How I survive isolation with kids at home

April 13, 2020

Re-published from Salv blog

A bit of backstory to this post. We are now five weeks into isolation. I work at Salv and we shifted into isolation and fully working from home on March 13. We set up an internal Slack channel where we share tips, tricks, thoughts and emotions about the isolation. I wrote these tips four weeks ago, initially for internal consumption, but the team found them interesting and we ended up sharing them on the company blog. Now four weeks later, I go over them and find that it’s all still valid and I operate with my family in a fairly similar way, with no shifts in any direction, which seems to be a good thing these days. So here goes the same post for my own site, with some extra notes.

Long before the current crisis, I had already designed my life and work such that, luckily, fully remote working hasn’t impacted me as much as many others out there.

We had to make a few adjustments in our family, but I’ve already found a good rhythm. I thought maybe writing up what contributes to success might be helpful to others to who this is a new situation.

Family and daily schedule

Partner who helps

This is by far the biggest factor. My wife isn’t working currently and can look after the kids during most business hours. I have good long stretches of undisturbed working time.

Kids who are small

Our kids are 4 and 1, so they’re still pretty tiny. There are two jobs we have with them — sometimes feed them, and make sure they don’t get themselves killed. That’s it. They do take quite a bit of energy to look after, but there’s no “schooling” requirements or classes or such, which reduces the stress or expectations.

Have a schedule

We have roughly the same schedule 7 days a week, designed around our kids’ cycle: sleep, wake up, eat, go outside twice a day (depending on the weather). My wife and I have shared the workload of who does what when. It provides a predictable rhythm, consistency, and thus a sense of familiarity and safety.

Technology and workspace setup

Since I spend a lot of time by computer for work and hobbies as well as entertainment, I’ve invested quite a bit in my home office setup.

Dedicated room

My workspace is separated from the rest of the family by several doors with fairly good sound isolation. I need my peace and quiet to do anything useful.

Proper desk and chair

It’s important to sit comfortably for the health of your body. My favourite chair is Aeron. New ones cost €1000+. I got a used one around €600 several years ago. The chairs are super durable, the used one I got looked/felt like new, and it will last for many more years. It’s very comfortable to sit for several hours without getting tired. (But I’ll talk later about breaks.)

Good computer

I have 27” iMac as my home computer that I also use for work. I can very much recommend it for all home purposes. Laptop+monitor also works fine. I can’t imagine working only with laptop for a very long time. I need both the screen space and proper ergonomics.

Good monitor ergonomics

No matter what computer you have, you should have this kind of monitor ergonomics, to avoid looking down for extended time, which is bad for your neck and other setup. Your eyes should be roughly at the same level as the top of the monitor.

Monitor ergonomics

Work priorities, planning, expectations

Less than 100%

Before all of this, I was already working less than full time on purpose. But now that things have changed, it’s even less with the current situation. I don’t think anybody is expecting us to be at the same peak capacity as we were before the crisis. We all do whatever we can, nobody is slacking off, but we are all at less than 100%, and that’s expected and fair. It’s important we give ourselves some grace right now.

A journalist commented on this point that there are many frontline professions where you currently have to give way more than 100%: all medical staff in hospitals and other medical facilities, emergency responders, police, journalists, food delivery and distribution. I agree and am thankful to everyone in these jobs. I am fortunate to be in my privileged position of working less than 100% from the comfort of my own home. I can do my part by just staying home, looking after my family, and asking how I can share what I have to support fighting the virus, perhaps with donations, sharing ideas in hackathons and such. Maybe this very post is also one tiny piece.

Go with the familiar

At times of uncertainty, it’s reassuring to fall back on some familiar and comfortable tasks. They may not feel like they matter all that much in light of the big picture, but they help to preserve our sanity and still contribute to our progress. There’s always a backlog of “important but not urgent” things. When there’s nothing else to do, it’s good to fall back on those. They also contribute to a sense of normalcy, which is especially important in times of uncertainty.

Be ready for a shift

At the same time of dealing with small familiar things, I realize we may need to majorly change direction at any time. This was always true at Salv, but even more so in this new environment. When that happens, I’ll just go with that.

