For the majority of my adult life, I was in complete denial that having children would wreak havoc on my sleep and work schedule.
Then I had two children and realized very quickly that not having a daily routine and accountability is akin to lighting money on fire and throwing it down the toilet. There’s only so many minutes (not hours, minutes) in the day I can get it all done and still be a functioning human being, wife, mother and successful freelancer spanning multiple fields.
I do it all by working:
- Approximately 2-hours during the small window of the day when my daughter is at school and my son is napping
- At nights. Often late into the night.
- On weekends.
I probably clock around 30-plus hours on this schedule and still manage to hang-out with my kids, work and get all of the things one needs to do to run their life from laundry to paying bills. I can say with confidence that I have never in my life been more productive or successful as a freelancer than with kids. There is no room to fail.
When I read about morning and daily routines of successful entrepreneurs, I’m inspired, but also laugh for a very long time.
They either don’t have kids or have a robust support system in place to help manage the nitty-gritty details of raising small children. Or they have another parent doing the majority of the work.
Their thriving routine full of actual work and mind cleansing is not realistic for work-at-home parents. Real productivity as a working parent takes measured and panicked determination.
That’s why I want to share my own morning routine as a freelancer working in multiple industries like content marketing and social media with 2 kids and almost no childcare to speak of. This is what my productivity looks like.
1) I wake up around 7 a.m. and try to cram in a quick shower before my kids get up. I run the cold water for the last minute or two of my shower to fully wake up and rejuvenate. I hold onto the thoughts of the health benefits I’m getting by bathing in the equivalent of ice water. There’s not much other self-care in my day other than walking as many places as possible in my intown neighborhood of Atlanta.
2) I throw on my clothes, make my 2-year-old breakfast and put out a smoothie for him before he gets up. If he sees his toys first, he may never make it to the breakfast table and then I have an angry, hungry toddler to deal with for the next few hours. (It probably goes without saying that is a major productivity killer.) If there’s still time before anyone is stirring, I make an ice coffee for myself and sip on it as I run around.
3) My 5 ½ year old daughter starts calling me from her bed and I curl up next to her for a quick snuggle and try to soak her up for a few minutes. My husband appears with his own coffee in hand and sits down to play with our son. His latest game is putting toy food down our shirts until we are “full.”
4) The kids play or watch a few minutes of TV while I pull out my daughter’s lunch for preschool I made the day before, organize things for the day, and try to get everything out I’ll possibly need for the next 5-hours.
I check my email to see what pressing clients needs there while my self-employed husband and I trade off getting the kids dressed, fed and ready. If I have more than 5-minutes, I check a client’s Twitter feed and send a shout-out to a follower. I like getting in one quick win productive work item in the morning that I also enjoy doing.
6) I make sure my computer is charging before I walk out the door and that my work bag is packed with earbuds, wallet and phone charger. I arrange my day so that everything is ready in case I can squeeze in more work. The kids and I walk to the preschool 8-minutes away either by foot or in a stroller and drop my daughter off.
I take my son to the playground across the street and we explore. If he’s busy playing with another kid or investigating a dirt pile, I respond to quick client emails on my smartphone. If another Mom is around I refrain from looking at my smartphone in hopes that I look like a hyper-focused and involved Mom whose day is not torn to shreds on any given day.
7) On our walk home my son points out neighborhood wildlife and I think about what I can accomplish in the 2-hours while he sleeps and my daughter is simultaneously at school. Although most 2-year-olds take naps once in the afternoon, my son is a morning only napper. If he wasn’t, I would likely not work at all during daytime hours.
The 2-Hour Freelance Race
8) My son plays for about 15-minutes on his own while I get his snack ready and think about my goals for the day. There’s no time to write them down. By now I’m feeling the mounting pressure to accomplish more work than humanly possible in the next 2-hours. I get out Clifford the Big Red Dog and Goodnight New York City to read to my son. They are the equivalent of toddler page-turners.
9) The moment my son goes to bed, I say goodbye to my husband who is working upstairs and walk a half block up to the coffee shop where I buckle down. I’m a regular there, and people know not to approach me if I have in headphones. I always have them in even if I’m not listening to anything.
