Time Management Tricks for Minimalists
Every parent’s day is in a state of flux: one moment things are flowing nicely, and the next something comes along to upend everything. That’s just the nature of things. With a minimalized schedule, not only are you better positioned to handle the inevitable surprises, you’re more likely to be able to take advantage of spontaneous fun.
In this chapter, we share some of our best time management strategies. Try integrating one tip per week; see what feels right, and keep going from there.
Managing Your Time
While you’re in the thick of your day, there are endless opportunities for distraction. Here are some tips for staying on track.
Don’t Fall into the Multitasking Trap
We get that there’s only so much interruption you can control (you can’t exactly push the mute button on a toddler). But as much as you can, sharpen your focus. Turn off your e-mail, silence your phone, close Facebook and Twitter, and focus on the task at hand.
Tackle Your Hardest Thing First
We all have those nagging to-do items . . . some require focused time (e.g., generating a budget) whereas others come with emotional weight (e.g., a difficult phone call you need to make). Either way, procrastinating depletes your energy—every time your eyes hit that to-do list item and you don’t address it, it slows your momentum.
Try this: start with the most onerous item on your to-do list. Often, you’ll find that the task did not actually take that long, and you’re immediately feeling freer and ready to rock the rest of your day because that burden is lifted.
Schedule “Serendipity Space”
When you’re caught up in the routine of everyday life, it’s easy to forget that you’re modeling for your kids how to structure their time. Consider “padding” your activities with periods of quiet—“serendipity space”—where there is nothing to do and nowhere to go. That way, you can take advantage of the in-the-moment opportunities for puddle jumping or couch-cuddling that tend to get lost when there’s always someplace to be five minutes ago.
Take Advantage of “In-Between Minutes”
The more you use your calendar, the more you’ll notice little snatches of time throughout your day that are too short for anything substantial, but are perfect for one- to five-minute tasks and/or distraction breaks. The secret is to have those little tasks queued up in your to-do list so you can take advantage of the in-between minutes. Good “in-between” tasks include:
• Making phone calls
• Checking social media
• Responding to email (see our three-touch e-mail rule in chapter 5)
• Doing self-care tasks that fall by the wayside (e.g., nail filing, stretching)
• Tidying up, even a single drawer or surface
• Sorting the mail
• Filing papers (or, better, shredding and recycling them)
• Looking ahead in your calendar and to-do list to see where you could benefit from a little planning (for example, noting a birthday the following week so you remember to put a card on your shopping list)
Tweak Your Scheduling Style
We all continue to evolve in our relationships and realize new things about one another; sometimes these differences come to bear when the system reaches pressure points. Be open to tweaking your scheduling style, either to reach a compromise or to improve life.
Jon and I were married for ten years before we explicitly talked about our different time styles. My tendency was to schedule things ahead of time because I preferred to handle RSVPs immediately, while Jon preferred to wait to make decisions based on how he was feeling in the moment.
As we worked to find a balance between the two approaches amid the seemingly never-ending tide of professional and personal commitments, I started experimenting with Jon’s approach to last-minute planning (stopping short of being rude to the host). And you know what? I found it incredibly liberating. It allowed me to make decisions based on how I was feeling at the time (rather than simply being driven by “shoulds”) and it also eased the scheduling tension between Jon and me.
Pause Before Saying Yes
Don’t say yes to things you and your family don’t want to do. Obligation is a difficult beast to battle, but really, what’s worse: declining an invite or task, or gritting your teeth and muddling through with “I don’t want to do this” mojo? Beyond the basic things you must do, reserve your energy for the things that make you feel happy and excited. No excuses necessary. Simply respond with “Thank you for asking/inviting us, but we’re unable to do it/attend.”
My brother-in-law Josh is an excellent baker. After an argument with his partner, he decided to make brownies as a peace offering. He didn’t realize it while he was baking, but apparently he was still angry about their argument because his brownies—usually moist, chewy, and full of gooey love and goodness—came out all burnt and nasty. He and his partner ended up having a good laugh over this, dubbing them the “angry brownies.” Jon and I took this story to heart. We avoid doing things for each other while still carrying resentment because the results always come out burnt.
