How to find more time to work, when you’re looking after kids

It can feel, when you’re freelancing around family life, as if there is never enough time. Your day might be crammed with childcare, chores, cooking. But there are always small windows for work. Here are some ideas…

In 2010, Alan Rusbridger – former UK Guardian editor – went on a piano camp. Growing up, he’d been encouraged to learn the piano and now, as his kids were older and less demanding, he felt it was time to reconnect with this old passion.

On the last evening of the camp, another attendee played part of Chopin’s ‘Ballade No. 1’ – a notoriously challenging piece. He watched and listened in awe.

‘He was playing one of the most complex and technically demanding pieces in the canon, and he was playing without a score, as if carrying the music inside him’ Rusbridger wrote in his 2013 autobiography Play it Again: An Amateur Against the Impossible.

Rusbridger was so inspired by this performance that he decided to set himself the challenge of reciting the same piece of music, to an audience. However, he didn’t realise that he was about to enter one of his most challenging stints as Guardian editor.

Over the next 12 months, the Arab Spring took hold, followed by the devastating Japanese tsunami and the London riots. The Guardian broke both the Wikileaks story and the News of the World hacking scandal. Rusbridger was under huge pressure.

And yet he was determined to master this piece. So he decided to commit initially to practising for just 15 to 20 minutes a day, first thing in the morning. He would rise half an hour earlier, do 10 minutes of yoga listening to the Today program on BBC Radio 4, eat breakfast while reading the papers and follow this with his practice.

He soon recognised that the key to undertaking a new hobby or challenge is to be realistic with your time expectations. A smaller amount of time is manageable and therefore easier to stick to. But he was also advised by a friend to make better use of the hours he was neither working nor sleeping.

It can feel, when you’re freelancing around family life, as if there is never enough time. Your day might be crammed with childcare, chores, cooking. And yet there will most likely be periods where the kids are occupied, sleeping or in childcare. Those are the times when a freelancing parent needs to work.

If Rusbridger had been able to practise a few hours a day, if his day job hadn’t been so demanding or he’d been retired, he’d have probably learned the piece much sooner. Likewise, a freelance parent may feel that without the responsibility of their kids, they’d be able to achieve much more.

And yet there’s something to be said for finding small pockets of time to achieve our goals. An entirely free day can be as daunting as a blank canvas, whereas with a small slice of free time there’s the temptation to greedily grab it and use it wisely.

In the end, Rusbridger managed to recite the Ballade, to an audience, just a few months later that he’d hoped.

What this teaches us about time is that even when it’s scarce, there is still almost always a way to make better use of it. Previously, Rusbridger spent those 20 piano-playing minutes sleeping, or having a slow breakfast, but he managed to find a new – more productive and fulfilling – use for them.

As a freelance parent, instead of thinking there aren’t enough hours in the day, it can help to reallocate timings for each task. You might be surprised by how much you can get done if you work more efficiently – look at the day’s jobs, estimate the time they will take and clearly plan your working day around this.

If your child naps, plan exactly what you will use that time for. If they don’t – but go to bed early – make use of those evening hours, before you go to bed yourself. If they go to nursery or school, get home and start working. Ensure that you don’t suddenly find yourself with child-free time thinking: “what should I do now?”.

Quick tips for finding more time, as a freelance parent

  • Reduce social media use to three times a day: once in the morning, once around lunchtime, once on the evening. That includes writing posts and engagement. All scrolling must fit into these time slots.
  • Allocate a set amount of time for each task at the beginning of the day, or work session, and stick to it. This will discourage you from unnecessary research, or getting distracted and making cups of tea.
  • On that note, include time for yourself if you can. Write in a five-minute tea break every few hours. Have a proper lunch break, away from the screen, even if it’s a quick sandwich. Focus on your food.
  • If you have the kids during the day and so need to work at night, commit to a manageable work period, like an hour. Get the kids to bed on time, open your computer and feel reassured that in an hour’s time, you’ll be free. It will whizz by.
  • Remind friends and family that you’re not available. There’s a tendency for our pals to think that because we work from home, we’re up for them dropping in. But we’re not. So set clear boundaries, and get on with your work.