How to Work From Home When Your Kids Are Never Not Around

work from home work from home

Months into this thing and parents everywhere are asking the same question: How on earth are we supposed to work from home when our kids are there ALL. THE. TIME. and we’re also short order cook, camp counselor, referee, house-cleaner and “entertainment director?!” As a freelance writer, this setup isn’t actually totally new for me; I’m used to working from home every day with my younger two kids, ages three and one. (What I’m not used to is my older child being home, too, and no childcare whatsoever, no camps, and a big question mark hanging over the fate of in-person school in the fall.) But I’m here to say that although working from home may feel impossible — and there are moments when it simply will be — there are things you can do to help its success. Here are some tips that have helped me stay productive.

1. Get dressed. (You know this, though.)

Listen, it’s impossible to be motivated when you aren’t wearing a bra. Taking a shower, brushing your teeth, and putting on real clothes triggers your brain to shift from Eff Around Mode to Work Mode. Wear something that makes you feel good about yourself even if no one other than your noisy family is going to see you.

2. Use timers for everything.

For some unknown reason, my children are approximately 500 times more likely to transition from one activity to the next if our Google Home speaker is the mean mom who tells them to do it. Who knows why and who cares. If you don’t do Alexa or Hey Google! in your house then the timer on your microwave will work just as well. Or go super low-tech with an egg timer. Kids love those things.

3. Divide your work into bite-sized pieces. 

Unless you plan to work only when your kids are asleep, you will get interrupted — to wipe noses, butts, to cut grapes in half, to learn common core math so you can teach it to your kid, and to pull them off one another when your living room turns into a WWE wrestling ring. So it helps to break up your bigger work tasks into smaller, easier-to-complete bits that can be puzzle-pieced together throughout the day. For me, this means separating the brainstorming, outlining, research, writing, and editing stages of putting together an article; these smaller tasks can be done in chunks. And bonus: you get to cross things off your list as you go, which is wildly motivating.

4. Always lock your computer screen. 

Go ahead, ask me how I know. The story is legitimately tragic and involves a toddler erasing — no, not erasing but eradicating — two weeks’ worth of work. In fact he did such a good job making it disappear that my husband, who fixes computers FOR A LIVING and works tech support, couldn’t figure out how our son had managed to delete it without a single trace. Taking one second to lock down my computer would have saved me two weeks of re-writing. (If you’re running Windows on a PC, the keyboard shortcut is Windows key + L; on a Mac it’s CTRL + CMD + Q. Memorize and utilize.)

5. Be super-strategic about planning your kids’ screen time.

Every family has different guidelines around screen time, but no matter your family’s rules, be very deliberate about WHEN your kids are allowed to watch. You want that screen time to sync up with a moment that really works for the whole family, i.e. you. And as someone who has done an entire video presentation with three kids banging on the door asking for cheese sticks, I am telling you that screen time is best saved to overlap with YOUR high priority tasks like work deadlines and conference calls. Take the time to look ahead at your day or week schedule and plan things out accordingly.

6. Keep. Regular. Schedules.

But school is off, you may be saying. Doesn’t matter. Kids thrive with structure; plus structure helps automate things, and that ultimately helps you out. I have special needs kids and without a schedule, our home is not a happy one. Even over summer we stick to a pretty strict schedule regarding wakeups, bedtimes, and, with the exception of bathroom breaks, most everything in between. We even have snacks on there so my kids aren’t always begging me for food. The snack bowl that we leave out 24/7 helps, too.

7. Dance party like it’s 2020 and you are locked in your house for weeks on end.

When all else fails and attitudes are bad, morale is at an all time low, and mutiny seems inevitable, it’s time for some Kidz Bop or Taylor Swift or even Raffi (if that’s what it takes). Nothing changes the mood faster than letting go of everything that’s gone straight to crap and just goofing off with your people. Sometimes work just has to wait.

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Rachel lives in Indianapolis with her three kids, two dogs, and one husband. Her work has been featured in Scary Mommy, The Mighty. and Everyday Feminism among others. You can find more of her writing on her blog, Strangers on a Plain.