Three Ways to Manage Your Busy Schedule – Instead of Letting It Manage You

Laura's work desk 13/05/2008

Piles of Work (Photo credit: Laura Whitehead)

After substituting in kindergarten for the third time this week, I drove home with that relieved, TGIF feeling. I love teaching, especially the freedom of being a substitute, but it makes for a busy day, often with no breaks or time to think.

But the entire weekend stretched ahead of me, with plenty of time to decompress and do the things I wanted to do.

My little fantasy didn’t even survive the drive home. I knew there was a pile of laundry waiting to be washed, plants that needed to be watered, sippy cups to be washed and refilled, and I still had my daily bookkeeping duties for the family business that I’d put off in order to substitute.

When I walked in the door, I discovered more things to do: a book sitting on the kitchen table that I need to read for a class next week; a pair of pants that need to be re-hemmed; a looming trip to the store before my son’s t-ball game. Oh yes, and then the t-ball game itself.

I also took on a new project today that I have to finish before we go on our spring break vacation, plus a novella to read for Fiction Fix, not to mention my personal fiction projects. Sometimes it’s hard to figure out what to do first when there are so many tasks at hand. Better just to take a nap and ignore them all, right?

If your life follows a similar pattern, you may feel that you’re always behind and rarely or never get to do anything for yourself. And it’s all too easy to give in to a negative attitude.

When Peter started playing t-ball, I dreaded the practices and games. My time is already so limited that I didn’t know when I would ever get anything done.

I had two choices: succumb to despair and have a nervous breakdown, or adapt and make the most of my new schedule.

I chose the latter, and you know what? I’m still able to embrace all the new projects I’ve taken on, and I’m even finding that elusive “me” time. Here are three tips that have helped me, and I hope they’ll help you, too:

1. Use Technology to Your Advantage

I know of people who have gotten rid of their TVs and phones because of the distractions they cause. If this seems a little drastic to you, there are ways to turn your electronics into a boon rather than a procrastinator’s crutch.

Did you know that there are a plethora of apps and computer programs that can help you manage your time? Some, like SelfControl from Mac users or SelfRestraint for Windows, block the internet altogether for set amounts of time. Just search for “time management apps” to see lists of what’s available and which one best fits your needs and personality.

Some of you may be able to control your electronics use by sheer will power. I fall into this category. I used to check my email any time I woke in the middle of the night, and the result was that I always had a hard time getting back to sleep. I finally made a deal with myself: don’t check email at night. It was as simple as that. If someone texts me, I know it’s urgent. Otherwise, it can wait.

Another thing I love is my phone’s timer, which I use in conjunction with step number two.

2. Take Baby Steps

When I have enough projects to fill a mile-long to-do list, I tackle them a bit at a time, baby-step style, and there are two ways to do this. As mentioned above, you can use that handy timer on your phone and work in blocks of time, or you can set goals, like editing one chapter and then moving on to a different project.

I’m currently rotating five projects in this manner, employing whichever method makes sense for each project, whittling away until they’re done. At the end of a hard day, instead of feeling like I’ve fallen short by ignoring one project while spending all my time on another, I can see that each one is closer to completion, even if only by a little bit.

3. Schedule Recreational Activities

It is very discouraging to run into someone on a Monday and have to come up with an answer to the “What’d you do this weekend?” question. I often stand there in utter silence, knowing I was busy but not able to remember anything specific. “Oh yeah,” I might say after a few seconds, “I weeded the lawn all day Saturday.” Exciting stuff, right?

When piles of laundry, flowerbeds full of weeds, grad school projects, and your kids’ sports schedules hijack what could have been your spare time, you feel like you’re stuck in a rut. This is when you can get in trouble by either going off the deep-end and throwing all responsibility to the wind, or you can wallow in self-pity and start hating anyone who did manage to enjoy her weekend.

If, instead, you schedule regular periods of recreation, just as you would schedule all the work that you need to do, you will have something to look forward to every day.

This is easier said than done, I know. Part of my personal promise to myself was to leave work well enough alone after my kids were in bed every night. If I could just hold out until they were in bed, I could read or write whatever my heart desired. But sometimes there’s not enough time in the day to get all my work done, and there’s still quite a bit left to finish after the kiddos are down. But I still make sure that I read or write or watch the occasional movie because my brain craves that break. Afterward, it’s much easier to work.

