Monday, January 28, 2008

20 productivity tips for work-at-home Moms of young children

I've been looking for productivity tips for WAHMs who are taking care of young children. By young children I mean anywhere from newborns to about 4 years old, or children who are not yet in school.

I must say that I have been disappointed. I have not found any help at all for Moms like me who have to squeeze in some work while caring for one or several young children. General tips for home workers are simply not applicable to me: Set definite work hours? Close the door of your home office? Quite impossible!

One successful WAHM whose advice I sought basically told me to lay low on my home business while my youngest child, 16 months old, is still young. The woman who gave that advice is an empty nester.

Certainly, my family comes first before my home business. But what if I were a single mother who had to earn a decent income but also wanted to stay home with my young child? Would working at home be impossible? Would office employment be the only solution? I refuse to believe so!

So I sat down with DH and brainstormed ways in which I could somehow manage our household, care for myself, DH and our three kids -- including a toddler -- and still get some serious work done. Many of these tips contradict productivity advice for home workers. I think that's because such advice is usually given by either unmarried individuals or married men who are not primary caregivers of their children. DH and I came up with three general strategies:
* identify and create pockets of time when you can work with minimal disturbance
* double-task or piggy-back simple work tasks with household or child care tasks
* maximize your productivity during those times when you are working

Using these general guidelines, we came up with 20 productivity tips for work-at-home Moms of young children:

1. Work when your child is napping.
Nap times give Moms chunks of free time. Use these times to work. If your baby isn't on a regular routine yet, find his natural body rhythm and encourage a daily routine. Pretty soon, you can predict roughly the times when your child gets tired and ready for a nap. Encourage long, peaceful naps by keeping the room a bit dim (but not as dark as if it were nighttime) and minimizing noises or masking them with music or white noise. I use a sleep CD by Dr. Jeffrey Thompson and my toddler gets at least a one-hour nap in the morning and another in the afternoon. When my toddler doesn't nap peacefully, I let him sleep in my arms and nurse him while I work on the computer. A sling is very useful for this. If you have several young children at home, it can be a challenge to get everybody to nap at the same time. You may have to try the other tips instead.

2. Keep children happily busy when awake.
Even very young children can happily amuse themselves for a few minutes while Mommy works. Set up a play corner in your home office with fun, safe toys that he can play with even without your supervision. Rotate the toys every few days or so to keep them interesting. Young children love to imitate adults, so get him a small desk and chair, a toy computer, cellphone, and toy versions of other gadgets you use in your work.

3. Child-proof your home office.
Make sure all power outlets and table corners are covered. Keep breakable objects out of his reach. Anchor all big pieces of furniture. Basically just make sure the little tyke can't get in trouble, hurt himself or break anything when he's out of your sight. Some young children, like my toddler, are sometimes perfectly happy just walking back and forth in a room, toys in hand. If your home office is child-proof, you can work while your baby amuses himself.

4. Ask somebody else to look after your children.
Plan to work when DH is home and can look after the kids, or when older siblings are home from school. Even if they just bring the little one to the park for 30 minutes, you can already get a lot of work done. Or swap babysitting with your girlfriends. Or hire a mother's helper or a babysitter for a few hours every week. See if you work better if you allot an entire afternoon to work and get a babysitter for half a day a week. "But I left my office job to be home with my child!" you say? Well, it's only for a few hours a week and you'll still be home with your child. So it's not nearly as bad as leaving your child in day care every day while you're in the office.

5. Work when the children are asleep at night.
I enjoy working after everybody's asleep. The whole house is quiet and there are no interruptions. But I tend to overdo it and end up sleeping very, very late. Which means I'll sleep with the baby the next day instead of working during naps. Plus, sleep deprivation is bad for your health. Besides, this is usually my time for DH. Therefore, I wouldn't recommend doing this night after night. Maybe once or twice a week, or when you're truly behind on your work.

6. Make your work mobile.
Equip yourself for mobile work by going digital. Buy a laptop and cellphone and subscribe to a Wifi Internet connection. This way, you don't have to be in your home office to work. You can work in your kitchen, backyard, playroom, baby's room, even in the playground. You'll be surprised how much you can get done by sneaking in bits and pieces of work when you can get away with it. At the very least, always have a small notebook and pen so you can jot down your thoughts or add to your to-do list. I can often make outlines or mind maps for blog posts when I have as little as 5 minutes of free time.

