How to Stay Productive with Children At Home

A guide for parents working from home with children under 5.

Jake Kahana
Apr 1, 2020 · 10 min read
A familiar sight for anyone trying to keep a toddler busy

As we move into a world where nearly everyone is working from home, I know that it comes with its own challenges and distractions. I’m a co-founder of Caveday, a company facilitating deep work sessions, called a “Cave” for a global community. We’ve lead remote Caves over Zoom for the last two years so we wanted to help. My co-founders and I put together a webinar with some tools, habits, and best practices for working remotely. While we had hundreds of people attend and got great feedback, we found that many people in our community were still struggling.

A lot of our members are parents. And what we were suggesting wasn’t helping.

One woman shared her frustrations:

“I’m doing so many worthy things… and not giving my whole attention to any of them. I feel guilty that the kids watch too much TV, that I’m not a good enough substitute teacher. Regret that I yell too much.
Sad that I have to say no when someone says “play with me!”
Fear that I’ll lose my job if I don’t figure out how to keep performing
despite the circumstances.
Feeling like my childless colleagues and bosses don’t really get it.”
-Mother of 2 in Los Angeles

Before too long, I found myself in the same position — working from home without our usual childcare. So I surveyed over two dozen of our members who are parents in search of better advice. I’m writing this as an entrepreneur and parent who is constantly learning how to do both.

The following tips are not going to work for everyone. Pick, choose, and adapt to make them work for you and your family.

I. PREPARE FOR WORK

Before you even sit down and open your computer, it’s a good idea to set yourself up for success by planning

Plan your Kids’ Schedules First
Children aren’t the only ones who need routine. As best as we can, we need to find ways to preserve our old routines. That can mean something as simple as keeping blocks of time the same. Schedule out your kids’ days in 30-minute to 1-hour blocks. Mealtimes, nap times, and bedtimes should stay consistent to life before Coronavirus.

Find age-appropriate categories for your children: outdoors, sensory, creative, reading, free-play, building, running, quiet time, screen time, etc. Having a schedule of what you’re going to do keeps children busy and engaged. It can be exhausting (and sometimes boring) to follow them around and constantly ask “What do you want to do now?”

You can block your schedule by hand or use any number of easy digital calendar resources (Detailed Example: KiwiCo Schedule, Examples By Age: Khan Academy, Simple Google Sheet: Weekly Schedule). Learn about the different kinds of play here.

By planning our day around our kids’ schedules we should recognize that we’re choosing our family first over work. Less priority to work means lowering our expectations about what we can accomplish during our limited time.

Coordinate Schedules With Your Partner

“My wife and I tag team in and out based on our individual meeting schedules. We put blocks on our calendars the day before for each other’s meetings so one of us is always available for childcare.”
-Father of 2, Creative Director in LA

If possible, share the load with a partner. Compare your schedules and find time for one of you to work while the other manages childcare. Some couples find that a morning/afternoon shift works for them. One partner will literally join the Caveday morning remote session while the other joins in the afternoon (Caveday.org/remote for more information and schedules).

This is the time to consider being open to a new schedule. It might also mean doing some work on the weekends.

“We have calls scheduled in one another’s time so it’s been a little tricky to actually implement that schedule. I will likely try to get in 2 hours of work on Saturday/Sunday.”
-Mother of 3, non-profit manager in DC

Maybe it means working in the evenings instead of watching TV. Some couples stagger bedtimes and wake-up times. I’ve been going to sleep by 10pm and waking up at 6am to get two hours of work in before our daughter wakes up. My wife stays up until 11pm working and sleeps in while I take care of the morning routine. Others find that 30 minute or 2-hour shifts work better for them. Naptime is when a lot of parents get to work.

“Very minimum work is done at the moment — just during nap time”
-Mother of 1, Entrepreneur in NYC

On a call (also on morning childcare duty).

Set Boundaries and (Over)Communicate Them

With Yourself
Set up a workstation. A chair and a tabletop. The idea is to have a place that your brain associates with work. The more disciplined you are to only work here, the quicker your brain can get into “work mode” and not waste time being distracted.

Some people in our survey use their kitchen table, some bought a small desk for the corner of their bedroom. Others set up a chair and a card table in a closet.

“While my job is certainly flexible, I get the most done when I’m in my office”-Mother of 1, Entrepreneur in Jersey City

With Your Children
Set boundaries on your work space so it’s clear to everyone when you’re working. Close a door. Some families made it an art project with their kids — a green/red sign or thumbs up/down. Reminder: you’re not a bad parent for what might feel like ignoring them or letting them watch TV. Your kids might actually benefit from playing alone or being bored (gasp!).

“My kids [don’t] “let me” ignore them, I just shut the door while they [cry] sometimes and then [hide] in closets for phone calls.”
-Journalist and mother of 2, Iowa

Indicate which devices are for work and which are not. Don’t play games on computers — they’re for working. Phones might be the opposite — for entertainment and play. Minimize using your phone for work. If you have to take a call, put it in a pocket with headphones to indicate that while working, phones aren’t to be looked at.

With Coworkers
Now is a time for us all to be more human with each other. A child may be screaming while you’re on a call or climbing on your lap during a Zoom meeting. As much as possible, be transparent. “I’m on child duty right now in case something comes up”.

Share your emergency contact with your team. I’ve also seen people put their work hours in their email signature, “While I’m managing childcare, I’ll be online from 6am — 1pm and mostly offline after that. Please be patient. Thanks for understanding.”

With Family and Friends
Social time is incredibly helpful for our mental well-being. But while cousin David or Uncle Larry are bored and want to check in on you, be clear when your social time is. You can use Apple’s autoresponder feature (learn more here). “Sorry I can’t answer right now. I’m working. Can we Facetime or call between 2–3pm and 5–6pm? That’s social time for us.”

