Working from Home and Educating your Family

Lynn Wilson

I studied and worked from home alongside my three home-educated children so thought I would share a few tips for members and colleagues who may be struggling to find their own work patterns now they are at home.

Getting Started on the Day

I am a morning person and so I found it really helped me to get up early and get things done. It gave me a little time when my children were young and a valuable few hours when they were teenagers and liked to sleep in. This was the time when I could be most productive and go through the emails, dealing with the complex ones and shelving the ones that could be dealt with whilst I may have other distractions! Once this was done, I then started on any complex projects I had to do until chaos erupted when the children got up. Then I would have my breakfast and tidy up whilst sorting our various versions of World War III. Once that was over, I could settle them down to various work or projects and point out that I was working so needed a bit of peace until lunchtime.

Nowadays, with no children around, I like to get my day started by ensuring things are at least a little tidy around me – it stops me getting distracted by wanting to do the washing up rather than working. I get up, feed the animals, do the washing up and then have a cup of coffee sitting on the veranda watching the grass grow. Then I start work at about 8-8:30am – I like doing this because I can finish early and I am much less productive in the afternoons.

A sunset over a lake

Description automatically generated
Early morning walk

Some friends struggled to concentrate in the morning and ended up prolonging breakfast and then found the morning sluggishness eating away their motivation. One coped with this by doing a ‘morning commute’ walk where she took the kids and dog to the local park for some exercise first thing – to settle her kids and clear all their heads ready for work. Another friend did a similar thing walking around the garden talking to her plants – she was on her own with little ones who could not be left in the house alone. These were the people who had previously tended to get up rush around and get everyone out of the house on automatic pilot and then slowly wake up during their commute to the office!

I am fairly relaxed about working at home. I am happy throwing on any clothes and having a flexible structure but others prefer a really structured start to their day. They set their alarm, dress in work clothes and have breakfast before they settle down to work.

Where do I work?

This is flexible for me again. I do have an office which is great for webinars and when I need to concentrate – generally in the mornings. However, I also work in the lounge with my wife when I am working at things that need less concentration in the afternoons.

When the children were little, it was definitely working on the complex things early before they were awake and then staying in the lounge to work alongside them and answer any questions. I used the weekends to set up a weekly routine for tasks that they had to do – about an hour of English and an hour of Maths when they were young. These were workbooks and projects so it gave me some peace – not all the time but it generally worked. I always had a list of projects they could choose from – so important to give them control of their own work. This paid off later on.

As they got older, they found their own routines which differed from mine. All three preferred sleeping in and doing their tasks later; one liked to work at her desk in her room; the other two sprawled in the lounge. Still English and Maths but also set subjects when they were studying for GCSEs and A-levels. By this time, I had given them guidance on how to study and they were sorting it out for themselves: “if I have this book to complete to take a GCSE exam next year, then I need to do a chapter a week to complete it in January then I can do practice papers until the exam”.

When do I work?

The structure of my day has changed a lot over the years. When the children were young, I worked early and late – plus any time I could get in the middle when they were occupied. Luckily home educated children at primary age only need 2-3 hours of educational work a day to have them in advance of their schooled peers.

As they grew older, it was starting my work early but programming in regular breaks to redirect and assist them as necessary. By this stage they had realised that we all had work to do and were quite respectful of any time I needed to myself.

Nowadays I have to be careful. I am my own personal manager. I tend to work hard and fast and forget to have breaks. This can lead to loss of focus or burn-out. I am trying to segment what I do and when. I programme in the webinars at various points when they will make a natural break. Not always possible but after doing two webinars back-to-back last Friday and then needing to go and get some fresh air to sort out the headache, I am learning to refuse to time webinars too close to one-another!

I have found that it is important to let my agenda change if I need it to, but it’s equally as important to commit to an agenda that helps me feel productive. I spend some time at the end of each workday sorting out my schedule for the next day, reminding myself of commitments and tasks and making my start to the next day much easier.

The most important lesson I have learnt over the years is that I don’t need to be chained to my desk to be productive. Creativity needs space and time to breathe. Having a break to get a coffee (or even put the washing on!) allows my brain space to think of better solutions.

It is not often that I eat meals at my desk nowadays. I plan my meals and coffee breaks away from my designated workspace. A bit of me-time is essential.

Nobody sprints through their work from morning to evening – motivation will naturally ebb and flow throughout the day. It is really important, when working from home, to know when those ebbs and flows will take place and plan your schedule around it. I get up early and work hard in the morning and then slow-down in the afternoons and finish early. It suits me but it may not suit you.

Many of my friends with children work early and late and take time off in the middle of the day to spend it doing projects with their children. It’s not easy but it is possible – although difficult when colleagues, who are working 9-5, need you. That’s the time for a juice and biscuit break for the kids! Agreeing with work colleagues a set of core hours to be online can help.