7. Minimize distractions.
When you are able to work, make sure nothing short of an emergency distracts you. Turn on your answering machine. Put your cellphone on silent mode. Turn off your Email alerts. If necessary, put a sign on your front door that baby is napping and you can't be disturbed.

8. Manage interruptions.
But it's inevitable: the baby will awaken or need to be changed. Working continuously for hours at a time is quite impossible for a Mom of a young child. So expect interruptions but learn to manage them. I still find them so jarring and disconcerting, especially when I'm writing. When it happens, I take a few seconds to quickly jot down what my train of thought was. This helps me get back on track when I get the chance to return to my task.

9. Dress for productive success.
I know, I know, one of the perks of working at home is not having to get dressed to work. But let me tell you this: you still have to get dressed to work even at home. You don't have to put on a power suit and high-heeled pumps, but you do have to get out of your pajamas and bunny slippers, and into comfortable casual wear that you can wear outside the house. The Flylady insists that you wear lace-up shoes. I even put on my basic makeup. My rule of thumb is: be presentable enough for a surprise visitor. If you're physically ready for anything, your mind will be alert as well. Believe it or not, this will make you more productive. I'm going to write an article about dressing and productivity in a future post -- watch out for it!

10. Delegate business tasks.
Sometimes it just makes better business sense to hire somebody to do some of your tasks. If there's a work task that needs to be done and you don't have the skill, why insist on doing it? It could mean spending a little extra to hire somebody to, say, design your website, logo and calling cards. Or write your press releases. Consider outsourcing anything essential to your business that isn't your core competency. Even though it means paying extra, it will be worth it in the long run in terms of time saved and higher quality work. After all, you hire experts to fix your plumbing, install a new dishwasher, or exterminate termites from your house, don't you?

11. Have an organized home office.
Make sure your home office is uncluttered, organized, and efficient. Have a place for everything and everything in its place. Otherwise, you'll be wasting precious time looking for things. The book, "Getting Things Done" by David Allen has helped me significantly in this area. One of the most important things I learned was how to organize my reference materials into file folders arranged in alphabetical order. Before I learned this, I was creating piles of papers containing information I wanted to keep for future reference. GTD also helped me keep my physical and virtual (Email) inboxes empty! Leo Babauta's productivity Ebook, "Zen to Done," which builds on GTD is also very helpful. It proposes a more gradual approach to better organization and productivity, and recognizes the role of routines (which were not mentioned in GTD). (You can help support my site by ordering either book through the links on the right).

12. Multi-task.
One of the principles of GTD is to do only one thing at a time, but mothers know that multi-tasking is sometimes necessary. We're masters of multi-tasking and probably couldn't go through a day without doing it. I wouldn't recommend multi-tasking ALL the time, but there are instances when multi-tasking is plain common sense. Let's say your little one is playing in the playground. You could make phone calls while watching him with one eye. You could be reading Emails while waiting for the pasta to cook. Well, you get the idea. Combine tasks that require minimal attention and concentration and you'll get more things done.

13. Get and keep your home organized.
An organized home will demand less time for upkeep, while a cluttered home will require constant work, zap your energy, and bog down your mind. Don't even think of starting a home business until your house has been decluttered and organized and your household maintenance systems are in place. Set up daily, weekly, monthly, seasonal and yearly routines for house cleaning, decorating, preparing for special events, etc. What I've found most helpful in this area are: "The Woman's Day Help Book: The Complete How-to for the Busy Housekeeper" by Geraldine Rhoads and Edna Paradis; the Flylady's website and book; "Hannah's Art of Home" and "Total Mom Makeover" by Hannah Keeley; and "A Mother's Rule of Life: How to Bring Order to Your Home and Peace to Your Soul" by Holly Pierlot. The Internet is also filled with free resources about getting organized.

