how to work from home with small kids

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My consulting contract ended last Wednesday, right before the Thanksgiving holiday, and with no new contract lined up I’m working from home as a problogger. I’ve learned a few lessons about working at home with kids already.  As of now my “work from home” has consisted of working on this blog, but I’ve started working heavily on my personal consulting site, updating my “real world” social media contacts at LinkedIn, Facebook, etc., and brainstorming about wealthstreams.  As you can see from the photo, I have some incentive to stay away from corporate consulting world – the blue bottle is sitting where I worked.  Charming, eh?

In the four-day “intro to working from home” I’ve had, I’ve learned to:

  1. Stay focused on the task at hand … but if you can’t focus, put it aside. Since I have two small kids running around (well, one running and one crawling), staying focused on work is a challenge.  Childproofing the house is a challenge for one kid, but once you have two it’s impossible to have age-appropriate childproofing everywhere.  If I can’t stay focused on work because Little Buddy’s playing with the gas stove, then I ditch work until he’s taking a nap.  I’ve already completely botched a few tasks I worked on from jumping up and chasing the kids, and I would have been better off waiting until later to complete those tasks.
  2. Keep schedules. Your work can be flexible – kids can’t.  Little Buddy likes to go to sleep between 7 and 8 in the evening, so I have that time blocked out.  Knowing that the 7 to 8 time period is not going to be productive is much more helpful than putting him to sleep at 6 one day, 9 the next, 7 the next.  I can prepare my schedules, and he gets comfort from keeping his.
  3. Don’t feel guilty about working. I felt guilty the first day I was home even thinking about how I was going to organize working from home.  I’m so accustomed to the “Papa-gets-home-and-plays-with-the-kids-30-minutes-on-weekdays and Papa-plays-all-weekend” mentality that I had to take a step back and remember that if I treat every day from now on like a Saturday the kids will be exhausted and I’ll never do ANY work.
  4. Don’t feel guilty about playing. I also felt bad on Sunday morning that I was getting some work done while the kids were playing quietly.  I had no reason to feel bad – they were enjoying themselves – but when their attention turned to me, I put aside my “guilt” about “wasting time playing” and jumped into playtime – because it’s not a waste and there’s nothing to feel guilty about!
  5. The 9-to-5 mentality has to disappear, fast. If you’ve worked in a 40 (or 60 or 80 or worse) hour per week company, your world has a black-and-white divider between work time and “life” time (unless you’re an unlucky person with a Blackberry).  On day two I suddenly said to myself “hey, if I want to go for a run at 2 pm that’s fine.”  And later that evening I felt like working at 9 pm, and did.   I know that might seem obvious, but for a Generation Xer brought up in the Baby Boomers’ face-time world, it is a shock.
  6. Keeping organized is more important than ever. If you need to be able to jump to work for an hour while the kids are miraculously both sleeping, you can’t spend the first 20 minutes figuring out what to do.  Keeping organized – in a simple, efficient way – is critical.
  7. …and keeping the house organized is more important than ever, too. You can’t waste time trying to find Pumpkin’s binky and Little Buddy’s sippy.  Organizing and cleaning the house before we go to sleep is a lot easier with two of us at home, and having all the kiddie stuff ready to go first thing in the morning makes the A.M. hours much more productive (well, that and a coffee pot with a timer).
  8. LeechBlock (or something similar) is an essential productivity tool for the news junkie. If you don’t use Firefox, skip this step and go download Firefox!  LeechBlock is a great add-on for someone like me who just can’t stay away from the Times and CNN and other news sites.  I know reading the news should take about 15 minutes every day – scan the headlines and move on.  I have a problem, though, and even though the election’s done I still struggle with “taking a break” by reading the news.  I have LeechBlock set to allow me 1 hour (and that’s still too much) per 24 hours on all of the news sites I read, combined – then it blocks me.
  9. Make sure you don’t skimp on things you need to work. Our laptop fizzled and died last week, and although we have a hearty desktop computer that I can use, it’s not in an area separate from the living area and kitchen – the kids head right over for us when we sit down at the desktop.  Having a laptop and a desk upstairs, removed from the common areas of the house, was important so I bought a new one.  And before anyone thinks they don’t have enough room, my dad used to sit at a tiny desk in a closet when we were kids and lived in a tiny apartment.  It’s not fair to make the kids behave like they are in an office – separate work and play areas.
