Finding time; the ultimate guide for freelancers with kids
I thought it would be easy. Well maybe not easy. But not quite this tough.
Over the last 10 years I've built a successful holiday let business. Before that, a small web development business.
And then I became a foster carer. One morning, I woke up to the realisation that it was no longer just me and the dog. I was responsible for three, amazing, incredible children. And then all the productivity advice became a bit obsolete!
Since the kids arrived, I've had to rethink everything. Here's why. With an overview of what my days look like now. And a list of top tips for finding time.
Think. Why are you doing this?
Looking after three kids could easily fill all of my time. And some days it absolutely does.
But I also run a conversion optimisation agency.
I do it for my own sanity. I do it to ensure my brain can cope with more than packing lunches and ironing. I do it because I love it. But mostly I do it to set an example for these three kids.
Kids don't do what they're told. They do what they see us doing.
Look after yourself. Stay in shape. Sleep well. Eat well. Work hard. And your kids will do the same.
So if you want your kids to work hard, look after themselves, sleep well, and eat well... the easiest way to achieve this is by doing it yourself.
The way you spend your time should be based on your priorities. Putting your kids to bed, helping them with their homework, watching them play football. That's why we do this. And so your days should be organised in a way that lets you do all these things. Guilt-free.
Here's a typical day for me:
- 6:00AM: I'm up. I've tried getting up earlier, but this wakes my youngest. I don't use my phone or laptop until the kids are at school. With three kids to get ready, my mornings are busy enough.
- 8:30AM: Walk with the kids to school.
- 9:00AM: Get back home. I have my Nutribullet smoothie.
- 9:30AM: By this time I'm either heading for the office, or the gym (depending on the day).
- 10:00AM: Work can finally begin! I use this time for Deep Work.
- 1:00/2:00PM: I'll leave the office depending on what's for tea, whether I need to stop at the shop, etc. Once I'm home, I'll have some lunch.
- 3PM: School pick-up time.
- 7PM: Youngest is in bed. The other two usually watch TV. I sit with my laptop. Clear my emails. Check my social network notifications. This is a conscious decision. I want to sit with them, but I also want them to see me working. Sometimes I'll read (a habit I'm also keen to encourage in them). And in all honesty, sometimes I'll watch TV too. 📺🤓
- 9PM: Eldest is off to bed. I'll do another hour of work. Then I start winding down. Give the house a quick tidy. Organise the kitchen. Sort out some laundry.
- 10:30PM: I'm in bed. I'll read for a bit if I'm not too exhausted.
This isn't the way you should do things! Your ideal schedule probably won't look anything like this. But what's important is that you think about how you organise your day. Base it on when you get your best work done. And think about what would work best for your family.
There aren't many working hours available when you've got kids. But there is time. And if that time is used productively, then it is possible for you to get more done than many people with full-time jobs.
And now, time for the hacks that make this all possible.
1. Sleep well.
It all starts here. Seriously.
When it's all going wrong, as it does from time to time, I take things back to basics. This is a huge life leverage tactic for me.
The statistics are worrying. For adults and kids. We need more sleep. And getting plenty of sleep makes everything so much easier. It makes us perform better. It makes us happier. It even makes us healthier. Right now, and in the long run.
My sleep hacks:
- Bedtimes aren't just for the kids. Set them for yourself too. And stick to them!
- The last hour of the day should be a screen-free zone. No laptops or phones. If you have to, make sure you have something like Night Shift set up and the brightness turned right down.
- Implement a no phones in the bedroom rule. I leave my phone charging in the kitchen. If you're reluctant because you use it as an alarm clock, that's not a good enough excuse.
- Don't drink alcohol. OK, so I'm loosing about 90% of people here, I know. But if you want a great night's sleep, don't drink.
2. Eat well.
I had a little health scare several years back. One very positive outcome was seeing a nutritionist.
It totally changed the way I approach food. Much like sleep, it offers huge life leverage. Here's some tips to make eating well that little bit easier:
- Keep notes of your favourite meals. I use the Bear Notes app to save all my favourite recipes, including the ingredients. I can just copy and paste the ingredients when creating my shopping lists. And I tick off the things I already have.
