It’s Your Time: Tuning In and Prioritizing
Show us a parent with enough time, and we’ll show you some lovely waterfront property in the Arctic. Even now, we marvel that we’ve got the same number of hours we’ve always had. It seems like there’s so much more to cram into every day.
Managing a family schedule is exponentially more complicated than handling your own. Not only is there simply more to fit into the calendar, the pressure is relentless to say yes to everything and do it all perfectly. If we listened to every parenting message coming at us, we’d think every choice is vitally important. Many of us operate under a perpetual measure of fear that if we don’t sign our kids up for the camps or schedule the lessons or plan out a week’s worth of home-cooked dinners, all while exercising, keeping a semi-decent home, managing a career, and maintaining more than a working relationship with our partner . . . we’re somehow failing. In short, there are ever more ways to slice and dice your time and attention, and endless ways to feel bad about it.
We’re not going to reveal the secret of doing it all. Because no one can do it all, no matter what the magazines and productivity blogs would have you think. Celebrity moms aren’t doing it all, the well-groomed PTA member floating down the school hallway isn’t doing it all, and your mom didn’t do it all. But everyone can do less and still raise healthy, happy, intelligent, and responsible kids.
The key lies in fine-tuning your filters so only the important stuff makes it onto your worthy-of-attention radar. The question goes from “How do I fit everything in?” to “What’s most important to fit in?” The beauty of this approach: when you minimalize your schedule, you have a shot at ending most days with the knowledge that you did most of the things that matter.
In this chapter, we’ll take you through big-picture exercises that will give you a clearer sense of your family’s priorities with regard to time and help you assess the way you currently spend time in light of those priorities. Then, we’ll provide some strategies to help you close the gap between what you’re doing and what you think is important to do.
Go grab your notebook and a pencil and let’s get started.
Before you can decide what’s worthy of a calendar slot, you need to figure out your unique relationship with time. Understanding and honoring that relationship is the first step toward getting a grip on your schedule.
Recognize Your “Time Style”
It’s safe to say we could all benefit from a tune-up of our time management skills. But to know where to begin, you need to identify your unique “time style.” Your time style is the way in which you feel most comfortable managing and spending your time.
Let’s take a step into fantasyland for a moment. If you were the only person in the picture, how would you spend your time? Answer the following questions (for now, don’t worry about what seems realistic):
• Are you someone who likes to work from a schedule? Or do you prefer flexibility and spontaneity?
• Do you find comfort in predictable routines or do you feel hemmed in?
• Would your friends describe you as punctual? Would you? Do you care?
• Can you jump between activities easily, or do you need “breathing room” in between?
• If you had an ideal day off, would you plan an itinerary full of fabulous or would you discover your fun on the fly?
• Do you prefer spending time with people or alone? In what proportions?
Your answers will shed light on your ideal schedule based on planned-ness, filled-ness, and peopled-ness. For example, one person’s ideal schedule might include a weekly errand day, regular chores and activities for the kids, and monthly potlucks. Another’s might have few weekend plans (but plenty of possible options). There are endless ways to organize your time.
Play around with your answers to help solidify a vision of your ideal schedule, even if it seems impossible based on your work, commitments, or family life. Have fun with this! The goal is to get a clear picture of what you want before you map out the steps to get there.
Identify Your Golden Hours
Recognizing your time style is an important step toward building your family’s schedule. The next step is to tune in to your body’s natural rhythm. We’ve all got daily ups and downs of energy, and they’re relatively predictable. To make the most of your schedule, identify the patterns so, as much as possible, you can do the brain-stretching work during the ups and save the mundane chores for the downs. Consider:
• When you need more time to yourself, do you prefer to get up early or stay up late?
• When do you feel most vital and energetic each day?
• Conversely, when do you experience major energy lows?
Again, you’re still fantasizing here. Try to answer these questions based on you, not based on what seems doable or reasonable. If your energy level peaks from 3 to 5 p.m., but that’s also when everyone’s cranky after waking up from their naps, those are still golden hours. We’ll deal with reality next.
Find Your Goldilocks Level of “Busy”
It’s so easy for weeks to fly by and for commitments to stack up, and suddenly you’re overwhelmed. Believe us, we’ve been there. Sometimes it’s unavoidable and you just have to put your head down and barrel through. But often, that overwhelmed feeling is a function of unintentionally packing the schedule more tightly than your family can handle.
Try this experiment: look back on your calendar from the last month. For each week, look at how many commitments you and your kids had—count them up and jot down the number in your notebook. Now channel Goldilocks. Note the weeks that felt like too little was going on, the weeks that felt too full, and the weeks that felt just right.
What’s your family’s “just right” number of weekly commitments? Write this number (BIG) in your notebook. Later, when you’re actually working with your calendar, you’re going to shoot for that number of weekly commitments (or fewer, as last-minute engagements and illnesses invariably crop up).
