Updated on 10.23.14

17 Strategies to Survive Working From Home With Children

Little kid sticking out his tongue while using laptop

Younger kids can be a handful when you’re trying to get things done. Photo: Rob Briscoe

If you’ve ever thought working from home with small children beats driving to the office each day, you may be sadly mistaken. My children are definitely the apple of my eye, but they can be a handful anytime I sit down to complete an important task. It’s almost as if they have an internal switch that flips on any time the cover of my laptop opens!

Before I made the decision to enroll my youngest son in child care, it was quite a struggle to balance running a business with an infant in tow. After years of following all sorts of tips to minimize distractions, I finally figured out how to successfully accomplish tasks without pulling all my hair out.

Here’s a comprehensive list of tactics I’d suggest if you’re having a difficult time working from home with children:

1. Be realistic

If your children constantly demand attention during non-business hours, do you really expect them to sit in a corner with a pile of crayons, coloring books, or an iPad for hours at a time while you work?

Even as an adult, I am sometimes easily sidetracked during work hours by phone calls, text messages, email alerts, social media (the ultimate time-suck), or a light bulb that suddenly goes off in my head — just to name a few distractions.

And remember, you are the main attraction for your little ones.

2. Have the talk

Assuming they’re old enough to keep themselves occupied, explain the situation and that you’ll need to remain focused throughout the day with minimal interruptions. Communicate to them that they are a part of the team and their role is to help mommy or daddy remain productive.

3. ‘Emergency’ drills

There’s nothing more embarrassing to a work-at-home mom, dad, or entrepreneur than a sudden outburst from their children during a conference call. (It happened to me this morning). Luckily, the client was understanding.

To minimize this risk, run through a series of simulations to prepare your troops. Nothing is guaranteed, but it’s worth a shot.

Since my children tend to be experts at interrupting me at the most inopportune times, we frequently practice the most common scenarios. A few examples:

  • If the phone rings and mommy quietly steps into the office, do you run after her screaming or quietly have a seat and wait for her to finish the call?
  • If (for some strange reason) I leave the door unlocked and you decide to enter and notice mommy on the phone, how do you react?
  • If mommy is staring at the computer screen with “that look on her face” when you enter, do you scream your demands or politely request mommy’s attention?

Over time, I’m confident the children will get the hang of things and give me quiet time when I desperately need it. But until then, we’ll keep practicing.

4. Offer incentives

Set goals for your children to keep them occupied. If they successfully meet the target, offer them a reward. I began using this strategy with my boys about two years ago, and we’ve been going strong ever since. Whether it’s 30 minutes at the park, popcorn and a movie, or pizza night at the local parlor we absolutely adore, they hold me to it. Plus I get to spend quality time with them during the workday.

5. Designate an area for your “home office”

You definitely don’t want to completely isolate yourself from the children if no one else is around to tend to them, but the kitchen table won’t serve as the optimal work space, either. Search for a well-lit area in your home, preferably a spare room with a door, that will enable you to organize your files, stay on task, and minimize interruptions.

6. Work the graveyard shift

As the old adage says, desperate times call for desperate measures. If you’ve had a rough day at the home office and are on the brink of missing an important deadline, pull an all-nighter. Before doing so, take a power nap to boost your energy levels for the long night ahead. Don’t make this a habit since sleep deprivation has negative side effects, including decreased productivity levels. I have to admit that I work late into the evening at least once a week, but I also usually take a few hours off the following day to recoup.

7. Use your time wisely

Do you have an infant or toddler on your hands? Naps may be a part of their daily routine, but they don’t need to be a part of yours. As tempting as it may be to unwind for an hour or so midway through the workday, stay on track. You’ll more than likely be surprised at how much you can accomplish in an interruption-free zone.

When my youngest was an infant, my schedule was all over the place. However, I had a specific “nap time” list chock full of tasks that needed to be completed at some point. I didn’t include anything too urgent on the list in case he decided to skip a nap on a given day, which was not uncommon.

8. Be flexible

If a generous friend or relative stops by unexpectedly for a few hours to give you a break, make the most of your time by using it as a window of opportunity to tie up any loose ends or get a head start on forthcoming projects.

When neighborhood buddies pay me a visit, they know the routine. As much as I’d like to shoot the breeze, there’s work to be done, so I immediately get to it. Besides, it’s more fun and relaxing to hang out when you don’t have a ton of items on your to-do list that are lingering in the back of your mind.

9. Solicit the assistance of family and friends

If you’re on this journey alone, especially during the summer months, don’t be afraid to reach out to those who have extended an offer to help in the past.

