Many people are now working from home and they have kids around. Like lots of others I’m doing this as well, but since in Italy we got hit by the COVID-19 earlier, I got a little bit used to the new situation, and I set up a few tricks to make my time more productive.

If you are reading this in the future, the pandemics is finally gone, you have a remote job, and you are thinking to keep your kids around, just don’t. Send them to school. As soon as possible. Kindergarten is great place where kids develop a lot of social skills.

However, if you can’t leverage schools (for instance you might be in a pandemic lockdown), then you must cope with the presence of the kids.

I’m not an education expert, nor a remote job veteran, but I’m doing this for 5 weeks in a 60-square-meeters two-bedroom flat with two kids aged 7 and 9; we don’t have a garden and the only desk is in the kids’ bedroom. It might look a pretty dire, but it’s working out quite well, so far. My experience says that:

  • not all the hours are created equals. You will have bursts of concentration-time (when they have their activities or are engaged by something), and non-concentration-time (when kids are bored). Concentration time is often short (half an hour, maybe one hour) and randomly distributed among the days. I call these focus-time and regular-time. One of the most productive tools you have is to plan for the focus-time to happen when you need it the most;

  • kids are smart people and they tend to understand things when you explain them. Also, they will understand what is going on anyway, so it is better to tell them why you are closed at home and why you cannot leave. Give purpose to what they are enduring. I used this great drawing to visually make them understand why it is important to stay at home. Besides, this allowed me to teach them a little bit about exponential growth and why it is bad;

  • in hard times everyone must take more responsibility than usual. Make the grow. The epidemics will probably leave a lot of mental issues once gone. However, it is not the end of the world. A lot of people are way worse and have endured a much harder time, both in the past and now. Tell them this gracefully, and help them to accept that sometimes shit happens; this knowledge will be a useful tool in the future;

  • boredom is healthy, so let them get bored. Of course, two bored kids in a small house will not bring a lot of focus-time;

  • when living a lot of time in a home, the mess will pile up quickly. Kids need to play, you need to work, there is lunch to prepare and dish to wash, house works, chores, and so on. And during and epidemics there is a bunch of extra cleaning to be done. There is no need to carry all of this burden on your adult shoulders alone, kids can deliver a lot of housework. You just need to understand what is safest to assign them. My rule of thumb is nothing that could kill or seriously harm them (they can make dad and mom a coffee, but they cannot bring us the steamy hot coffee), and nothing that could bring permanent damage to the house if not properly done (cleaning is fine, bleaching a delicate wooden floor it not). Everything else is OK. I also apply with them the rule I usually apply with very junior colleagues: I give them responsibility, but then I check the job after done. It’s my version of the 80/20 rule: I expect them to get the 80% right and 20% wrong, but, hey, 80% less of the work is not bad;

  • you will be busy during the weekdays and free during the weekends. Especially if you don’t already work for a remote-first company, other people will expect you to be online when they are online, so you will have things to do Mondy to Friday 9 to 5. Ish (more on this later). But weekend days are perfect because since you are locked at home, they’re nowhere to go (and believe me, a whole weekend without anything to do is a nightmare). I have solved two problems at once, by inverting the week: I assume that during weekdays the kids are less busy with school, and I concentrate the school work on Saturday and Sunday;

  • this pandemic is not normal, so normal rules do not apply. We are a very not-digital family, with very limited computer/iPad/television time, but these rules are being relaxed now. We agreed that they have half an hour of leisure digital before lunch and half an hour before dinner, but they usually exceed a little bit and it’s more one hour each time. We just were very clear that it’s not the norm, and things will go back to normal sooner or later. A refresh of this every now and then doesn’t hurt. Another change to the habits is that we are watching TV together more often; of course, family time (or digital school) do not deplete their digital leisure;

  • without school to go, activities during the week and family trips at weekends, every day looks like the others, so try to establish some routine. For instance, wake them up quite early (but not too much). Insist that they follow the same routine as usual; we have breakfast together, then they brush their theet, they get dressed for school, they tidy their room and they go to school (aka they get their books ready, open the computer for the daily call with the teachers, and so on). Giving them a routine is also helpful to force you to follow one. I have noticed that this helps me a lot. It also makes it easier to develop tiny habits;

  • being forced at home sucks for physical health. We have solved this by doing some house training. Of course nothing too cardio, but we try yoga, and some mild calisthenics stuff. Easy things, but it helps to kill some time, waste some energy and keep a little bit more fit, if possible. Note that while we enjoy outdoor activities, we have never been a super sporty family, so you might want to adjust the intensity here;

  • I use scratch extensively: my kids can play videogames as long as they want (breaking the half-an-hour-before-meals rule) if they code it themselves. At the moment is more the 9-year-old coding and the 7-year-old giving suggestions and “beta testing” the product;

  • I take advantage of my education: for instance one evening I have challenged the kids that I would be quicker than them to alphabetically sort books. Of course, I didn’t mention them I would use quicksort to be efficient. I use any occasion to explain to them things I know (I know quicksort). For instance, we saw a documentary about submarines and my youngest son got crazy about submarines, so this morning we ended up talking about sonar, echos, and waves;

  • since the focus-time is a scarce resource and happens randomly, it is best to maximize its usage by preparing things in advantage. The idea is to prepare things (like professional cooks prepare all the ingredients) during the regular-time, and then assemble them during the focus-time. This way, you can maximize the few focus-hours per day, and somehow make use of the regular-time. Do silly things like cloning repos, running long commands, zero inboxing, and so on while the kids are around screaming and begging for attention, and do important things like reading books, and coding your side project while they are doing something themselves;

  • since everyone is remote, everyone will be engaged in conference calls most of the time. I know that many of you write emails, surf the web, or do other things while in a call, so leverage on this and do housework and chores instead. Pretend you have low bandwidth, so that you can avoid video calls as much as possible, put some Bluetooth earphones and while people speak about unnecessary things, do necessary things like dishwashing. Remember to put yourself on mute;

  • taking advantage of the focus-time is great, but being able to create focus-time when necessary is huge. My experience tells me that kids get quickly used to things, so don’t expect you can create an unlimited number of quite hours by just putting them in front of a screen (unless you want to create a dumb brainwashed kid, but this is very poor planning for the future). What I try to do is mix games, TV, videogames, and things to do; I prepare a bunch of work for the kids so that I deliver a high amount of things to do when in need of some focus-time. Spend a couple of hours downloading any type of content from the Internet, so you can deliver them with tens of drawing to colorize, of school sheets to fill.

All in all, so far my experience was much better than I expected. I found a few nice tricks to keep things going on and my kids are behaving wonderfully.

Let’s hope this nightmare ends soon. Best.