II. CREATE RITUALS FOR WORK

Now you’re set up to actually get to work. With limited time, it’s important to focus as quickly as possible. Let all the distractions disappear and start crossing things off. That’s easier said than done, but it might help to just take a deep breath before you start work (try this box-breathing technique).

At Caveday, we have our own way of tricking our brain to focus quickly. It breaks down to “Definition. Time. Focus.”

Definition
Make your list of to-dos. Start with the most important thing while you have the most mental energy. Put your headphones (or whatever gets you into “work mode”– coffee, sound machine, diffuser) take a deep breath, and begin. Define what finished might look like. Most of us could keep iterating our work — rewriting, researching more, adding more design, editing — but give yourself a clear definition of when you can move on.

Time
Block out the time so it’s not dependent on your output or anything other than schedule. It’s predictable for your children and partner. Our brains work best in 35–52 minute sprints. Sprint longer when you have more energy, shorter when you have lower blood sugar. However long your sprint, take short breaks for 3–5 minutes before getting back to work.

Focus
Remove as many distractions as you can. Close tabs. Put your phone on the other side of the room. Do not clean, cook, or do other things during nap time. You can do that with your children. It’s work time. In a word, monotask.

III. IMPLEMENT HABITS FOR MENTAL HEALTH

Take Breaks
Our brains need a break after hard work. And being with your children is definitely work. Even if you’re “playing,” taking a 2 minute break before work can ground you and help you find focus.

Or if you’re doing a few back-to-back work sprints, you can always take a break WITH your child. Take 3 minutes to ask about what they just did. Or have them show you what they’re excited about. Besides re-energizing your work, it can also relieve some of the guilt that comes with working while parenting.

A family in Indiana takes an art break with Grandma.

Create Outlets
To relieve the stress of these times, we need outlets. Try exercise or doing something creative. Find 30 minutes to go for a run, play music, paint, or journal (instead of watching TV or scrolling on your phone).

Social (but physically distant) outlets help too. Meet your friends over Zoom or Facetime. Don’t let your social rituals fall apart now– keep those dinner parties and happy hours and brunches and friend time alive over video chat. It might feel awkward at first, but seeing just beyond the tech barriers, lies the human connection we’re deprived of.

Your children likely miss their friends too, so schedule virtual playdates.

Judge your day based on different metrics
We’ve spent much of our lives making the most of every minute and are used to the way a day’s worth of productivity feels in the evening. When we get less done, it can feel like we’re useless and we need to keep working.
Rather than judge our days based on the number of crossed off to-do list items, I suggest two new metrics–one for work, the other for family. Ask yourself at the end of your workday, “Did I make meaningful progress on my most important task?”

Being with your children all day is challenging. You don’t need to love every single second. But we can look at a moment or two. Did you laugh with them? 30 second dance party? Did she lie down on you for a second or give you a hug out of nowhere? “Did I have at least one moment of memorable time with my child?”

We made this helpful planner you can print at home.

Gratitude
Studies show that reflecting on the things you’re grateful for can improve our overall happiness. Create a ritual at dinner… especially now that most of us are having regular family meals. Ask each person to share what they’re grateful for, a highlight of the day, or a reason they love someone at the table. This can also be a part of a bedtime ritual before saying good night.

IV. CHANGE IS UNCOMFORTABLE

Parenting already comes with its own social scripts and unfair share of judgment and guilt. We’re all trying to do our best — to keep our marriages and our families alive, to continue making money and feeling useful at work, and to guide our children toward what is right and good.

We’re not just doing two jobs — employee and parent. We’re actually doing more. Teacher, nanny, cook, maid, partner, manager, and a million other things. We can’t expect the same level of output and quality in ALL of these as we make sacrifices to keep things working. We have to be forgiving of ourselves.

“This is a hard and challenging time for everyone. I’m trying to give myself grace and lower my expectations all around. Some days will be bad and other days will be ok. It’s taking some time.
-Mother of 2, entrepreneur in NJ

Hopefully you found something valuable and useful in here. I encourage you to experiment and try something that might not work in order to tweak it to your family’s situation so that it does work.

Join us in a Cave. We lead deep focus sessions on Zoom twice a day, and three times on Tuesdays and Thursdays. If taking that much time is challenging, we built a work-in-progress tool to help you focus and do work sprints on your own: caveday.org/sprint.

I wish you and your family balance and bonding time while we’re all figuring out how to make this work.

Stay safe, stay healthy.

Resources

Schedules
Kiwi Co Schedule — Creative
Khan Academy — detailed by Age
Weekly Schedule– Blocks of time in Google Sheets

List of Educational Apps
Smartphone Apps (Wirecutter)
17 Best Apps by Age (Good Housekeeping)
12 Best YouTube Channels (Learning Liftoff)

Articles and Reference
A Guide for Working From Home (Harvard Business Review)
Schedule Like a Pro: How to get work done while caring for kids this week. (Modern Village)
How to work from home with your kids during the coronavirus outbreak (CNBC)
Giving Thanks Can Make You Happier (Harvard Health)
12 Kinds of Play (Familii)
When Your Home Becomes Your Office — And Daycare — Wake-Up Call (Medium)
Lyz Lenz on Working from Home With Babies (Twitter Thread)

Caveday is a company aimed at improving your relationship to work. We write regular posts on Medium and send out monthly newsletters with productivity tips, life hacks, and recommendations. Sign up for the mailing list here.

Or sign up for Jake Kahana’s personal emails, called “The Email Refrigerator” here.

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