When you’re a parent, you likely feel all kinds of conflicting pulls—from the small to the significant. Do you take the promotion? Do you accept a job with a long commute? Do you stay home with your kids? Do you clean the house or go to yoga class? Do you take on an extra freelance project? Do you get up early and catch up on laundry, or get more sleep? Do you go out with your spouse, or have a family day?
Of course, this gets more complicated depending on your specific situation—such as if you work from home.
According to professional organizer and time management coach Julie Morgenstern, it makes sense that parents feel these conflicting pulls. Because no one really acknowledges a critical fact, she said: “the years we’re raising our kids happen to be the prime of our own development.”
In other words, she noted, as we’re raising our kids, we’re also building careers, cultivating close relationships with loved ones, and we’re at our “prime for earning capacity.” We’re also discovering who we are, she said.
So if you’re having a hard time managing your time as a parent, it’s absolutely understandable. And you can absolutely manage your time well. It starts with grasping your role as a parent and as a person.
According to Morgenstern, author of the eye-opening, empowering book Time to Parent: Organizing Your Life to Bring Out the Best in Your Child and You, your “job is really about balancing your time between raising a human and being a human.”
That is, managing our time well means both caring for our kids, and caring for ourselves. This is what contributes to fulfilled kids and fulfilled parents.
Below, you’ll learn more about what this looks like, along with other important strategies and shifts.
Do your PART. Based on scientific research and her own work with parents for over 30 years, Morgenstern created this powerful framework for raising healthy, happy, successful kids:
- Provide for your children, which includes paying for what they need (e.g., food, shelter, health insurance).
- Arrange the logistics of your kids’ lives, such as where they go to school, what they’re having for lunch, what activities they’re participating in, and when they’re seeing the doctor.
- Relate to your kids, which is about getting to know them for the unique individuals they are.
- Teach your kids values and life skills so they can be successful in the world.
Fuel yourSELF. We’re also responsible for our own well-being. According to Morgenstern, this includes:
- Sleep, which for most parents is tough to come by. But “if we’re sleep-deprived, we’re in no position to do our PART, be patient, or be efficient at work.” Prioritize sleep by creating a soothing (and realistic) bedtime routine that includes the same activities every night (e.g., practicing a guided meditation, spraying lavender essential oil on your pillow).
- Exercise can be any movement that makes you feel healthy and good about yourself, and gives you the energy to do your PART.
- Love includes cultivating relationships with adults, such as your spouse and friends.
- Fun includes the activities that help us feel like ourselves. For instance, since her daughter was 3 years old, Morgenstern was a single mom building a thriving business. A former dancer, she reluctantly decided to wedge weekly swing dancing into her already-packed schedule. “Within 2 weeks, it was as though time had expanded. I was so fulfilled. I felt like me again.” This spilled over into her work and her time with her daughter, because she was able to be fully present—and presence stretches time, she said.
Morgenstern suggested thinking of self-care in short bursts: 20 minutes or less, or a few hours a week. For instance, she worked with a mom who previously participated in community theater. Without acting, her client felt like she was losing herself. So, with Morgenstern’s encouragement, she found something she could do: She practiced monologues at home for 20 minutes every night.
(If you’d like to explore your time management strengths and challenges, take Morgenstern’s assessment.)
Know the different developmental stages. That is, plan for your 2-year-old to wake up early, your 4-year-old to have tantrums, your 7-year-old to dawdle, and your teenager to sleep in, said Paige Trevor, a certified parent educator who’s helped thousands of parents deal with common, everyday familial irritations and overwhelm, and foster healthy and mutually respectful relationships with their kids.
“It doesn’t mean we change our lives to indulge in these behaviors; it means we anticipate and plan for them,” said Trevor, who pens the popular blog Nifty Tips.
Shift the mental, logistical load to the whole family. Often, mom is responsible for everything from daily chores to doctor’s appointments to activity schedules. But as Morgenstern said, managing the household is “far more complex and time-consuming set of responsibilities than anyone ever imagined, and absolutely far too much for any one person to do.”
This belongs to the whole family. Plus, “studies have demonstrated over and over that couples who share housework have more sex,” and “kids who grow up doing chores have the most successful careers.”
To kick-start the conversation with your family, Morgenstern suggested jotting down a different chore that’s involved in running your household on an index card. Put each card by the person who does the task. See who has the most cards, and consider how you can change that.
Set up multi-user systems—versus single-user systems. We tend to set up our households in complex, complicated ways that only one person understands. A multi-user system, Morgenstern said, is “so simple that everyone can follow it,” including a 5-year-old. This can include everything from doing laundry to setting the table.
Add in buffer time. Anything with kids usually takes more time. Which is why Trevor suggested creating buffers, which can look like carving out 45 minutes to get to the doctor, even though you think it’ll take 30 minutes. If you think it’ll take a day to clean, give yourself two days. If your child needs a white shirt and khakis for the piano recital, get it now. Buffer zones, Trevor said, “absorb the drama, emotions, and unpredictability of kids. It’s hard, I understand, but it’s hard to be late, angry and un-prepared also.”
Change how you spend time with your kids. Many of us worry that we’re not spending enough time with our kids (even though we’re spending more time than past generations). But you don’t need to create more time in order for your kids to feel loved and secure; rather you need to change the nature of the time you already spend with them, Morgenstern said.
In her research, she found that “kids thrive on short bursts of truly undivided attention consistently rather than big blocks of undivided time.” That’s 5 to 20 minutes, because “kids have short attention spans.”
Morgenstern encouraged parents to incorporate these bursts of undivided time into the fabric of your days. For instance, instead of rushing your child in the morning and saying “get all this stuff done, and maybe we’ll have time to play a game,” connect first: “How did you sleep? What’s on your plate today? What are you excited about and worried about?” Then you can focus on getting ready.
Do the same when you come home. Instead of telling your family, “Why didn’t anyone start dinner? Why’s the house a mess?” take a few minutes to clear your mind before walking through the door. Then say, “How is everybody? What happened that was interesting and hard? … OK, it’s time to clean up the house and have dinner.”
Declutter. Too many activities and too much stuff can become massive stressors. And here’s something we regularly forget: “Our kids need a fraction of the objects and activities we have provided for them,” Trevor said. Decluttering “is a great way to maximize our time.”
Trevor suggested starting with the main entrance/exit of your home. There should be two pairs of shoes per person (max), and no just-in-case items. Also, get rid of anything that’s not in season and doesn’t fit. “Remember, like the eyes are a window to your soul, your entry way is the window to your family. Make it peaceful, streamlined, and loving. Do not be defeated when it needs to be re-booted; the re-boot is where the magic is.”
Another option, Trevor said, is to start with yourself: your bag, closet, bedroom, and bathroom. Starting with yourself helps to model what you want more of, and helps you feel less overwhelmed, she said.
Whatever (problematic) patterns your days have taken on, remember it’s never too late to change. Morgenstern worked with a mom of school-aged kids who worried that things would never get better—she’d keep nagging her kids to do chores, and she’d keep doing those chores. With Morgenstern’s coaching, she called a family meeting. Everyone agreed that the tension was impeding their connection and quality time, and she asked her kids for solutions—and they enjoyed creating their own systems and ways to stay accountable.