One of the biggest time management questions I get asked is how I get stuff done when I work at home with kids. This is something that I’ve spent a lot of time troubleshooting, because I have three kids at home and at the time of this blog post they are literally at home–right now it’s summer vacation!
How do I get anything done when I have little kids underfoot?
It’s not as easy as some people make it sound and it might not even be as easy as I make it sound.
You may think, “well, that’s all well and good and it must be nice for you, but that will never work for me, because…” and to that I say, “then you’ve got to get creative!”
Sacred Time (My Secret Weapon)
Let me introduce you to the concept of sacred time. I didn’t invent this concept. I didn’t have a name for it when I started doing it, I was just doing it.
I learned the “sacred time” concept name when I started following Julie Stoian. She’s a marketer and writer whom I have tremendous amounts of respect for. She basically has all my money; anything she puts out, I buy. She’s one of my favorite people ever on Earth.
She has a series on her blog, juliestoian.com about time management and productivity and getting stuff done. One of the concepts that she teaches is called sacred time–time you have reserved for yourself where you give 100% to your work. Sacred time is a set-aside, predetermined chunk of time that is uninterrupted.
This is the time that you can deep dive and really get immersed, do some hardcore planning or writing or whatever it is that you need to get done. You know you have that time for yourself.
You have to set things up so that you will not be interrupted.
Spoiler alert: it can be challenging to find sacred time when you have little kids.
When your kids are older and in school and if you are fortunate enough to be home, then your sacred time can be a block of time that you set aside every day while you have the house to yourself.
If your kids are younger–like mine, and like many work-at-home moms–then it’s a bit more difficult.
My children are seven, three, and one right now. So only one of them is in school all day. My middle child was in preschool five mornings a week last school year, and my youngest was at home with me all day. It was challenging with that little turkey! (Mama loves ya, baby!)
My kiddo was at home with me–he didn’t go to preschool because he was too young, and I didn’t have a babysitter. There was occasional grandparent care, but basically it was just him and me. That’s really when I learned about sacred time; I just didn’t call it that.
Decide What Your Sacred Time Is For and Guard It
The foundation for this was laid years before. Back when I was freelancing and a single mom, it was hard.
I had my one baby boy (the now-7) and I learned that there were things I could do when he was awake and things that I could only do when he was asleep. I could really only write and pitch effectively when he was asleep. I could fold laundry, wash dishes, and give him a bath when he was awake. I could check email and do some social media when he was awake.
There were a lot of work and home tasks that I could do when he was awake but there were things that I could only do if I knew that he was going to be sleeping or hanging out with a grandparent for a number of hours, specifically writing and editing.
I tried to edit when he was awake–it wasn’t my best work. Same for just about everything else in my business… lots of trial and error. Lots of error. Let’s just leave it at that, ha.
As a result, the list of the things that I was “allowed” to do when he was napping was very, very short. That list was writing, editing, client calls, and any kind of in-depth research that I needed to do, maybe some coursework or researching potential clients. If there was something that I had to have full concentration on, I could only do it when he was sleeping.
Although there were millions and billions of things to get done, if my son was down for a nap, I would not use that time to fold the laundry, wash the dishes, wash the car, or any of that! Only the stuff on that super-short baby-is-asleep list.
Figure out what are the things that you can only do when there are no children around and then, when there are no children around, only do those things.
You are a WORK-at-Home Parent
I want to tell you something that somebody told me years into this struggle and it helped me so, so much. When you are the at-home parent and you are trying to build a business around your family, you are no longer a stay-at-home mom or dad.
You have gone from being the stay-at-home parent to being the work-at-home parent–you’re trying to start a business! You are now playing a different role. Your life is going to look different than when you are a stay-at-home parent and your only responsibilities are taking care of the kids and the house.
Sure, those may still all be your responsibilities… and when the kids are sleeping or occupied (and it’s NOT your sacred time!) that’s when you take care of the house. Maybe you are still able to uphold higher standards of homemaking, if you’re a really fast cleaner-upper and/or a minimalist. BUT the reality is that for most people, when you decide to fill some of your at-home hours with work stuff, you are taking away some hours from home maintenance.
You are trading. It’s a trade-off. You are just simply not going to be able to get as much done around the house, because your hours are fewer. You may not be able to get as much time playing on the floor with your kids. You have introduced a new responsibility and you have to find ways to accommodate it.
