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Do your hours keep slipping away? 5 time-management tips that work for me.

by Meagan Francis on September 17, 2012

I thought I’d re-publish a post from my archives that explains some tricks I’ve learned in my mothering journey that help me make better use of my most precious resource – my time. Enjoy!

time management for moms

I’ve not always been good at managing my time. I’m amazed sometimes when I look back at my pre-kid life and consider all the hours upon hours I frittered away, without even good grades in school or career advancement to show for it.

Having kids didn’t immediately improve my time-management skills: it wasn’t until I had my third child and decided I needed more structure to my life to function–and, at the same time, decided to take a real, serious stab at writing professionally–that I started, out of sheer survival instinct, to develop habits to help me get things done.

Now, several children, four books and many published articles later, I’m still not perfect but I’ve got a much better handle on using my time efficiently. Here are five of my favorite tips and tricks for making good use of time:

  • Pay close attention to what makes you tick…and what doesn’t. My first child fit pretty well into my free-form, no-schedule lifestyle, but when I added my second just 22 months later, everything fell apart. Suddenly it became clear that what I’d seen as a laid-back, type-B mothering style was actually a chaotic life ruled by inertia. Trying to protect myself from failure, I’d set low, low expectations of what I might be able to accomplish in a day. And (just like in high school and college) as it turned out, the less I expected of myself, the less I delivered. I realized my true colors: I need deadlines, I need expectations, and I’m really not that type B, after all. Maybe you’re the opposite–overloading your schedule when what you really need is some breathing room. We’re all different. Just be sure you’re clear about what really helps you, not necessarily what you think should help you. (And try to ride the middle a bit, either way – if I had suddenly ramped my expectations way, WAY up, I would have burned out fast.)
  • Always leave a room better than you found it. I’ve shared that one here before, but I believe in it so strongly –and find it so helpful–that it’s always worth another mention. There’s no need to spend lots of time picking up and decluttering if you build cleanup naturally into your day.
  • Create good habits. We all have habits that drive us throughout our days. Some habits help us and some make our lives more chaotic. For example, if you never start thinking about what you’ll have for dinner before 5 PM, you’ll probably waste a lot of time, money and energy trying to figure out what you can throw together (or pick up from the drive-through) on super-short notice. It does require a re-wiring of the brain to start preparing for dinner at 3 PM instead–or better yet, plan it out the day or even the week before–but it doesn’t take any extra time. In fact, it’ll save you time and energy, because you can prepare in stages instead of madly trying to throw everything together and realizing at the last minute you forgot to defrost the chicken…again. (hint: while you’re trying to turn something new into a habit, you’ll probably need an external reminder, like an alarm on your cell phone, or the end of a show you watch every day, or a routine like the Kitchen Hour to “peg” the activity to.)
  • Write it down. Getting my to-do list out of my head and on paper is an essential just-before-bed exercise. I keep a notebook with my running list next to my bed and look at it first thing in the morning: that way I don’t waste time futzing around on the Internet while my brain tries to wake up enough to remember what I was supposed to be doing today. There it is in black ink, and just seeing the words on the paper brings me back to the mindset I was in when I wrote the list and helps get me on track.
  • Identify your values. The word “values” is not inherently laden with judgment. Perhaps you value sports more than your neighbor. Maybe your best mom friend values preschool education more than you do. That doesn’t mean she’s right and you’re wrong or vice versa. Even if you and your sister are both into healthy eating, maybe one of you is opting for local farmer’s market fare while another does her best at Aldi and another shops the organic produce at Whole Foods. It’s only when you understand your own specific values that you can prioritize. Try making a list of ten things you really value, then look at your how you spend your time (try this downloadable time log): do your actions reflect your stated values?

I’ll share five more tips in the coming weeks. In the meantime, readers, I’m curious: what’s one bad habit you could turn into a good habit, that wouldn’t take any extra time or energy, but would actually save you time and energy in the long run?

