I haven’t always been good at managing my time. When I look back at my pre-kid life and consider all the hours upon hours I frittered away, without even good grades in school or career advancement to show for it, I’m amazed. Having kids didn’t immediately improve my time-management skills: it wasn’t until I had my third child and decided I needed more structure to my life to function–and, at the same time, decided to take a real, serious stab at writing professionally–that I started, out of sheer survival instinct, to develop habits to help me get things done. Now, several children, four books and many published articles later, I’m still not perfect but I’ve got a much better handle on using my time efficiently.
Here are some of my favorite tips and tricks for making good use of time:
Pay close attention to what makes you tick…and what doesn’t.
My first child fit pretty well into my free-form, no-schedule lifestyle, but when I added my second just 22 months later, everything fell apart. Suddenly it became clear that what I’d seen as a laid-back, type-B mothering style was actually a chaotic life ruled by inertia. Trying to protect myself from failure, I’d set low, low expectations of what I might be able to accomplish in a day, whether it was getting a healthy dinner on the table or taking the kids on an outing, or writing that essay I’d been mulling over. And (just like in high school and college) as it turned out, the less I expected of myself, the less I delivered.
I realized my true colors: I need deadlines, I need expectations, and I’m really not that type B, after all. Maybe you’re the opposite–overloading your schedule when what you really need is some breathing room. We’re all different. Just be sure you’re clear about what really helps you, not necessarily what you think should help you.
Always leave a room better than you found it.
I’ve shared that one here before, but I believe in it so strongly –and find it so helpful–that it’s always worth another mention. There’s no need to spend lots of time picking up and decluttering if you build cleanup naturally into your day.
Create good habits.
We all have habits that drive us throughout our days. Some habits help us and some make our lives more chaotic. For example, if you never start thinking about what you’ll have for dinner before 5 PM, you’ll probably waste a lot of time, money and energy trying to figure out what you can throw together (or pick up from the drive-through) on super-short notice.
I know, because this is one of those stubborn mental blocks that I’m just now, finally, starting to get over. It does require a re-wiring of the brain to start preparing for dinner at 3 PM instead–or better yet, plan it out the day or even the week before–but it doesn’t take any extra time. In fact, it’ll save you time and energy, because you can prepare in stages instead of madly trying to throw everything together and realizing at the last minute you forgot to defrost the chicken…again.
(Hint: while you’re trying to turn something new into a habit, you’ll probably need an external reminder, like an alarm on your cell phone, or the end of a show you watch every day to “peg” the activity to.)
Write it down.
Getting my to-do list out of my head and on paper is an essential just-before-bed exercise. I keep a notebook with my running list next to my bed and look at it first thing in the morning: that way I don’t waste time futzing around on the Internet while my brain tries to wake up enough to remember what I was supposed to be doing today. There it is in black ink, and just seeing the words on the paper brings me back to the mindset I was in when I wrote the list and helps get me on track.
Identify your values.
The word “values” is not inherently laden with judgment. Perhaps you value sports more than your neighbor. Maybe your best mom friend values preschool education more than you do. That doesn’t mean she’s right and you’re wrong or vice versa. Even if you and your sister are both into healthy eating, maybe one of you is opting for local farmer’s market fare while the other shops the organic produce at Whole Foods. It’s only when you understand your own specific values that you can prioritize. Try making a list of ten things you really value, then look at your how you spend your time (try this downloadable time log): do your actions reflect your stated values?
Nurture your energy levels.
You can’t be expected to use that “extra” half hour to do anything except veg on the sofa if you’re exhausted all the time. You need enough rest, you need to eat real food, and you need to move your body (as I’ve said before, energy begets energy). Moms deserve and need eight hours of sleep a night, and unless you’ve got a newborn in the house (in which case you get a pass for a while) you need to demand yours.
If you won’t do it for yourself, do it for your kids and their carpool buddies: studies show that driving sleepy is as dangerous as driving drunk. While I’m at it? Moms, take that bubble bath you keep talking about, wouldja? We’re talking a half hour from tub-full to towel time, and if you’ve really been dying for one, it’s worth missing an episode of The Real Housewives of New Jersey for…promise.
Ignore your phone.
This one drives my friends and family crazy, but I only answer my phone about 1/10 of the time (if that). For one thing, I don’t like to be tethered to my phone (and refuse to answer it in most public places), so often I don’t even have it with me or I have the ringer shut off. But when I do have it on, I don’t take calls unless I have a scheduled appointment, really need to talk over something specific with the caller, or have the time and focus to invest in the call. Otherwise it just seems unfair to whoever’s calling me…and creates an unnecessary interruption to what I’m already doing (whether it’s working, playing with my kids or having a real-life conversation with somebody else). If it’s important, the person will leave me a message. If it’s not, I can call them back later.
Train your kids.
It takes time. And yes, precious energy. But your kids are part of the family, help create the messes and need to learn how to pitch in and be part of a team. And though it can take a serious investment of time to get kids comfortable and competent at certain tasks, imagine what a load off your mind it will be when one day you can simply not do the dishes…because that’s somebody else’s job.
Choose your friends wisely.
I am amazed sometime at the amount of energy people invest in toxic relationships. The way I see it, if one of my friendships is so bumpy that I’m constantly having to call other friends to discuss it, or am always trying to patch up some misunderstanding or other, maybe it’s time to let the friendship cool. Let me be frank: normal friendships shouldn’t be that much work. As I wrote in a post last December: “Very few people “accidentally” wind up tangled up in drama over and over. Drama tends to originate from the same small number of broken and/or clueless and/or just plain mean people and then spread outward in rings.” And when you’re in the mix of tantrums and teething and all the other commotion that comes with kids, the last thing you need is more drama manufactured by the adults in your lives.
Think in five-year blocks.
For those of us with many potential pursuits who feel panicked when we aren’t cramming them all in right this minute, I recommended looking at life in five-year increments. For example, it’s not likely that I’ll perform in a musical, learn to play the violin really well, run a 5K, and work for my local tourism board this year, but they are all things I’ve dreamed about. The way I see it, my life shifts pretty dramatically every five years (for example, in five years my youngest will be in full-day school, my oldest will be on his way out the door, and hopefully I’ll have a couple of best-selling books under my belt). Just because something can’t happen right this second doesn’t mean it never will. And if I live to 75 or beyond, I have 8 more five-year blocks to work with. That’s a lot of time to accomplish a lot of stuff.
This post originally appeared as a series on The Happiest Home blog in 2010. Want the podcast version? Listen below!