Here's how I stay productive working from home in a tiny NYC apartment with my husband and 2 kids just a few feet away

Courtesy of Melissa PetroThe writer’s husband and baby in their overcrowded NYC apartment.
  • Melissa Petro is a freelance writer living in a tiny, roughly 500-square-foot apartment in New York City with her husband and their two small kids.
  • The apartment boasts no natural light, is poorly ventilated, and in some places is literally crumbling, but the rent-controlled price has been hard to give up.
  • Petro follows a few key rules to work from home successfully: She follows a strict schedule, saves chores for outside working hours, and takes advantage of “third spaces” like coffee shops.
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Documented cases of COVID-19 are on the rise, and we’ve all been advised to “cancel everything.” For some people, the idea of social distancing and working from home may not sound that unpleasant. Others with less hospitable living environments and tiny coworkers – aka children compelled to skip school and daycare – may not know how to begin.

Melissa Petro and familymelissa.petro/InstagramMelissa Petro.

As a freelance writer, I’m well accustomed to negotiating the challenges of working from home. My decrepit, shotgun-style one-bedroom in New York City boasts no natural light, is poorly ventilated, and in some places the ceiling is literally crumbling. But when I was single and just starting out as a freelancer, this rent-controlled space was a blessing. The price was so right that when my now-husband and I first moved in together, we made do rather than looking together for an apartment that would more reasonably accommodate two grown human beings, two dogs and our then-hypothetical children.

Now that those hypothetical children have manifested into a toddler and a newborn, our cosy home feels a lot like a clown car. And yet somehow, I still manage to work from home. Here’s how.


Create a dedicated space

Courtesy of Melissa PetroPetro’s ‘home office’ in a corner of her bedroom.

In most New York City apartments, spaces play double duty, and ours is no exception: The kitchen doubles as a storage space. The bedroom, which barely fits a full-sized bed, is also our nursery. The living room becomes everything else. In the living room, we watch TV, eat dinner and entertain. It’s our children’s playroom and my home gym.

It’s also my “home office.” My desk, which is barely the size of a postage stamp, serves as a place to sit and work. More importantly, it’s where I can safely leave piles of papers related to whatever I’m working on without fear they will get moved. If it’s on mummy’s desk, even the toddler knows not to touch it.

Beyond functionality, it’s the one small space in my apartment that still belongs to me. In my little corner, I’ve hung pictures and postcards and surrounded myself with books and other items as inspiration.


Make a schedule

melissa.petro/InstagramShe starts her day around the same time each morning.

The key to working from home is taking your work day just as seriously as if you went into the office. I get dressed in the morning and I go to work just like anyone else, starting my day around the same time each morning and – with the exception of a lunch break – remaining focused until I “punch out.” Focus is especially important in small spaces and when you have kids.

To keep myself honest and on task, I plot out my days in Google Calendar, deciding sometimes as far as a week in advance how I’ll divide my time. Between writing assignments, appointments with students and other administrative duties, my days are busy. I stick to a schedule. And, for the most part, so do my kids. Like most work-at-home parents, I get the majority of my work done when the kids are napping.


But don’t be rigid

Courtesy of Melissa PetroA truly family-friendly workplace ought to be understanding.

Of course – as any fellow work-from-home parent knows – kids are unpredictable. There’s always a nap strike on the same day I have a time-sensitive assignment due.

When this happens, I’ve learned to go easy on myself. A truly family-friendly workplace ought to be understanding, especially during times of extenuating circumstances.

A challenge of working from home – particularly in a small space – is that you’re surrounded by distraction. In addition to the children, there are dishes to do and laundry to fold and a million other chores in your sight line more easily forgotten if you worked from an office.

To avoid procrastinating, I do chores before or after working hours, just like employees with traditional jobs – or else I’ll put these tasks on my calendar (such as time to exercise). That said, it sometimes makes more sense to go for a mid-morning run or have an impromptu phone call with a friend in the middle of the day. That’s the benefit of working from home.


Take advantage of third spaces

ShutterstockThink beyond the four walls of your home.

Our “home” is more than the four walls that surround us: It’s our fire escape, our stoop, our block. It’s the park three blocks away, and our favourite brunch spot. It’s the grocery store, and the gym. Living together in a tiny one-bedroom, my family has learned to take advantage of third spaces in our neighbourhood. Most afternoons, you’ll see me hard at work on my computer at my local cafe, my son napping beside me in a stroller and the newborn strapped to my chest.

With the coronavirus, a lot of these places may become off limits – but not all of them. As the days get warmer, you can take your work to the park. I will often write on my phone while I walk the dogs or push a stroller.

Don’t panic. Stretch out, and enjoy some fresh air. Then, get back to work.

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