Freelancing with a toddler: How to manage your work time

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Balancing working from home with a toddler too? It’s doable.

In an ideal world, I would have sat down with a hot cup of coffee and jotted down a few ideas on my notepad before spending an uninterrupted hour writing and proofing this blog post.

But the reality?

I set a reminder on my phone before heading out the door with my toddler on his scooter and my littlest one tightly strapped to me in the carrier. Later in the day I punched a few ideas into my phone’s notes while making snacks (and then cleaning up snacks… and then making more snacks again). Suddenly, after multiple changes of clothes, several abandoned cups of coffee, numerous outings, dinner time, bath time, story time and bedtime — the stars were out and I was exhausted (and the dog didn’t get that second walk after all).

Try again tomorrow?

If like me, you’re a work-from-home parent with a toddler, you can count yourself lucky in so many ways. We get to enjoy the best of both worlds.  

But being a freelancer and working from home with a toddler can be a bit tricky. 

So, here are a few lessons I’ve learned along the way about managing work time. (And believe me, after three years, I’m still learning!)

Determine your schedule (but be flexible)  

I know what you’re thinking — it’s not like you can add more hours to the day. (If only!) But it’s helpful to identify slots of time when you can, ideally, focus on your work. 

If you’re like me, that might simply mean early in the morning or late in the evening when the kids are tucked up in bed. Or maybe there’s one morning a week where you can sneak off to the café for an hour while everyone else is having breakfast.

Set aside a time that will work for you and your family, then prioritise it.    

Recalibrate your expectations and set achievable goals

Set yourself up for success by being realistic about what you can achieve in a day work-wise. There’s nothing like an overly ambitious to-do list to leave you wondering where to begin.   

Instead, redefine what productivity looks like for you. Whereas my work to-do list for the day used to be pretty high level, now it’s way more specific. Large tasks are segmented into smaller, achievable ones along the way. I plan a bit more of a buffer in terms of timing, too.   

Once you’ve adjusted your daily goals, stay organised. How? With solid time management strategies. (Hello, Trello. How did I ever live with you?) 

Make the most of ‘found’ time

Let’s be honest — while I plan my work time around when the kids nap or mornings and evenings (when my partner is home), it’s never enough. 

So, I also try to maximise any ‘free’ pockets of time that appear.

Luckily, toddlers love to engage in pretend play about grownup activities. I have an old (but still functioning) Notebook computer that my son says is his work computer. He’ll get it out, sit down and say, “I’m just doing some writing.” Perfect. If he’s busy ‘writing’, then so am I.   

Fifteen minutes of overlapping naps with my toddler and little one? That’s plenty of time to write one paragraph as part of a longer piece, draft one client email or do some research for a new pitch. If you’ve already segmented large tasks down into smaller, bite-size chunks, you’ll know where to start when you do have a few quiet minutes.

Similarly, when that magical 15-minute window appears, focus on one thing at a time. If you need to write, then write — email can wait (just like the laundry, and the dishes and the raft of other tasks vying for your attention).

Then again, if the best use of that 15 minutes is putting your feet up and zoning out (or catching up on Australian Ninja Warrior) — do it. That well-deserved break will make you more productive later.        

Pre-prepare some independent activities for your toddler

Despite a bad reputation — ‘terrible twos’ and ‘threenager’, anyone? — the toddler years are actually a ton of fun. A toddler’s imagination is wondrous. And while their autonomous streak can sometimes be frustrating when you’re in a hurry to get out the door, a toddler’s desire to be independent can also work to your advantage.

So, when the inevitable happens — an urgent email or last-minute project that needs attention ASAP, even though it’s outside your ‘work’ hours — keep a few activities up your sleeve.

If you need to buy yourself five minutes, it can be handy to have some ‘sit beside me’ activities for your toddler. Maybe that means a pretend work computer like my toddler uses (I don’t even turn it on!). Or, head to Pinterest and search for ‘independent toddler play’, ‘quiet play’, ‘toddler busy bags’ or ‘sit beside me activities’. You’ll discover a heap of great ideas that you can keep stashed away, ready to go the next time you need a few extra minutes beyond your usual scheduled work time.

I’ve also found that setting up a special place to play — whether it’s my son’s tepee or an improvised fort made from sheets — will keep him happily occupied if I just need a couple of minutes to finish an email or quickly proofread a piece.

Keep it all in perspective

At the end of the day, remember what really matters. Balancing a work-from-home career with a toddler isn’t easy, but it’s doable — and even lots and lots of fun.

(Raising a toddler while both parents freelance from home? Get insights from a parent who’s been there, done that.) 

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About

Kendall Richmond is a California native who now calls Melbourne, Australia, home. Kendall writes for higher education institutions, non-profit organisations and a host of businesses, large and small.

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