The art of self-employment during a global pandemic

The Art of Self-Employment During a Global Pandemic

Six tips to help entrepreneurs from an experienced work-from-home mum. Quick links to help you jump around this article:

With the novel global coronavirus pandemic that began to unfold early this year, you don’t need me to tell you that pretty much everything we thought we knew has been turned on its head. Everyone is stressed, overwhelmed, and several are having trouble coping with the “new normal” – for however long that new normal lasts. For many, working from home on top of all the new stressors is the ultimate challenge. This article is not intended for you newbies; although you truly do have my sympathy, there are several articles and resources online already for helping guide you into what will hopefully be a reasonably productive work environment. This article, however, is for those of us who were happily working from home prior to the pandemic.

As an entrepreneur and at least half-introvert, I’ve been quite content working from home for over ten years. I jealously guard my work space, which I have to consider sacred – my home is not big enough to have a dedicated office, so instead I do share it with our “guest room”, which is the extent of my graciousness. From time to time others in my household (ahem, husband) try to use the available floor space to pile up various seasonal junk or projects, and I quite emphatically and ruthlessly chuck them back out again. 

My husband and I started our first business while I had a small toddler and was pregnant with a second child. Unbelievably to me now, we used to share an office, a fact which today makes me shudder! I started my own business when my youngest was five years old, and my home’s work space and time became even more critical. Working from a home office with two wee ones is definitely part of my history, and honestly I try not to remember those times too clearly – young families with one or more parents trying to work from home today have all of my sympathy. 

I certainly am grateful that during this pandemic my children are now 10 and 13 and therefore quite capable of respecting my office space and work time. I am ecstatic that my children are not in grade twelve and facing the loss of their senior year of high school; I am equally grateful that my family is far-spread and the sudden lack of in-person visits is not the shock that it must be for many families and loved ones.

So, this is a short compilation of tips from an experienced work-from-home mum who is also trying to incorporate some self-directed learning for her kids during the pandemic. These tips should work for most people, although the section directed towards self-educating are obviously targeted for those who have children the same as my own.

Tip 1: Routine

We’ve all seen it – memes with the old cardigan, unwashed hair, and Christmas PJ pants. The longer this goes, the more “day drinking” memes are popping up too – which I sincerely hope is just a joke. It’s okay to let it all hang out for the first week or so and treat it like a stay-cation, but after that you’ve got to pull up your big-girl pants. One of the best parts of a daily routine is that it allows you to control some aspects of your life during a time when you can’t control everything. Keeping to a routine can also help deal with emotions such as helplessness, despair, and frustration. With everything else going on and an overall feeling of lack of control, anxiety and stress will soon begin to spiral upwards.

What was your pre-pandemic routine? Write it out, if it helps, and then figure out which parts of it you can keep going now. Be realistic and flexible – if your family is now underfoot, you can’t keep it all exactly as it was, but you can probably identify the important parts that help you feel grounded and functional. If you woke up everyday at 6am pre-pandemic, then continue that now. If you like to exercise before going to work, then keep doing it – within reason and following the recommended safety protocols. If you like to dress up for work, then do that. If on the other hand you go into permanent vacation mode and allow yourself to sleep in every day, skip workouts, not get dressed, not shower, the “stay-cation” loses its novelty real fast and you start to feel, let’s say, out of place. 

One of the easiest tips for people facing anxiety or depression can be simple self-grooming – get up, have a shower and shave (or whatever), and you already feel a bit better about yourself. And if you tend to stress eat, try to be mindful of what you’re eating and how frequently – this situation will last for a while, and feeling crappy about yourself due to poor nutrition choices is not going to help. 

Be flexible.

Bear in mind that us self-employed mums have probably found their work time drastically reduced during this pandemic. With the additional demands of kids and family, the number of hours I can dedicate each day to so-called productive work-time has definitely shifted. So in keeping with my mantra, try to be flexible with what you define as your schedule. For example, right now I find myself waking earlier than usual each day because I’m sleeping less (due to worry, etc). I used to have a good chunk of productive work time after the kids went to school. That doesn’t quite happen now. Rather than stress about sleeping less, I’ve shifted that work block to my new early morning alone time. I’m drinking more coffee and it’s taken me several days to write this article, where pre-pandemic it would’ve been several hours, but hey, it’s done!

Routines For Kids.

With kids, routines are always beneficial, and now keeping some kind of routine is even more critical. Their lives are turned upside down, they’re bored and can’t see their friends in person, and depending on their age they have no in-depth understanding of what the pandemic means. Their parents are likely stressed, cranky and irritable, and not in the frame of mind for constant play. 

After week two of being home from school, my own kids were already in permanent vacation mode. My youngest was sleeping in every day and staying up late at night, both wanted nothing more than prolonged video game time, and both were getting pretty bored and sniping at each other more than usual. When our province announced no return to school until at least May 1, the reality of the stay-home impact started to sink in for my daughter, who misses her friends greatly. I already knew they needed a new routine, so this was a good kick in the butt for me to get it started.

