Moms’ Guide to Managing Time
“Evenings Are When It All Falls Apart”
Leni Calas, 38, New York City
Family: Husband Rodney, 38; daughters Max, 12, and Roxy, 2.
Job: Prop master for television and movies.
Why she feels frazzled: Leni works almost around the clock—50 hours a week on sets and another 20 running QueensMamas.com, a community parenting website—so even when she’s home, she’s checking e-mails and taking calls. “I would like to be with my family in the evenings and then hang out with my husband,” she says. “Instead, I split my focus—not very well—between my kids and my job.”
A typical evening: While prepping dinner, Leni returns e-mails from a laptop on the kitchen counter and makes phone calls. “At least we eat dinner as a family most nights,” she says. “I’m proud of that.” She and Rodney, a set dresser, tag-team to bathe Roxy and help Max with homework. In between, Leni dashes off to return more calls or e-mails. These are the witching hours, when “everyone wants my full attention,” says Leni, “and no one wants to share it.” Once both girls are asleep, Leni goes back to work. Bedtime: midnight.
The bottom line: “I walk in the door between five and seven, and I feel like my day has just begun,” says Leni. “I usually don’t even stop to go to the bathroom when I get home.” She has tried shutting off her phone and computer, “but I pay for it the next day,” she says.
Double up on meals. On days Leni doesn’t have to head to a set, she could make large portions of meals (lasagna, soup, turkey meatballs) to freeze. On harried nights, she can spend less time cooking and have an extra half hour for work, if needed.
Learn to single-task. Leni is a talented multitasker (flipping fish with one hand, checking her phone with the other), but ironically that’s slowing her down. Every time we shift gears, we lose valuable time refocusing, says Jeff Brown, Psy.D., a cognitive-behavioral psychologist at Harvard Medical School and a coauthor of The Winner’s Brain ($15, amazon.com). (One University of California, Irvine, study showed that it can take an office worker almost 30 minutes to get back on task after an interruption.) Leni will probably get more done—and feel less crazed—if she banishes the laptop during dinner prep and eases up on the BlackBerry. “For every e-mail, there’s a link to chase or a reply to craft,” says Brown. Leni could designate two half-hour periods in the evening to return work e-mails (one early, one right before bed to handle replies she may have received in the meantime). A kitchen timer can keep her honest. She could also use her lunch hour (when she has more energy) to catch up on phone calls.
Delegate. Leni is a perfectionist who prefers to do things herself. She’ll have more freedom for the things she wants to do if she can unload some work responsibilities to her website employees. Max can help out around the house, setting the table, putting away laundry, or getting Roxy’s pajamas on. Rodney can become responsible for after-dinner cleanup. “Things might not get done the way Leni would do them, but they will get done,” says Hannah Keeley, a personal coach in Richmond, Virginia, and the host of the reality TV series Hannah, Help Me! “Leni’s new mantra should be, ‘Sloppy success is better than perfect failure.’ ”
“I Don’t Know Where My Mornings Go!”
Esti Berkowitz, 43, New York City
Family: Husband Avi, 49; daughters Miara, 6, and Rachel, 4; son Chaim, 3.
Job: Freelance writer and blogger.
Why she feels frazzled. Esti works from home—easier said than done for someone with three young children. She writes online product reviews to bring in extra money and is working on a blog about, appropriately enough, becoming a mom after age 35. She’d love quiet time in the early morning to write while she’s still fresh. (At night, she usually collapses soon after the kids do.) But it seems that by the time Esti has made her to-do list, everyone is waking. During the school day, she often has work-related meetings or gets sidetracked by chores. By three, the kids—and the chaos—are back.
A typical morning. Esti wakes up around 5:30 a.m. She checks e-mail and shovels in a load of laundry, which she does every day. She can’t help noting what has to be done in the house. Is the drain clogged again? At 6:30, Avi, a computer network engineer, and Miara wake up. Esti helps Miara get dressed—which can be a battle: “It’s not unheard-of for me to promise ice cream after school if she’ll cooperate.” Avi brings Miara to her bus on his way to work at 7:20. But as soon as Esti returns to the computer, her younger kids are waking up. “I try to work while Chaim is in my lap, but he wants to type, too,” says Esti. She dresses and feeds Rachel and Chaim and takes them to school around 9 a.m.
The bottom line. No matter how organized Esti is—or how early she gets out of bed—her work time vanishes in the morning madness. She would love to have help in the afternoon, but paying for a sitter isn’t possible, and she and Avi have no family in the area to pinch-hit.
