As a somewhat reclusive author who has been working from home for 15 years (eleven of those with children), I thought I’d share some of the processes I’ve honed over the years.
Firstly, realise that this is an extraordinary situation we all find ourselves in (and not in a good way). We are all going through a riot of emotions, from anger and grieving to enjoying quality time with the kids and perhaps unexpected new connections with family and strangers. Go easy on yourself, if you can.
Don’t try to multi-task?
Let’s face it, unless you’re someone able to afford a live-in nanny or your spouse is happy to spend several hours at a time keeping the children quietly entertained, you’re already multi-tasking – working AND watching/ feeding/ entertaining/ educating children AND tackling housework. So, in terms of work, try to keep your focus on one element at a time for as large a chunk of time as you can manage. Experiment with an entire day dedicated to blitzing the housework, followed by a few days of work, study, or family time with just the minor daily tasks to attend to.
Another option is to use housework as your exercise. Schedule a break in your desk-based work or study to move your body by vacuuming, sweeping, mopping, etc., but keep your mental focus on your work so you can go straight back into it.
Tackle the worst, biggest, or most annoying tasks early so your mind is not drawn to the pile of dirty dishes or the laundry that needs folding.
Concentrating with children around
If you have a young baby, invest in a carrier that holds the baby close to your body. I recommend the Moby wrap or Ergo structured carrier. It is easier to settle a baby this way, and is proven to be better for you and your child’s long term mental health (in Australia it’s sometimes referred to as “kangaroo care”) (1), (2), (3), (4). And you can work sitting or standing or moving around.
If your work or study is essential or non-negotiable and you absolutely need a block of quiet time to concentrate, but you are a single parent with toddlers or older children – reach out for help from your online community. Presuming you’re not okay with your children sitting in front of a screen for hours, you could put a call out for someone you trust to engage with your child/ren over a voice call (or even a one-way video, or baby monitor or “nanny-cam”, where the adult can see what the child is doing but the child is not watching a screen). Have the child chat, sing, or read to their virtual babysitter so that the adult can keep tabs on the child, and text the parent if the child needs immediate attention. Ideally you would like to be in the same room as your child if they are really young or have special needs –try headphones with white noise or background music, or even invest in a noise-cancelling pair. If your child is older, shut yourself in another room or walk-in wardrobe, if you have one, or even the kitchen or bathroom.
Filming/recording/taking calls with children around
At this current time, your boss, clients, or audience may just have to understand that you’re working with your children around. If you are live, you could mention it at the start of the call/video so there are no surprises. Even the quietest child could drop something or click a pen lid at the wrong moment.
If your content is child-friendly, put your kids behind the camera, or let them watch you on another device – especially if you want to protect your child’s online privacy. They’re less likely to unexpectedly wander in front of the lens if you keep them in front of you. Who knows, you might have a budding young director on your hands. Teach them how to use the video-editing suite.
If you can’t film around the children, try filming inside a closet, or outside in your backyard. Perhaps set the kids up with an audiobook and headphones if necessary.
Pay yourself first
Determine what that means for you. Actual money-earning work? Or feeding your creativity and motivation? Also, think about the phrase “Paying Attention”, and try to imagine attention as currency. Do you really want to pay the Zuck first thing in the morning? How can you ensure that you are spending your first block of attention on something more valuable to you – your work, creativity, family, or productive leisure time?
My recommendation: don’t turn on Facebook or any other social media as your first thing you do. The exception is if you are creating content for social media – for example, you are a coach of some sort and doing a Live first thing in the morning feels like paying yourself (and your clients/audience) first.
At least to begin with. Writing my first published book with a toddler around, my goal was a minimum of just 100 words per day – I was soon hitting an average of 300 words per day and I completed the first draft of that novel in about eight months.
Don’t think about it, just do it
Is your work broccoli or jam? Broccoli tasks are necessary, nutritious, or valuable – they bring in money or improve your brand or serve to get your project closer to completion, but they are not necessarily your favourite thing to do. Jam tasks are delicious and possibly addictive, but not easy to earn a solid income doing (i.e., “money for jam”).
Don’t avoid the broccoli parts, but be aware that the jam helps you have a reason to get out of bed in the morning (when there’s no one waving the stick of you getting fired from your job if you don’t).
Tap into the motivation of altruistic problem-solving
Do you notice how easy you find it to tap out a lengthy response to someone on Facebook because you’re solving a problem for them? This article I’m writing right now is exactly that. I noticed post after post by people struggling to focus on working or studying at home amidst the distractions of children or other members of their household and I knew I could offer some suggestions. So rather than hammer out 2000 words in a comment, I’ve turned it into a blog post. Win-win.
What content can you offer your community right now? What solutions do people need that you can help with? Does one of your colleagues need a hand, in exchange for taking some of your least enjoyed workload off yours?
