For families, late summer is the season of new beginnings. School is back in swing. Work ramps back up. New routines start to solidify. This year is, um, different. With the pandemic still in full swing, many parents are working from home and many children are home, too, be they learning remotely or too young to attend school. Trying to work from home while the house is full is difficult. Gone are the structures of the office; here to stay are distractions, distractions, and more distractions. The balancing act isn’t new for parents. It is, however, more intense. And it takes a toll. After all, you’re trying to do both jobs simultaneously, and likely thinking you’re doing neither one especially well.
“You feel both pressures at the same time, and that’s why you lose your shit,” says Danna Greenberg, professor of organizational behavior at Babson College and co-author of Maternal Optimism.
In such a situation, it’s easy to lose your temper with your kids. You don’t want to, but it’s easy to feel like they’re the car in front of you and you’re 10 minutes late. “When you see your kids as obstacles, it creates a lot of stress,” says Art Markman, professor of psychology at University of Texas at Austin and author of Bringing Your Brain to Work.
To work from home with kids and keep your focus and your cool, you need to reframe your outlook and do what you can to reduce stress and feel like you’re getting work done within limited windows of time. You know some basics: exercise, sleep, get some sun, eat well. But you also need some back-pocket tactics Here are 32 strategies to help you do just that. Will they work for everyone or solve every problem that occurs? God no. But we hope some of them make the new normal a bit easier.
Work From Home: 35 Tips to Help Parents
1. Lowering expectations can feel like weakness, but the truth is you have less time for your work day. Trying to accomplish everything just amps up the stress. Start the day by creating a to-do list of no more than two items that you want to accomplish. It will keep you focused amid all the random stuff that’s going to be thrown at you, Greenberg says.
2. Think about a trait you want to pass down to your kids. Write that on a note and stick it on your computer as your guide, says Beth Kurland, clinical psychologist and author of The Transformative Power of 10 Minutes. Look at this to remind yourself of the end goal and what’s really important.
3. Around noon, take a 15-minute walk. You get up and out of the house, and the pace gets your heart and endorphins pumping, says Kathleen Martin Ginis, professor of health and exercise sciences at The University of British Columbia
4. Let your colleagues know what you’re juggling. Say, “Tuesdays and Fridays my kids are at home for school,” or, “Noon is a busy time around here.” And then let them know when you’ll be back online. People tend to be more understanding now, but they don’t automatically know your situation. You have to tell them, Greenberg says.
5. When you receive an assignment with a deadline, ask “What’s the latest I can get it to you?” Sounds obvious, but it’s amazing how many people don’t ask. Once armed with this knowledge, you can work smarter, not harder.
6. Freaking out a bit? Breathwork is your best friend, as it helps you focus on the moment. Before answering the phone, sending an email, or screaming at the kids, take three deep breaths to build in a reset and stop yourself from catastrophizing, says Sharon Salzberg, co-founder of the Insight Meditation Society and author of Real Change.
7. Do your best to make sure the kids don’t claim your workspace for any variation of playing, that they know that this space is Dad’s “office”. This sounds harsher than it is, especially in a house teeming with small children, but you’re doing it already: You already don’t let kids play in the garage, or near the oven, or in the fireplace. Set a rule early that your space is a Lego-free zone, and enjoy fewer boundary-related discussions later.
8. Learn to love Google Calendar and set up a shared family calendar. Pages can be color-coated for each person in the house, so kids, even if they can’t read, can see, “Red blocks = Do Not Disturb Dad”.
9. Predictability in each day is good. If you can schedule regular calls at the same time, even better. Your kids will then know that, say between 11 and 2 is together time. “People know what’s coming,” Pamela Davis-Kean, professor of psychology at University of Michigan, told us. “It puts a structure on unstructured time, and it makes people feel more comfortable.”
10. Remember to eat lunch. It’s pretty easy to just power through the day and not stop. But eating lunch — and taking a break while doing so — is crucial to staying balanced.
11. Create a signal to use when you’re busy and can’t be interrupted. Maybe it’s as simple as a finger to the lips or a thumbs down. All that matters is that you’ve explained it to mean, “I can’t answer you right now, but I will when I’m free.” Then when you are, follow through on that promise. They’ll learn to trust your word and that can also lessen the stress, Davis-Kean said. Afterwards, go big on praise. Tell them, “You handled that well,” or “Great question but not the kind to disturb me with.” You want to be flexible but still teach boundaries.
12. If you still have the rocking chair from the baby days, sit in it every so often. It’s purpose is to calm down upset people, says Toby Israel, design psychologist and author of Some Place Like Home.
