How to Work in a House Full of Noisy Kids

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For many parents, working from home is the biggest professional challenge they've faced to date. Here are some coping strategies.

Parents, let's have a serious talk about how we're actually supposed to get work done with little kids running around the house. Sure, it's possible to jump into each day and hope something gets done, but the fact is that having a detailed plan makes your chances of success much higher.

An article in the Harvard Business Review (HBR) offers some excellent suggestions for how to control the three main distractions in our lives right now – children, chores, and thought patterns. I'd like to focus on the former because that consumes much of my attention these days. I have three elementary-aged kids, and I've gone from working in absolute silence to being surrounded by endless noise – a challenging transition.

Set the stage for success

Do Not Disturb sign

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HBR suggests treating older kids as you would other coworkers in an office setting: "Put up a sign, close a door, or provide some other signal for when you can’t be disturbed (unless in emergencies). A nearby dry-erase board or chalkboard is helpful so kids can let you know what they need when you’re ready for a break. This 'do not disturb' time works best in increments of 10-60 minutes, followed by a break where you check in with others in the house."

For younger kids needing more oversight, the HBR article recommends dividing tasks into low- and high-attention groups. Pursue the low-attention tasks while you're simultaneously parenting, i.e. placing an online order, responding to simple emails, or doing basic editing, and the high-attention ones when you're able to be alone and undisturbed, i.e. writing an article, making an important phone call.

On finding time

early morning office work

The eternal question, of course, is how to get those moments away from the kids. I recommend starting early in the morning, an hour or two before the kids wake up. Others may prefer nighttime hours. This week I'm going back to my old 5:30 a.m. start time, just so I can write articles in silence for an hour, without having my creative flow constantly interrupted. (This has the added benefit of finishing my workday by early afternoon, which gives me more time with the kids later in the day.)

I find it's helpful to remove myself from their view. If I sit at the dining room table, they're bound to ask a million questions, or I'll see interactions in which I feel an urge to intervene; but when I'm out of sight, they only seek me out if necessary. My oldest is nearly 11, legal babysitting age in the province of Ontario, so I sometimes designate him as "the boss" for an hour, in charge of overseeing the younger siblings. I tell him it's good practice for his future babysitting career, and he likes that.

Another good suggestion from HBR is to work in shifts if there's another parent in the house. Try alternating an hour on and an hour off, so that you can both be productive throughout the day. (Another article suggests doing four-hour stints.) If you're a solo parent, there's no easy answer: lower your expectations of your productivity and be kind to yourself.

On staying focused

post-it notes on wall

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To fend off general discouragement, break down tasks into simplified versions that are easier to tackle when you find yourself in the noisy, demanding presence of children. From HBR: "For example, instead of putting 'write article' on your list, put 'identify the three main points of the article.' This will make it easier to get started, which then might provide you with momentum to keep going."

I usually write 2-3 articles daily for TreeHugger, and I find it helps to start new articles as soon as I have the slightest inkling of an idea. I write down as many brainstormed ideas or sentences as I can before getting called away by the kids. Pre-pandemic, I used to complete a full article before moving on to the next, and almost always completed it in one sitting; but now I have multiple documents open with half-formed ideas and random quotes because this way it's easier to come back and know where to start. I keep telling myself, "Something is better than nothing."

I also avoid the online news cycle, which may sound crazy for someone working in the online media world, but I've found that too much worst-case catastrophizing paralyzes my ability to think creatively or about anything other than the pandemic. Instead, I buy an old-fashioned Saturday newspaper and read it slowly throughout the week, bringing myself up to the date on the latest developments (which are changing constantly anyway). This frees up my attention so that I can spend workdays focusing on what my editors want me to write.

On keeping kids occupied

boys being homeschooled

Unsplash / Jessica Lewis/Public Domain

Meanwhile, kids are remarkably good at entertaining themselves when given a good mix of directions and freedom. Creating a daily checklist of things that need to be done keeps them on track and minimizes the number of questions and disruptions to parents. My kids have a rough academic schedule for the mornings – read school books (with precise page numbers that I've written down in advance), do math work, practice music, play outside – after which they're free to read their own novels, do crafts, build LEGO, bake, and spend more time outdoors. There's always an hour of mandatory quiet time after lunch, and screen time only happens sometimes at the end of a day, if the weather is crummy or we parents really need a break.

When we have a bad day – and there are plenty of those – we have a family summit around the dinner table and explain what didn't work and why it needs to change. I liked a suggestion made by TreeHugger's former comments moderator, Tarrant, who said she used to ask her kids in the morning what was guaranteed to make the day a total disaster. This forced them to think ahead of time about their behavior, if only for a few passing seconds. (It's a technique called Triz, from Liberating Structures.) Kids are smart; talk to them like adults and they'll respond positively.

If a child's daily checklist includes chores (and it should!), that will reduce parental anxiety over getting housework done. Let the kids unload the dishwasher, fold the laundry, vacuum, take out the recycling, mow the lawn. It's another thing off your plate and a great growth opportunity for kids. Thorough housecleaning and meal prep should be kept as usual – in my case, on weekends when I have the time, which means fewer things to worry about during the workday.

On staying active

kids playing near river

© K Martinko – Kids playing near river during period of social distancing

Last but not least, parents and children both need exercise and fresh air. Take breaks, get up from your desk, move around, go into the backyard and toss a ball to the kids, rake out some garden beds, go for a bike ride or walk, do a home workout, or have a quick kitchen dance party with the family. Do what you can to move around every day, and you'll all feel happier, calmer, and more productive as a result.

It's important to realize that this is probably going to be a marathon, not a sprint, so you don't want to burn out early on. Keep life as normal as it can be under the current circumstances. Some days will be great, others less so, but it's an adventure, and there will come a time when you'll look back on these days and marvel at what you were able to accomplish. Just hang in there.