10) I get to work and Pomodoro my way through any task I can realistically accomplish in 2-hours or less. I can usually get in some social media scheduling, set-up an email marketing campaign for a client, or almost finish a ghost written blog post for entrepreneurs and startups whose work appears on sites like Entrepreneur, Forbes and Inc. or their own B2B business blogs.
The Afternoon, Anything Goes, Mad Dash
11) At the last possible moment, I head out to go pick-up my daughter from preschool. If my husband IMs me that my son is up, I stop by home to take him with me.
People sometimes ask me if I resent my husband essentially has ‘dibs’ on daytime working hours. I don’t. His clients and projects are more time sensitive, he works full-time, and that’s just life. I don’t always get what I want, but he makes sure to give me whatever spare time he has so I can do more.
12) We all get home at 1:30pm and the afternoon until dinner time is fun, but difficult. The kids both want a lot of attention, and my brain hasn’t turned off from the work I was doing. It’s frustrating to oscillate off and on all day and get pulled in so many directions. But with skyrocketing daycare costs, I feel grateful I can do it at all and actually do work that I love.
13) At some point when the kids are occupied, I can usually get in another 30-minutes of email or a quick client revision. I also intermittently try to get things cleaned up, pay a bill or organize something. I try to do things that aren’t a big issue if I’m interrupted by the kids.
My productivity hack in the afternoon is trying to only focus on things like housework, or tasks like invoicing that don’t require much bandwidth on my parent. No one minds being interrupted from emptying the dishwasher. But being interrupted mid-sentence with writing makes me feel resentful and stressed. The kids don’t deserve that kind of reaction.
Around this time, I realize I’m probably so tired because I haven’t had much water. I’ve found cinnamon helps with back pain I get from working at computer and picking-up 30 pound children.
14) The guilt creeps in sometime during the afternoon. Guilt is an unfortunate part of trying to manage both kids and work at home, but I find that it’s a symptom of not being present enough.
I try to combat it by listening to a bird or the wind in the trees and unplug when the kids are running around outside, playing a game, and chatting with the kids about our next family work-vacation. In 2016, we went to San Miguel de Allende, Mexico for a month and worked remotely. We’re working towards another escape. They have all kinds of ideas on where they want to go and see next. Sometimes it’s Mexico, sometimes it’s Disney and sometimes it’s outer space. I’m up for any of those things.
15) My husband makes a point to come downstairs shortly after 5 p.m. and we hang-out, make dinner, work through the bedtime routines and try to cover for each other if work is still lingering. I sometimes take my son on a stroller walk while my daughter is in the bath. He directs me on our favorite route by pointing his chubby finger while I think about the deadlines that lay ahead and how to plan my night.
The Freelancing Mom’s Night Shift
16) The kids are in bed by 8 p.m., and after 45-minutes of getting everything ready for the next day and a few minutes of decompressing, I get to work. Sometimes I turn off by 11:30 p.m., but often I’m up until 1 a.m. finishing it all. Often there are other things that have exploded on my plate like sorting out our estimated taxes, trying to figure out when to make a run to the grocery store, cleaning up a huge mess, folding laundry or anything else I can’t get done by day.
Don’t bother asking what happens if someone has a nasty cold, stomach bug or my son decides to wake up 30-minutes into his nap. I adjust on the fly and make it work.
No Rest for the Weekend Warrior
On weekends I generally follow this same type of schedule where I get about 2-hours in the day to work, and do everything else at night. My husband is also very hands on and supportive and dives in to give me more time. I do manage to get in projects I love like a blog post, and when client work is slower, I mentor other freelance writers and Moms trying to launch a career.
It’s exceedingly difficult to focus and stay motivated on this kind of schedule,especially when I go through cycles of exhaustion. It’s survivable, but hard to keep scaling and pursuing my dreams and passion for self-employment and mobility. I continue working on creating deadlines for micro-tasks like researching a project, writing it and editing it to keep my time from spiraling.
I also listen to entrepreneurial podcasts like the Side Hustle Show and listen to the same music on loop to keep my mind in a zone. And when all else fails, I remind myself how much I thrive writing and creating and the perks I get with some of my gigs like going on press trips as a freelance travel writer.
Optimizing My Work Processes
Sitting down and just white knuckling my way through an intense schedule works, but isn’t productive or healthy. I learned to optimize my processes to stay even more productive and save myself time. Here’s how I do it:
- Use Google spreadsheets to keep track of clients I’ve pitched, deadlines and follow-up.