I’m a big googler, so I skimmed lots of online resources for kids’ homeschooling, remote schooling, even regular day planning schedules, looking for ideas and trying to find something that I didn’t have to make from scratch. I found some I liked, and lots that made me roll my eyes. I found one that I thought I really liked at kiwico.com, printed it as is and put it on the fridge. We didn’t last one full day. Maybe if I wasn’t also trying to work from home, this would have been fine, but whoa it’s too much scheduling for my family! I’m a pretty spontaneous person so rigid schedules don’t work for me. Turns out my daughter is a bit like me, although my son thrives on schedules and definitely prefers to know exactly what’s coming up when.

Printable Planners.

This is the kiwico schedule. This sucker is two whole pages long – for one day! For the record, it’s still really great, plus it’s really pretty and user-friendly. And I do absolutely love their activities list, which is at kiwico.com/kids-at-home. It’s just not a good match for my family (find the full schedule here): 

Part of the Kiwico learning schedule.

And this is the modified schedule that I ended up creating. This is a two-part schedule, one for daily routine and one for a weekly plan for activities and learning. The activities schedule design I stole from somewhere, probably Pinterest, that I can no longer find to reference (apologies to the original designer). The weekly plan is done on a weekly basis for two reasons: 1) I can’t possibly do this up every single day for a daily plan, and 2) my son in particular really benefits from being able to see what’s coming up. It also allows for easy modification if a new activity comes up for a day and bumps something shown on the list.

I put in learning activities (see list of links at end, if you’re interested) in each daily portion. The To-Do’s are chores, Options are reminders of things like YouTube yoga videos or other guided movements, Notes are for miscellaneous reminders, and Other Stuff is because I always need a catch-all spot for things that don’t seem to fit anywhere else!

Weekly Pandemic Planner (download link):

Weekly Planner

And this is our daily schedule, which was made in Google Sheets (download link):

Daily Schedule

I’m not including these here because I think everyone should use them. There probably are parents out there who can put more time into making and managing their kids’ learning schedules than I can, and there are probably others for whom even these are just too much. I’m including these here in case there are other self-employed caregivers who would find them helpful. If you’re lacking the software to modify these files yourself, feel free to reach out – I’m happy to customize them for you if desired 🙂 And by the way, there’s nothing wrong with handwritten schedules – there are lots of those on (of course) Pinterest too if you really need to balance the function and the “pretty”. But for whatever reason, my kids and I prefer more official-looking computer-generated versions.

Tip 2: Boundaries!

This tip is for both newbie work-from-homers and us more experienced ones too. Boundaries are important for work, time, and personal space. If your spouse and/or family is now in your home all day every day with you, chances are you’re feeling a bit pinched for space.

Work and Time Boundaries.

One of the easiest traps to fall into when working from home is to just keep working whenever you’ve got “free time”. If your business is project-dependent like mine, then sometimes a project deadline or urgent situation will require me to spend more time working. But giving up that free time is a choice that I can make on a case-by-case basis. Try to structure your day to include blocks of work time. If you have a spouse who’s also working from home, ideally you can both take turns at the work block so someone is always keeping the kids busy. 

For me, a work block needs to be at least one full hour so I can focus in on a project and actually accomplish something – half an hour is just not enough for me to get my creative juices flowing, or even to start hammering through a to-do list. And as a get-it-done person, I need to be able to feel like I’m accomplishing tasks throughout the day, regardless of whether they’re work tasks, house tasks, or whatever category they fall into. But until there’s a routine or if your kids are too small to respect your time, you might need to accept that a half-hour work block is the best you can manage right now. And that’s okay! Be flexible. If it helps, pretend all the breaks in between work are actually intentional movement breaks, and do something with the kids. 

Be sure to keep personal time on the schedule for the day! Even if the day feels like it’s spiralling out of control – or especially when – please try to take the time to do at least one thing that’s just for you. One of the criteria for my 2020 mantra is to not be that mum who drops everything to help everyone else: I’m keeping time for me and my own good feeling. This new focus enables me to set aside time each day for a workout, and sometimes a run too, and not feel too guilty about it. Luckily this habit started in January, so I had a couple of months’ practice leading up to the pandemic, which makes it easier to stick to the habit. My kids quickly became accustomed to me saying “no” if they ask me for anything while I’m in the middle of a workout, although we’re still working on the notion that sometimes I can’t respond at all when I’m sweating like a madman and in the middle of something really difficult!

Having said that, I’ve had many, many days over the years where my only personal time during the day was walking my dog. Lots of dog walks with kids in strollers, or the always-dependable nap drive. One of my best discoveries as a mum of toddlers (other than the nap drive) was to plant them in the stroller with books, a snack, and even let them play a video game while I got out for a walk. Even with the best of intentions, sometimes you’ve just got to make do, and the dog always needs to get outside. Be gentle on yourself if you’re struggling to adjust.

Space Boundaries.

Can you separate your workspace from your living space?

