How to Rock Work-Family Balance as a Home-Based Working Mama

Have I got something special for you! I connected with Flossie (don’t you just love her name!) of Super Mom Hacks through a Facebook group we’re in.

I love her hacks and so I asked her if she would share some of her hacks for working mamas with us and man – she knocked it out of the park!

 Here is Flossie with tips to rock work-family balance as a home-based working mama.

If you’re reading this, chances are good you already try to balance parenting and work. Or maybe you want to swap your 9-to-5 for mompreneurship, so you can have more family time. Either way, all work and no play (er, family time) makes Mama grumpy and family unhappy.

Finding balance is critical, but easier said than done.

I was thrilled when Cori asked me to write this guest post, and NOT because I’m an expert. Far from it.

I used to think I was super-productive, back in my classroom teacher days. I worked long hours. My to-do lists were full of completed tasks, with plenty more waiting.

Becoming a parent threw all that out the window, in part because I gave up teaching to stay at home with my children. (My husband still teaches, and he has the long work hours to prove it.)

Everything I’ve learned about getting things done as a work-at-home parent, I’ve had to learn from scratch.

So if you want to know my hacks for balancing family life with work, read on.

How to Rock Work-Family Balance

Cut yourself plenty of slack.

Especially if you have a kiddo under the age of one.

Soon after my firstborn turned one, I felt as if I was slowly emerging from a fog. Suddenly, I no longer had to write “take shower” on a to-do list! And I was no longer too exhausted to think or plan.

Infants take lots of time and energy. So if you’re the one staying at home with a baby 24/7, you’re just not going to be that productive. 

And that’s OK! Babies are only babies for a short time, even if it seems like eternity while you’re living it. Enjoy that time, reminding yourself it’ll end soon enough.

Get up first.

working mama-morning

At least an hour before your kiddos. This is golden time to get things done without interruptions.

My cousin Gabby rises at 4:30 every morning, so she can telecommute for several hours before her boys get up. Before parenthood, I wondered how she could drag herself out of bed at that hour. Now I get how valuable this “alone” time is.

I’m drafting this post around sunrise; my girls are still asleep. This window before they wake is often my most productive writing time. I know it’s short, so I have to make the most of it. Plus, it’s easier to bang out a draft at this hour when it’s quiet enough to think.

Use time-blocking and “bunching.”

Creating a magic window before your kiddos awake is a good example of what time-management gurus call “time blocking.” It’s an effective way to get things accomplished, especially when you have many equally pressing projects.

Your kids’ teachers know this. I’ll bet their classroom schedules include intensive periods of work on harder tasks, other periods that are less intense, and short breaks scattered throughout –a five-minute GoNoodle break for grade-schoolers, ten minutes between periods for older kids.

There is a reason for this. No one can go all-out on a single project, day in and day out, without mental fatigue and decreased productivity. If you’ve got too many to-do’s and not enough time, give time-blocking a try. The Pomodoro technique is perhaps the most famous version of this method, and is a good one for starters.

While I don’t follow it strictly anymore, I’ve learned a lot from its principles. I break up my day into certain “chunks,” with set times for taking breaks and switching tasks. This way, I can make slow but steady progress on multiple projects over time.

I also try to schedule my non-work obligations carefully, so I don’t waste work hours on too many non-work things. I group errands together so I only have to make a single trip out, and piggyback them onto other things (e.g., a doctor’s appointment). And I try to limit my volunteer activities to Fridays, and my doctor’s appointments to first thing in the morning.

Break things down.

Likewise, I can’t afford to waste an entire work day on things related to family life, or on avoiding a massive project that’s too big for one day. Either way, the solution is simple: Break everything down into smaller chunks. Call them “action steps” or “next steps” or whatever.

A good recent example is planning my girls’ camp weeks and swim lessons for summere. I didn’t have an entire day to devote to this. So each morning last week, I spent 30-60 minutes making forward progress. Then I stopped for the day and moved on to something else.