Managing Time with Others
In the modern parenting quest to do it all, there’s a dissonant tendency to do it alone. Many of us put too much pressure on ourselves to forge ahead solo, feeling that asking for help is tantamount to admitting failure.
In fact, asking for help is a sign of strength—and a gift to yourself and those around you—especially when you can avoid becoming a festering martyr (Christine used to be President of the Festering Martyr Club). Household chores are more agreeable when your family does them together, and you may develop new and unexpected friendships (and chip away at isolation) when you lean on other parents for help.
Partnering with Your Partner
If you’re coparenting, using time well begins with your partnership. Managing a family together is a tricky dance, but it’s the most important step toward encouraging a sane household and an intimate parenting partnership. Here are some key tactics to help you support one another as you both manage the family “bucket” of time.
Share the Work
Dividing the labor too firmly can result in you and your partner operating in separate worlds, coexisting but rarely overlapping. Even the most flexible of couples can fall into rigid roles because, in the moment, it often feels easier to go with what has worked in the past. But we encourage you to frequently swap parenting jobs for the following reasons:
• Sometimes you’ll want a break from a particular task and you might resent it if you feel as though you don’t have permission or the opportunity to get that break.
• Dividing tasks too strictly complicates matters when one parent isn’t available. The parent who is away should be able to spend her time focused on the purpose of the trip, not on whether the parent at home knows how to handle the kid-related details. Meanwhile, the parent at home should simply be able to tick off routine tasks for what they are—routine tasks—instead of worrying about doing the job according his partner’s standards or feeling incompetent because he doesn’t know how to proceed.
• Kids need to see both parents as people on whom they can rely. Let go of expectations around “job perfection” (“job done” is perfectly fine!). Shoot for respectful acceptance of each other’s talents and weaknesses, clear communication, close collaboration, and permeable boundaries between your respective areas of responsibility.
• Finally, if you literally job share (as Asha and Rael now approach laundry, described in chapter 2), you can find ways to make mundane work fun. Or at the very least a point of reconnection.
Give Each Other Transition Time
It’s the end of the workday and you’ve hit the zone of intense parenting. One of you has been home with the kids and needs a break while the other is coming off a long day at the office. Or both of you are flying through the door from work, trying to find a child-safe place to drop your personal effects while getting the update from the sitter. In both cases, your kids are clamoring for your attention. You hurtle into a couple of hours of dinner, baths, stories, games—trying to reconnect with your kids while thinking through the household chores still left to do while ticking through some outstanding work to-dos. Phew. Our recommendation: give each other some transition time.
Jon and I have found that we can be more present and calm during the evening with Laurel and Violet when we give each other transition time at the end of the day. It doesn’t need to be long or involved. All Jon wants is ten minutes upstairs to crank some tunes, change his clothes, and take a few deep breaths before the girls jump all over him. Since I work out of our home, my preference is to leave the house, however briefly. There have been days when Jon has gotten home a little early and encouraged me to use that unexpected buffer to fit in a short run, which is one of my favorite ways to clear my head and change my scenery.
Divide the Work in the Way That Makes Sense for You
While we recommend that each parent learns how to handle the basic domestic and child care tasks, we also suggest dividing tasks based on skill, interest, and schedules, not on a fifty-fifty definition of “what’s fair.”
Jesser of jesser.org, via the Minimalist Parenting blog: I tend to do a bit more of the cooking, because I enjoy it, and my husband takes on more yard work. I organize our finances and pay bills. He maintains our house. In general, he is the one who gets up in the middle of the night. Because I work outside the home four days per week and he works at home five days per week, his schedule is a bit more flexible than mine (he can catch an extra half hour of sleep in the morning, for instance). He also goes back to sleep more easily after being up in the middle of the night. I take over the whole ship when he is out of town for work.
Tiffany via the Minimalist Parenting blog: I work from home very early every day, so my husband will fix breakfast and make lunches. I am able to get the boys off the bus and take care of dinner and the cooking on the weekends (because I enjoy it). This system works very well for us. He also cleans the bathrooms, and I take care of vacuuming and dusting.
