Erica and Jordan at the The Worth Project have the goal of sharing their personal finance experience to help readers improve their financial lives. We regularly partner with companies that share that same vision. Some of the links in this post may be from our partners. Here's how we make money.
When I used to work a corporate 9-5 job, I’d cherish those rare days when I was able to work from home. It was a luxury to ditch the commute, hang out in yoga pants, and throw in a load of laundry between calls. Now, working from home with a toddler is a whole nother ball game.
When Henry was born I made the decision to start a more flexible career as a freelance writer. That meant those luxury work from home days became my reality. A year and a half into working at home with a toddler, I know I’m incredibly lucky.
I get to ditch the commute, meaning more time with Henry (the average person wastes nine days each year commuting). And I get to earn money and work professionally, around my own schedule. So let me just preface this with #blessed #grateful #alltheotherhashtags
(Looking for a career that helps you work from home? Here’s how to get started as a freelance writer.)
But as everyone who is also in this situation knows, getting work done with a toddler is a challenging proposition.
Working from home with a toddler top 10 tips
- 1. Manage your expectations
- 2. Create a thorough to-do-list
- 3. Carve our your work hours
- 4. Turn off your work brain
- 5. Create an organized area
- 6. Prep work is crucial
- 7. Encourage independent play
- 8. Find time for your priorities
- 9. Tag in a partner
- 10. Consider hiring some help
Toddlers are rarely predictable, never rational, and always on the move. So how can you actually make this work situation work? Read on for 10 of my best tips for working at home with a toddler.
Manage your expectations when working from home with a toddler
When I first started working from home with Henry, my expectations were wildly out of line. I expected that I could do just as much as I’d done before Henry if I just tried hard enough. I’m no longer spending 8-10 hours per day at the office, so short of staying up all night, getting just as much done wasn’t going to be possible.
Once I set more realistic to-do lists and started saying “no” to projects or calls that were time sucks, working from home became a lot easier. Set boundaries, know your limits, and treat every minute that you have available to work like gold. But don’t be discouraged if you don’t get as much done as you used to. Sometimes doing your best means doing less.
Create a thorough to-do list
A to-do list is my secret weapon for working from home. If I sit down at naptime with a well thought out to-do list, I can get work done like nobody’s business. If I don’t have a clear list of what I absolutely need to work on, naptime will be over and I’ll have nothing to show for it.
I recommend splitting your to-do list into two categories:
- Work that requires deep concentration.
- Work that can be done in quick, less thought-intensive increments.
The deep work category (for me that includes writing, research, brainstorming, and bookkeeping) gets done when I know I have a significant amount of uninterrupted time. That’s likely going to be before Henry wakes up, during nap times, after bedtime, or when I have childcare.
The other things I can fit in during the in-between periods — when Henry is playing independently or another time where he doesn’t need my full attention. This lighter list includes the equally important things like replying to emails, editing photos, posting on social media, and replying to pitch requests. But each item takes 15 minutes or less (usually).
Carve out your work hours
When I started to carve out dedicated work hours during the day, this changed how I planned and approached working from home. When Henry was a baby, working from home meant that I’d scramble to get something done each time he fell asleep. Timing was never predictable.
Now that he has more of a schedule, I can have more of a work schedule. I now know roughly when he’s going to sleep and for how long (though it changes constantly). I can plan just a little bit better knowing what time I have available.
The work hours that I try to prioritize each day are 1-2 hours before Henry wakes up, 2 hours during his lunch nap, and 1-2 hours at night. If I’m able to get childcare help for part of the day, I’ll usually get another 2 hours after breakfast.
Knowing the hours I have helps me create a reasonable to-do list.
Turn off your work brain
When Henry was a baby, I used to think of all the ways I could multitask while he was awake. Instead of writing, could I dictate articles into my phone? Could I post on social media or reply to emails while feeding him?
I could, but I don’t.
It wasn’t long until I realized that my days are much more productive, my work product is much better, and Henry is much happier if I fully switch between mom brain and work brain. If I’m still trying to work while I’m also trying to stack blocks with him, I’m defeating the point of this flexible life I’m creating.
Create an organized work area
Switching between mom brain and work brain is much easier if I actually switch to another physical location. Before Henry was born I had an office. If I walked in there, I knew that it was time to get to work.
When that became his nursery, I floundered trying to find a dedicated workspace. When we finally put a desk in our bedroom, sitting down to work became much more efficient. I’d leave out my computer and a to-do list and try to keep the small space clear of life to-do’s, like laundry, mail, and bills. Yes, the rest of the house could be a mess, but if this one little corner was organized I was a much happier and more efficient worker.
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Prep work is crucial
If you worked an office job, would you have time during the day to toss in a load of laundry, whip up an amazing salad, or organize your sock drawer? No. And while some people think that getting to do these things is a benefit of working from home with a toddler, these small to-do’s can derail your day.
Imagine you just get your toddler down for his nap, which is usually two hours. Now you just need to eat something quickly, clean the dishes, throw in that load of laundry, and then you can sit down and get some work done. Suddenly your two hour work chunk has dwindled down to an hour.
If you want to have work hours during the day, stick to them. Meal prep lunches on the weekend. Eat lunch with your toddler. Stick the plates in the dishwasher and have your toddler help you wipe up. Leave the laundry.
Getting into this routine takes prep work: meal planning, laundry planning, life planning. But it’s key to maximizing and separating your work hours from kid hours.
Encourage independent play
Experts tell us that independent play is good for kids. So let your child have a little independence while you answer a quick email. Don’t try to get to your deep work while your toddler is entertaining themselves. Grab something from your light to-do list and do it.
