(Parenting.com) -- For Amy Charlson of Deerfield, Illinois -- mother of Benjamin, 5, and Elana, 3 -- it's all about balance.
She runs a part-time graphic-design business out of her basement. She hires a sitter only one day a week, so she ends up wrapping work around her kids' schedules.
On paper, this might seem doable, but it's proven difficult: "I can't concentrate fully on work when my kids are around, and I can't focus one hundred percent on my kids when I'm thinking about work."
Charlson dons the mom hat when she and her kids rise at 7 a.m. Her husband, Josh, helps with breakfast before leaving for work at 7:50; then the kids play while Charlson prepares to take Benjamin to kindergarten at noon.
After dropping him off, she returns home, makes lunch, and puts Elana down for her nap. Then she rushes downstairs to her office to check e-mail, make calls, and put a dent in her work.
When Elana wakes, they pick up Benjamin and return home, where Charlson spends the rest of the day snatching moments to go back to the basement.
"People call and e-mail throughout the day," she says, "and I hold my breath wondering who's trying to get ahold of me until I can run to a quiet place and find out. The back-and-forth also squelches my creativity on the job."
When she's really busy, her husband will take over after dinner and give the kids their bath while she works some more. She's often in the basement past midnight.
She says her attention span away from the job is affected by the juggling act, too: She often loses Ben's school papers and lets the house go too long between cleanings.
What the experts say
The consensus: Charlson is multitasking too much, and, as a result, she's not getting anything done as well as she'd like. The first order of business is to create separate schedules on paper for work and family responsibilities. And spring for a babysitter for part of every workday.
"She may think she's cutting down on expenses, but she's not meeting her full business potential because of the distractions," says Gracia. "It probably costs her in the long run."
The best time to hire the sitter would be during Ben's school hours, when she'll have to pay for only one child and she can have a few precious hours of quiet. She should have her callback and e-mail list ready at the start of every day so she can jump right into productive mode.
To draw clearer boundaries between her roles as a mom and a business owner:
• When the kids are being cared for, she should skip the sweatpants and dress as though she's leaving the house when she goes to the basement.
• Once in her office, she should shut the door. This will announce to herself -- and her kids -- that she's not available to nip back upstairs.
• Likewise, when it's family time she should fight the urge to run down and check her e-mail "one last time."
Once she makes the line between work and home more concrete, she'll be more productive at work and feel better about her time with her family. Her mind won't be wandering while she's with them, lessening any guilt.
To squeeze in some chores: Spend five minutes setting the kids up with a project, suggests Simon, which will pay off with a half hour of uninterrupted time. To cut down on paper overload, try creating an area (even if it's just a corner of the kids' rooms) that's solely for art supplies and projects, as well as an area dedicated to Ben's school notices and homework. If every item has a place, it's less likely to fall through the cracks.
One month later
"The tip I've found most useful is to hire a sitter more often," says Charlson. "It's actually cost-effective when I compare the expense to my professional rate."
It also eliminated the stress and anxiety she felt when Elana wasn't napping but she had work to attend to. She's also making it a goal to try not to work at night so she can have more time for her hobbies, reading and knitting.
"I feel like the experts validated my downtime," she says. Charlson already had a calendar in her office, but she's started keeping a "home" to-do list on the kitchen counter, which she updates every morning.
And organizing Ben's school papers? Well, it's a work in progress.
"I have a folder with his name on it," she laughs. "It's a start!" E-mail to a friend
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This article first appeared in Parenting magazine in April 2006.