I’ll admit, I imagined working from home with a toddler would be much easier.
In the weeks leading up to me leaving my corporate gig to build my own content creation business, I had these grandiose visions of me plucking away at my laptop, warm coffee in-hand and jazz music playing softly in the background while my son, Owen, sat at my feet playing with Legos or putting together a puzzle. In my mind, all was peaceful and quiet.
For some reason, I just thought there would be this mutual understanding between me and my otherwise completely illogical toddler that he would let Daddy get work done for a few hours and then we’d both be able to enjoy a work-free afternoon together. For all you snickering parents reading this right now - I know how ridiculous it sounds in retrospect.
My dreams of a dedicated 4-hour work block in the morning were quickly shattered by the piercing screams of an 18-month-old demanding more peanut butter for his banana. I realized quickly that the set-up I had imagined - with Legos and jazz and focused work time - was just that: imaginary. Of course, the goal of leaving my corporate job was to spend more quality time with my son. But the fact remained I still needed to work. So, I did what any entrepreneur faced with an unavoidable roadblock to their business would do: I pivoted.
Not by switching up my product or business model, but by completely revamping my workflow to adapt to an unconventional work environment. And now, two months into things, I’m here to share some good news: It’s absolutely possible to work from home with a toddler.
Whether you plan to work remote in a corporate gig or join the growing contingent workforce, you can enjoy the freedom and flexibility of working from home while still actually getting work done. So, to help you get there (and avoid my early mistakes), I put together these 5 tips for how to work from home with a toddler. Ready to get started? Let’s dive in.
1. treat naptime like a sacred ritual
I’m fortunate enough to have a wife that also works from home, so together we’re able to tag team taking care of our son while also giving each other opportunities to get work done throughout the day. And while that often translates to one of us hanging out with Owen while the other plugs away at work, our son’s afternoon nap is the one time each day where both of us can do what Cal Newport calls “deep work”: Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limits.
Whether you’re a solo-work-from-home-parent or doing it with a partner, this blocked time makes a huge difference in your productivity each day. The 2:00pm - 4:00pm writing block in my schedule is when Owen naps and often the most important part of my workday. After he goes down, I leave my phone in the other room, plug in headphones and listen to Spotify while I focus only on deep work tasks. That means no email, no administrative work like invoicing, no dilly-dallying on social media. Just two hours of focused writing. And the results are tremendous: I’m typically able to double my output during these focused deep work periods. Now, of course, there are plenty of days where Owen doesn’t go down for a nap until 3:00pm or when he only naps for an hour instead of two. There’s at least one day every couple of weeks where he doesn’t nap at all.
And that’s where you need to remain flexible. As a general rule, I try to make sure I am never relying on that nap period for important deadlines. If something absolutely needs to be turned in by close of business on a Tuesday, I make sure it’s complete before I go to bed Monday night. That way, I’m never in a position where I need to tell a client my work I’m missing a deadline because my toddler wouldn’t go down for his nap today.
Naptime makes a big difference in my productivity every day, but it’s not quite enough to squeeze in all the work I need to get done.
Which leads to my second tip for you:
2. choose between being a morning person or a night owl
Here’s the hard truth I learned: you can’t be both. (And if you try, you’ll burn yourself out in the first week.) Prior to making the leap to working for myself, I was always an early riser. But as you can see from my schedule above, I’ve adopted a nighttime work schedule recently for a few key reasons:
better alignment with my clients’ schedules.
Part of the motivation for launching my new content creation career was the opportunity for location independence. I’m currently based in Hvar Town, Croatia, but spent the first two months of my new career in Paris and Berlin.
My wife and son on the lawn of the Eiffel Tower.
Considering most of my clients are based in North America (where they can be anywhere between six and nine hours behind me), it makes the most sense to work at night when it’s easier to quickly hop on a call or exchange emails back and forth.
more guaranteed work time.
I’m sure you know that toddlers aren’t exactly known for their stellar sleep schedules. If I were a betting man, I’d put money on my son going to bed at about the same time every night long before I’d wager on when he’ll actually wake up. That’s why working at night allows me to maximize my time dedicated to writing: there’s less a chance of me missing out on much-needed work time.
work time often doubles as one-on-one time with my wife.
I’ll admit, that’s not the most romantic sentence I’ve ever written. But with both my wife and I working full-time while also raising a toddler, we often need to be able to multitask to get everything done. So, we usually pop open a bottle of wine and put on a podcast while we work at night. That way, we’re not just buried in our laptops for the few waking hours we spend each day without a toddler demanding we read One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish to him for the bagillionth time. Because, as I’m sure you’ll agree: little kids require a lot of attention. And that’s the basis for my next tip:
3. reserve mindless tasks for the most demanding times
Deep work should be all about accomplishing tasks where you need your undivided attention, which is why it’s not likely you’re going to get anything of major importance completed while your toddler is awake. But that doesn’t mean you can’t pluck away at some of the more menial tasks on your to-do list during waking hours. That’s what the 9:00 am to 12:00 pm block is reserved for on my calendar. I use that time to catch up on emails, handle administrative tasks, and work on some basic writing work like research or outlining.
Of course, blocking off time during the day to unplug and spend time with your kiddo is one of the big perks of working from home as a parent, so I’m not advocating you spend every moment your child is awake answering emails on your phone. But allow yourself some time to get through the necessary admin work in between playing hide-and-seek and going to the park.
4. save your secret weapon for moments of desperation
There’s going to come a time where you have an important conference call in five minutes but can’t get your little one to calm down long enough to break away and take the call. And in those moments, it’s always good to have an ace in the hole ready to go. You need a secret weapon absolutely guaranteed to distract long enough for you to take your call or complete final edits on an important deadline. For Owen, that secret weapon is Sesame Street. The Count stops him dead in his tracks. But for your son or daughter, it might be a sweet treat or a game or music. The point is, find the thing that puts your kid “in the zone” and use it sparingly - overuse means it loses its effect.
5. remember why you're working from home in the first place
Lastly, don’t lose sight of your motivation to be a work-from-home parent. If you’re like me, it’s all about spending more quality time with my son. And that means I make a conscious effort to be in the moment with him as much as possible. Do I have deadlines? Yes, of course. Am I more likely to regret missing an occasional deadline or missing the opportunity to take my son to the beach in Croatia? I think you know the answer. If I’m working and Owen brings me a book to read, I read it. If he wants me to chase him around and wrestle, I do it. It’s exactly those moments you dream about when cooped up in your cubicle at your corporate job. And it’s exactly those moments that make working from home with your toddler such a tremendous gift, even if it’s not always easy.