Today I want to talk about how, as a working mom with a toddler, I ever get anything done other than surviving each day. Don’t get me wrong, just surviving from one day to the next can feel like a major accomplishment sometimes, and it totally is. But I also know that my life is enriched and I am a better wife, mother, and person when I am able to do extra stuff as well.
I was inspired to write about this topic when I read this post from Pink Ronnie and this post from Elise Blaha Cripe. They have some great tips and it was super helpful for me to read their perspectives, but they are both able to stay home and have a much more flexible schedule than I do, so I wanted to share how I do things.
Know your priorities
Before I get into specifics, I have to say that the first step toward managing your time is to set priorities. I can’t do it all; I don’t think anyone can. My priorities are: being there for my husband and my daughter, spending time with the rest of our families, my spiritual life and being involved in church, and my Monday through Friday job as a nurse. Those are not negotiable. To a lesser extent, keeping our house clean and organized (and eventually decorated), memory keeping, reading, blogging, and crafting are secondary priorities to me.
There are a lot of things I don’t do. I don’t cook or bake for fun. It is all I can do to get dinner on the table for my family most nights, and we frequently end up having snacks or picking something up. I don’t garden, and we hire out our yard care. Even though I was an athlete until I got pregnant, right now I don’t exercise even a little bit. We have two dogs but we don’t walk them; they have a large yard to play in instead. We don’t take on large or extensive DIY projects. I am also completely out of the loop when it comes to pop culture: I don’t watch TV at all and rarely get to see a movie. This isn’t a humble brag; there are actually a bunch of shows I want to see and I totally understand TV as a hobby.
But I also don’t have any “mindless” time. I rarely let myself just browse the internet or Facebook. I hardly play games on my phone – maybe a few minutes every other day. Any time I do these things (or activities like them) it is on purpose. I try my best to use all of my time productively.
Almost all of the things listed that I don’t do interest me and it is my wish to be able to incorporate those activities into my life someday, but I have had to be honest about my capabilities at the moment and focus on my priorities.
With that in mind, here we go…
Master the mundane tasks
I really relate to the three layers mentality. There is the first layer of basic survival necessities that you pretty much do without thinking, the second layer of routine tasks to make your life run smoother, and then the third layer of extra, life-enriching stuff. The key is to making the first two layers easier and more efficient so that there is time for the third, fun layer.
In my life, the way I manage necessary tasks that aren’t always fun is primarily through two ways: routines and lists. They are my best friends. Anytime there is a habit or a task that I want to incorporate into my life I think about where the best fit for it is, and then I add it to my to-do list. After awhile it becomes routine.
I don’t think I can go any further without talking about the app I use to manage all this. It’s called Things and I would be lost without it. I am sure there are plenty of other apps out there that would be just as effective but this is the one I chose and I haven’t once regretted it. I learn more about what it can do all the time and it is constantly impressing me.
So let’s take one area of life that needs to be kept under control: house chores. I am a clean-as-you-go person so there’s never much mess, but with chores like sweeping the floor, laundry, checking on plants, vacuuming, bathrooms, etc. I found that if I don’t have a dedicated time to do them they won’t get done for way too long. I decided Saturday morning would be the best time for those things because it’s not a work day and I like to get them out of the way first thing on the weekend. So all I did was create a repeating task in Things for them, and now I never forget. I’ve been doing it this way for so long now that it hardly takes me any time to get them done.
I do this same process with basically everything that needs to be kept up with, no matter how frequent. I figure out what needs to be done, when the best time to do it is, then create a repeating task. Sometimes I even have to make lists out of really basic stuff (like taking my vitamins, skincare, flossing, etc.) in order to form a habit. I can do this with Things, or recently I used a printed out self-care checklist as a more visual reminder. Once those things became a habit I dropped the list.
I could keep going and going with more examples but I don’t want this to be too long and I want to get to the fun stuff! So let me know if you have questions about other specifics in the comments. One thing I do want to mention is that most of this “layer” – the chores and basic stuff – I manage to do with Meredith around, usually involving her in some way or with simple distraction.
Adding in the fun stuff
Now for layer three – the extra, fun stuff! For me this includes blogging, Project Life, reading, any kind of crafting at all, and house decorating. Some day in the not-too-distant future I really want to add exercise and gardening into this list. At the age Meredith is right now (almost two), I can’t do any of this with her around, really. I mean sometimes for the sake of getting a pocket or two of Project Life done I’ll let her loose in the craft room (she loves it in there but I don’t love her in there!) but then I know I’ll have a mess to deal with. Mostly though, she’s just very needy for me right now and wants my attention if I’m around. That is of course okay.
It depends on the activity how I approach getting this fun stuff into my life, but a huge part of it depends on my husband. Every weekend he takes Meredith out of the house for 2-3 hours so I can have alone time. Hopefully the chores are already done so I feel free to use that time creatively. Most of the time I either use it to put together Project Life or work on blog posts, usually alternating those every other week.
I use downtime at work as best I can. Sometimes there is none, but when I can I edit blog posts or photos to have printed for Project Life. I also ride the shuttle for about 20-30 minutes each day, so I always read my book at that time. Sometimes it’s my only reading time all week, but the books still get read. I listen to a lot of audiobooks on my commute, too. I also try to take off from work one day a month and still take Meredith to daycare. Those days I can make a lot of progress on a new craft, catch up on stuff, or just rest. I think working moms really need time like that because although we love being at home after work with our families, it’s not always relaxing. :)
So that’s all the time I really have for layer three. For many people a good time for this stuff is after the kids go to sleep, but since I wake up at 4:30 a.m. I pass out at the same time Meredith does. I’ve found that if I try to stay up later it’s completely unproductive and uninspired time anyway, and the next day I’ll be tired and sluggish. I have to be realistic about my limits and capabilities.
One last thing. Some of my fun projects aren’t routine, like Project Life, but are bigger and more long-term. Redecorating the house and teaching myself to make a quilt are examples of this. I love these type of projects and they keep me inspired and growing, but they can be very overwhelming. The way I make progress is to break it all down into smaller components and lists. For the house I am really focusing on one area at a time, but I also keep a list for each room of items I’m looking for (so I know what not to pass up at a thrift store) and things I want to do. Having it written down frees up that space in my mind. Again, I use the Things app for this – you can create unlimited “project” lists in it. For the quilt I broke it down into steps and am completing one part each month.
I know not every personality type would thrive in a system like this, but the key for me is planning, starting each day rested, and using all my time productively. I don’t have it all figured out yet – I am just barely getting a hold on meal planning and cooking, for example – but usually I feel pretty good about the state of things. Let me know if you have any questions!