Take some tips from a work-at-home-mom

Woman working from home on a laptop

Take some tips from a work-at-home-mom 

Some practical work-from-home tips. 

With the rise of Covid-19, our lives have been topsy-turvy, to say the least. Many of us have been sent home and forced to work in the confinements of our houses. I have always worked from home. (I have only been employed for two weeks of my life working at a Cape Town-based animation studio. Read how I walked out and started my own business here.)  Since then, I have always had my own company and now an art school. Being allergic to traffic and suffering from road rage, I have always tried to work from home or live in my office to save on expenses. Very early on in my life, I had to master the tricks of working from home.

When Covid-19 hit our world, working from home was the norm for me, not the exception. (Homeschooling that now came with it was not – that was a big adjustment, let’s be honest.) Once everyone was practising social distancing, I video called some friends to check in on them, I soon realised not everyone has experience in working from home like me. They looked borderline deranged, overwhelmed and just had an air of chaos surrounding them. When I started sharing some of my life hacks with them, they were genuinely surprised and inspired. They found it super helpful! For the past 14 years, I have figured out what works and what doesn’t. My friends, however, had to do it all at once. 

 
So beautiful people here are some handy tips, not just for working from home, but also especially for a time such as this. We can get beat Covid-19 and get through lockdown without ending up in a straight jacket or drinking wine from a cereal bowl.  I am not going to give “you need to meditate for 30 mins every morning” run down, because I don’t even do that, even though I probably should. Lists like that just make you feel guilty. I am a mother of 2, who runs a business – that now had to change gears overnight to survive Covid-19, I am a loving wife, and I also have my professional art career to manage with a product line and online store. So let’s keep this all realistic and doable. 
 
Here are some helpful tips that work for me. 

1. Be Punctual

I cannot stress this point enough. You can fail at all the other things but please stick to this one. Being punctual is crucial. Everything else depends on it. Like clockwork, I am at my laptop and desk at 8 am sharp. Not one minute over. No grace here. No exceptions to the rule. Once you start slacking on this, the entire day becomes a blurry mess. Before you know it it is 10:30 and you haven’t done anything of value.

2. Dress-up & Show Up

Get dressed regardless if someone is going to see you or not. Do not stay in your pyjamas!  In Jordan Peterson’s book, The 12 Rules for Life the first rule is Stand up straight with your shoulders back. Peterson is a clinical psychologist and in the first chapter of the book, he discusses how serotonin levels affect lobsters. He looks at how some lobsters are dominant and leaders and other cower around and die alone. He also looks at how lobsters can change their fate by changing their actions which affect their serotonin levels. When we stand up straight with our shoulders back we send a signal to our primitive brain enforcing the fact that we are brave and competent. We don’t only send these signals to ourselves but to others around us as well. We not only change the way we see ourselves but also how others see us. When we slouch around the opposite happens. The moment I wake up I put on my running clothes. This immediately sends a signal that we are going to be active now. If I wait as much as 5 mins I start finding excuses on why I don’t really need to exercise today. After breakfast and sending the kids to school. I shower and immediately get dressed. If my mission is to paint for the day I get dressed in my paint clothes with an apron. If my mission is to do computer work I dress up ready for work. 
 
On the days that sadness overwhelms me or depression gets the better of me I dress up especially. No matter how much I want to stay in pyjamas. I try to go all out when I am depressed. It is a trick Grandma Lillian taught me. She always said “My child, when sadness overwhelms you dress up in your best dress, wear pearls and go out for tea with your best friend. Soon you will feel much better.” 
 
Well, I can’t always go to drink tea with a friend but I can dress up. And that has made all the difference. It works because emotions follow actions. 
 

3. Book a meeting with your kid

I don’t usually homeschool my kids. This is new to me and only for the Covid-19 Lockdown. A lot of my friends are really struggling with having the kids home and still having to do work. The kids are really frustrated because my husband and I are home but not available. I believe they struggle to understand that because we normally segregate work/home quite aggressively. Back when life was still normal they had a set time with me every day. 2 – 3 pm. I pick them up from school, I check in with both of them, do a lot of emotional capturing if needed, we go do lunch together before they are off to their activities. This time is sacred to me and I have structured my business in such a way that I can do this daily with them. With homeschooling, this allocated time has fallen away.  I had to work like a demon lately to set up a virtual school for my business. I also got super irritated when they asked me for help with schoolwork every 5mins. I love practising Deep Work strategies that I learnt from Cal Newport in the book with the same name. I hate interruptions.  I am allergic to phone calls. I prefer to reply to texts on my own time. I soon realise the only way this is going to work for all of us if we give the kids set times. So book meetings with your children! My 7-year-old was really struggling with some school concepts and she was close to tears. Her dad was on a conference call and unable to give her attention. I was in the middle of filming virtual classes and couldn’t stop immediately. At the end of the call, her dad went to explain to her how booking meetings work. So she booked a meeting with him, in his work calendar at 12h30 for 30 minutes. He also shared with her how people, back in his 9 storeys corporate office, tap their watches outside the meeting room when you are running overtime. So at 12:28, she was at his study door, smiling… and at 12:30:01 she started tapping her watch. It is ok to allocate time to kids in business hours. 30 minutes makes a world of difference to them. You end up saving a lot more time later not having to deal with a meltdown. Setting up meetings with kids (in-office hours) is one way my husband and I will be trying to organise things and take the pressure out of the system.