Doing smaller tasks can help you track progress toward the larger goal while keeping it manageable, despite inevitable delays. Waiting to hear back from a project collaborator? Not sure which week your kids’ besties are going to camp? Just send the message; then put it aside and work on something else.

Plan your work and work your plan.

working mama plan

Dividing work into bite-sized chunks is one part of making a larger plan. There are lots of systems you can use to plan your workflow and manage larger projects. Which one you choose is irrelevant, so long as it works for YOU.

For electronic options, go to your app store and search on “productivity” to get a sense of the variety. For basic to-do lists, popular options include Todoist, Wunderlist, and Remember the Milk. WAHMs and mompreneurs may prefer more robust planning systems, like Trello, Producteev, and Evernote. I’ve tried many of these e-systems. Most people love them because you can access them anytime, across all your devices.

For others (like me), this “convenience” is their biggest drawback. I spend too much of my mama life in places where devices are banned or signals are unreliable, like doctor’s offices and school pickup lines. This is why I prefer the Bullet Journal method. It’s the only thing that’s truly worked for me in managing work-family balance.

My Bullet Journal has all my to-do lists, long-term planning notes, and project details in one (non-electronic) place. No matter where I’m stuck killing time, I can find SOMETHING in there to accomplish – even if it’s just returning phone calls or brainstorming future blog post titles. Not only has my bullet journal helped me get things done more effectively than anything else I’ve tried, it’s even made me a better parent. (If you’d like to learn how to start your own, see this step-by-step beginner’s guide.)

For mamas who prefer more structure, plenty of mom planners exist, with varying degrees of life management already built into them. Other mom bosses prefer old-fashioned “vision boards” or Kanban boards, where they plot out tasks with color-coded markers or sticky notes. It may take some trial and error, but finding what works best for you is all that really matters.

Make a schedule but stay flexible.

These two ideas may seem at odds with each other, so bear with me:

Schedules and routines keep our days anchored. Without them, we can feel adrift – and end up floundering for hours without getting anything done. Building our days around them can help us stay on track.

Some of this is carry-over from time-blocking: I only have X amount of time to get this done until I have to leave for school pickup.) But some of it is psychological, too.

I have about a half-hour in the morning between when my kids get on the bus and 9:00. I give myself that half-hour to finish my breakfast, clean up the kitchen, and catch up on emails. But when I hear the 9:00 news program beginning, I use that as my personal signal to shift gears into my first major work-day task.

Still, though, as a WAHM, I’m always “on call.” I’m the one who gets to stay home with a sick kid. Ditto if school is delayed or cancelled due to weather.

On days when I’m tending a sick child, my work schedule takes a backseat to being Nurse Mama. I might get her to nap or rest in the morning while I squeeze in some writing time. Then, when she’s feeling a little better by afternoon, I’ll use that time (for example) to catch up on laundry while we snuggle in front of a movie. I might then pull something out of the freezer instead of cooking dinner, so I can manage an extra hour of work after school while my hubby spends time with the girls.

So yes, my days and weeks follow a schedule. But that schedule needs enough “wiggle room” to survive the unexpected crises that will come up when you’re a parent.

Don’t ignore your body’s clock and needs.

One way I maximize my productivity as an at-home working parent is by tuning in to how I work best.

This has changed over time. Until I turned 30, I was a night owl; my most productive time of the day went from 6:00pm-2:00am. I was single and in grad school, which no doubt contributed to these bizarre hours.

As a working mama, I know I’m at my best in the morning, I have a mid- to late-morning slump, and my energy dwindles come afternoon. Because of this, I plan to accomplish those big tasks earlier in the day when I’m freshest. It’s much easier to write or plan when I’m most alert. I try to save lower-brainpower activities (social media, designing and editing images, etc.) for later in the day when my energy is lower.

