Working from home while I was pregnant was incredibly convenient. I could do my copywriting job without having to invest in maternity workwear, indulge my pregnancy cravings all day long, and, when necessary, sneak in a mid-afternoon catnap.
Working from home after my son was born, however, proved slightly less successful. I was exhausted all the time from middle-of-the-night feedings, and competing priorities—Feed the baby! Meet my deadlines! Fold the laundry!—left me feeling perpetually distracted. Trying to do it all was killing my productivity, and not meeting my (admittedly high) standards for myself was totally bumming me out.
I wish I had spoken to Tiffany Han while I was struggling to adjust to my new reality as a WAHM (read “work-at-home mom”). Han, a career coach, encourages parents who are working from home to accept that they’ll never really get to the bottom of their to-do lists. “There's always laundry to be done and the dishes are definitely going to get dirty again,” she recently told me. “Instead of simply responding to the demands of your work and personal life as they arise, take a few minutes each day to identify your top one to two priorities and do those first.”
If completing those chores takes longer than you anticipate, blame it on “planning fallacy.” According to business and career coach Carrie D. Clarke, we’re all really bad at predicting what we can achieve in a given time, whether that’s a day, a month, or a year. Plus, babies are notorious at throwing wrenches into even the best-laid plans.
And if you’re struggling to nail both your parenting priorities and your job priorities? I asked a handful of productivity and business experts for their best tips for parents who work from home—on occasion or every day.
1. Identify Your Best Hours
Before I became a mom, I was a veritable night owl, capable of watching The Daily Show at 11 PM and then cranking out copy for another hour or so. But at some point after my son was born, it became harder and harder to form sentences after 8 PM.
Lisa Druxman, founder of FIT4MOM and author of The Empowered Mama: How to Reclaim Your Time and Yourself While Raising a Happy, Healthy Family, recommends that work-at-home parents maximize their productivity by taking advantage of their peak work times. “We all have different times of day that we are most focused. Handle work that needs your brain and creativity during those hours,” she says.
Similarly, try to coordinate work that requires your full attention with your child’s schedule. “You probably don't want to have an important conference call when your toddler is hanging on you,” she says. But “you can handle email or some basic administration work with chaos around you.”
2. Find an Accountability Partner
When you work remotely, you’re still accountable to your team. They expect you to meet your deadlines, participate in conference calls, and be accessible during office hours. My copywriting job required me to “clock in” every morning by logging into Skype, so I knew I had to feed, burp, and change the baby before 9 AM.
But if you’re a freelancer, you might need to create your own structure. If your baby’s young enough to reliably nap in his stroller, make plans to meet another work-at-home parent at a coffee shop and agree to put in an hour of side-by-side work before taking a break to chat.
If leaving the house isn’t an option, Taylor Jacobson, CEO of Focusmate, suggests virtually co-working with a friend on Skype at the same time every week. “Human beings are profoundly social creatures. We’ve been hardwired to respond to social triggers, thanks to millennia of evolutionary psychology,” he says. In other words, “I’m going to work with Susan right now” feels more urgent than “I’m going to work now.”
3. Batch Tasks
A new baby means new daily tasks to add to your agenda. But while you may be tempted to use your break between calls to wash and sanitize bottles or throw in a load of laundry, jumping into “parent mode” for even 10 minutes can make it harder to get back into “work mode” for that second phone call.
When it comes to time management, batching’s a pretty simple technique: Do similar tasks at the same time. For example, spend your morning responding to emails, complete a baby-related chore before lunch, and then use the afternoon to write proposals. Focusing on one kind of task at a time “alleviates cognitive overload, mental exhaustion, and the 'reset time' it takes for your brain to transition from one task to another,” says Jessa Hargrove of Heartfelt Business.
Druxman also recommends task batching. “When you are working, truly block out work and do not get distracted by laundry. In turn, when you are on mom duty, do your best to not check email, social media, etc.,” she says. “It is this multitasking that wears moms out and makes us feel like we aren't doing anything very well. Do your best to be present for whatever you are doing.”
4. Block Distractions
The baby is finally down for her afternoon nap, and you have approximately two hours to make a dent in your work. You open your laptop and decide to quickly scroll through your Twitter feed before getting back to that spreadsheet. Next thing you know, you’ve just spent half of your allotted work time retweeting snarky celebrities. Sound familiar?
It’s easy to fall down the social media rabbit hole, especially when you’re feeling lonely or disconnected (babies aren’t exactly the best conversationalists). “Not only does a few minutes on Instagram equal a few minutes not getting things done,” says Han, “but studies also show that time spent on social media actually increases feelings of loneliness, which sets you even farther behind on finding momentum.”
Han recommends the aptly-named Google Chrome plugin StayFocused, which limits the amount of time you spend on “empty” sites like social media. She also likes News Feed Eradicator, which replaces your Facebook newsfeed with inspirational quotes about productivity.
5. Get Help
Druxman encourages work-at-home moms to enlist the help of a caregiver, even for just a few hours each week, and that’s what I did when my son got a little older. Twice a week, when his nanny arrived for her 4-hour shift, I’d run out of the house with my laptop and drive to the nearest coffee shop for some uninterrupted work time.
If spending money on a babysitter to work at home seems counterintuitive or simply isn’t financially feasible, recruit a grandparent to help or consider a child swap. “Find another work-at-home mom and suggest that you each swap kids a few times per week,” Druxman suggests. “This is more fun for the kids and better for you to have some true dedicated space to focus.”
Of course, when you have the opportunity to work outside the home, you’ll want to make the most of it. Simply changing locations doesn’t guarantee productivity (although it can help!) I’ve found success with one of Druxman’s favorite apps, Tide, which combines a timer with white noise. I used it at first to track tasks and later to challenge myself to complete them within a set amount of time. I’m proud to report that I've become pretty good at staying within my time limits.
Read More: The Right Way to Ask for Help at Work
6. Track Your Time
It’s easy to dawdle when you’re working from home, especially when your attention’s divided between your laptop and your family.
“Have you heard of Parkinson's Law?” Druxman asks. “This is the adage that ‘work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.’ This means that you get work done in the time you give it.” Basically, if you give yourself a week to finish a task that should only take a few hours, the task will start feeling more complex and stressful and expand to fill the week. On the flip side, assigning the right amount of time to a project allows you to work smarter and faster.
Not sure how to determine how much time to assign a task? Simply start tracking your time. There are a couple different ways to do this. You could set a timer for a chunk of time—30, 15, or even five minutes—and note what you’re able to accomplish within that block of time. Or try tracking specific tasks to learn how long they actually take, using your timer to note exactly when you start and stop working on them.
Once you have a more realistic sense of how long things should take, you’ll be able to plan better and stress less.
When it comes down to it, being a work-at-home parent may be convenient, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy. The most important thing you can do is to cut yourself some slack. You’re only human—and a tired, busy one at that.
Once you accept that, try working your way through these productivity tips and see if any feel right. You may have to tweak them to suit your needs (like I did with my beat-the-clock method), but with a few more tools in your belt, you’ll be able to start chipping away at that never-ending to-do list with your pint-sized companion in tow.