Do a Time Inventory
Now that you’re closing in on how you’d like your ideal schedule to look, let’s examine how you’re actually spending your time. But before we proceed, let’s be crystal clear: no one will wag any disapproving fingers at you. We’re not judging how you spend your time. We don’t care if you spend three hours a day on Facebook, nine hours a day in an office, or ten hours per week watching reality TV. We’re not assessing your level of school volunteerism, how much time you spend on housework, or whether or not you’re a workaholic. A time inventory is simply a way for you to gather data about the current state of things so you can make mindful choices about spending your time. Here we go:
1. Take a few minutes to fill in the following grid. The categories are intentionally broad, and we left a few spaces empty so you can fill in your own. You can get more detailed if you like, but really, all you need is a big-picture look at how you’re spending time during a typical day. Estimate how much time you spend on the following activities:
Given that few parents’ days are typical, you might want to track time estimates for a week or so, just to get a clearer picture of how you’re spending your time. Do the numbers surprise you?
2. Now, jot down one or two words that describe your feelings about each category. Quick! Whatever comes to mind! No one is going to read this except for you—unless you want to share it—so try not to let shame or embarrassment get in the way. Remember: you’re doing the best you can right now, and you’re working through these exercises in an effort to make a change for the better. THIS IS YOU BEING BRAVE.
3. Now, time to evaluate: Does anything jump out at you as seeming out of whack? Does anything make you feel especially proud or cringe-y? Does the time you spend zoning out actually feel relaxing or like the scheduling equivalent of junk food—initially pleasurable but ultimately draining? What is your inner bus driver telling you? Write that down, too. That’s important wisdom you’ll use for the next activity.
Know Your Family’s “Time Sense”
Now that you’ve spent some time evaluating your use of time, answer the following questions as best you can for each member of your family. Try not to place a value on the answers, even if they lead to behaviors that drive you nuts:
• Does your kid prefer being busy with plans and friends or spending “open” time alone or with you?
• Does your child naturally gravitate toward parceling out his time, or does he have little sense of or interest in how much time is passing?
• How does your child do with transitions from one activity to the next?
• Does your child naturally wake up early in the morning? Does she take naps during the day? What time is her ideal bedtime (for her, not necessarily for you)?
• What is your child’s temperament? Is he strong-willed and independent? Easy-going? Compliant? Adventurous? Shy? Curious? Serious? Competitive? Silly?
If your child is still too young to give you many clues, just use these questions as a lens through which to think about your child’s reactions to past experiences.
What about your partner? How does his or her approach to time mirror or differ from yours?
There are rarely black and white answers, which is fine. The idea here is to get a more complete picture of the way your family prefers to operate in the world . . . not unlike the exercise you did when you envisioned your own fantasy schedule.
Now, compare what you’ve written about your family’s relationship with time and your own. Where is there overlap? Perhaps you and your kid are both early risers, so shared morning activities and errands are a possibility while your partner sleeps in. Where is there conflict? Maybe you hate too many restrictive plans but your kid (or partner) craves predictability. Make a note of overlaps and conflicts, as this will be crucial information for the next activity.
Make a More and Less List
You know where you want to end up (as close to your fantasy schedule as possible). You know where you are (your time inventory shed light on your current schedule, you have a sense of your “just right” number of weekly commitments, and you’ve given thought to your kids’ relationship with time and how it might differ from yours). Now begins the task of deciding what to add to your schedule and what to cut.
Don’t be fooled if a More and Less List sounds overly simple (perhaps even simplistic). It’s a surprisingly powerful way to turn ideas into action. It’s the beginning of the road map that leads from where you are to where you want to be. With a More and Less list, you’re drawing in the big landmarks. As time goes on, you’ll fill in the freeways and the side streets until the route to your destination comes into view.
Get out a blank piece of paper. Draw a line down the middle, and on the left side, write MORE, and on the right side, write LESS. Now, peruse what you’ve discovered about your time style, your family’s time styles, your fantasy schedule, your golden hours, and your current use of time. Write what you want more of in life in the MORE column. List even the far-fetched and impossible-seeming stuff. For example, “Travel to Indonesia” might appear here even if you don’t have the budget or the vacation time to pull it off right this minute.
Then, identify the items that reliably drag you down. Write these things in the LESS column. Don’t worry; you’re not cutting anything yet. You’re just drawing up the short list, and you can always change your mind later.
Keep checking in with your inner bus driver as you write your list. Your list is unique . . . it’s based on YOU and your family. Resist the urge to let “shoulds” sneak onto your list. What’s right for other people isn’t necessarily right for you or your family. Cleaning, for example. Yes, you’d probably feel happier in a clean house. But if your inner bus driver is telling you there are more important priorities right now, put cleaning in the LESS column.
