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Work From Home With Kids Is Hell. These Time Management Tips Can Help.

Time-management guru Julie Morgenstern offers some much-needed advice for getting kids — and yourselves — on a schedule at home.

Thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, many families’ previously constructed routines are now nothing more than a smoldering pile of ash. Schools are closed. Kids are home. Many parents are working from home. Stuff still needs to get done and some semblance of normalcy needs to be created. After all, structure is essential for families. One of the most important things parents can do right now, then, is create new routines, systems, and schedules that offer this structure. This means adopting new time-management principles. Also a lot of good, deep breathing.

Julie Morgenstern understands this. A time-management expert and the author of Time to Parent, Morgenstern is a go-to resource for helping harried parents construct the proper scaffolding they need to support their household. And, throughout her career, she’s devised a number of practical and accessible time-management strategies to help families thrive. “When there is chaos, creating order is one of the most calming things you can do,” she says. “Families thrive when there is order.”

Fatherly spoke to Morgenstern about how to create new schedules and routines for kids, why parents might need to work in two-hour shifts, and why this is the time for parents to truly find that 50-50 split.

With kids home from school, a lot of parents are struggling right now. How can they time-manage their kids?

Structure is always crucial. But it’s even more so now. The best parents can do try to keep their kids’ routines as similar as possible to what they were. Here’s the thing: You’re not having to build a schedule from scratch; kids already have a pre-existing routine. If they were typically in school or day care from 7:30 to 2:30, you want to recreate that schedule and structure at home as much as possible. If they went to after school programs? You have to recreate that structure, too.

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You want to create a schedule that matches what they had as best you can. Start filling it out with breakfast, snack and lunch. Then, plan classes or activities that were similar to what they were already doing. Ask your kids: How did your day flow? What did you do first, second, third? Kids love predictability; the also love being helpers. So, if they’re old enough, ask them for help in making something new.

Let’s say they have math time and reading time and snack time and play time and so on and so forth in their day. Map that out, come up with a consolidated one for kids of multiple ages, and engage them in ways to mirror that. Some kids are going to come home with stuff, too. Some schools are going to get it together. Whatever the case, it’s about keeping it as consistent as possible.

What’s the best tool to make the new schedules and agendas clear?

I think a visual tool is the most helpful. If you have a wipe board, put the whole schedule for the day on it. The more complete the better.  Wakeup time, meals, activities, snacks, entertainment, downtime, exercise. Everything. You want to make a visual reminder for everyone.

Think of it like a camp activity board. This way, families know what they’re supposed to do at what time of the day. And when someone gets antsy it’s easy to point to the schedule and say “oh just another twenty minutes. At 3 o’clock we’re going to have a break.”

I’m guessing alarms and timers are useful here, too.

Yes. Use your cellphone alarm to schedule alarms for the key transitions in the day as well. It’s really easy to get absorbed and lost. There’s a lot of moving parts mentally, logistically, and physically. So, reinforce the wall chart with your own phone alarm.

Schedules change and kids need options. One thing parents are going to resort to is screen time.

That’s very true. I’d suggest trying your hardest not to resort to screen time as much as possible. Sit down and come up with five alternatives to screen time so kids can be engaged and do something interesting and fun. Force every kid to come up with five choices before turning to a screen. And put those lists on the wall for each kid as though it were a menu. Put them on the board: What can I do if I’m bored that will absorb me?  Then you have a menu with a few options that they can easily look at and choose from. Downtime activities. Alternatives.

Many parents are working from home and caring for kids at the same time. What’s the best way to handle that arrangement?

I wholeheartedly recommend that the parents oversee the kids in shifts, two-hours on, two hours off.

The parent who is “on” with the kids is in the room with them, overseeing their activities or school work, while working on their own interruptible work —  answering emails, filling out forms, whatever. This is important because if the kids need help or start squabbling, you can step in.

The parent who is “off” has two hours of doing work on their own. During that time, they should prioritize deep thinking work: conference calls, proposal writing — things that demand your full attention.

Will this system always work? No. Sometimes you’ll have a can’t-miss conference call during your shift. But it’s a great starting point. And parents need to communicate with one another throughout to make any changes where necessary

The idea of two hour shifts is really helpful and a great starting point.  But things are naturally going to come up.

Absolutely. You should have an evening huddle as a couple to look at the schedule for tomorrow, what’s going on with the kids, what’s going on with your work, and look at what adjustments you have to make. Things are going to happen and you’re going to have to adjust. Working in shifts provides this principal at the foundation that you then tinker. So, meet at night and make battle plans. “Okay, I have my two hours call in the morning or I have a 3 o’clock conference call.” Or “I have to write this piece I’m going to need three hours instead of two.” Figure it out. Have those conversations. Adjust every day and reset as necessary. I

To put it lightly, people are going to start to drive one another a bit crazy. What are some time-management strategies couples can enlist to avoid pissing one another off?

It’s really important to talk through where to have conference calls and how to handle the sound of calls. I had two clients last week who were complaining about this very thing. So, determine where conference calls will take place and make that a set area. Maybe it’s the bedroom. Maybe it’s the basement if you have the space. If you have a small apartment, maybe it’s a small corner of the living room. Whatever the case, decide on what that place is and make it official. Otherwise, you’ll drive one another crazy.

It’s also important to figure out food plans, who’s cooking what, how simple to keep breakfast, lunch, and dinner. There’s a tendency when people are home to say now’s the time to cook big fancy meals. Don’t do that. That extra time needs to be for relationship management and all the hard things, not complicating your meal schedule. I would organize that ahead of time as part of the plan for the day and alternate it, share it. Even if someone is not a good cook, let them learn to be. This is the time to really go 50-50.

Weekends are going to be very important to families right now as both a time of planning and a time for activities and fun. How should parents frame their weekend time most productively?

I think of the weekends as seven units of time. You have Friday night, Saturday morning, Saturday afternoon, Saturday evening, Sunday morning, Sunday afternoon, Sunday evening. Look at them in terms of those blocks and then plan in advance how to use them. Part of the weekend should be devoted to setting up what systems do you need in place to operate more smoothly around the house. But also time dedicated to physical health, pure entertainment, hobbies, and talking to family and friends.

Especially right now, it’s a good time to work to make your home as efficient and organized as possible. Consider: Do we need to reorganize the pantry? Do we need to organize that spare back room because it’s not going to be a room for the kids to learn? Whatever those things are, create a block of weekend time to figure out that, too.

When there is chaos, creating order is one of the most calming things you can do. Families thrive when there is order.