  10. Mindless entertainment is an even worse idea than it was before. I enjoy coming home from a long day and commute and plopping down in front of the TV as much as the next person.  It was a waste of time then, but it’s a HUGE waste of time now.  If you watch 2 hours of TV per night (and let’s be honest… when I watch a two-hour movie it’s usually bookended by a “few minutes” of programming before and after) you are spending 14 hours per 7 day week.  That’s more than a third of your old 40-hour-per-week schedule.  Three hours per day and you might as well forget about working from home.
  11. The Distractors (email, Twitter, digg, StumbleUpon, friendfeed and on and on) are suddenly a huge presence in my life.  My corporate clients blocked personal email and many social media sites – a corporate LeechBlock, I guess.  Now I can check email once every 5 minutes.  And I have been.  And I need it to stop.  A lot of productivity gurus recommend checking email once or twice a day, and I’ll aim for the same.  Twitter is another tough one – but the simple fix there is to follow people who have something interesting or provocative to say.  Digg?  It’s the Web equivalent of sitcoms, I think.  StumbleUpon? Channel surfing – maybe you’ll find something interesting, but if you don’t after 10 minutes better shut it off.  Keep the “fun sites” under control, or you’re no better off than a TV-aholic.
  12. Managing finances becomes a critical task. My blog income, while increasing, has been a small percentage of my consulting income.  I tended to just pile it into a separate checking account and forget about it.  Now that it will be my primary business, I need to manage my income and concentrate on increasing it.  Realistically it’s time for me to think about setting up an LLC, too.
  13. Don’t be a jerk boss. You’ve probably met this guy in your career.  Stays late, works too much, gets grumpy for no reason, and acts like a jerk all the time.  If you are your own boss, don’t be a jerk.  Create a positive work environment, for yourself.  Make your own results-oriented workplace, and don’t force yourself to do busy work.  Make time for the kids – think of them as employees who need to be kept happy for a productive workplace.
  14. Get out once in a while. In the wintertime it’s easy to stay home.  All day.  Every day.  After slogging back and forth to Manhattan from New Jersey for five years I don’t have much desire to get out.  The cold doesn’t encourage you to get out, either.  Yet every member of the family needs to get out of the house from time to time.  Little Buddy and I went to the store a couple of days ago, and his enthusiasm at such a dull outing reminded me that we need to keep going out.
  15. Holidays and weekends don’t mean much anymore. If you’re a 9-to-5 worker, a holiday – or a weekend – is a well-deserved chance to do NOTHING.  If you are working from home, it’s only a chance to do nothing if something’s going on (you have visitors, or you’re traveling).  I reminded myself Sunday that I wasn’t getting on the ferry Monday morning – there was no excuse not to get to work!
  16. Don’t dump all childcare duties on your spouse – but don’t doubleteam the kids, either. Bubelah and I have been absolutely terrible from day one at doubleteaming the kids.  Even when we just had Little Buddy we would both hover in the room when he wanted to play, eat, poop – whatever.  As a two-kid couple, we’ve learned a little bit more about seizing the moment – one parent can watch both kids while the other accomplishes something.  If you eternally split “watching” duties, one parent to one kid, you’ll never manage to do anything during the day.   In the first few days I’ve stayed home, we’ve done a better job than ever of splitting up – one of us goes and works out while the other watches the kids, or one of us watches both kids while the other works on the computer.

Let’s face facts:

  • Working is hard.
  • Working from home is hard – you need discipline and focus.
  • Working from home with a child is tough – that poop won’t wait for the client call to finish.
  • Working from home with two children is tougher – telling one “hey, be quiet, I have to put your sister to sleep” works about 1% of the time.
  • Working is hard.

Yet I’ve found that I can work from home by managing my time and remembering my priorities – and so far I’m loving it. This is my second stint problogging and it’s already off to a much better start, so I’ll hope that I can keep giving positive updates.  Let me know your tips if you’ve been in a similar situation!