If you have attempted to work from home, whilst caring for young children at the same time, then you are no stranger to a distinctive kind of struggle and stress. Many believe this to be an ideal situation for a mother, but after three years as a work-at-home mum, this proved to be a continuing challenge for me. A major obstacle was that big, lofty goal-setting – to take on more projects and be more productive. It just wasn’t working, not with two kids under five in need of my time and attention.
Inspired by Caroline Arnold’s book, “Small Move, Big Change” which is about ditching traditional resolutions and starting with the smallest possible changes, I came up with a few micro-resolutions to make working from home with young children more productive and enjoyable. Three things have helped me to be more mindful about how I balance work and family life.
Only work in your ‘office’
One of my favourite Malaysian artists Jolly Koh, believes that having a studio announces to the world, “Here I am, and I’m serious about my work.” I think the same concept applies to having an ‘office’ at home. It is helpful for children to see that there is an actual room (or at the very least, a desk) which is used solely for the purpose of work. This draws much-needed boundaries between work and life. I’ve found that if I stick to only doing work in my ‘office’, I am more single-minded and efficient than when I try to work on the go.
I highly recommend adopting the habit of narrating what you are actually doing whenever you have to look at a screen in front of your children. Stating seemingly obvious things like, “I am going into the office for ten minutes to send an email,” will help keep you accountable for how you use your time. It also models a healthy relationship with technology to your child. You can also demonstrate that important things happen in the office by emphasising the word “work”, showing that you have made the conscious effort to separate leisure and quality time with them. This in turn will make them feel important when you are then completely focused during playtime! I often tell my kids I was doing work in the office while they were asleep at night. This lets them know that traditional work is an everyday part of life that has to happen, alongside taking care of them during the day.
Schedule at least one ‘work block’ a day
My planning system involves 3 calendars:
- A shared Google calendar with my husband – keeps us working as a team.
- A large dry-erase wall calendar in the kitchen – a lifesaver when arranging childcare and keeping track of school events etc.
- A personal paper planner – for all the details.
Google Assistant – Google Home helps for creating shopping lists and setting daily reminders.
After slotting in all the usual events and important dates, I then strategically block off chunks of ‘family’ and ‘work’ time. I personally find it impossible to focus when my kids are playing around me – however ‘independent’ they may be. Therefore the challenge is to find small blocks of time to work each day. Blocks of 30 mins, 1 hour and 3 hours (at night) work well for me. (You are likely to have more or less the same amount of time depending on how much help you have with childcare, and your children’s nap routines. Although 30 mins doesn’t sound like a lot of time, it is still possible to get a good amount of work done especially if you have made sure to …
Prepare for work the night before
Another great micro-resolution would be to physically prepare your workspace at the end of the day. Lay out all the documents, books, references or stationery you’ll need for the next day. You can also make a note of what you want to get started on during each block of time (in as much detail as possible). This primes your mind for what you need to concentrate on completing. Doing little things like tidying up and charging your laptop will ensure you go to bed a little more peacefully, even when there’s a deadline looming. This has honestly been the most transformational micro-resolution I’ve implemented so far. I no longer waste time procrastinating before I start on my next task during a designated work block.
The most important thing I’ve learnt is to come to terms with the fact that there is a limit to how much I can realistically accomplish at this stage. I celebrate achievements – however small they may be for now. And that ultimately, finding joy as a working parent can start with small and intentional steps towards greater balance.
By Michelle Chua
Michelle Chua is the author of ‘The Mindful Mum’ and Co-facilitator of the Art Discovery Tours for Kids at the ILHAM Gallery in KL.