You may have more time but feel guilty about using it. Don’t! Fit in the occasional golf game or fishing trip or cup of coffee with a friend, if that’s what floats your boat. If you ignore opportunities such as these in order to “save” your enjoyment for a blow-out, two-week vacation that eats up a quarter of your annual salary, think of all the misery you’re subjecting yourself to in the meantime. Wouldn’t it be a shame to turn something you used to love doing, such as being a freelance writer, into a task to which you feel enslaved? I would rather have a few minutes of rest or fun every day, and the vacations, although they aren’t many, are truly special.

However you choose to do it, find time to do something not work-related on a regular basis, and you will be able to attack your projects again with renewed vigor and enjoyment.

Oh, and by the way, your house is patient: it will wait for you to clean it. Wash you underwear, by all means, but I won’t look at your baseboards if you won’t look at mine.

Do you have too many things to do 24/7/365? How do you manage your own workload?

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When Life Happens


Goals (Photo credit: Celestine Chua)

People who know me know that I am a planner. And that’s really just a nice way of saying “control freak.”

I’ve gotten better about it. When things don’t go my way, I’m not as likely to flip out as I used to be. But still, as a self-motivated person, I set personal goals and stick to them for a reason. Even if those plans don’t mean anything to anyone else, they mean something to me.

So this weekend was going to be a full one. We would end the week with my husband visiting our kindergartener’s class and talking to them about his job, and later in the afternoon, I would take the boys on a quick trip to visit their grandparents.

As far as freelancing goes, I have certain tasks that I complete each day, and after the kids are in bed, I get to work on my own writing. A while ago, I devised a goal for the end of January: finish the first draft of my NaNoWriMo novel.

Yes, I did complete the 50,000-word goal before the end of November (actually, it was over 80,000 at that point), but the novel wasn’t done. One week out from the end of the month, my goal seemed almost too easy to attain. It was practically a sure thing.

Well, as you have most likely already figured out, things did not exactly go my way – or anyone else’s – this weekend. Life struck in a really awful way – in the form of that nasty fiend, the stomach bug. I can’t say I was totally unprepared because my younger son had it earlier in the week, but he got over it quickly, and no one else I knew had it.

But by Thursday evening, I had a bad feeling. My husband did the grocery shopping and took the kids to my son’s open house while I… well, let’s just say everyone involved is glad I decided not to tough it out and go with them.

After they got home, Thomas made some quick plans for how he would get the kids everywhere they needed to go and still talk to Peter’s class the next day. He would even take them with him to a meeting later in the afternoon to give me a break.

Then, when he was getting ready for bed, Peter woke up with the bug. Shortly after Thomas got done cleaning up Peter’s room, Ian awoke with it, too.

Not only were my own plans busted, but so were everyone else’s. On the plus side, I don’t have to feel bad about missing a day of exercise because I lost weight, anyway. But school and our trip and everything else I hoped to do were put on the back burner. I just wanted to make it through the night.

So my personal goal is shot. At times like this, it’s easy to give in and throw away goals all together. But the planner in me won’t let me give up so easily. I’m well enough to sit up and type, and maybe not quite being 100% will lend my story some really cool/trippy ending, even if it’s a few days later than planned.

And another plus: since I was so useless that I could do little more than sit around, I did some web surfing and found a short fiction contest with the deadline of January 31st. So I thought, What the heck? – might as well get something productive done, even if it wasn’t a part of the original plan – and revised a story and submitted it. At least there’s something positive coming out of my blown-to-bits weekend.

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The Work-at-Home Covenant

Working mom

Working mom (Photo credit: rankun76)

I’ve been working on an article about the balance between being home with kids and trying to work at the same time. I think this is something that needs to be addressed for frustrated moms out there (like yours truly) who sometimes feel helplessly at sea. But it seems like the articles already out there fall into one of two categories: advice from people who clearly don’t have kids (or are empty nesters and have forgotten) or are written by frustrated moms who just need a friendly reader to commiserate.

Yet there are successful work-at-home moms who make it look so easy. I’m sure it’s not rainbows and unicorns for them all the time, but they’ve turned their time at home and considerable talents into profitable careers. J.K. Rowling wrote Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone while she was out of work and a single mom. Madeleine L’Engle stayed at home and wrote, even during a decade-long drought, in which she worried she would never be published again.