Find time for your other priorities
This is possibly the most difficult part of working from home: prioritizing other things aside from work and child. When I was first navigating this I let a lot of other things slip. I didn’t make time to work out (and maybe I still don’t), I was constantly canceling plans with friends, and I rarely did anything just for me.
When I started making a little bit of time to do these other things, my productivity went up and my stress went down. While you may feel strapped for time and always behind, commit to doing something for yourself weekly, at a minimum. I joined a Netball league and every Wednesday evening, I hit the courts.
Sure, I wanted to cancel every week before leaving (I had work to do!), but I never once regretted going.
Tag in a partner
If you have a partner, it might be worth looking at how they can help you carve out a few more working hours. When Jordan worked full time, his ability to help was pretty limited. He’d leave in the morning shortly after Henry woke up and get home an hour before bedtime.
When it became clear that I needed more time to work than I currently had, he stepped in. A few days each week when he walked in the door at 5:30, he’d immediately take Henry for 45 minutes while I got to work. And on Saturday or Sunday mornings (or sometimes both), he’d spend a few hours alone with Henry while I went out to a coffee shop.
If you have a partner, where can you carve out even small pockets of time for them to take over and you to slip off to work?
Consider hiring some help
On the very best days, where everything goes according to plan and Henry takes a long nap and I wake up early, I’m able to get 5-6 hours of work in. Max. On the days when Henry wakes up at 5:30 am and takes an hour lunch nap, I’m struggling to find 2-3 hours to get things done.
While working from home with Henry is amazing, I know that I can’t reach my personal goals without a little extra help.
Think about different options to get someone to help you with childcare. Can you swap a few hours a week with another parent? Have a grandparent that can sign up for a few hours a week? Or a babysitter that can come a couple of days a week? This extra help can make all the difference in your productivity — and sanity.
My work at home mom schedule
Before we moved to the US, I had Henry in daycare part-time. On days he was in daycare, those were my full, intense workdays. On days when he wasn’t in daycare, my day followed this loose schedule:
4:45 am: Wake up and workout or work if I had a deadline. I’d aim for a good workout or a solid hour of work before Henry got up.
6:00 am: Henry would wake up and after a quick breakfast we’d head out on an hour walk.
7:30 am – 11:30 am: I’d plan a morning activity out and about. Usually a toddler playgroup or the park.
11:30 am – 1:30/2 pm: Dedicated work time
2 pm – 4:30 pm: Afternoon activity. Again, either a playgroup or the park.
4:30 pm – 6:30 pm: Dinner, bath, family time. Jordan would get home at 5:30 so if I had a deadline, I’d start working as soon as he walked in.
7:00 pm – 9:00 pm: Work!
Working from home with Henry has gotten significantly easier now that Jordan is also joining me at home. While we’re currently on the road, figuring out a work schedule has become a little challenging. Here’s how we’re currently making it work:
4:30 am: Wake up and either workout (unlikely) or start work. I usually plan for 1-2 hours of work before Henry wakes (I’m currently writing this at 5:45 am as part of that work session).
6:30 am: Henry wakes up and we spend some time hanging out before starting our day
7:00 am: Workout while Henry eats. If I didn’t workout earlier, I’ll try to squeeze in a quick and less effective workout now while Henry eats and plays.
8:00 am – noon: Jordan and I split this period into two-hour time blocks. One of us will work for two hours while the other plays with Henry. Then, we switch.
12:00pm – 2:00 pm: naptime and work
2:00 pm – 5:00 pm: either a family activity or one person will watch Henry while the other works.
5:00 pm – 7:00 pm: dinner, family time, etc.
7:30 pm – 9:00 pm: finishing up any remaining work!
Working from home with a toddler can be a challenge. But it can also be extremely rewarding and help you achieve both your personal and professional goals. Keep testing it until you find a routine that works for you.
How I work from home with a toddler
If you’ve ever daydreamed about working from home, being a freelance writer, whether full-time or as a way to supplement your income, is a great opportunity. When Henry was born I was working from home as a consultant. When a call with a client was cut-short when baby Henry woke up from his nap early, I realized I needed a more flexible solution.
When I began looking for other options, I stumbled upon the idea of freelance writing. Doubtful that I could make a living from it, I brushed the idea aside. That is until I heard about Holly Johnson and her course Earn More Writing.
You may not make $200k per year like Holly (seriously, that woman is a productivity machine), but this course lives up to its title: it will help you earn more from writing.
That said, freelance writing is definitely not a get rich quick scheme. There’s a lot of work that goes into building a lucrative writing career. My first articles took an excruciatingly long time to write. You usually have to work your way up to being very well paid (and in demand). And some niches are more profitable than others — I happen to write about personal finance, which generally comes with generous budgets.
If you’re going to try your hand at freelance writing (or you’re already writing but can’t seem to get away from bargain basement rates), this is the course for you. You have to do the work, but once you land those first few clients, it will all be worth it.
This is an affiliate link for the course Earn More Writing. If you purchase through this link, I will be paid a small commission at no extra cost to you. I only have affiliates for companies I know and love, and this course is no exception. Need more info? Read this disclaimer.
Erica Gellerman is a CPA, MBA, personal finance writer, and founder of The Worth Project: personal finance and family travel. website. Her work has been featured on Forbes, Money, Business Insider, The Everygirl, The Everymom, and Lifehacker. When she's not writing about personal finance you can find Erica exploring Europe from her temporary home base in London.
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