13. Have a big meeting? Say at the outset that you have young kids who might interrupt a call or meeting. You’re likely dealing with other parents; empathy is on full, and being direct with your team or whomever you’re speaking with can alleviate the worry. “That will regulate your own emotions,” Kimberly Cuevas, associate professor of psychological sciences at University of Connecticut told us. And when an interruption happens, you’ll start on calm and have a better shot at remaining there.
14. Give yourself five minutes to “reset” every hour. One way to manage stress throughout the work day is set an alarm on your phone for every hour. This is your reminder to stand up from your work, take a deep breath, and focus on yourself, Katherine Bihlmeier, a life coach who specializes in mental health, recommended. “It stops you from getting caught up in the stress cycle, trying to be available for everyone and feeling completely exhausted in the end.”
15. Without water cooler conversation or other in-office randomness, you need a distraction. A suggestion: weed your garden. It’s physical, repetitive, which is meditative, and, at the end, you have a pile of accomplishment. Do it for 15 minutes at the beginning or end of the day Then…
16. . …plant some vegetables with your kids. They get an outdoor project and learn that even in the worst times, stuff still grows, says Toby Israel, design psychologist and author of Some Place Like Home.
17. Make a cup of tea. A step-by-step process focuses your head. Engaging multiple senses – the warm cup, the smell, the taste – does it even more, Salzberg says.
18. Store paperwork vertically. This eliminates schoolwork piles, and the endless searching and leafing through that a pile creates. Flip a crate or bin onto its side and use it as storage, recommends Crystal Sabalaske, professional organizer in Bucks County, Pennsylvania and mother of two.
19. When you return to your desk after attending to kid-chaos or handling a frustrating call, you need quick release. A good move: do a set of push-ups until failure.
20. Have all project materials in one desktop folder to minimize surfing and screwing off.
21. Bring the kids into your office; have them fill in ledgers, search for images, whatever feels like helping you. They learn to play independently, and you’ve removed the mystery, shrinking their need to make noise to get you to come out, Markman says.
22. Bad day? Botched a meeting? Lost it with the kids? Remember to go a bit easier on yourself. A good tactic, per Markman.: When you’re beating yourself up, imagine a buddy of yours made the same mistake. How would you respond to them? Now respond to yourself with the same compassion.
23. Speaking of your buddy: Call them regularly if you can swing it, says Mike Ghaffary, general partner at Canvas Ventures and father of two. You can vent, share dumb stories, but always ask, “How are you?,” This helps relax you, sure. But it’s also beneficial because helping someone gives you a sense of control and can get you into the present as effectively as breathing or meditation, Salzberg says.
24. Every once in a while, do a walking work call. You’re away from distractions and walls, allowing you to focus and think big. Ghaffary recommends to scope out the route and call a friend, testing out reception, sound (no wind) and privacy, using that no-surprise way every time.
25. Use 15 free minutes to bang out five email replies not to start the three-day project, says Adam Mansbach, author of Go The F*#K to Sleep and father of three. Why? It’s better to feel accomplished in 15 minutes than add another new task to a growing list.
26. If you really need privacy, and you have an office door, then shut it. Add another layer of protection by putting a stop sign on it, a good visual for those who can’t ready yet.
27. And make sure you and your spouse always knock to build the habit and send the message that this is a family that knocks on closed doors, says Peter Ames Carlin, author of Sonic Boom and father of three.
28. Give each child some chunk of alone, uninterrupted time every day. It could be 15, 20, 30 minutes, the number isn’t so important; what is, however, is that they get to be the focus. “It fills their tank,” Kurland says. And when they can look forward to it, it’s easier for them to tolerate hearing you say, “I’m working now.”
29. Keep a closet filled with extra school supplies, so when the kids can’t find something, they go there, not to you, Sabalaske says.
30. Feeling distracted? Do the 3-3-3 exercise: Notice three things you see; three you hear; three you feel to pull you back into the moment. Do it with the kids, too.
31. When things are on tilt, talk to your kids like a robot, pirate, or Sir Topham Hatt. You’re in character and that character doesn’t yell.
32. Think of the history books. They’ll describe the pandemic’s devastation but not that you didn’t get enough work done. The context, per Markman, cuts you some slack.
33. Establish a B work location for when there’s a Zoom call or you just need new scenery, Sabalaske says. If it’s the back of your closet, so be it. But having a trusted backup is clutch when things are hectic and you need to make that meeting.
34. When you lose it, tell yourself, “I’ll just start over.” Keep repeating it; eventually it will become a belief and habit, Salzberg says.
35. And then apologize to your kids with, “I’m sorry. This is what I meant to say. This is what I want next time.” They see imperfection is okay and you’re out of the mistake.
36. Accept that not everything will go smoothly. Take a deep breath, do the best you can, and remember what’s really important.