As much as we all love our children, the ladies in my section of the neighborhood cringe at the thought of summer break if we haven’t made preparations beforehand. Luckily, there’s only one week between the last day of school and the start of summer camp. However, my oldest son tends to spend the first day getting caught up on sleep and the remainder of the week driving me up the wall with chatter about how boring life is and how he wishes we could hang out all day.

So, this past summer, I spoke with a few others in the area and realized they were having the same issue. We decided to make a schedule of the days that each parent would host the children so the distribution would be equal, and the children would be occupied until the workday was over. It was successful, and I’m looking forward to participating in the summer care swap next June.

10. Give it a rest

Are the kids driving you up the wall with constant interruptions because they desperately seek your attention? Rid yourself of any internal guilt and take a break! Take them on a bike ride, have a fitness competition, watch a movie, bake cookies, take a walk, or simply play catch. Regardless of the activity you choose, they will be grateful and stay out of your way when work resumes (fingers crossed).

11. Create a to-do/activity list

It’s a daily ritual for me and my oldest son on the days when school’s out: I either provide him with a folder of fun-filled educational activities or assign him some of my simplest tasks, such as filing and organizing the endless piles of papers on my desk.

If your children are at school for a portion of the day, but you still have a few additional tasks to complete when they arrive home from school, ask them to join you at your desk to read their favorite book or do their homework. That should buy you 30 minutes to wrap up your work for the day.

12. Plan ahead

Always add a few hours to each project and avoid waiting until the last minute to get started. If possible, take control of your schedule by establishing your own internal deadlines, because you never know what each day will bring when you have kids in the house.

This was a very tough pill for me to swallow. Procrastinating has always been my thing; I tend to be most effective when racing against the clock. Unfortunately, it doesn’t exactly work that way when you become a parent. I learned my lesson the hard way.

A year or so ago, my oldest son had an accident on the playground at school that cost me four hours of my work day and left me scrambling to meet a deadline. Of course my son’s well-being is more important than a project for a client, but that incident resulted in a massive headache, caffeine overload, and unnecessary stress that could have been avoided if I’d planned ahead.

13. Adjust your work space

Some children will entertain themselves for more than a few seconds at a time as long as a parental unit is in sight. If this sounds like your child, designate a small area of your home office as the activity station. Load it up with your child’s favorite games, electronics, and activities. I was not as fortunate with my first son, but the second time around, it worked like a charm.

Our little play area contains construction paper, glue sticks, crayons, scissors, and washable markers because my children love exploring their artistic side. And to make it more fun, I submit requests for particular artwork to hang in the “office gallery” they have created.

Another idea worth considering: Visit websites, such as Aussie Childcare Network and ESL Writing Wizard, to retrieve printable worksheets for your child to complete while you’re working. It’ll keep them occupied and they’ll also be learning while you’re working.

14. Become an early riser

This is another trick I use to maximize my workday. The kids generally aren’t awake in the wee hours of the morning, but I am. It’s the perfect opportunity to knock a few items off the mile-long task list and get organized before the madness starts. Or if I’m not exactly in the mood to start working at five o’clock in the morning, I use the time to get things organized for the day and do a few chores around the house. At some point, they have to get done, so why not early in the morning when no one’s in your way to create more messes or disrupt your flow?

15. Hire a nanny

Have you hit your wit’s end, and things just aren’t working out trying to balance work with your little ones in the house? As a last resort, you can always hire a nanny to stop in for a few hours each day to keep the kids occupied. (Notice that I only suggest a few hours for your wallet’s sake, although college students and teens on summer break may be an affordable option).

16. Work on the weekend

If you’re way behind schedule and desperately searching for a way to get caught up, bite the bullet and rise early in the morning on a Saturday or Sunday to get caught up. It’s definitely a sacrifice, but it beats spending the weekday dealing with last week’s assignments while you fall even further behind on current work.

To game yourself into working on the weekend, set a goal and an accompanying reward, such as a day off or allowance to enjoy an evening out without your family.

17. Pat yourself on the back

Balancing children and a full-fledged workload is beyond difficult, but it can be done. It’s OK to occasionally treat yourself to your favorite meal or a night out on the town for your efforts — within reason. When my husband is able to rip me away from the computer, I enjoy spa sessions or a mini-vacation with friends.

Regardless of how you wind down, make time to pamper yourself on occasion to avoid burning out and crashing into a mental brick wall from work overload.

Most importantly, hang in there. As your children age, it will get easier.

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