Summer has become the sweet antidote to my increasingly frenzied life. Without the mad rush to find missing mittens or that form I was supposed to sign, mornings are calmer. We gladly trade the harried dining experience of back-seat bagels en route to lessons for relaxed picnics in the park. Baths are purely optional—a dunk in a pool or a leap through the sprinkler counts, doesn’t it? Bedtimes stretch later and later. The pace is slower; we have more fun; we’re happier.
The rest of the year, my husband and I feel like we’re constantly spinning plates. Meeting the needs of two kids while juggling all the demands of two challenging careers leaves us either finishing chores or dealing with work emails past our own bedtimes, or waking up with drool on our faces, three episodes too far into our latest binge-watch. All too often, I find myself yelling about how late we’re going to be or stressing about dinner or worrying about how they’re going to finish their homework. By the time my kids are finally in bed, I feel like I’m starting my third shift of the day, too tired to get to all the things that need doing. I wanted—actually needed—to find some way to make that summer feeling last, even during September madness.
It was clear we needed an organizational overhaul. At work, when a team needs help with project management, my boss brings in consultants to teach us how to prioritize and meet deadlines. It made perfect sense to do the same for my home team. Even a few tweaks, something beyond alphabetizing our vinyl but not as strict as achieving inbox zero, would be a game changer. So, with equal parts excitement and trepidation, I signed my family up for a professional productivity program.
1. Start small, think big
It is incredibly nerve-racking to invite an organizational expert into your home to sort through the jumble of your life. I worried that our productivity pro, Susan Pons, vice-president of Clear Concept, would be one of those perfectly organized robots with amazingly well-behaved children. She’ll take one look at the piles of incomplete homework and bills, and she will judge you,the nasty voice inside my head taunted. Quite the contrary (she admits even her kids rebel at some of her strategies)—she floated in, ready to roll up her sleeves, like a friend coming by to lend a hand. Having seen it all, with clients from big corporations to just your average family, Pons knows her way around a to-do list and has a reassuringly casual-but-firm style. Imagine Mary Poppins with a laptop and a trunk full of doodads to make your drawers tidy.
The first step toward becoming an organized family, she says, is to hold a weekly family meeting, ideally starting a few weeks before school starts, to get everyone working on the same game plan. I was to make sure to outline rules like, “there are no stupid questions or ideas.” Start with a simple question: “What are our family goals?” Next, ask, “What are our priorities?” For instance, Pons says, if your goal is to improve grades in school, then homework becomes a priority. If it’s important that everyone gets eight to 10 hours of sleep, then bedtime scheduling is a priority. Feeling over-programmed? In the family meeting, you have the opportunity to ask, “What can we fit in? What can we drop?”
With our kids heading into grade four and grade six, we decided our goals were to get more exercise and ensure they have adequate sleep. At each meeting, we review where we’re at, as well as go over the schedule for the week and plan out our time. If we’re hosting a dinner party on Saturday night, for instance, I’ll need to figure out when I can make the appetizers, or if my son has a science test on Thursday, we’ll need to block off time for him to study.
To be honest, we’ve tried the family meeting before, with mixed results. OK, they totally fell flat. It felt like I was barking orders, the kids soon got bored and then I’d get annoyed by the lack of enthusiasm. Pons suggests encouraging each family member to add at least one item to the agenda. And it’s funny; I realized that while I’ve learned from management training that including employees in decision-making leads to greater productivity and increased engagement, I’ve only ever used it at home to get them to choose between broccoli and green beans. It was time to take things up a notch. I now start by asking three questions: What worked well this week? What didn’t work well? What will we agree to work on in the week ahead? Some weeks we get nothing, but most of the time this brings out amazing responses. If nothing else, our meetings have become a time to connect, reiterate priorities and celebrate successes.
2. Make a plan
Next up: routines. Studies reveal that humans crave routines and that the most successful of us follow them to the letter. Routines have been shown to lead to better sleep habits, improve kid behaviour by setting clear expectations and help grown-ups regularly make time to recharge. But how do you actually get routines to stick? As a recent meta-analysis on the psychology of habits discovered, repetition is key—the more we do something, the more we train our brains to make the task automatic.
To achieve even a smidgen of organizational success, the system has to work for the nucleus of the operation, so we spent a lot of time on creating a routine for me, the Chief Household Officer. It never occurred to me that productivity was something I had to carry through the entire day—both at home and at work. The more strategies I could figure out to stay on top of email and increase my efficiency in the office, the less my work life would spill into my family life and vice versa. I don’t want the kids to see me tapping out emails at all hours, nor do I want to be planning playdates at work. So Pons and I tackled inbox strategies (did you know the average person spends about 80 hours a year rereading emails they have opened but haven’t dealt with?), scheduling meetings (as you’re most productive two hours after waking up, try not to schedule meetings until lunch, so you can get work that requires focus done first) and putting personal time in the routine (I’m saying “namaste” every Wednesday).
I broke my week down into 30-minute chunks and added a “time budget” to everything so there would be ample time to get to school or work. Once I slotted in activities like gymnastics and basketball, three things became clear: One, time is a finite resource. Two, I can prioritize what’s important to me, thereby creating time where I thought I had none. And three, I need to stick to the routine as closely as possible. Spending an extra 15 minutes answering emails at the end of the workday, when I should be on my way home to prep dinner, can throw the whole routine off balance. (I now put my phone away from 6 to 9 p.m. and tackle any remaining work-related odds and ends after the kids are in bed.)