Congratulations if you’ve got a whole separate room you can use – and if it’s got a door you can close, even better! If you’ve been working from home for awhile but don’t have a dedicated space, now’s the time. Your family is going to be on top of you all day, every day. You need some boundary to stop work time and downtime from bleeding together. It can also help create mental boundaries: your work space is where you “go to work”. If you only go there to work and no other activity, it will act as a mental trigger to help allow you to focus. It can also really help to mark the space for your family, so your kids know that when you’re in there, they are not to interrupt – or at least interrupt less.

Room dividers can work well for this. If you don’t already have one, you can make your own (like these on spruce.com), or even just hang up a blanket. Make it a nice blanket or sheet you don’t mind looking at, and you’re all set! If you need to video conference, the blanket divider can serve as the background of your video, so it’s less distracting for the other participants.

Choose a good location (aka don’t work at the kitchen table). If you don’t have a whole room dedicated to your work space, you might need to consider whether your space will be used by anyone else during your work hours. Try to find a spot that’s away from the primary living areas. Think about what you’ll need: do you need privacy? Quiet? Electrical outlets? 

I sometimes work at the kitchen table pre-pandemic, but only to change things up or if it’s particularly sunny outside and I want to bask while I work. With your whole family at home… all day… the kitchen is probably a high-activity zone, and therefore distracting and probably noisy. Plus, I’m lazy and setting up and removing the work space multiple times during the day would just tick me off. Never mind the problem of ergonomics, as below.

Tip 3: Pay Attention to Ergonomics.

Ergonomics diagram

There’s nothing worse than getting set up and cramping up after a little while because your chair’s the wrong height, or your posture is atrocious. It doesn’t have to be complicated, or an expensive solution. Put your laptop on top of a stack of books, if your ergonomic angles are wrong. And don’t forget, your kids are probably spending a lot of time online or working at a table doing schoolwork if it’s available. Try to provide them with a “work area” so they can use the same boundary principles that you use for your own work space.

Tip 4: Let in light! 

Many of us will be using spaces in basements or other areas with little to no natural light. I’m a huge fan of natural light, and although my home office is in my basement I have a window that saves my bacon. I know I would lose my mind if I had to work in a space with no windows at all. If you have limited light and need options, use the tips in this Inc.com article and consider investing in “daylight” bulbs that mimic natural lighting. Also, try to use task lights rather than just artificial overhead lighting. 

Tip 5: Take Movement breaks.

We call them “go noodles” in our house, after the gonoodle.com website that my kids introduced me to when their elementary school used them during the school day. When my kids are plugged in to whatever screen activity, they’re required to “go noodle” every hour or so. Sometimes they’re in charge of coming up with an activity, and sometimes I’ll make up something silly for them to do, or I’ll do it with them. Having intentional movement breaks throughout the day is so helpful, and it doesn’t have to be jumping jacks – although any movements that don’t involve setting up anything and can be done right beside your workspace are great – there are loads of online resources that you can use for ideas.

Tip 6: Get Organized.

This is a good one, and deserving of more space than I’ll give it in this article. If you’re already a super-organized soul and have your own tools at ready, then good for you and you can either skip this part or check it out anyway cuz you never know. If you’re scrambling to figure out how to organize your time and projects during this new crazy era, then maybe this will be your ultimate relief. Two words: bullet journals.

I learned about bullet journals for the first time from one of my favourite new podcasts, The Perimenopausal Mamas (a client and good friend). As a result, I have signed up for the free bullet journal course myself; some early morning this week I’m even going to complete it. I confess that the idea of highlighters and multiple marker colours gives me the heebie-jeebies, but I suspect it will help. On a recent podcast episode, guest Nicole North of Whiteboard Consulting offers an article explaining bullet journals and how to get started using them.

Summary

I really hope you’ll find something useful in this article. If you’re also a work-from-home parent, feel free to share your own tips and resources here. You never know when some little piece of information will help someone else.

List of References:

These are some of my faves. I don’t benefit in any way if you click on these, but if you like them please let me know so I can pat myself on the back 🙂

  • Kiwico.com – at-home resources for kids and their grownups. Includes printable STEAM activities, Parent Toolkits, and all kinds of cool stuff (free and otherwise).
  • Scholastic Learn At Home – not Canadian, but I like how they’ve grouped their activities. My kids are currently following the daily schedule here, until our local Department of Education releases their own content.
  • Curiosity Stream – subscription website offering “thousands” of documentaries. Not free.
  • Khan Academy – A nonprofit offering “world-class education for anyone”. Free or by donation. Totally awesome learning website. They have recently added a student schedule that is customized by grade and is freely available, and which you might prefer over mine above.
  • Go Noodle – I can’t say enough about this website, I freaking love it. Movement and mindfulness videos by child development folks.
  • Perimenopausal Mamas Podcast – this is a new podcast for mums in their 40s offered by two Canadian naturopathic doctors. Since your own self-care is super critical right now, I highly recommend this podcast to help guide your own health.
  • The Spruce – neat ideas for stuff you can make, including room dividers.
  • Bullet Journaling – article by Whiteboard Consulting about how to get started with bullet journals. Free tutorials available.

2 thoughts on “The art of self-employment during a global pandemic”

  1. I love you and glad you are my friend!! Did anyone tell you that you are amazing yet today??! Well you are 🙂

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