- Batch your shopping. More on this below.
- Buy all the gadgets! OK, maybe not all of them. But some kitchen gadgets are seriously brilliant. My go-to-gadgets for the kitchen are:
- Food processor. Great for quickly chopping veg. Ideal for feeding the kids veg by stealth!
- Nutribullet blender. I use this every morning. Ideal for feeding yourself all the good stuff by stealth!
- Soup maker. Chuck stuff in. 30 minutes later you have a healthy lunch for today, and the next few days too. I'm still trying to convince the kids that soup isn't completely disgusting.
- Slow cooker. I wasn't convinced on this. My mum insisted it was brilliant. I didn't listen. So she bought me one for Christmas one year. I used it so much that I ended up buying a bigger one.
- Use your diary. Each Sunday I plan our evening meals (and my lunches) for the week ahead. I'm a little more relaxed on the weekends. I start by writing the school dinners for each day (to avoid a day of Spaghetti Bolognese overload!). I use Bear to choose what we'll have. And I create my shopping list.
- Online shopping. I've never got on with food shopping online. I'm not sure why. But when I asked fellow freelancers, lots of them raved about it. I'm including it here because it clearly works for many people.
3. Be clear about when you're not working.
When I'm working, I feel guilty that I'm not doing stuff for the kids. Or spending time with them.
When I'm spending time with the kids, I feel guilty about those emails I haven't replied to.
We just can't win.
However, setting clear boundaries is one of the best ways to reduce this guilt.
Between school pick-up, and my youngest going to bed, I avoid using my laptop or my phone. I'm just there for the kids. If they're happily watching TV, playing, or at one of their 10 (yes, 10!!) after-school activities, then I will tidy the house, sort out tea, do some ironing, etc.
4. Get out of the house.
My biggest luxury is an office. A twenty minute drive away from the house.
This might seem like an odd decision. I'm already working with limited time. Spending some of it commuting (when I could just work from home) looks like a backwards step. But I highly recommend it.
I have a private office at a fantastic coworking space in South Wales. It really helps with my point above, helps you take your business seriously, and (depending where you work) can be a fantastic way to top into an incredible network of fellow freelancers.
I don't go there every day. But when I do I get to work uninterrupted. I can read. I can leave things out and they don't get moved or drawn on by artists in training. 👩🎨
5. Look after yourself.
If you don't, your work will suffer. Your kids will suffer. And so will you.
The typical recommendation is to run a nice bath. Take a book in there with you. And a glass of wine. But just go do something that's a luxury for you. Only you will know what that could be.
I go to the gym. Three times a week. It's something that's just for me. And it's good for me. Which helps justify the time it takes up each week.
TIP: Accountability. I train in a group class at the gym. I need to book in advance. And if I don't go, I still have to pay. This keeps me accountable. And means I almost never miss a session.
6. Outsource your cleaning and your accounting.
Outsourcing isn't a revolutionary idea. If you want more time, get other people to do stuff for you.
I've heard great things about virtual assistants, although I'm yet to try that myself. But I have outsourced a few things:
Hiring a cleaner was such a good decision. Chris is here for 2 hours each week, and gets more done than I could do in double the time. With the 4+ hours I save each week, I earn more than what it costs me. Plus the house stays clean (or rather, doesn't get too out of control!). And I feel less guilty about working when I could be cleaning the house.
I've also got a gardener. This was a slightly tougher decision as I enjoy gardening. However, I'm not very good at it. And finding the time for it was always a challenge. The compromise is that Rich just comes along when I need his help. And I can deal with maintaining the garden (which I mainly do when the sun is shining!).
The financial side of my business falls into both 'don't enjoy' and 'completely rubbish at' categories. For a small business, outsourcing my accounting is a large overhead to commit too. But it's one that pays off for me.
Think about what you can outsource. Think about what you're no good at. Start with the things that fit into both those categories.
7. Get help with childcare.
This is the response I usually get when I tell people what I do. And then comes the guilt. Because the honest answer is I can't. Nobody can. It's impossible.