This was a huge struggle for me because I thought that I was supposed to be Susie Homemaker, right? I had this writing business thing that I did in my spare time but really I was supposed to be a stay-at-home mom and my house was supposed to look the way stay-at-home moms’ houses looked… but the reality was that I was not a stay-at-home mom. I was a working mom who worked from home part-time!
If you are a work-at-home parent, you need to be aware that there is some level of trade-off. You have to understand that when you are starting a business, you have to take time away from other things to devote to your business. There is going to be some level of sacrifice, there is going to be less of you to go around. You are juggling more responsibilities.
This is even more true if you have a job and you’re trying to freelance in the fringe hours outside of your job–you are taking even more time away from family, more time away from home maintenance, and it can be really, really difficult if you expect yourself to be able to get as much done as you used to and also do this business thing!
My goal is to help you minimize the amount of time that you’re actually taking away from your family and find other things where you can pull that time from. Things like housework, planning, committees, and commuting. Anything that you can cut from your schedule, trim it. Remember it’s temporary if you need it to be.
If you’re on the PTA board and you need to get off the board for six months or a school year (or three) so you can use those two hours a week to build your business, do it. Do it because your business is going to have way more massive payoffs than when you’re on the PTA. And I say that as a former PTA member who found it fulfilling!
The return that you’re going to get from using that time temporarily, pulling time away from that commitment and putting it towards your business, is going to be much, much greater.
With the knowledge that you’ve gotta pull your working hours from somewhere, I encourage you to consider reducing your outside commitments. Come to grips with the fact that you are simply not going to be able to do as much and then find as much of this sacred time as you can to put toward your family.
How to Find Sacred Time When You Work at Home With Kids
It seems simple on paper but it’s not always that straightforward. Not everyone is fortunate, like I was, to have a good sleeper and to have few responsibilities outside of taking care of my son and the place where we lived.
I realize that for many of us it is more complex, so that means that you’re going to have to have a higher level of sacrifice, a higher level of commitment, and a higher level of resourcefulness.
Cereal for Dinner
For example, I don’t know how many nights we’ve had cereal for dinner because I didn’t have anything left to give and I had a major deadline and I couldn’t carve two hours out of my day to cook dinner, eat with my family, and then clean up dinner.
On cereal nights the work deadline is the priority. Something has to have priority and you have to decide what your priorities are and then arrange around them. When you are working from home, it is work. It’s allowed to trump other things, sometimes.
Outsource or Don’t Do It
One of the things you can do to help free up some time is outsource as much as you can.
Or you simply abdicate the responsibility and just say, well, we’re not going to vacuum every day anymore. Not that I was ever that person… but the idea is that you need to reduce the task load.
Different Stages, Different Strategies
I’ve had a number of different iterations of working at home, and have had to adjust my strategies to fit.
When I got started, during my first three years of motherhood, I was working. Before, I had been dabbling in freelancing for two years, but when I became a mom, I also had to dig in and have freelancing be the thing that pays the bills as opposed to “this is a fun experiment for vacation money.”
So those first years of “this is the thing that pays the bills” was actually the only thing that paid the bills. I was a single mom!!
My sacred time when I had one child and no husband… was nap time and after he went to bed. He’d go down around 7 PM and then I had the whole rest of the evening to get my stuff done. I would try to be in bed by 11 PM, maybe midnight. Those were my chunks of sacred time.
As he got older and dropped naps or reduced his nap time–that was the most difficult. He needed more of my attention during the day because he was a toddler and he needed supervision and he wanted face time with me. I couldn’t just stick him in the crib with a toy and think that he’d be entertained for 20 minutes.
I had to get really resourceful in what I was doing. So I used his nap time for work time and then after he went down, I would just work, work, work into the evenings. I was up till 1 or 2 AM most nights. It was a very unhealthy schedule and I still pay the price for the stress that I lived with… but it got me through that year. If you can avoid grinding yourself into the ground, do it; but if you’re burning the candle at both ends for a bit… just know that you aren’t alone.
Readjust as Needed
I remarried right after my son turned three. After three years of being a single, freelancing mom, I had to figure out where a husband fit into my schedule. Sounds funny, but it was true!