Permission to reinvent your schedule
Don’t have to get up at 6:30AM to get kids to school? Experiment with working at different times of the day – that 6:30 to 9AM block might be your perfect session. Or you might find a second wind at 9PM to midnight. You might even be able to manipulate your children’s internal clocks to your advantage (but obviously don’t try this if it has taken you years to settle them into a routine, or they are thriving on regularity). Need your kids to stay asleep longer? Let them go to bed later. Want a quiet house by 8PM? Wake them super-early and get them straight into a physical activity. Middle of the day your sweet spot? Wake them even earlier and introduce a siesta. Or make use of some limited screen time with head phones to keep them distracted and quiet for 40 minutes. Audio books are also good distractions. The Story Teller Partwork audio magazine series has been provided for free on YouTube by the publisher. This is a great compromise if audio-only doesn’t hold your child’s attention. The pages of the book are shown on screen, so your child could read along if they want, or look at the pictures, but there’s no animation.
Limit your own screen time
Especially late at night. Try to write longhand in a notebook and then type it up in the morning. Or dictate using a voice-to-text program (I haven’t tried this site yet, but have heard good things about Otter.ai). If you must use a device at night, turn the brightness right down, You can also change the background colour of your document to a softer orange, or even go for black background and white text. Remember to reset the colours before you send the file to anyone, though!
Add a filter that limits the blue light emissions at night time. Many devices now come with this feature built in, but f.lux is an excellent piece of software that I’ve been using for many years.
Get out in the sunshine at midday. This is the optimum time for Vitamin D production – you don’t need to be out there very long; a few minutes is usually sufficient. Move into the shade and read or write or dictate. Or exercise outdoors.
Exercise as part of your routine
Don’t take short cuts, especially if you have stairs. Get one item you need at a time so you have to get up and move again. Fidget – it’s good for you. Walk around if you’re on a phone call. Put your laptop on the kitchen counter so you can stand and work for a while.
Assign yourself a problem to nut out while you tackle some housework. When you’re done with the chores, write down the ideas and solutions you came up with – or dictate as you go along.
Balance paying work, creative work, and house work, and recreation. When your head’s not in the right motivation space, you want to do more of one, even to the point of using housework as procrastination(!). Set a timer. One hour for each, except for the task that most needs to be done – this one gets at least 20 minutes, but don’t force yourself to sit there for an hour if your brain’s not playing ball.
It’s hard when we’ve been trained since early childhood NOT to self-direct, always waiting for instruction and correction from, first, teachers then supervisors and bosses. This was “useful” when many, many people needed to be trained to work on production lines and in factories, but these days it is archaic and counter-productive. You have to find out what motivates you.
Have a plan. Determine what point A is for you, and what point Z (the completed project) might look like. Then work out the milestones that will take you from A to Z. Try to take at least one step towards the next milestone each day.
List your reasons for what you’re doing. Earning money to put food on the table? Creating something worthwhile and beautiful? Learning something new? Just getting through the day? It can help to clarify these, even if they are very simple or very boring reasons.
To do lists might not be for everyone. If I try to create a to do list, I often get stuck trying to work out what the most important task is (i.e, what goes beside item number one). I prefer to use what I call a Thoughtscape rather than a structured, linear list. I randomly jot thoughts, ideas, plans, and things that need to be done, group related tasks by highlighting in the same colour or drawing the same shape around them, and then I look at it and decide which handful of items are most urgent and/or most desirable – and the best order to complete tasks in.
“Training” children to let you work
Start with something that doesn’t need your full attention – preferably only using your hands, so you’re still watching and responding to your child. When my eldest was a toddler, he would pull pens and books out of my hands if I tried to write longhand or read to myself, so I switched to knitting something easy and unimportant. He got used to seeing something in my hands, but knew that I was still paying attention to him – and eventually he got wrapped up in what he was doing and I was able to pick up a book again.
When I moved to trying to write a novel, I placed a toy “laptop” on the table beside me while I worked on mine. At one point I could get 30-40 minutes of writing done like that. As he got older, he ended up with his own device for about 20 minutes, but he was also no longer pulling pens out of my hand so I was able to work alternating between my computer and longhand.
Remember to stop and do something fun, if you can. If your child wants to play Snakes & Ladders in the middle of your work session, consider taking a break and make the most of it. Hopefully we’ll all get through this time with some new ideas, different ways of working, an understanding of what’s truly important, and a whole new lease on life. Stay safe and stay well. <3
Elle Carter Neal is the author of the middle-grade chapter book The Convoluted Key, picture book I Own All the Blue, and teen science-fantasy novel Madison Lane and the Wand of Rasputin. She has been telling stories for as long as she can remember, holding childhood slumber-party audiences entranced until the early hours of the morning. Elle decided to be an author the day she discovered that real people wrote books and that writing books was a real job.