One of the questions I hear most often from other moms who want to work from home is “how do you manage your time?”
Often these women picture trying to fit the traditional 40-hour, 9-5 work week around family time, and just can’t imagine how it can possibly work.
The truth, though, is that managing your time at home is a different animal than in the typical office job. In a corporate environment, meetings, socializing, and getting drawn into projects and discussions that probably don’t need to include you can suck up a lot of time.
At home, laundry, TV and Facebook pose more of a threat.
But the good news is, if you’re efficient and disciplined, you can get more done in a lot fewer hours when you manage your own time. Working at home requires you to make the most of your working hours so that you can make the most of your not-working hours. The solution isn’t just working smarter, but taking advantage of your strengths, energy rhythms, and working tendencies – and then working your butt off when you get the chance.
I’ve been working at home for ten years, and making a full-time income in part-time hours for most of those. It’s not always easy, but over the last decade I’ve learned some tactics to help you make the most of your working-at-home schedule:
1. Figure out your natural rhythms and take advantage of them.
If your brain really doesn’t start firing until 10 AM, it might be pointless to use up precious babysitting hours for work early in the morning when you could be doing housework or hitting the gym instead. Instead of creating a strict schedule and trying to force your body and brain to comply, spend a few weeks really paying attention to your natural rhythms – when do you feel the most mentally alert? When do you feel up for physical activity? – and plan your work schedule and/or child care accordingly.
2. Group “like tasks” together.
Multi-tasking has gotten a bad rap for good reason: when you try to do several different things at once, you don’t do any of it particularly well. But I do believe in grouping like tasks. Simply put, this means that I try to take care of similar jobs all at once, rather than spacing them out.
As a writer, here’s how it looks for me: rather than signing contracts as they come in, I’ll wait until I have a few pending, and print, sign and scan at once. If I’m working on a blog post about a specific topic, I might write several spinoff posts while the topic is fresh in my mind – even if I don’t plan to publish them right away. Sometimes I will outline several posts at once, with the intention of fleshing them out later. And I tend to respond to email in spurts rather than as they come in.
My logic is that once I’m in a certain “mode”, it’s easier to just stay in the zone and knock out a bunch of work in that mode than to keep jumping around from task to task. Even though my workflow isn’t always totally linear, this approach works for me.
3. When you’re feeling the flow, work like crazy…and then rest.
This is the secret sauce of my work-at-home success. Some days, I feel like I’m walking through mud, barely able to accomplish anything beyond organizing my inbox. Then I’ll get hit with a sudden burst of energy or ideas, and I’m unstoppable. If I jump into work while my energy and enthusiasm are high, I can get an amazing amount of high-quality work done in a very small amount of time.
Yes, sometimes those are the days I leave Sprout on for hours and let my daughter draw all over herself with markers. But the positive tradeoff is that I can sometimes fit almost a full work week into a single day because I’m so “in the zone”.
The trick is to not get down on myself the next day, when I really just want to leave my computer turned off and cuddle on the couch with my kids or go to the park. High levels of activity sometimes require a significant rest period afterward! As long as I can keep up with basic tasks, taking a break just helps me power up for the next work-a-thon.
One thing I’ve learned about working from home is that it’s just not always possible (or desirable) to fit your work life in a neat 8-5 box. Yes, I try to set general work hours as a guideline, but part of what’s great about this gig is that I can blow off an afternoon of work here and be there for a school event or long lunch with a friend.
And sometimes I just have to take advantage of an unexpectedly-quiet house or sudden, unscheduled period of mental clarity to get some work done.
As long as I shut the computer off most days by 5, I don’t give myself a hard time about the occasional days I can’t seem to drag myself away.
Are you a work-at-home parent? What are your best tips and tricks for managing time and energy?