Free Up Alone Time
In addition to general family time and some one-on-one time with the kids (splitting up for errands and activities that are better suited to each kid works well here), alone time—for self-care or special projects—helps contribute to a happy partnership.
Jon and I try to build “swap time” into every weekend. Essentially, we take turns each having a couple of hours to ourselves while the other person spends time with the kids. We’ve found swap time to be one of the best ways to recharge and feel ready to parent.
Use Your Calendar to Your Advantage
In chapter 2, we talked about the importance of using a calendar. The benefit of a shared electronic calendar is that it allows you both to be more aware of how much the other is handling. It’s also helpful to sit down and look at the family calendar together, as a constant flow of logistical e-mail and conversation tends to overwhelm everyone.
Morra Aarons-Mele of WeAreWomenOnline.com and TheMissionList.com: My husband and I operate on a mantra shared by a very wise therapist we saw before we got married: In the marriage, you have the love relationship, and you have the “Corporation.” A successful marriage requires taking time to keep your love and family relationship together (fun, dates, kid time, sex, etc.). But you also need to manage the Corporation (schedule, finances, child care, health care, lawn care, pet care, etc.).
We have two key household documents to manage the Corporation: a budget spreadsheet in which we track monthly fixed costs and match them to our actual spending, and a calendar that we share with our nanny and my mom. Since my husband and I both travel a lot, the calendar has to be tightly managed. We literally schedule monthly check-ins—sometimes at our favorite breakfast place—to review the calendar and general household budget. On Sunday nights, we try to go over the week’s calendar.
Create Routines Together
Model simple and consistent routines for your kids that will also make family and grown-up time together more enjoyable:
Kym of coffeemomma.blogspot.com, via the Minimalist Parenting blog: My husband and I have only two firm rules. Number one: family dinner. Every night. No phones. We sit down at the table together, even if it’s just leftovers, and we talk. If the phone rings, we let it go (unless we are waiting for news on a family member who is sick or struggling, obviously, but that’s rare). Number two: my kids have a bedtime. They are both in bed and asleep by 8 p.m. Evenings are for my husband and me. We talk, we watch TV together, or we just hang out and read together on the couch. It’s our time, and it’s crucial to us to touch base each night and check in with each other. We’re constantly adjusting our parenting strategy, and we do a lot of “this isn’t working. . . .” course changes. These two rules are so important to us. It’s how we keep our sanity and make sure our kids (and the two of us) feel loved.
Strengthening Your Community
By now you probably have gathered that we’re all about asking for help. If you’re fortunate enough to live near family members who are also willing babysitters, that’s wonderful. But there’s an entire community around you—friends, neighbors, and parents at your child’s school—that can become an interdependent network of support and camaraderie.
When parents reach out to each other for help, everyone benefits—not just the help-ee. The helper gets the satisfaction of doing something for a friend, as well as an invitation to a deeper, more mutually helpful friendship. As chores bond families, mutual favors cement neighborhoods and communities. Whether it’s swapping organizing services with a friend (it’s always easier to organize other people’s stuff), setting up a neighborhood dinner club, trading babysitting or playdates, or ride sharing, there are plenty of options that create fun for your kids, build community, and reduce the load on you.
It was a miraculous day when drop-off playdates became a possibility. I have a wonderful network of local parents with whom I enjoy socializing, but you get to a point where, while the kids are off doing their own thing, it really would be most productive for the parents to also be doing their own thing.
I was a little hesitant the first time I asked a fellow parent for help. I was on a huge deadline and my life would be made enormously easier if the parent of one of Laurel’s friends could pick her up from school and have her for a playdate for a couple of hours. When I asked, the mom said, “Oh yes, please! It’s actually easier for me when my daughter has a friend over. She’s happier and I can also get some stuff done around the house.”
That one hesitant question opened a door of reciprocity that we now regularly enjoy with the families of Laurel’s school friends. We swap playdates, share rides to soccer, and help each other with meals and other details when someone is struggling. Tapping into, and being a part of, this community is about as close as it comes to that “village” for which we all long.