14. Share household chores.
When I first became a mother, I wanted to do everything myself. I took care of the baby 24/7, cooked meals, did the laundry, and ironed clothes and cloth diapers (yup, I ironed diapers!).... I couldn't even find time to take a shower! Now with my third child, I know better. The two older children have chores, and I give hubby plenty of bonding time with the baby, especially in the middle of the night! As a result, I am better rested, the older children learn life skills, and Daddy and baby have a close relationship. Don't feel that you have to do everything yourself. Nobody possibly could. Engage your husband and other children in running the household. Tell them it takes family team effort to keep the home a clean, warm and enjoyable place to live in, and to keep everybody well fed, clothed and happy.

15. Give your children your undivided attention.
Your young child will be more demanding and clingy if you're always busy and distracted. Make sure your shower him with lots of undivided attention. Meal times, for example, should be relaxed, fun affairs. Read to your child several times a day. Take a break from your work to get down on the floor and play with your child. If your child's basic need for attention is met, the more likely he'll be happy to play by himself.

16. Keep your children well-fed and well-rested.
When children do not get enough sleep, and when they do not get a well-balanced diet, they can behave like frenzied tops bouncing off the walls! They get whiny and short-tempered and throw tantrums at the drop of a hat. Make sure you respect your child's need for sleep and healthy food. Minimize refined sugar and carbohydrates. Give plenty of fruits, vegetables and whole grains. You'll be rewarded with a happier, calmer child, making your whole life -- including your work life -- easier.

17. Reward your children for good behavior.
When your young child does play happily while you work, make sure to shower him with lots of rewards. I'm not suggesting anything you need to buy. Rather, reward your child with your attention, hugs, and words of praise. Let him know that it's very important for Mommy to get some work done. Say something like, "Because you played so well by yourself, Mommy finished her work. Now let's cuddle up for a story!" Even young children who don't talk yet can understand the emotion in your words, facial expression and body language.

18. Have realistic expectations.
Let's face it, you probably won't be able to launch a million-dollar home business while you're nursing a newborn and recuperating from childbirth. But it is possible for you to augment your family income. Be realistic about what you expect you can do and achieve with your home business. Set small goals, take baby steps and slowly but surely, your business will grow. Another important lesson I learned from ZTD: focus on only three most important tasks (MITs) for the day. This will keep you focused and calm as you go about your day snatching little bits of time to work. If you find that you have finished the 3 MITs but still have time left over, then you can go ahead and do the other tasks in your to-do list. Even if you only accomplish those 3 tasks, you can sleep soundly knowing that you have accomplished the most essential tasks for the day. Also be realistic about what kind of a house you can maintain while you're juggling family and business. Perhaps your house won't make it on the cover of a decorating magazine (yet), but you can keep it clean, comfortable and safe. Learn to live with "good enough" rather than "perfect".

19. Simplify your life.
Be clear about your priorities in life and focus on them. Cut down on activities and obligations that don't help with your priorities. This includes cutting down on TV watching, magazine reading, social activities, mindless Internet surfing, etc. Make every moment of your life count. Do only what helps you achieve your goals. Writer Leo Babauta, who rose to blogger stardom in merely a year, doesn't even read newspapers. It takes discipline and willpower, but you can do it!

20. Reward yourself.
Do keep yourself motivated by recognizing your accomplishments, no matter how small, and celebrating them. It could be as simple as allowing yourself to take a 30-minute break to put your feet up, sip a cup of tea and read a good book. One of my favorite authors, Holly Pierlot, recommends a Mommy's Day Off or Mother's Sabbath every two weeks. I heartily recommend this, especially for former career women who are suddenly staying home for days at a time. It's an entire day of doing anything your enjoy. You go home when, and only when, you're good and ready! What a wonderful reward for two weeks of hard work.

If your children are all going to school, then you're in luck. You'll have long chunks of time to devote to your home business.

Moms who homeschool are some of the most organized people I know, and they still manage to make time for a home business.

Do you think these tips are helpful for you? Do you have other tips for staying productive while caring for a young child?

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Steve Mills said...

As a work at home dad I can recommend the points about organisation and disruption management.

It can be very enjoyable and rewarding though if you manage your time correctly, and still give the kids time to be kids,and enjoy time with them though the day. After all , thats the advantage of working from home!

Lexi said...

thanks for your comment, steve! nice to have a work at home dad here!