I can only do what I do because of the amazing support network I have around me. Don't be afraid to ask for help from those willing to give it. This could be anything from the occasional school pick-up by a relative, to a childminder a few times a week.
8. Get organised.
Quite a general one, I know. But there are a few tools I wanted to mention, as they're things I couldn't live without.
- Todoist is my virtual to-do list of choice. It's brilliant. I recommend it to everyone I meet. Getting organised on this helps keep my head clear. And it's a huge factor in being able to do focussed, productive work - making the most of that limited time each week.
- Notebooks, and loads of them. I keep one next to my bed. One in my bag for work. One in the car. If something work related pops into my head, I don't need to get my phone out. But I can remain present by writing it down and removing the worry that I'll forget about it.
- Not sure where your time is disappearing? Try tracking it. Toggl is a great tool for this.
- Another tool I rave about all the time is Pocket. I previously wrote about how it is my inbox lifesaver. It's an essential tool for me ensuring I stay productive and avoid distractions.
9. Batch similar jobs together.
Drive to the supermarket. Buy bread. Get home. Check some emails. Then drive back to the supermarket and buy milk. Go home and check social media. Then back to the supermarket again for another item of the shopping list.
You just wouldn't do this, would you? Yet with work we switch constantly between different tasks like crazy fools. Batching work together can save a huge amount of time and energy. Here are a few examples:
- I mentioned Pocket above. Batching is one of the reasons I love it as a tool. When I rattle through my inbox, I can save all the things I might want to read, then read them all at an appropriate time. For me this is usually the hour after the last kid goes to bed.
- Shop twice a week. The analogy above might be extreme, but how many of us spend way more time than we need to at the supermarket. I go on a Monday and a Friday. The tips in the 'Eat well' section make this a lot easier.
- Social media is another great example. Spend an hour to get all your Instagram photos and captions ready for the week ahead. Use Buffer to schedule your tweets.
- Extend the idea of batching to home life too. Buy a load of birthday cards in bulk. And keep a cupboard of gifts to avoid last minute shopping trips before birthday parties. If you can, batch wrap them in advance for extra super-productivity points.
10. Get the kids to help.
I often say that if it takes me 10 minutes to do something, it'll take 20 minutes if the kids are helping.
And whilst I do stand by that, giving kids some responsibilities can certainly help you (and them) in the long run. In particular, look for daily tasks they can take on. Making their own beds. Tidying their own toys away.
I'm completely honest with the kids on this. It actually isn't possible for me to do everything for them. Or at least, if it I did, we just wouldn't have time to do all the fun stuff each week too.
11. Schedule your washing machine.
Scheduling can be a lifesaver. And it's an idea that's closely linked to routines.
For adults, routines can be really helpful. For children, they can be amazing. For children who have suffered early life trauma (like those that I support), it's absolutely essential.
I've already spoken about Buffer for scheduling your social media posts. And making time in your weekly routine to batch this work together. But think about what else you can schedule.
I try to get the dishwasher on after our evening meal, so that I can open it before I go to bed, so that it's all dry and ready to go away when I get up the next morning.
Setting your washing machine to be finished when you get up in the morning is another great way to use scheduling to your advantage.
12. Say no.
When you're working for yourself, or running a small business, saying no is really tough. There's always a feeling that you're turning money away.
But instead, think about saying no to something as making space to say yes to something better.
Us freelancer parents do so much, but thinking we can do it all and be everything to everyone is just setting ourselves up for failure.
What does success look like?
For me, it's being able to sit and wait without thinking "I have to use this time for something productive!". It's about loving what I do, but also being able to switch off and be completely present, and enjoy the kids growing up. It's about doing a job that can be put on pause so that I'm able to put the kids first. It's about doing great work, and letting the kids see what joy can be found in that.
A little side note.
I hope this guide is useful. I currently have a huge pile of ironing to do. And I'm sat writing this on my laptop on a Saturday morning (football rained off) while the kids watch TV. I am absolutely not living the perfect life of productivity and organisation. But these tips from my own experience (and from the amazing, incredible, wonderful people of the Doing It For The Kids Facebook Community) have helped me out massively. I hope they help you too.