Working from home requires discipline even when your kiddos aren’t doing virtual school in the next room. We talked to two local work-from-home parents to get their tips for staying focused and being productive—and the one thing they both wish someone had told them when they were first-time work-at-home moms.
Find a workspace that works for you
“I’m the kind of person that I can sit on my bed and work,” says Lauren Keefe, founder and owner of Happy Tomato Fresh Salsa and mom of two teenagers. “Make your space how you want it, however makes you get in the zone. If it makes you feel better to get dressed, get dressed.”
Katey McFarlan, a fashion blogger and influencer who owns Chronicles of Frivolity, has a home office—complete with a bench for her 3-year-old daughter to “work” alongside her.
“I always like to diffuse grapefruit essential oil or peppermint essential oil for concentration,” she says, “and then I try to play spa music, which I know is so silly, but it keeps me calm and I think it keeps my daughter calm too.” (If you have an Echo, just ask Alexa to “play spa music.”)
Let your kids do their own thing
You may feel pressure right now to be your kids’ surrogate teacher and do your own job. But Keefe—who homeschooled her kids—recommends getting comfortable with your work situation before adding school to the mix. “You gotta let yourself get in your groove before you can figure out how much time you can even dedicate to [schoolwork],” she says.
And it’s OK not to supervise every second of their learning or play. Especially when her kids were younger, Keefe would let them hole up in another room and (safely) make a mess so that she could get work done. “It’s fine to let the kids play,” she says. “Kids need to play.”
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McFarlan sometimes sets out paper and coloring for her daughter in her office. She also “syncs” her schedule with her daughter’s so that they’re doing separate but parallel activities: If she’s writing a blog post, her daughter is doing letter tracing; if she’s reading emails, her daughter is reading books; if she’s on a call, her daughter gets screen time in another room.
“By kind of syncing those things up—high-energy activities with high energy, and then quiet activities with quiet activities—she almost thinks she’s working like Mommy, and it works better to break up her energy,” McFarlan explains.
Plan for interruptions
McFarlan sets aside two blocks of time during the day for scrolling social media and talking to friends. “Then the other times during the day, I just have to treat it like I’m in an office,” she says. Tell your friends and family what your “office hours” are so they understand why you don’t reply to texts right away.
McFarlan also sets a timer (she uses the Miracle TimeCube, but a phone would work too) to discourage random interruptions from her daughter.
“I will tell her, ‘Hey, for 30 minutes, Mommy’s gonna answer emails, and you’re gonna read in your teepee,’” she explains. “She knows when the timer goes off, we can go get a snack, she can request to do something different. It’s taught her patience and me flexibility.”
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Fight the temptation to do chores
After all, would you typically be able to do laundry in the middle of your workday? McFarlan plans out chores in advance so that she can resist temptation in the moment.
“I have certain days of the week that I allow myself to run errands, and I have certain days of the week—unless it’s an emergency—that I allow myself to do laundry,” she explains.
Keefe says if the sight of dirty laundry or unwashed dishes is distracting, she physically moves to another room. But if there is a household task that really needs doing, she gives herself small, specific goals to accomplish before allowing herself to be distracted. She also enlists the help of her kids.
“Kids are more capable of doing things than we give them credit for,” she says. “Give them a pile of towels, let them fold them. They won’t look pretty, but you can still shove them in the linen closet and shut the door.”
Talk to your partner to manage expectations
Each week, McFarlan and her husband (who’s working from home right now too) compare schedules to figure out who has time to take on household tasks. They also choose one night a week when they can both work late instead of spending time together—planning up front ensures that neither of them feels neglected.
“We’re like, ‘Hey, Wednesday’s going to be crazy for both of us, so we’ll put her to bed, and then I’ll go in my office, and you can work, and no hard feelings,’” she explains.
Let go of the guilt
Both McFarlan and Keefe say this is the one thing they wished they had figured out sooner. “I had a lot of issues with guilt,” Keefe admits. “Even though my kids were always around, I felt guilty taking myself away from them whether it was physically or mentally.”
But the guilt did her no good, and her kids are just fine, she says. “It was good for them to see me working. It’s good for them to see you concentrate on something that’s not them.”
McFarlan agrees that you can stave off the guilt by looking at the important life skills your kids are learning. “It’s OK if they’re independent, it’s OK if they have to go do something by themselves for 30 minutes,” she says. “I think we’re going to be raising a generation of very flexible children.”