Ninja of time management: How to be a work-at-home mom without losing your shit

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The Rinz & Judah
This is my friend Sarah and her son Judah
I got an email recently from a mama looking for advice on how to manage the challenges of being a work-at-home mom. I believe folks who like acronyms call this being a "WAHM" (I'm not a fan of the acronymification of women's communications online, but to each her own), and I've been doing it for the last six months. And you know what? IT'S REALLY HARD. You must become a ninja of productivity and time management to make it work.

Every work at home mother's situation and experience will be different, but here are a few things I've learned along the way:

Compartmentalize your tasks

The biggest new skill I've had to acquire is working in short bursts. Since I mostly work during my infant son's naps or during the rare moments when he's contented to play by himself, I've had to learn to break much of my work into tiny, interrupt-able bite-sized chunks. For my work, that means keeping up with emails and content management during the short naps, and saving my bigger-picture work and writing projects for scheduled longer blocks of time, ie after my son's gone to bed for the night OR on my weekly offsite workday.

Get out of the house

The best thing I've done for my career as a self-employed mom is getting a membership at a local coworking space called Office Nomads, so I can go work away from home one day a week. Coworking is the increasingly popular practice of sharing an office with other freelancers and work-at-home types. They're popping up all over the world, and having one day a week where I'm out of the house and getting a day of solidly focused uninterrupted time is the BEST thing I've done for my new career. It's just critical (at least for my sanity) to get "dressed up" (aka more than dance pants and a hoody) and be out in the world interfacing with adults, even if it's just one day a week.

In terms of getting out of the house, coworking is extra awesome, but a cafe can work too. And obviously, this only works if you have family or other childcare available, but seriously IT IS SO WORTH IT even if you have to pay for daycare. I can get a week's worth of work done in that one solid 8-hour chunk.

Learn more: Check out Coworking.info and find a space near you. Or, start your own.

Be hyper-productive

It's amazing how much work I can get done in my one 8-hour office day. In my past, I've had corporate jobs where stretching 30 minutes of work over the course of an 8-hour day became a delicately honed science; slacking as performance art. Cuz when I'm focused, I work REALLY FAST. So I would spend most of my days unfocused. But when you only have a 30-minute nap to get something done, you learn to stop fucking around with Facebook ("Oh this? I'm doing social media marketing research!" HA HA WHATEVER!) and hammer your tasks until they're bloodied messes on the concrete. And still have time to wipe it up and make yourself a cup of tea before naptime ends.

Learn more: There are endless productively resources available online, but I've known many people who've loved the Getting Things Done method.

Prioritize like a fiend

This is a big-picture productivity skill. Make sure you know which tasks (both work and home) need to get done, and when they need to get done. Become a zen master of prioritization. Break down your work and sort it. Eliminate the noise and work your way through your lists in order. Don't do the easy stuff first. That's something I used to get to do as a corporate slacker — I don't have that luxury when I'm working for myself from home. You have to know what you need to do, and when it needs to be done. And then you have to just do it.

Don't multitask (aka, Don't ignore the baby)

My worst moments as a mother working at home are when I get torn between the two worlds of working and parenting. I'm in the groove with something I'm working on, and then I hear the baby wake up and then, just a minute! I hear you, Tavi! I'll be there in a second! as the baby's fussing becomes crying. Or, as I'm sitting on the couch playing with the baby, I hear an email come in and glance at my phone and oh, it's an important advertiser I need to talk to and you're ok here for a second, right Tavi? Mama' s just going to write a super fast email, and then the laptop opens and the next thing I know the baby has face-planted on the couch cushion with pinned a toy under his chin he's wailing and I'm trying to hit send send send as fast as I can and the email is full of typos and Aww, baby, it's ok, you're ok.

I feel awful when I do this, because I'm not giving EITHER of my "clients" (the business or the baby) my full attention and they're both suffering. I've had to make clear boundaries with myself that when the baby needs me, I will NOT try to multitask. It's unfair to both my work and my family.

But like I said, I've only been doing this for six months and only know my situation (1 kid, web work, family in town, etc). I'd love to hear from those of you WAHMs (*cringe* GAH! Seriously, I hate loathe acronyms) who are making it work to work from home.

So, for those of you working from home: what are your tips?

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  1. This rings so true for me, even tho I am not self employed. Prioritizing, not goofing off during actual working time, and compartmentalizing have been key to finding balance for me. I work from home early in the morning, before hubby & baby are up. Then about 7:30 I log off, help get everyone up and out the door, and drive myself to the office to put in some face-time. Having a flexible employer helps a lot. My overall goal is to squeeze all my work into as few hours as possible so I can pick my son up early from his sitter and spend time with him. It's a great motivatio to stay off the internet (except at lunchtime, of course!)

  2. I have done it yet, but I plan on going the flex time route too. Working in the AM while my husband is home and then again for a stretch in the evening after dinner. I'm worried about burning both ends of my candle (heh, cliche) but I think your advice is really helpful.