 

4. Be kind to yourself

I have always been a busy body and overachiever. It’s part of my nature and I am not very good at sitting still. When I was Grade 12 I did 10 subjects for Matric. Most students in South Africa only do 6. And off course I wanted A’s for all of them. I was close to burnout when my English teacher, whom I didn’t particularly like, stopped me after class and said to me. “Be kind to yourself” I was confused. I had no clue what she meant. I was living in res and had always had to fend for myself. I have had a difficult dysfunctional childhood and was always on a mission to stay away from home for as long as possible. I cannot remember if I asked her to clarify or if she could see by the blank expression on my face that I was clueless. She basically said I need to give my body and mind what it needs to be a success during this trying study time. She elaborated by saying “Drink B12, drink and Immune booster, drink Rescue when you are stressed, drink more water etc” Such simple advice but it has stayed with me forever. 
 
When Covid-19 hit South Africa like a Tsunami I immediately asked myself how can I be kind to myself? I do feel like I have 5 jobs now. Our nanny is doing self-isolation with her family. This means I need to cook, clean the house, homeschool the kids and still run my company. I also needed to plan for lockdown not only for my family but for my staff as well. So how can I be kind to myself? How can I take some of the stress of managing all this? I decided to implement the following. 1. Use paper plates. Avoid washing dishes at all cost. Don’t use cutlery or crockery that cannot go in the dishwasher 2. Refrain from wearing any clothes you have to iron (I love my sexy spandex. Makes me feel fast even if I am stuck in my own garden.) 3. I drink Vitamins and B12 every morning. 4. I drink Rescue when I feel the stress and anxiety creep up. 5. I go to bed at a set time and wake up at a set time. 6. I stay hydrated. 7. I schedule Pyjama days and one day to sleep late. I schedule one day a week to rest and only rest. 
 

5. Set Up a Roster

Like the roster you had at school with set blocks of time, my life is also divided into set blocks. 
 
Before lockdown my roster looked like this: 
 
 
Now it looks like this:
 
 
I learnt this technique from a business coach in 2015. I used to complain that I never have time to work “on” my business and only “in” my business. He quickly taught me how to block off time for working on the business. Soon I was needed much less and I could hand over things to new teachers. It is really important to print out your roster so that it is visible to the kids and all other members of the household. This creates safety for them. They know what you are working on and not to bug you at certain times. They also know they have a set time waiting for them. Which brings me to my next point. 
 

6. Schedule fun & Down Time 

I am a very task-driven human. I can easily fall into a zone where I just work, work, work. Well, I use to be like that. When I became a mother I soon realised that such a  style of working isn’t going to work for me or my family. I was irritated with the kids if they couldn’t rush fast enough or simply just eat breakfast and get in the car. One day my 4-year-old simply had enough. She stomped her foot at me and clenched her fists and shouted “You want me to rush, but I don’t know how to rush. I am not good at it!” I needed to change. I cannot remember where exactly I read this, it might have been an article in a magazine, but the gist of it was that we get frustrated and irritated with our kids because we haven’t allocated any space in our minds for them. I soon realised my mistake. I was irritated with my kids because they weren’t on my to-do-list. So when dealing with them I didn’t necessarily feel like I achieved anything. I started adding things to do with the kids to my to-do-list. Soon all my irritation vanished. I was now a kick-ass mom that got stuff done. We were pretty much doing the same things, I was just way less irritated and started having fun. 

7. Link to your high values

Demartini has a great way to determine what your highest values are. It’s super important to know your values it is what drives us and greatly determines our passion or lack there off for certain aspects of life. My highest values are 1. Relationship 2. Empowerment 3. Environment and then it trickles down to other stuff. I also know what I don’t value and like. I don’t like cooking, In fact, don’t like doing any repetitive tasks, such as accounting or ironing. I always outsource as much of this as I can. Now with lockdown, I cant. I have to do these things. What helps a lot is if you pair a low value with a high value. I have to clean my studio (Repetitive = Low Value) but I can do it while I listen to an online course (Empowerment = High Value) I only exercise because it gives me good quality time with my husband. I would never be a runner if it was only up to me. I do it because it feeds my highest value: Relationship. 


8. Demarcated space 

I don’t know how big your house is, but it is vital to do this as much as possible. I have a dedicated spot where I do my work and other areas only reserved for the family and downtime. No matter how tempting it is, do not go sit on your bed with your laptop and work.  Don’t do it! The biggest danger of working from home is that everything becomes blurry. Work and family life integrated and become a big mushy mess. Soon you won’t know what day it is or when last you washed your hair.  Next up, intimacy with your partner vanishes because the bedroom is now a boardroom. Don’t do that. It’s not worth it. Keep it separate in both space and time. Also, stick to strict work hours. Force yourself to stop working at 5:30 pm no matter what. I usually give myself only one night a week to work late. And that is Thursday nights until 9 pm. Keeping to strict work hours. It forces you to work smarter and not harder.  
 

9. Habit Stacking 

Habit stacking is when you link an established habit with a new habit.  I learnt this technique from Atomic Habits by James Clear. In SA we have nannies in many households. Yes, my kids are spoilt. Now that we have no help. Every member of this family has to do something to make lockdown work. I cannot function in a messy space (See value No. 3) So link their established habits with new ones. “After you and your sister eat breakfast you guys need to unpack the dishwasher.” “After supper, you need to pack the dishwasher.” “After you get out of the bath you need to clean the bathroom” If you only give them a list they tend to only do a few items and lose interest or seldom remember all the items. Rather link them with things they are already doing. 

 

What can you do to be kind to yourself during this time?  If you have any other helpful tips and tricks please share them in the comments down below. I would love to expand my list with collective knowledge. 

 

Artist Lillian Gray wearing a business suite and heel at her art studio desk.

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