Sleep in. Or at least stop trying to write and be a mom in the mornings. “Esti’s morning schedule is self-defeating, because writing and kids are both priorities,” says Brown. It’s a common problem for women who work from home; the “office” is always there, beckoning. The best solution is for Esti to think of her day in shifts: Use mornings solely for household duties (or for getting some much needed sleep), and save work for when the kids are at school. She should block writing time out as if it’s an important meeting. Also, if Esti’s not rising at dawn, she might not crash when the kids do and could use an hour at night to work or spend time with her husband.
Back away from the washing machine. Esti’s daily laundry habit wastes water and time, says Laura Stack, the author of Find More Time: How to Get Things Done at Home, Organize Your Life, and Feel Great About It ($14, amazon.com): “Unless her kids are mucking out horse stables, their jeans can make it through more than one wear.” If Esti can cut laundry to two or three times a week, she’ll save hours. (The same holds for ignoring a little dust or a drawer that sticks.)
Plan outfits for the week. Esti’s kids can choose seven outfits each on Sunday (Chaim may need a little help) and tuck them into a hanging sweater organizer labeled with the days of the week. “Giving her children more independence in dressing themselves will minimize Esti’s morning battles,” says Stack. It will also help the kids establish a routine (clothes on and teeth brushed in eight minutes or less, for example). Esti and Avi can reward them when they stick to it—or dock privileges if they don’t.
Seek out free help. If Esti needs more than the couple of working hours she gets while the kids are at school, she could talk to other mothers about swapping playdates. She gets extra writing time one afternoon and reciprocates on a less busy day.
“Our Weekends Are Gobbled Up by Errands and Chores”
LaWanda Geter, 36, Stamford, Connecticut
Family: Son Rayshawn, 11.
Occupation: Full-time law student.
Why she feels frazzled: A single mother who is also in law school? Enough said. Because LaWanda is in class, working with study groups, or reading copious legal cases during the week, errands and chores pile up for Saturday and Sunday. But she would prefer to have two carefree days of basketball and birthday parties with her son. Unfortunately, she also spends a lot of time trying to be more organized—but failing. LaWanda has four calendars and three e-mail accounts to compartmentalize her school and personal lives but still sometimes mixes up dates. (“One Saturday I thought there was dance rehearsal from 1 to 3 p.m., but I was mistaken. That was wasted time!”) She also misplaces PINs needed to pay bills online and loses track of time while on the phone with family members. The fallout: Menial tasks take too long and cut into time with Rayshawn.
A typical weekend: LaWanda studies for several hours in the morning or afternoon, working around Rayshawn’s activities, like band concerts and ballroom-dancing competitions. She tries to plan meals for the week but often forgets some ingredients when she’s at the store. Rayshawn’s father helps out when he can, but he’s a police officer, so his schedule changes weekly.
The bottom line: “I’m proud of how independent and mature Rayshawn has become because of my chaotic schedule. But I worry that right now he’s just along for the ride,” she says. “I need to find a way to stay on top of things so that weekends can be about him.”
Order groceries online. Peapod.com delivers in LaWanda’s area. She can plan meals for the week, make a list, and order without dragging Rayshawn to the store. That will also save time and money during the week, when the pair often eat out because there’s not much food in the house. “And don’t overthink dinner,” says Laura Vanderkam, the author of 168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think ($26, amazon.com). “A sandwich or an omelet is fine. You don’t have to channel Julia Child.”
Set boundaries. LaWanda loves to help people out. She can spend hours tutoring a neighbor’s son in algebra. “It’s hard for me to say no,” she admits. Keeley says, “Being the one to save the day is rewarding, but LaWanda can’t afford to do that. She needs to learn to say, ‘I’d love to, but with my schedule the way it is, I wouldn’t be able to give this the attention it deserves.’ ” That strategy might save her enough time to cram all her studying into Monday through Friday.
Consolidate the calendars. Multiple organizational strategies breed chaos, says Keeley. LaWanda should hang one big calendar in the kitchen—something she can see without turning on the computer (and e-mail)—and record all events and deadlines on it. On the go, LaWanda can jot down information in a small notebook or enter it into her phone. “But as soon as she gets home, those details need to be immediately transferred to the wall calendar so she won’t lose track of things,” says Keeley.
Keep bill-paying information in one spot. Searching for a forgotten user name or password sucks precious minutes from LaWanda’s day. Stack suggests saving passwords and PINs in a site like RoboForm.com. Then LaWanda can cruise through bills more quickly.