  3. There is a lot of good advice in here… although now with two kids, it is nearly impossible to work while they sleep, because that almost never happens simultaneously. Staying organized and prioritized are the two big ones for me, especially as a student having due dates for long assignments, I need to be able to find where I left off quickly and make sure that I am taking care of things in a sensible order. Prioritizing for me usually means that I cram small, less-important tasks into free seconds during the day and leave more important tasks to nighttime and away time.

    I battle with not doing any work while the kids are awake… with one I almost never had to, but now by the time we get both kids in bed I just don't have the energy to do a day's work. I feel like I am just going to have to muddle through these early years when they need so much attention; I am curious to see how time and work pan out as they become more independent and eventually go to school.

  4. I like WAHM ( Wake me up before you go-go!) But I know that acronymization can get a little overboard.
    My work at home consists of taking care of someone else's child in my home. The kids are 6 weeks apart in age, and its a good fit, personality-wise. It helps that the pay-for-play baby is super chill and mellow. But I do have my moments of almost literally juggling 2 toddlers bodily when they both need to be picked up at the same time. The nursery is downstairs, so I gotta scoop up 2 20 pound kids and schlep them down there. Then back up again. One in and Ergo, one in the stroller on the way to the park. And somehow each of them really only wants the other one's sippy cup, despite that they both contain the same damn tap water. Ive got to keep my more physically agile kid from mowing down the cruiser, keep both from scratching eachothers faces, keep one from grabbing a fistfull of poo from the other's open diaper. But I do it. And I like it.

    But what I have learned is:

    Keep the phone on vibrate. You will be less tempted to answer is if its not making "noise"
    Get all the stuff you will need ready for the day before you start work. Have an easy plan for lunch ready. Or you might not get to eat. Dont bargain on the kids going down for a nap so you can fix a sandwich.

    Tell friends and family what days you are going to be working so that you dont get interrupted with stuff that can wait for a later time. Just post on facebook, hey Im working today, cant take your calls/texts

    Learn to pee super fast

    If youre in charge of making dinner after work days are over, plan in advance, even the night before to do something in the crock pot etc. so that you dont have to spend MORE time away from your baby in order to feed your family.

    • Ha, yes– all bathroom activities are performed at the speed of sound (of fussing…)

    • I recently put the bumbo in my bathroom… and I so wish I did this earlier. Now my daughter (6mo) thinks me going to the bathroom is hilarious!

  5. This article and links are super appreciated, and I hope I'll be coming back to reference it again in a few years – I'm in school to caption news broadcasts from home, so I'd still need my other half here or take advantage of Grandma Daycare for a chunk of the day since I'll have to be uber-focused, but balancing the prep time with a kiddo will be…interesting.

  6. Totally. This is all great advice! Especially the Don't Multi-task rule! I have been there too! What keeps me from losing my mind is reminding myself what my priorities are. Yes, I need to work & contribute to our household income, but Ruby comes first, so if she's up, the computer is (usually) closed.

  7. I live in Japan and teach English at home.
    I think when I was pregnant I had visions of a peacefully sleeping bub in the corner while lessons (and life) carried on as usual. Needless to say, it didn't work out like that. For a start May will not sleep during the day unless I'm holding her. A sling comes in handy there.
    That said, for me it’s relatively simple. I don’t have a lot of lesson preparation so in general when there’s a student here, I’m working, when they go home, I’m not. The preparation I do have is mostly on the computer and I’m getting pretty good at typing with one hand and getting all that done while May’s asleep (on my lap).
    My students are very understanding. I make sure all new students understand that I have a toddler who will be present during most lessons and that she comes first. If she needs to be fed, she gets fed. If she's sick, I cancel lessons.
    Another thing I have done is start up lessons for babies so she gets to play with kids her own age while I'm working/cashing in on the “baby industrial complex”.
    For a while there I felt like I was managing to take care of all the "necessary” things; feeding, changing, etc, but not fitting in the fun stuff. So prioritising is important. And playing is pretty high on the list. Cleaning? Not so much.

  8. I work from home as a graphic artist for a company I used to work in-office for (we moved and they were awesome enough to keep me on), and it's definitely difficult. I've been doing it over a year now with my daughter, and I've learned to perfect the art of short-burst working. Now that she's a little older, I babyproofed my office so she can play a bit while I work on my laptop, but I've definitely had the moments where I'm being pulled in both directions for things that need my immediate attention. I take care of quick little things while she's playing, and work on the big things when she naps.

    One thing I'd suggest to prevent total mommy BURNOUT, though: Try to get your job done DURING THE DAY. I was doing little bursts here & there, and then using my precious few hours before bedtime after baby was asleep to finish work projects, which left me feeling like I was working the day shift and the night shift all at once. Major burnout. Now I have to remind myself that when I was in office, I didn't always get my job orders done the same day I got them. Sometimes they have to sit til they get done in order of priority. This leaves my evenings free to work on my OWN PROJECTS…like painting, reading, drawing…or just putzing around on the internet. You know, NECESSARY things. Things that make me SANE.