{ 20 comments… read them below or add one }

Liz September 8, 2011 at 2:27 pm

SUCH a great post!! I think I probably read it here, but if I didn’t, the tip I’m working on is “never leave a room empty-handed.” There is ALWAYS something to put away and if I’m going to the bathroom, I can probably grab 3-15 items that need to go in there and take them as I go.

I may have to do a “laundry folding hour”… that seems to be my biggest hang up of all! I was the clothes then they sit in piles waiting to be folded or hung. Should I be folding right this minute… probably. Argh. :)


Mary Ostyno September 8, 2011 at 2:41 pm

I just installed ‘LeechBlock’, a firefox add-on. It helps you set a maximum time each day for facebook and email, then (depending on how you set it) either reminds you or locks you out once you have hit the limit. Theoretically I could do this for myself, but in reality I find that I check email way more often in the day than I need to, with the end result being lots of wasted minutes. This little helper is making it easier to stick to my time goals and avoid distraction.
Mary, mom to many


Meagan Francis September 8, 2011 at 5:01 pm

Mary, thank you for the very excellent recommendation! Sounds like a tool a lot of us could use.


Angela September 8, 2011 at 3:16 pm

I love that you mentioned leaving a room better than you found it. I’m constantly picking up the house so, it’s never a total mess and it helps keep me sane! Another thing that helps me is to know what spots in my house are the ones that bother me the most if they are messy. I can’t have a dirty kitchen floor or dirty kitchen counters because those really drive me nuts. If I take a few minutes to wipe them down and sweep, Mommy’s happy and the whole house is a lot happier as well!


Crystal September 8, 2011 at 4:28 pm

I totally love that ‘never leave a room empty handed’ rule- and I’ve been living by it (pretty much) ever since I read it here! Thank you!
I’d have to say, if I could make myself sweep/vacuum the kitchen after meals (I run a private dayhome), and spot-wiping spills more often, then I probably wouldn’t have to use so much ‘force’ when I do clean the floors! I do it everyday, but it does slip away sometimes, and funny enough- yucky floors are even a pet peeve of mine!

Great post Meagan! :)


Rachael September 8, 2011 at 5:39 pm

Always leave a room better than you found it.

An excellent policy. Clutter control is definitely a challenge around here. A related habit that I’ve been working on — in an experimenting-with-it, seeing-what-works kind of way — is putting my work away when I’m finished with it. Which is challenging, because I typically do a late shift of at-home work from 9-ish to midnight-ish or 1-ish. And by midnight, I really really really just want to go to bed and deal with my books and pens and files and whatever tomorrow.


Deb @ Home life simplified September 8, 2011 at 8:53 pm

I seriously need to start doing the “leave a room better than you found it”.

For me one of my bad habits is following the interesting trail of information on the internet. There is always another click to make to learn more. Just considering it now I think I will either 1) start a word document and copy/paste links there based on topics so I can go back to them later (bookmarking never gets followed up) or 2) start using pinterest for this purpose and create a board for the subjects I love researching. i will have a visual cue which works better for me


Adventures In Babywearing September 9, 2011 at 7:24 am

I just need help in every single one of these areas! You are so good at this, Meagan!! I think my biggest problem is overcommitting and then just wanting to give up altogether on everything else…



Cindee September 9, 2011 at 9:14 am

With school just starting again, I’m reworking the morning schedule so we’re getting out the door on time without feeling rushed and impatient. We’re working on creating good habits. : )
-Making lunches the night before leaves more time for breakfast together.
-Laying out clothes at bedtime reminds my youngest to make sure he has clean clothes. He’s also more likely to tell me it’s his last pair of underwear in the drawer so I know we’ll need to do laundry the next day. : )
-Putting their loaded backpacks by the door before they sit down for breakfast means they’re ready to head out as soon as they leave the table.
It’s amazing how much more enjoyable our mornings are with simple helpful habits like these in place! Planning MY time based on what’s really important to me comes next. : )
Thanks for all the suggestions!


