This article is about time management and how to find a balance in your daily schedule. In addition to splitting my time between a PhD and a job, I’m also a mom of two young kids. Using my time effectively is very important. During my time as coordinator of this blog (2018-2020), I came up with the idea for this blog post, which I’ve since been writing in my head. If it’s not obvious by my first point (since it’s 2023 and the post is finally being published), it’s safe to say that I still struggle with time management. I do not profess to be an expert, but I do think and talk a lot about this topic. I’ve learned the importance of viewing time management as a fluid concept that adjusts with the ebb and flow of daily activities.
To me, some important considerations when looking at how I manage my time include: setting priorities and getting things done, learning to say “no” (nicely) and to delegate. And, possibly the most important thing of all, is to be kind to yourself.
1. finding balance with priorities and tasks
Although it would be nice to have a Time-Turner like the one Hermione used to take a double load of classes, it would be better to not have so many priorities in the first place!
There’s a powerful story I heard from a university professor once that I’ve seen crop up everywhere: the story of the jar with rocks, pebbles and sand as a metaphor for life’s priorities. Here’s a good video if you don’t know the story. Once you understand what really is important and not-so-important to you, it becomes so much easier to let go of the not-so-important stuff.
With your priorities set, it’s time to get stuff done. Some of us live by to-do lists, while others can’t stand such constraints. For me, however, structured to-do lists break down decision paralysis in times of stress, and the simple act of crossing off an item on my list is quite cathartic. I use a modified form of bullet journals. It helps me not only brain-dump all the stuff that needs to be done (from big to small), but also helps me to organize the list into long term (monthly/quarterly) and short term tasks (weekly/daily).
The important things I’ve learned about to-do lists, are 1) not to do too much in a day. These days I try to keep my daily schedule to 2-3 big blocks of time for big tasks, and spread short blocks of time for tasks that I can do with less mental effort. And, 2) stop when you’ve checked off your to-do list for the day. If you have an extra 15 minutes before needing to pick up the kids, go take a break. You’ve earned it.
2. Learning THE POWER OF “No”, and the ART of delegation
When done well, saying “no” helps you set boundaries for yourself and helps others respect your limits. Done well, you ask? Being firm but not letting the request and your “no” become an emotional situation.
Knowing your boundaries is healthy. You will feel better about how you are focusing your time and energy. Having said that, there are times when something must be done but you can’t do it. Here’s where the magic of delegation is a sanity saver. If you are the bottleneck, look at what tasks can be offloaded to someone else.
Two big game changers in our house happened when I finally admitted I didn’t have the time nor energy to keep the house clean or to be responsible for grocery shopping. Both tasks can cost on average 3-4 hours a week in time and energy. We looked over our finances and made space to hire a cleaning person to come to the house once a week, and to subscribe to grocery delivery. I then had more energy to devote to more important things.
3. Being kind to yourself
Weekend? What is a “weekend”?
A few months ago, my husband and I would dread Friday nights. We’d gotten to the point where we were cramming all of our household tasks to Saturday and Sunday. The kids weren’t looking forward to the weekend either. That’s because they’d sit around watching TV while we were running around getting stuff done. And cranky when we realized just how much screen time they were getting.
We took a step back and realized: if we were to do laundry in the evenings and get groceries delivered during the week, we suddenly had around 6 hours of extra time on the weekend. We started discussing things to do with the kids: what they wanted to do, and what we wanted to do. By reaching a compromise where we all got to do what we wanted, we started enjoying our weekends again.
My husband and I also started talking about things we wanted to do on our own. These are the things that helped recharge our energy levels. He plays in a band and he boulders. I do yoga and I sew. As a family, we make the effort to visit with friends and family at least once a month. When we are able to do these things and find a balance, we are much more compassionate with each other and everyone else. No matter how busy you are, making time to do these kinds of things is almost as important as getting a good night’s sleep and eating well.
4. Some extra tips
In addition to the major things to consider when you seek to find a balance, here are some more quick and dirty tips that have helped save our sanity:
- Have a magical recipe that is versatile and can be frozen. Our magical recipe is chili (like this one): served with rice and sides, or used as filling for tacos, wraps and enchiladas, or topping for nachos and salads. What’s your magical recipe?
- Making sandwiches for school lunches with frozen, sliced bread is super easy, and the sandwich will thaw by lunchtime. Some people even make sandwiches a week in advance and freeze them. Do your research to what ingredients can be frozen, though.
- We use visual timers with our kids (we have this one) to set time limits for activities, including breakfast and tidying up.
- Having a regular schedule for tasks such as baths/showers and tidying up helps reduce the meltdowns when they know what’s coming after a long day.
- Accept help! Someday you will be helping others out.
- If you have a good relationship with your kids’ friends’ parents, try suggesting the idea of swapping babysitting duties once a month so you can have a date (and vice versa).
- Teenagers can be great Mama/Papa’s helpers to play with your kids if you need to get stuff done around the house (especially useful tip for those of us doing home renovations). This is also good on-the-job training for when the teenagers are old enough to babysit without you there.
- When you are really stressed, focus on effective strategies that have worked for you in the past. You’ll have time to try new things (like the tips mentioned here) later.
Try to remember that your time and, especially, your energy, is finite. Ask yourself what is truly important to you, and in what order. How can you make time for the most important things? Then everything else will follow and find the balance itself. You will say no to the things not aligned with your goals. Or ask for help when you need it. And, most important, be kind to yourself.
Now I can finally check this article off my to-do list!