    I find myself working "overtime" to make sure my office doesn't ever have to wait for me on anything, and I definitely work harder than I did when I was in-office. That's because my "coffee breaks" now consist of feeding or playing with my daughter. You know…my REAL job!!! It's definitely a challenge when work is demanding something quickly, and my daughter's crying for something, but don't get me wrong–I consider myself VERY lucky to have a job that allows me to spend such close time with my daughter and be there for all the important things. It's definitely a balance, and I can relate to everything the author wrote…but I'm VERY thankful for my job!

  9. Success at working from home is entirely dependant on the support and respect you get from your employer and colleagues. Personally, I find it extremely difficult, as a part-time lawyer to work at home, even though I try to do it one day every week. With the exception of one or two, the people I work with do not respect my part-time arrangement. On the day that I'm working at home, the incessant badgering is worse than when I'm in the office — calls on my cell, barrages of emails, all of which, if they go unanswered lead to stern lectures about my commitment, my loyalty, and my ability, etc. Hopefully by the time my young kids catch on that I'm only about 50% here mentally when I'm working at home, I'll be able to quit or find a more reasonable job. Anyhow, my point is that if working at home works for you, be sure to appreciate your bosses and your colleagues; their support and respect is what allows you to be successful.

    2 agree
    • Yeah, it's just one more way in which my experience might be different: I'm self-employed, which definitely has differences from being an employed WAHM.

  10. these are all great tips, ariel. thank you.

    my husband and i have decided that instead of going back to my 9-5 desk job once my maternity leave is up, i will stay at home and work for his video production business. considering it's been nearly impossible to keep up with dishes, laundry and feeding myself in the five weeks since my daughter was born, i'm not sure exactly how i'm supposed to "work". sometimes i think things would be easier if we simply sent jude off to daycare and i went back to my job. it's nice to hear from people who are doing it and doing it well.

  11. Love this post! We just moved, and it was decided that instead of both of us trying to work outside the home and giving more than we can afford to daycare, that I would really try to get this freelancing thing off the ground and stay home with my son.

    "Multitasking" is my far my biggest pitfall. I have, like, ten tabs open right now. Four are work-related. If I get even a little stuck doing one thing, I'll hop to another, usually not-work-related tab. So this is new territory for me.

    Also, my son is at this weird toddler stage where he sometimes wants nothing more than to play alone, and then has bursts of, "Mommy mommy mommy!"

    Glad to see how other mom's make it come together! =D

  12. I'm kind of doing both right now – working full time out of the home and working part time at home on my own ebay business. Sometimes it gets a little insane – and I feel like the biggest mocha / late junkie so I'm trying to learn to ballance a bit better. I get the most done during naps, after bedtime and when my husband can take the kids out while I'm working. I need to work on the "kid multi-tasking" thing as I don't want to short-change my children (ages 1.5 and 3.5) – so if I am working with them around I try to involve them or we work together as a family. I'll take photos outside while my kids are playing in the backyard and my son helps me with taking photos. We do mini road trips as a family which involve ebay shopping and my son enjoys helping me shop for clothes to sell.

  13. i love this thread! all of you are very supportive and helpful. I empathize with Kate–the lack of respect you are getting from your colleagues is really deplorable. too bad for them–they might do better if they banded together and said, look how great Kate is doing, we should develop a workplace flexibility policy that takes everyone's needs into account.
    So I'm technically at a fulltime job, but they give me a LOT of leeway, so I've gotten it down to 1-2 days per week of commuting to the office (which is 2 hours away). I work solo except for one part-time admin person who is totally unsupportive and occasionally nasty. My days in the office are hell on earth. I think she thought I'd leave a long time ago. But whatever, the working from home is fine, I pay through the nose for 80% time preschool, my kiddo (age 3 1/2) is happy, and we spend Fridays together. I do admit to slacking off and being sometimes less than productive, but I think that speaks more to the job being dull than to my ability to organize myself.
    What I wanted to add is that i'm a bit scared of what comes next–furloughs are coming for me and while I'm excited to start my book project–a book of interviews–I've got to find a way to buckle down and get disciplined. Any self-discipline methods out there would help enormously. So far I've only managed to do things on the book from 9-10pm. Gah!

  14. Oh, Ariel – you are always so dead on! Running my own business has always meant longer, crazier hours than working for someone else – no "TGIF" here. But with the baby, it's like working two jobs! I make calls when she's napping, send emails when she's playing, try to book my client meetings for evenings and weekends when Daddy's home and try to make sure the baby and I sing and dance and play every day. And, on occasion, I've been totally guilty of the multi-tasking mistake in exactly the way you described it. I'd be lying if I said it hasn't been really hard, but when the going gets tough I remind myself that it is also very hard in a completely different way to work out of the home full time and not get to spend those moments with your baby. So I make it work and each day is an exercise in balance. And, on that note, I hear something banging in the other room and I'm not sure what it is so gotta run! 🙂

  15. I'd love to hear from Mamas who work from home full-time (and maybe long hours) but aren't self-employed…how does that work for ya'll?

  16. I'd like to hear an update about working at home with a toddler. My girl is 2 and working at home with a toddler is much more difficult for me than an infant.

    1 agrees

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