A lot of times we felt like ships passing in the night. We would fill in as many connection points as possible during the day. The kids would go down by about 8 or 9 PM. I would be at the computer to do my work until midnight. And when he was able to, he would sit in a chair in my workspace.
Even if we were not necessarily interacting or anything–he might be watching YouTube videos with his headphones on and I’d be sitting right next to him working. And that was as good as it got for a number of months.
My husband was and still is really good about picking up work around the house because he knows that my business is important to me and he knew that this was something that would eventually lead to him being able to stay home, which HE wanted, so he was fully on board and supportive. I would make dinner almost every evening and he would do the dishes. Putting the kids down to bed was usually a joint effort.
Our third kid, Elliot, is not a good sleeper. So I didn’t have consistent nap times with him when he was home with me or a consistent bedtime, either. He would fall asleep anywhere between 7 and 9 PM. He was usually waking up at least once between 9 PM and midnight, sometimes multiple times. And then all through the night. And he still wakes up multiple times at night!
But what James did to support me and to give me literally the only chunk of work time I had when Elliot was a baby and a younger toddler, was pick up the parenting shift from probably 8 or 9 PM through midnight. So for the first 18 months of Elliot’s life, even though his sleep was routine-less and I couldn’t depend on his “schedule” for anything, I knew that every night I had 9 PM to midnight that I could get my stuff done.
But the reality was that I rarely made it to midnight. I was just too tired.
And that was really hard. Only having that limited amount of time was really, really hard.
My business had grown a lot by then and I found that even when I wasn’t doing the active parenting in the evenings, I was still being interrupted. My concentration would be completely broken and I would feel really distressed because my baby was crying and I would feel guilty because I wasn’t there to comfort him.
So eventually we brought in a nanny a couple of mornings a week. That gave me six hours a week in the mornings that I knew I would be able to get stuff done and I could do my writing work. And I still had James doing the nighttime parenting from 9 PM to midnight.
Now I had these chunks of up to six hours a day, five days a week. That made a huge difference and that was what was able to give me the traction to scale and facilitate James becoming a stay-at-home dad.
But I know that bringing in childcare is not an option for everyone.
And I had tried everything. I tried childcare swaps with a friend. I tried having grandparents, like a day with grandma. Each kid would have a day with grandma, but that still left me with two other kids I had to look after!
I tried having my older two with me when Elliot would have his afternoon nap, or I’d have my middle girl with me while the oldest was in school. During that hour and a half, I would give her screen time. I tried to get her plugged into activities, but she just would need me a lot. I put her in front of a movie and she would watch a Disney movie every single day. Not ideal, but it’s what got me through.
It was really, really hard. If this is a struggle for you, I totally relate.
Find a consistent activity that your kids can plug into everyday so that you can have at least 75% concentration (if not 100%!)–maybe you can get some outlining done.
For some people it works to get up early in the morning. That never worked for me because I have early risers. My kids get up as early as 5 AM. At one point I was trying to get up an hour or two before them, but at least one of my kids at all times has mommy-dar. If mommy is awake past 3 AM, then that child is awake.
So getting up early didn’t work for me. Staying up late is what works for me.
I did a lot of work during practices and lessons and stuff. That’s a real thing if you feel like you need to be there at practice, you can still get some stuff done. Maybe you can’t do all your researching and writing, but you can do a lot of the other things you need to do for your business during those hours. So reclaim them!
PSA: If you need to use that time to stare at the wall because you don’t have any other time during the day to just stare at the wall and have no one talking to you, then do that instead. I consider that self care.
Another thing a lot of my mom students are successful with is working maybe two hours in the evenings and a couple of days during the week; then they have Saturday mornings when dad takes the kids on Saturday morning and mom either has the house to herself or mom packs up her laptop and goes to a coffee shop or the library.
I know a lot of people who work in the library because there are study halls and Wifi. You can take your computer to the library and go to a study room or study carrels or even a work table, hook up to the Wifi, and get your stuff done.
Need Some Help?
So, these are some ideas, and some things that have worked in real life. But if you’re struggling, I encourage you to come into my Facebook group, the Inkwell Guild. Come and post your struggles because there are hundreds of people in this group who have had the same struggles and there’s a whole lot of us working together, giving each other support and encouragement.