In the current lockdown, the best schools have supplied a lot of resources with no pressure to do any of the activities. Others have insisted work is done and given strict timetables including dressing in school uniform. Do what suits you and your children. It will be different for everyone and vary over time. I started off with ‘school at home’ but it didn’t suit us. For ideas and resources try: https://home-education.org.uk/resources-educational.htm

Distractions

No entry sign with the words: webinar in progress do not come in! I will come out and answer questions soon. Try these answers: I don't know what's for tea; It's in the wash - wear something else; Have you looked in your room?; I don't know, try Google; and If he will not share, play on your own for a bit.
Webinar in Progress – Don’t come in!

I do try to ensure that the place is reasonably tidy around me, so it doesn’t annoy me enough to make me stop work and tidy – if that is not possible then I shut myself in my office!

I do have to ensure that social media is not distracting me. We use Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook for work. These are designed to make it easy to open and browse and can be very distracting. I keep them switched off in the morning when I am doing my complex tasks and then open them up to add to the news feeds in the afternoon.

Of course, there are other distractions – flatmates, siblings, partners, children and cats! Most of those can be conditioned to realise that there are set times you are working when you cannot be disturbed if they want your full attention later. Cats are another story – shut them out and they scratch the door; let them in and they walk over your keyboard!

A picture containing window, indoor, table, desk

Description automatically generated

The Working from Home Office

1. laptop on stand
2. paper holder
3. second screen (just can’t remember how to connect it!)
4. paper & pens for notes (doodling)
5. little Lego people for holding cables
6. paper calendar (cos I’m old)
7. nice comfy adjustable chair (cos I’m old)
8. expanding desk (cos I have papers everywhere)
9. headphones for those numerous webinars that have suddenly cropped up
10. curtains (it has been really sunny!)
11. uncooperative colleague’s work station
12. uncooperative colleague
13. water spray to deter uncooperative colleague when they are a pain
14. steps to get uncooperative colleague off the top of the cupboard when 13 doesn’t work

How do I keep going?

On busy days, there is no problem. I may be stressed but suddenly find it is 5pm and the day is over. The problem comes on slow days when I have things to do but it is not urgent or vital – I find it really easy to be distracted then.

Have you heard the saying: ‘if you want something done, ask a busy person’?

It sounds bizarre but it is true that the busier you are, the more you’ll actually do. I think of it as like Newton’s law of inertia: If you’re in motion, you’ll stay in motion. If you’re at rest, you’ll stay at rest. When I am busy, I am in fast-enough motion to gain the momentum to complete anything that comes across my desk.

That is part of the reason for my dashing around in the morning. I get up, shower, dress, clean kitchen, sort animals and then move to sorting email and any crises.

I actually find it more difficult now than I did when I was home educating my children. It seems counterintuitive, but because I had to manage taking care of them and keeping them happy, occupied and educated while still getting my work done, the pressure helped to keep me focused on working smartly and efficiently. When I did get time to myself, I went into super-productive work mode.

I quickly learnt how to manage my time VERY efficiently. The ‘distraction’ of my children (I mean that in the most loving way possible!) meant I couldn’t possibly succumb to some of the other common distractions of home such as putting in a load of laundry, doing the hoovering etc. – I’d never get any actual work done.

Music keeps me going too. I have several playlists that I can use to match the energy of the project I am working on. I do use the TV or radio in the afternoon but music helps me concentrate in the morning.

One friend uses her laundry and dishwasher as a built-in timer! She gives herself one assignment to do whilst one load completes in the washing machine; then second assignment whilst it is in the dryer. It works well to focus her on tasks that could easily take all day.

How do I stop?

I am dreadful at stopping on time! A bit of Aspie focus, and I end up suddenly realising it is 7pm! This is more difficult now than it was when I had children at home who would moan if I didn’t stop!

In lieu of co-workers, whose packing up and leaving the office reminds you to do the same, you can set an alarm at the end of the day to indicate your normal work day is coming to an end. You don’t have to stop at exactly that time but knowing the workday is technically over can help you start the process of saving your work and calling it quits for the evening.

Top Tips

I hope this account may assist you to experiment and find your own work patterns. The main points that helped me:

  • Children are having much more uninterrupted education time and cover so much more in a morning at home than they do in two days at school.
  • Children know what is going on and are stressed. It is a parent’s job to support their children. If formal education is not working for them while they are upset, then don’t do it. Children learn in so many ways and giving them a choice of fun projects can be just as stimulating
  • More time is released for children to become bored and start thinking for themselves so creativity flourishes – not always in ways you appreciate!
  • Children start to realise that parents work and children work too – it is equally important for both of them and neither should interrupt the other unless it is important.
  • My house needs to remain my home – especially in these circumstances of ‘lock down’. It can be hard to switch off work at the end of the day but it must be done so the whole family can relax and enjoy each other’s company without the stress of work intruding.
  • Everything can be flexible. There are days in the office that not a lot gets done – there will be days at home like that too.