Sometimes the easiest way to do a nagging job is to pay someone else to do it. It may feel a little uncomfortable to swallow your pride, accept that you can’t do it all, place a dollar value on your time, and wrestle with the concept of hiring help, but the upsides are clear. If you’re in the midst of a “time famine” and outsourcing will help you recoup time and reduce stress, it’s worth it. Not to mention that you will support local businesses (and, residually, the families of those employees) in the process.
Think about the responsibilities that you alone can do. Focus on those and outsource other tasks that are not you-specific, as you are able.
Give Your Kids Chores
When your children are babies, they are the work that needs to be shared. But sooner than you expect, kids grow into capable members of the household. As soon as possible, open up your schedule by giving your kids chores and responsibilities.
Why Chores Are Important
Involving children in home management may seem like more work at first, but it’s as close to a parenting “sure thing” as you can get. Not only will you gradually reduce your workload, you’ll teach your kids practical, esteem-building skills they’ll use for the rest of their lives.
There’s something subtler at work here, too. When kids understand they are crucial members of the family “team,” it brings the entire family closer together. Not only do they gain confidence from their accomplishments, they come to appreciate their parents’ work as well.
How to Assign Chores
A number of parents we’ve spoken with feel surprisingly nervous about giving their kids chores. They’re overwhelmed by the number of chore “methodologies” out there and wonder which works best, and they dread what they assume will be inevitable arguments from their kids.
When chores are introduced as a regular and expected part of growing up, they’re no big deal. Don’t worry if your kids hesitate to jump onto the chore bandwagon. Few kids clap with glee when asked to clean their rooms or empty the dishwasher. Learning that some work is mundane but important—and must be done anyway—is fine preparation for independence.
If necessary, reorder your daily rhythm so free time happens after chores are done. “Sure, you can watch TV after your chores are done,” has a different ring than “You can’t watch TV until your chores are done.”
Julie Pippert of theartfulflower.blogspot.com, via themotherhood.com: My kids have trouble in the morning. Not morning people. So, together, we write down their chores on a chart and they illustrate it with pictures. Later, they can check the chart to make sure they are getting through it all.
Another option: tie chores to allowance. For many families, this works well; for others, it takes away from the expectation of family responsibility. We discuss allowance further in chapter 6.
Even letting young children wipe down the table or pass out the napkins before dinner is a good start. Let them know that their work is important to the family, and educate them about the work you do for the family as well. Demonstrate your confidence in their ability to handle increasingly challenging tasks.
It’s not as crazy as it sounds; sometimes the pitch makes all the difference. If you approach kids warily about chores because you are dreading an argument, they likely will sense the negotiability of the situation. Instead, use a matter-of-fact tone when you assign the chore du jour and point out that you’ll be doing your own work right alongside them.
I explained the importance of chores to my daughter like this: when she gets a little older, she’s going to fly . . . all over the world. But she’s going to need strong wings to do it. Every time she does a job or solves her own problem, she’s strengthening her wings.
My son got a slightly different spin: I framed chores as “move-out skills” his future college roommates would respect and appreciate. Neither is enthusiastic about chores, but at least they understand how their work fits into the bigger picture of growth.
When Possible, Offer Choices (But Not Too Many)
So many meltdowns can be avoided when you give kids choice and control. Letting kids choose between two chore-based responses (“Would you like to set the table or pick up the toys in the living room?”) means they’re positioned to make a choice instead of to say no. (They might still say no, but you’ll be in a better position to redirect their attention.)
I used to call Sam the “Choice C kid.” If we gave him a choice between A and B, he would choose C. This frustrated us at the time, but for the most part we stuck to our guns, doing our best to communicate the non-negotiability of the choices. It took years for him to accept our roles as family leaders, but we can now see how much he respects our decisions (he comes to us for advice all the time). Now that he’s older, there are more opportunities for his “outside the box” thinking to shine. It’s one of his great strengths.
Focus First on Effort, Then on Results
Kids are on their own developmental timetables, so if your child doesn’t seem to get it right away, that’s okay. Persistence pays off. Any effort in the right direction is good.
Discovering the strategies and systems that work best for your family will be an evolving process, but you’ll get there—especially now that you know there’s a team around you to help.