Physical wellbeing

Sleep

I cannot overstate how important sleep is to my wellbeing. Since there’s nowhere to rush to in the mornings, this is a great time for parents to catch up on sleep. Our kids have somehow picked this up, too, and don’t usually wake up too early. So we’re all getting proper rest and are happier during the day.

Breaks during the day

I stand up and move around at least once an hour when I’m working. Apple Watch has a useful reminder for this, but usually I don’t need it. I’ve developed the habit of standing and moving regularly.

Hydrate

The water bottle on my desk isn’t an accident. I drink lots of water during the day, which has many benefits. Among other things, it reduces the need to have other kinds of snacks, which can be a problem at home where you have lots of good treats available.

Physical exercise and being outside

I haven’t yet fully implemented a good replacement to my gym routine. I’m not a big runner, but when the weather gets warmer, I’ll definitely bike more. Going to tghe playground with the kids also counts a little bit.

Zero alcohol and other drugs

I’ve found that alcohol and kids/home/family don’t mix. Also, even small quantities of alcohol mess up my sleep, so not drinking has many benefits.

Mental wellbeing

Know your character

I’m introverted, so other than my family, I don’t need lots of other humans physically around me all the time. It feels like extroverted people are worse off, and need more ways to replace the lacking people and social contacts. So, honestly, the change probably won’t affect me nearly as much as it will the highly social among us.

Lower your expectations

This is a constant lesson when having kids, and even more so in this unfamiliar situation. When I think “I have to do this and that,” I then ask, “well, who said that where?” Is it some kind of imaginary social norm that’s just been sold to me? Or is it actually relevant to my life and work? This doesn’t mean that I’ll do a shitty job on things I’ve agreed to do — it just means I’m very selective about things where I say “yes” in both my work and daily life.

Look after the (extended) family

Now is the time to call my mom and other family members who might need help. My mom lives alone, so she really appreciates the contact and phone calls. We don’t meet too much and haven’t yet figured out how to safely get together physically, but I imagine we’ll work this out over time as the isolation continues.

Don’t think about investments

I have some market investments and “kolmas sammas” (voluntary pension fund). Everything is down the toilet at the moment. I just don’t think about it. Like it says, “only invest money that you can afford to lose.” I am confident it will come back one day, and I know that day may be months and years away. So there’s no need to worry about it right now. These are one of those down times. Up times will come again.

Be intentional about news and social media

I have news fatigue by now and don’t read or watch everything any more. I scan the headlines, but most things don’t affect me personally. I mostly use these sources: BBC (iOS app), NY Times (iOS app), Delfi, and Postimees. I’ve built up my Twitter over years, so there’s lots of useful and interesting info there, too. I sometimes look at Facebook on the web, but I deleted Facebook from my phone some years ago to get away from the time sink.

Have an outlet with various closed groups

I stay in touch online with various personal and professional circles in various groups — different Slacks, Facebook Messenger, Wire etc. It makes me feel as part of the world and community, even when I physically sit at home and am isolated. It provides entertainment and education. When I virtually hang out with close friends, we say horrible, dark, disgusting things. It’s a useful, healthy outlet. It’s said that doctors have the best sense of dark humor. It helps me make sense of the world, stay sane and human.

Focus on things you can control

It’s universal advice, and especially applicable today. There are many moving and uncertain parts in the world and most of them today are outside my control. I have to treat them as constraints, but there’s no point to “worry” about them endlessly, it doesn’t do anything. So I don’t. I focus instead on people I can help, and things I can control, which is mostly about my family and kids.

Take it one day at a time

In work and life, we always had a lot of long-term unknowns. But now it feels like that’s even more true. Although I do have some mid- and long-term plans, it helps to just focus on today and let go of the rest. Things are hectic enough with small kids that when they finally go to sleep, my wife and I take a deep breath, look at each other and just say, “Well, we all survived another day.” We can be thankful for that.

That’s all that we should expect of ourselves at this time. Hang in there.