Also, don’t let fear keep something off (or on) your list. If you’re afraid to add or cut something from your schedule but your inner bus driver is quietly urging you in that direction, listen. Your inner bus driver is always smarter than your fear.
Throughout the next week or two, jot things on your More and Less List. Let it percolate. Change your mind, make amendments, play around. Write in pencil or pen. It’s your list. It’s your life.
Start Slow, Adjust As You Go
By now, you should have more insight into your family’s “right” level of busy, what’s important enough to merit space in your schedule, and what you might want to reduce or drop to free up more time. Your inner bus driver is pointed in the right direction. Now it’s time to start the engine and get the bus rolling.
You’re not going to remake your family’s schedule overnight. The key is to start slowly, and adjust as you go. It takes trial and error to navigate toward balance. It takes time to get comfortable with the idea that by doing “less” you’re actually inviting more goodness into your life. Certain commitments need to be seen through, while others aren’t even on the horizon.
The important thing is to use your newfound insight as the lens and filter through which you manage your schedule from now on. Trusting yourself—letting your inner bus driver handle the windy road—can be scary at first, especially if you’re still worried that you’re somehow lowering your standards or jeopardizing your kids’ opportunities. We know that today’s environment doesn’t exactly encourage “less” of anything.
This is a good time to reflect on the skills your children will gain from the time management work you’re doing now. If you consider today’s economic and social climate, we think you’ll agree: the skills they’ll gain from having more open time are as valuable (if not more) than anything they could learn in a class or on the soccer field:
• They’ll have time to identify, explore, and pursue their interests, the first step in finding a life passion that could fuel their future.
• They’ll be involved in meaningful ways with the work of family management, giving them direct experience with interdependence and teamwork.
• They’ll learn to handle boredom (the best motivator for creativity).
• They’ll get to play and be kids, a precursor to life balance as adults.
• They’ll learn the importance of paying attention to their own inner bus drivers, which is central to handling growing responsibility, moral challenges, and peer pressure.
Scheduling Tools and Systems
All of our time philosophizing is fine, but it won’t get you anywhere until you have concrete steps to take. To put your newfound enlightenment into action, you need tools and routines to turn time management into a daily habit.
Choose Your Tools
Lest you think we’re all “there’s no single right answer for everyone!” here’s an absolute: you must use a calendar and a to-do list. These tools are the linchpins of time management because they free up headspace for problem solving rather than mundane memory jockeying.
Don’t waste time searching for the Perfect Productivity Solution to magically steam iron the wrinkled fabric of your life. It doesn’t exist. Simply do a quick survey of your options (or ask your friends for recommendations) and pick the one that seems most promising. It can be paper, electronic, a cheap wire-bound notebook and a pencil, a hundred-dollar “management system,” a free app, or a stack of index cards. We don’t care, as long as it is:
• Portable (it needs to be with you at all times)
• Something you find fun and/or are comfortable using
• Sharable with your partner (assuming you both participate in the family schedule and to-do list)
Ali via the Minimalist Parenting blog: My husband and I both work full time. Our three- and five-year-olds are at prekindergarten and day care. We use Microsoft Outlook meeting requests to keep our schedules on track (which parent is out of town/who has to pick up kids, etc.). We have found it is extremely useful to combine our “work” and “home” calendars because work and home duties are so intertwined. Our calendars are also available on our smartphones. I schedule EVERYTHING, even travel time to and from events, and I include my husband’s events if he is taking the kids somewhere (I code it yellow and mark it as free time so it does not mess up my calendar). I handle all to-dos for the kids and me and I use a rolling to-do list with all my work items, too. I save the list on Dropbox so it is available anywhere, and for any new items that pop into my brain I send an e-mail to my work e-mail address, which I know will get looked at and added to the list.
Put Your Tools into Action—Now
Put every date- and time-specific detail in your life into your calendar. Everything else goes into your to-do list. Everything. The places you hope to travel, the stuff you need at the hardware store, the phone calls you need to make. All the stuff you need or want to remember that doesn’t have a specific time frame lives on your to-do list. (If your to-do items have due dates, you have some wiggle room as to whether to keep them on your to-do list or transfer them to your calendar. Choose whatever method makes most sense for you.)
Voilà, your mind now has more room to get creative and to rest. By off-loading the mental work of remembering your schedule and to-dos, you free up brain cells for the more important work of organizing and managing your life.
If you’re new to calendar and to-do list management, tracking everything may initially leave you feeling a little cranky. In the beginning, this habit sucks up time and energy you probably feel you can’t spare. But the more you use your tools, the more you’ll come to trust and rely on them. You’ll begin to notice patterns and recurring openings in your week, and how you might better use that time. Your mind will automatically begin breaking tasks and ideas into to-do list and calendar items, almost magically transforming you into a more organized and efficient person. But it’s not magic—it’s you. YOU are doing this!