Sarah September 10, 2011 at 9:22 am

When my husband and I watch tv in the evenings we always take snacks to the tv room with us. Then we usually fall asleep in front of the tv, and groggily stumble up the stairs without tidying up. Incidentally, the tv room has white carpet (I know, stupid choice) and a light-colored sofa so it really is noticeable when it is messy/dirty. Dishes, candy wrappers, and my husband’s socks end up piling up in the tv room, which makes me even less motivated to vacuum it.
I guess we could cut out our evening snacking, but I think just cleaning up after it is a more realistic goal.


Jo September 11, 2011 at 10:24 am

I have also implemented the rule to leave the room better than I found it. I find it keeps the clutter at bay, and sometimes I even find myself putting away a few things at once (shocking, I know).
I love using lists for reminding me what needs to be done for both short term and long term tasks, but I often end up picking out those I find enjoyable or at least the least unappealing of the items on the list. I really have to force myself to deal with things I don’t want to do, and sort of ‘reward’ myself by knowing that I no longer have to deal with them after.


S September 16, 2011 at 10:50 pm

“Leave a room better than it was”. What a great policy! My bathroom has been such a cluttered mess ever since we returned from a long vacation, making me loath to even begin. Today, I spent only 10-15 min and voila! And our “dump” second bedroom. I sorted things out, toddler in tow. Often, it is just my inertia that keeps me from de-cluttering and I blame it on the not-entirely-blameless (of course) toddler.

Bad habit to turn into a good habit? The very same inertia of course. Once started, I am a charging train. Which gives many friends the impression, mistaken perhaps, of my being a bundle of energy.


SusanP September 17, 2012 at 2:08 pm

I LOVE the “Leave the room better” tip – I don’t remember when I read it here, but I’ve been doing it for some time now and it defintiely works.

My other is to leave the kitchen clean before bed. No matter how tired I am, I try to leave the sink empty and the dishwasher running. I can’t stand to start my day behind the curve with a sink full of dirty dishes (plus we have to be wary of bugs here).

A silly way I try to avoid getting sucked into my computer at home is to read email and facebook standing up at my desk… sometimes I just need that few minutes to check it but if I sit down it could turn into 20min.


Nina September 17, 2012 at 3:34 pm

My bad habit I need to break is leaving things for the chaos of the next morning. I already know what I need to do at night: pack lunch, get this and that ready, but I don’t and waste valuable time in the morning to do this.


Becca September 18, 2012 at 6:39 am

Before I thought there’s no need to list all the things that I need to be done for the day. Until one day, I was confused don’t know where and what to start. So I realized I need to list which is the task that I need to do first.


Andrew September 20, 2012 at 6:47 am

Really cool tips !! One thing that can really help keep a close account of the tasks would be Trello, should definitely try it out :) :).


Charmaine September 27, 2012 at 12:43 pm

I’m big on the writing it down idea. I love doing a brain dump. And I love ticking things off when I’ve actually accomplished something. Very satisfying! (I have been known to add ‘write a to-do list’ to my to-do list or to add things I’ve already done that day, heh.)

I’d love to read your “what I’d seen as a laid-back, type-B mothering style was actually a chaotic life ruled by inertia” post, but the link is broken? Can you repost it?



Vincent Churchil February 6, 2013 at 12:42 pm

What would your feedback be on using time tracking tools for time management?

When we started using timekeeping software to track our freelancers we noted that we had complete control on their time and activities.

Reply April 10, 2013 at 12:09 am

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Kelly Pietrangeli April 26, 2013 at 4:16 am

Out of my head and onto paper is my MANTRA! As soon as that happens I can see clearly what needs to happen and my heads clears up. Great post! I’d wanted to pin it onto our Pinterest board for Project Me for Busy Mothers, but the pin link above doesn’t work/broken link or something. Just so you know!


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