
When you have younger kids (less than 4 yr.) trying to make them understand and follow through with a routine like than might be simply unrealistic. If you can’t or don’t want to take a child-care for them, I’d say the most effective way will be to build your working day around “golden hours” (i.e. hours when you can work without having to look after your child in the same time). Where do you get those “golden hours” from? First – look at the times when your child sleeps: early mornings, afternoon nap and – the least favorable but sometimes necessary – an extra hour in the evening. Secondly – if you have a partner – agree for a suitable schedule to share the childcare during the day. It might be alternate shifts every hour or two, it might be half a day + half a day, it might be just another two hours extra for you during the day etc. Whatever works for both of you. As long as there is always one parent working and one taking care of the child and it’s agreed upon, planned and executed, so that multitasking can be avoided.
If you’re worried that your golden hours sum up to less than 8 hours a day don’t panic! First of all – remember STEP 1: it’s an extraordinary time and we all are a part of the situation, including your co-workers, bosses etc. Second of all– you still have a chance to DO MORE in those fewer but quiet hours, rather than during all day of crazy, impossible multitasking.
STEP 4: When it’s work time – apply the “deep work” principles.
It might seem that those short periods of work and frequent breaks or those fewer “golden hours” will not be enough to get enough work done. But if you will work towards maximizing the efficiency of those work periods, it might turn out that surprisingly great deal of work is getting done! During “normal” working day (8-9 hours) we very often waste a lot of time (procrastination, distractors, chaos and lack of proper planning, decrease in efficiency due to tiredness etc.) so the actual “productivity time” is never as long as our working day. Implement the discipline and basic tools and techniques of time management for your working periods:
- Always start with a clear plan and with setting priorities (ALPEN, Eisenhower matrix, MoSCoW or any other technique that works for you!). Plan less for a day to make sure that you secured time for the most important things first.
- Face procrastination – what is important but not necessarily the most pleasant task that you will likely postpone doing? Name it! Do it first and feel a pleasant relief. Don’t let it sit on your desk, rot and spoil your mood all day.
- Limit distractors to the minimum! Phone notifications, e-mail notifications (do you really need them?), internet, Social Media… Disable those in your working zone. Use them wisely in your other zones.
STEP 5: When it’s not working time – f***ing let go!
So when you crawl out of that working dungeon for a short break, or when it’s a longer lunchtime or when it’s your child-time… That’s the time to master the ancient art of mindfulness (being here and now, in the present moment) and monotasking (if I’m resting or I’m with my child I don’t check e-mails, I don’t mentally reply to that customer etc.). That’s time for hugging, laughing, talking, not talking, music, video chat with grandpa, cooking, playing, doing nothing-ish. That’s time for going with the flow, going by the relational needs. Doing less. And no, it doesn’t have to be all these creative and ambitious Perfect Insta Parent things – I believe the most rewarding thing you can give to your kids is simply YOUR UNDIVIDED ATTENTION. Hard for some of us (majority?). Maybe even the hardest part – to let go, to monotask. One thing at the time. But if we start the practice TODAY, little by little, we have a chance to learn a very useful habit for LIFE 😊
STEP 6: “Sharpen the saw” wisely
Are you frustrated with hearing in the last weeks about all the “amazing opportunities” that arise from the sudden “ocean of free time” that the social distancing supposedly brought? What a perfect time to read all those books, do all those online courses, catch up on all those movies etc. Are you also among those, who somehow don’t feel the “ocean breeze” at all? Maybe quite the opposite? Well, first of all – cut that social pressure to “do more now” off. You are doing much more ALREADY. Second of all – it’s still important to wisely take care of yourself in all this. Stephen Covey would call it “sharpening the saw” – i.e. making sure that you not only take care of production (doing) but also about production capacity (resting, truly regenerating yourself to be able to then do). Even if it means as little as healthy sleeping and eating habits, making time for the few most important social connections, this 15 minutes (instead of usual 45) of yoga, stretching, meditation or whatever else used to keep you going physically and emotionally in the past. Little bricks. Little habits. It doesn’t have to be perfect, but it has to be quite regular.
STEP 7: Test, change, adjust…
It’s a new and dynamic situation and so should be our approach. We test, we see what works and what doesn’t, we adjust, we change… Above all, we communicate and remind ourselves we are playing in one team as a family, even if things get frustrating, stressful or rough.
Again – it’s not about finding the one perfect solution; it’s about managing the inevitable cost as much as you can at the moment.
That’s what we’ve been (imperfectly) implementing in the last days and we see quite a progress already – both at work and in the family life.
And what are your ways to manage to parent and work at the same time? Dare to share!