The new routine also highlighted the fact that I need a lot more help around the house. I’m an excellent delegator, but my at-home assistants are not always game to help. So I’ve started paying them, like actual employees. Listing their chores (clearing the table, loading the dishwasher, cleaning their rooms, doing laundry) and assigning chore times in the routine made the expectations clear. Dangling their allowance as the proverbial carrot encourages them to get the jobs done. Whatever my partner and I can’t get to is outsourced according to the budget. Some weeks that means hiring a cleaning service and others it means splurging on grocery delivery.
This has been a work in progress—old habits die hard. One of my biggest frustrations is trying to get the kids to be more self-sufficient in the mornings and at bedtime (read: peak nagging times). Two weeks in, my kids were still stalling, but I hadn’t yet printed out the routine. Writing a quick checklist on the whiteboards in their bedrooms did the trick. I ordered old-fashioned alarm clocks and put them across their rooms so they’d have to get out of bed to turn them off. I let the kids know they were responsible for hitting their marks. They were amazing, especially the first morning (I only yelled, “Get your shoes on!” four times instead of 16).
I was truly the weak link, still doing my hair when we should have been walking to school. A serial snooze-button hitter, I lay in bed scrolling through my Facebook feed for far too long before dragging my butt out of bed. I’ve started setting my own alarm to 6 a.m. and putting my phone in the kitchen overnight. Once I’m down there, I put the coffee on and do a few stretches. Getting myself dressed and ready before the kids get up has revolutionized things—mornings are calmer and far more productive. As someone who never saw herself as a morning person, I can’t help but feel equal parts proud and smug about this change.
I love that this routine gives me a greater awareness of what spare time I actually have. Some spontaneity is still possible, of course—I can ditch Taco Tuesday for pork chops or opt to have family movie night on Thursday. But when I push off tasks to make room for fun, it means there’s still work to do (or food to be cooked or errands to run) later in the week. And if I really want my me time, I need to enforce the kids’ bedtime or risk having my own bedtime jeopardized, which can lead to stress and health issues that will inevitably upset the whole apple cart.
“You want to try to achieve the routine 80 percent of the time,” says Pons. There’s room for failure, like last Wednesday, when I hit snooze even though I knew I shouldn’t. But if you find you’re missing the objective more often than not, she recommends revisiting the schedule via a family meeting.
3. Sync up
I still needed to find a better way to keep track of appointments and lessons, as well as make time to tackle to-do list items. I’m a lover of calendars, but I can’t stand being the gatekeeper of everyone else’s schedules. Pons prefers using one digital calendar so caregivers and kids old enough to have gadgets can see the big picture, but recommends also getting something visual so younger kids can keep track, too. I have a wipe-off 60-day calendar (I cut it in half and gave a month to each kid) that I put in their rooms—right where they can see them. It really helps them to get a sense of what their week looks like. My husband and I share a Google Calendar, which syncs with all our devices, so it’s easy to categorize events as Family Shared and send them across all our gadgets. I’d love to let you imagine that everyone looks at their calendars, and I never, ever get texts asking if the drum lesson is at 6:30 or 7 p.m. But a calendar is only as good as those checking it, so we started scheduling time to consult it. Once we started to pay attention to what we’d committed to, things fell into place. There’s something liberating about knowing I can make a date with a friend on Wednesdays or pop into an Ashtanga class on the way home from work because it’s my night. And while it may sound like a chore to you, earmarking two hours on Sundays to do meal prep helps me relax the rest of the week.
It’s a productivity journey
So are we completely rehabilitated and functioning like a Japanese auto company? Well, our good habits aren’t quite hard-coded yet, but we’re getting there. My inbox doesn’t feel so scary and neither does my freshly organized junk drawer. My children are embracing their responsibilities, completing chores (most of the time), getting themselves dressed and ready with less fuss, and generally offering to help more often. My husband, who gets stressed out by clutter, seems pleased with our new and improved household, and he’s started tackling weekend projects that have long lingered on one of my many previous to-do lists. Most important, I don’t feel like I’m the one doing everything any more. I’m not crushed by work stress (though there are days), nor am I paralyzed by the panic of the daycare-to-dinner dash. Now that the to-do list does the reminding and nagging for me, my partner and I seem to like each other again. There are mornings when I even have time to dribble a ball on the sidewalk with my sweeties before school. I think I’m going to get an A for back to school this year.
Making it work
Try these tips to help keep your work day from bleeding into family time:
Meetings: Consider walk ’n’ talks with colleagues—exercise and strategize at the same time. Lots of organizations have “meeting-itis.” What meetings can you delegate? Ask for clear agenda items for all meetings and say no to those that don’t have an objective.
Email: “When you leave an email in your inbox, you’re delaying the decision, which leads to wasted time or wasted resources,” productivity expert Susan Pons says. Create folders like Admin, Strategy and Reading. Start at the bottom of your inbox, open an email, make a decision. Then delete it or file it.
A version of this article appeared in our September 2016 issue, titled “Routine rehab,” pg. 84-88.
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