- Create a weekly Evernote to-do list from researching projects to turning in deadlines and invoicing.
- Use Asana to keep track of my work flow.
- Batch my time and work on one project, without interruptions, for at least 30-minutes.
- Only take on projects I can realistically complete in about 5-hours or less.
- Say no to work and fun more often. This was really hard to do at first, but I can’t work on everything, nor can I commit to every girl’s night out.
- Keep my computer and phone charged and ready to go at any available moment, and work on small quick wins like social media scheduling or answering emails during unexpected down time.
- Stop wasting so much time surfing the web, getting consumed by the news and checking Facebook.
- Rarely ever watch TV.
The good news is I make a great living for a part-time freelancer despite the hectic schedule. I work across multiple industries including content marketing, editorial, video editing, name consulting and social media and thrive in a fast-paced, highly creative environment.
I stay productive and I make it work, but I won’t sugarcoat it. My relationships suffer.
I don’t call my parents enough, I’m often cranky with my kids and withdraw from friends when I am under intense pressure.
And I’m under pressure the majority of the time.
Some days I fall way off my daily routine and end up eating too much of my kid’s birthday cake, lay around like a sloth and am not remotely present. I also beat myself up for not being enough of a present Mother and exciting wife, and feel the disappointment of not being further ahead in my career and with the passions I’m exploring.
I fall into bed at night sometimes fully satisfied with my life, and other times wondering what I’m actually doing. Am I making progress? Am I living the best kind of life for my family? Ultimately I’m torn between being happy as a Mom to two pretty fantastic kids and also loving my work. I just can’t seem to balance it the way every article in women’s magazines and blogs say to. It leaves me feeling raw and vulnerable.
The work life balance for working parents is total bullshit.
I sometimes get so disconnected from myself that I have to claw my way back to an inner truce. Meditation, self-reflection and some indulgent self-care usually helps. But I have to keep going. I renew my determination to start again and find new ways to enhance my productivity and iron out the kinks.
Some months there is no end in sight and I’m convinced the light at the end of the tunnel will never come. But lately the scales are starting to tip in my favor, and my income has soared in the last few months by consistently over-delivering with a client and asking for more B2B writing work.
That steady flow of work and income has stabilized our finances and we decided to start our son in preschool a little earlier than expected, in part so I can work more consistently and have a better quality of life juggling it all. I plan to take at least one day off a week from anything other than my labor of love projects.
So it IS possible to do nearly a full-time job in fewer hours as a work-at-home parent. You can actually work less and be more productive like Chris Winfield and Sasha Vasilyuk, optimize what processes you can, be a parent and still be successful.
Hindsight is 20/20
I’ve worked incredibly hard for the life I intentionally created, but I would do things differently if I could go back.
I would have cemented a more stable and less frenetic strategy from the get-go and work on nurturing stable clients from the start. I also wouldn’t allow my internal dialogue of needing to be a more ambitious superhuman spiral to the point of consumption. And I would focus on enhancing my productivity and work processes sooner.
But it’s hard to know where to start, or how to scale, or how to develop any kind of daily routine when small children are involved.
Instead, I would focus more on loving who I am and being more present with my kids. At the end of the day, fueling success and looking for validation in your work can indicate you’re feeling a void or a sense of unworthiness.
Unfortunately, this is often my own reality. I know I’m valued as a freelancer, wife and Mom but often come dead last in this scenario and nothing I want to do comes into fruition. So I keep working harder to please everyone, prove my hard work is worth it by trying to scale my income, and continue validating myself by looking outward at the roles I play. In reality, these are temporary ways to feel good about yourself and needs balance. Too much of it, and you turn into a shell of a person where no amount of work can validate you any longer.
I’m working on being more present in every moment and remembering I’m accomplishing my big goals. I’m in a pretty amazing spot in my life, and it’s time to get my mind out of this self-imposed rat race and enjoy the fruits of my labor. And that’s what my family deserves, too. Because at the end of the day, my kids want a Mom who loves them and is happy living the life we already have.
And so I move forward, working on being present in those moments and remembering life with small children is a bittersweet season that’s over far too fast.