So while I’ve wrestled with my own situation (which is more often work-on-the-go than from home), I’ve tried to piece together what I do that works and what doesn’t, aspiring to be as successful as one of these greats. And it was actually my son who made me realize what the most important aspect is. It was a truth that’s glared at me for months, but sometimes it takes the brutal, innocent honesty of a child to bring it home.

Granted, it was a rough week for us. My husband was gone for five days, something that only happens a couple times a year, if that. I really admire single moms, military wives, and other women whose spouses travel frequently. We made it, but it wasn’t pretty. I cook most of our meals from scratch, and Thomas often takes the boys outside to play while I cook. Or he helps me in the kitchen. On my own, my kids ate a lot of chicken nuggets, I’m afraid, and I rarely got to eat before they were done. Chores went unfinished, and my temper got shorter and shorter: there just wasn’t time for me to do what I needed and sleep and play with my kids. And we’re talking bare minimum here. Forget reading a book or doing anything fun for me.

One night, after getting the little guy down, I sat at the table with my laptop, writing an article. And my elder son came to me and asked for something. I am ashamed to say I don’t remember what it was – I was barely paying attention then, immersed as I was in my work. What did catch my attention, though, was what he said next: “Mom, sometimes you’re not very fun. You don’t spend enough time with us.” I stand condemned.

No matter how many hours my husband works, he gives our kids one-on-one (or one-on-two) time when we’re together. The boys eat it up. They crave time with their daddy and miss him when he’s gone. The way things have been going, I wonder if the boys feel the same way about me. Something has to change. I don’t want to look back over my mothering years and realize I missed a number of small, meaningful moments while I wrote another article.

Last week was an exception, but it’s no excuse. I’ve had too many days recently in which I allowed myself to become a passenger in my own life – a passenger who barely even looked out at the scenery. And it’s my life. If I am imprisoned by my choice of lifestyle, I can only blame myself because I am the warden and hold the keys.

Because freelancing is so open – so “free” – it’s easy to get swept away in the current of work and never stop. And since there are no paid vacation days, no sick leave, and I don’t make a salary while I apply for jobs that may or may not come to fruition, I sometimes feel an almost self-denying need to write while everyone else takes time off. The idea that I could squeeze in full workdays every weekend was seductive. With no need to rush out the door for school and with most of my other chores finished during the week, I could just sit around and write all day – and let Thomas deal with the kids. First of all, that’s not fair to him, and it makes me unavailable to all three of them. Second, I ended every weekend looking back on everything I didn’t get done and feeling like I’d let everyone down. I’ve heard freelancers say to set a schedule, and the longer I’ve been at it, the more I agree. It doesn’t have to be nine to five (and in my case, it’s not going to be), but I do need some parameters. At some point, I need to say, This is my family’s time; writing can come later.

I have preached about this before – to others as well as myself. But for me, walking the talk is more than just saying, “I need to.” My almost immediate mental turn-around – the decision to not let my writing interfere with my family – was akin to other life choices I’ve made. These are things I’ve decided to do, no matter the cost, like nursing my babies for at least twelve months, getting up early to exercise on weekdays, and cutting wheat out of my diet. This was more than a simple decision but what I think of as a covenant with myself. I write because I love it, which means it should feed me, not starve me. The only way I can keep on writing is to protect myself and my family from freelancer’s burn out.

I implemented the plan this week. I wrote during the day, cutting myself off at supper time. I still checked e-mail, and if necessary, I wrote after the kids went to bed. But one of the reasons I’ve been so irritated lately is that, along with having little family time, I’ve had absolutely no me time, no time to recuperate. So I’ve made sure to only write sparingly at night, allowing myself a little time to read for the fun of it.

When I received three assignments with a tight deadline on Thursday, I met my first challenge. I either had to write them all on Friday, or I would break my promise and work through the weekend. So I stayed up a little later, finished the assignments, and when I woke up this morning, instead of heading straight to the laptop, I went into my younger son’s room and helped him build a train track.

This little bit of structure – of making myself accountable – has helped me be more productive than ever, believe it or not, and extra conscious of my family’s needs. Work-at-home moms have to decide what’s most important and tailor their lives to their particular covenants. That doesn’t mean there won’t be rough days or emergency writing assignments, but there will be something to answer to. All the other bits of practical advice I’m saving for my article are secondary to this. If we work-at-home moms can’t define the purpose of staying home – and I certainly hope it has something to do with spending more time with our families – why did we choose to be at home to begin with?