Block Out Your Golden Hours
Earlier, you identified your golden hours—the hours you’re most alert and productive. As much as you can, schedule your most creative and/or challenging work during that time. These are the hours that deserve investment and protection. Whenever possible during this time, turn off the phone and social media, close the door, avoid scheduling meetings, and turn down the invitations for coffee or requests for attention. Challenge yourself to value your time enough to guard those hours, perhaps even with the help of your partner or a babysitter. Start slowly—even ten golden minutes per day—and expand from there.
With your golden hours spoken for, try to slot the more mundane stuff (filing, billing, errands, household administration) into less productive time. The best way to do that is to set up routines and recurring to-dos. Routines reduce any repetitive process into work you can do with your eyes practically closed. Recurring to-dos are helpful for building the habit of tending to dreaded minutia on a regular basis so it doesn’t pile up and overwhelm you.
I used to dread the menial nature of invoicing multiple clients every month, despite the obvious upside (getting paid!) and the fact that it didn’t take all that long to do it. That changed once I set up each client invoice as a separate recurring monthly to-do item and got into the routine of setting aside an hour on the first of each month to handle invoicing. It feels great to check off a bunch of to-do items after I finish my invoicing every month. The same approach works great for recording my receipts and pay stubs so I’m not stuck with a huge pile of work right before tax time.
The reality is that so much of parenthood and domestic life is repetitive, boring, but necessary crap. Doing it is no fun, but the consequences of not doing it get in the way of Minimalist Parenting. The key is to create routines for handling the boring stuff: choose the process or chore that most annoys you and look for ways to break it down and make it more efficient. If you can, get other people involved.
For me, the major culprit has always been laundry, also known as the dreaded clothing monster. There are so many steps in the process, all with potential to derail the train. Every week, at least one of these things would happen: hampers would overflow, wet clothes mildewed in the washer, dry clothes wrinkled in the dryer, folded clothes sat forgotten in a laundry basket that never got taken upstairs, or, if it did, the clothes never made it into drawers (and got rifled through and unfolded). If, by some miracle, we did all of these things, at least one family member would still run out of underwear or socks. Guilt and frustration ensued. We got the dreaded clothing monster under control by focusing attention on the specific steps involved in doing the laundry, and then simplifying them through routine and delegation:
• The kids empty their hampers into the laundry chute every day.
• Laundry runs while dinner is cooking every day (recurring to-do list item).
• Rael sorts and folds while watching evening TV. And now that I have a laundry buddy, I’m happy to pitch in and it gets done faster.
• The kids put away their own folded laundry whenever it appears in their rooms, and that job is tied to the start of TV and video game time (first the laundry, then the screen time).
Set an End Time
The work of parenting is endless. There’s always one more thing to do. Accept it and bring sanity to your life by setting an end time to every day and “clocking out” on household minutia. Give yourself permission to switch into recreation and reconnection mode once your kids go to bed (or whenever feels right for you).
jbrileyb via themotherhood.com: Is there a biological difference between men and women that makes it easier for men to disconnect [from household chores]? I used to resent my husband for it, but now I consider him a mentor of sorts. He just decides he’s going to watch a hockey game, then sits down and does it. I’m realizing I should be more like him, not that he should be more like I am.
It’s important to recognize that many working parents wrestle with the need to work at night, whether because of freelance/flexible work arrangements or because they’ve been out of the office tending to sick kids. In these cases, we suggest experimenting with different time arrangements so you can still set an end time—both for the household details and for your work.
Since I have more than a full-time workload and only part-time child care during the day, I rely on evenings for work time. Violet tends to go to bed an hour earlier than Laurel, and it’s usually at this time that Jon steps in so I can retreat to my office. (Alternately, if Laurel wants company while engaging in a quiet activity such as reading or crafting, I’ll bring my laptop down and work next to her.) This allows me to get some work time in before stopping for the night, at which point Jon and I take time to reconnect and/or I take some time to myself. It’s the best way to unwind at the end of the day.
Some evenings the kids will wake up and interrupt you, or the world will conspire to complicate matters. It’s inevitable, and it’s okay. If you operate with (and communicate) an end time to each day, eventually the world will fall in line. Your kids will someday be old enough to realize “Oh, yeah. It’s grown-up time,” and they’ll get their own glasses of water (especially if you keep cups and a step stool in the bathroom so they can reach). And they’ll learn, from your example, about the importance of tending to responsibilities, relationships, and self-care.
Obviously, not every day will chart a perfect course nor will all of your to-dos get done. But you’re now taking giant leaps toward minimalizing your schedule, so the most important, valuable, and fun stuff can shine. In the next chapter, we share even more tips for managing your time.