I’ve also learned over time to distinguish between life-suckers and what feeds my soul. As women, it’s so hard to say “no” sometimes. But in order to give our best to our family AND our job, we have to say “no” to those things that suck up time and energy we can’t spare. It can be hard to end a toxic friendship, turn down a volunteer position, or get out of a draining commitment. But the more energy we waste on these, the less we can give to what really matters.

Divide your tasks by energy intensity, so you can maximize “low productivity” times.

Once you understand your body’s needs better, you can save low-energy tasks for low-energy times. Think of your kids’ school day again. You can’t do hard mental work around the clock, any more than you can perform physical labor endlessly without breaks. Our bodies aren’t designed that way.

Mompreneurs and WAHMs need to save those less taxing activities for times when our energy is lowest. Sometimes it’s tempting to try to knock those off first, but we can’t fall into that trap – or else we’ll never get to the bigger, harder tasks.

Instead, try to bunch your activities and schedule your work flow so that you have “easier” things to accomplish at lower-energy times, or other times when working conditions are supbar. For example, I use school pickup lines for catching up on to-do lists, social media scheduling, and blog outlines, rather than squandering my mornings on these activities. 

Claim your space, and leave work at work.

WAHMs need a workspace. Lucky ones have an entire home office. But even a corner of the couch will do. Having a dedicated work space will help you be more productive when you’re there, and signal to your family that you are “working.”

Likewise, having a designated “work space” will help you remember when you’re working, and when you’re NOT. When you’re not “at work,” you should be with your family. (This is just one reason we have a no-devices-at-the-table rule in our house.)

Establishing boundaries like these will help you be “present” for your family when you need to be. For me, whatever work I do before the girls get up each day ends at 7:00am. From 7:00-8:30 I’m on mama duty. When they get off the bus at 4:00 each afternoon, I am again full-time parenting until their bedtime.

If they both have homework, I might do something low-key on my computer while we’re together at the homework table. But otherwise, the time between school bus drop-off and bedtime is for me to be with them, NOT for me to be doing work.

Likewise, once they’re in bed, I might spend another 30-60 minutes answering emails or replying to comments. But when my hubby joins me on the couch, that’s our time to reconnect, discuss family matters, and snuggle with some streaming entertainment before bed.

Be ready to call in reinforcements.

It really DOES take a village. You can’t do it all, so don’t even try.

If you’re going to have time to succeed as a WAHM or mompreneur, you need backup:

  • Get your spouse/nearby relatives to cover the kids from time to time.
  • Hire a babysitter for a few afternoons a week.
  • Enroll your kids in after-care or extended-day programs at their school.
  • Set up a childcare swap with a neighbor, taking turns watching each other’s kids for a few hours while the other gets things done.

No, you’re not abandoning your children. You’re giving them a chance to learn and grow by being with other kids and grownups, different toys, and new settings. All while ensuring that your projects get done, so you CAN make the most of your non-work time with them.

And if you’re working on a big deadline, make this clear to your spouse and other backup crew as you ask for some extra help. They’re not mind-readers, after all!

Find your tribe.

However, don’t expect any of the people in the previous section to “get” your work, unless they work in the same field as you do. They won’t.

This is why you need to find a group of work-peers to bounce ideas off of, collaborate with, and give you support and accountability.

Join professional groups and networks in your field, if you haven’t already. Be an active member. Get to know people.

Especially if you’re working at home while raising small children, you NEED other adult interaction. Finding your tribe will improve your work, and help you keep “work time” and “family time” separate.

What about you? What are YOUR best work-at-home mama tips for balancing work and family? Let us know in the comments!

working mama

About Flossie

Flossie McCowald was a teacher before becoming mama to Kimmie (now 8) and Essie (now 6). A country girl who married a city boy, she and her family now live in Suburbia, U.S.A. When not schlepping her girls to Scouts, Code Club, swim lessons, or church choir, she enjoys bicycling, cooking, crocheting, and volunteering. She shares all her parenting mistakes, screw-ups, and things she learned the hard way her parenting tips, tricks, and hacks to save busy parents time, money, and sanity at supermomhacks.com.

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