Busy moms have more to do than they have hours in the day. But there actually is a way to get more done each day (don't worry - it's legal, ethical and realistic). It's what I want to share with other moms when they tell me, "I just don't know how you do it all."
My girlfriends and I were on a plane home from an epic girls beach trip to celebrate our collective 40th birthdays. I leaned over to see what my friend was reading - she’ll tell you herself she’s not a reader, so I needed to see what roped her in - and it was a book called Fringe Hours. I haven’t read it, but the concept of reclaiming small pockets of time each day spoke my language loud and clear.
I’m an efficiency junky. When I read The 5 Love Languages, my language was far and away quality time (translation: my time is valuable and I don’t want to waste it, so let’s make any time we spend together a quality use of my time). When I read the business leadership book Rocket Fuel, I was the get-it-done, tactically-minded “integrator” rather than the big picture and dreaming “visionary.”
Some moms seriously seem to have more than 24 hours in a day. I can think of a friend right now who has a job and two kids and throws parties that make my Pinterest boards cry. She goes out with friends and always looks cute and trendy. I’m convinced she only requires four hours of sleep to function.
But there are people who look at me with that same thought (the part about somehow finding a way to get a lot done well, not the beautiful parties).
A text I received from my awesome friend last week:
“I don’t how you do it but you’re a master planner, organizer and mentor.”
I thanked her, and then shared my Bad Moms moment from that morning when I lost it with my 6-year-old as she tried to rip out her ponytail because she “hates her hair like this.” I had neither time nor energy for her shenanigans because she was about to miss the bus and I needed to leave for work.
“LOL well I’m glad to hear you’re human,” she sent back.
Oh yes, very much so.
But when I saw the “Fringe Hours” title on the plane, it clicked in my brain that I actually am the master of my fringe hours - it might be biggest time management secret. The top way busy moms can get more done every day.
When I turned 40 last year, my sisters created a list of Mary’s 40 Favorite Things and “being on time” was on the list...just below Thor, reading, summer and Jelly Bellies. I’m a working mom, so being on time stays just beyond my reach much of the time, but man can I build a perfect Tetris board of tasks into my days - wringing as much as I can out of each one.
Don’t Dismiss Fringe Minutes
I changed purses this week. I tend to carry the same purse every day because it’s easier and I’m just not that fashion forward. But I was wearing black and white to a meeting and the sun was shining and I found an almost-new teal purse in my closet so I felt motivated. After one day with only five things in my purse, I don’t want to go back to my usual clutterific bag. It’s full of loose change and single contacts and furry unwrapped pieces of gum. I’m tempted to just dump it. I’ve got some pennies and nickels and probably even quarters floating around in there, and I’m not sure I even care. Doesn’t seem worth fishing them out.
Exhibit A = clean purse
Exhibit B = my usual disgusting purse habits (please note tissues, hairbands, loose change, trail mix wrapper, loose pieces of gum, 6 pens)
That got me thinking. About Fringe Hours...or minutes in this case. I also have change on my bedside table and on the desk in our kitchen and probably between the cushions of our couches and in random nooks in the minivan. I don’t think about it or do anything with it or really even notice it. But if I grabbed one of those random quarters every day for a year and tossed it in a mason jar, I’d have $91. For very little daily time and effort, the payoff would be $91.
The same goes for our time. I’m not talking about multitasking, but maximizing. Adopting a mindset that minutes matter because a few minutes wasted every day add up to a lot of time. Even 10 minutes of wasted time a day adds up to 60 hours by the end of the year - that 2.5 days!
Let me pause here, because grabbing hold of wasted time is different than running yourself ragged every minute of every day. I’m talking about reclaiming time that is literally lost.
Things that DON’T qualify as wasted time:
- Chatting with a coworker in the break room (relationships are important!)
- Watching an episode or two of Parks & Rec on Netflix (relaxation is important!)
- Sitting with a mug of coffee staring off into space thinking about things or clearing your head (reflection and peace are important!).
The “fringe minutes” I’m talking about are those pockets of time throughout the day when you only have a few minutes between things and you consciously or subconsciously decide there’s not enough time to “do” anything, so you shift into a default mode:
- Mindless scrolling on Instagram...or Facebook...or Pinterest
- Checking something on the internet “real quick”
- Puttering around your house or office
Reclaim Lost Time
Think about this idea of Fringe Hours over the next few days. Watch where you find that you have a few free minutes and what you do with that time. WRITE IT DOWN if you’re serious about getting more done each day.
Here are some examples of the black holes where we tend to lose fringe minutes as busy moms. They're examples to get you thinking as you begin taking notes on your own daily habits:
These are the fringe minutes you’ll notice when you make an intentional effort to look. But there’s also a second batch of extra time to pursue: the time you can create with healthy boundaries. When we let things take longer than necessary, we’re robbing ourselves of time we need for other things. The moms who seem to get everything done understand this and act on it in the following ways.
1. Have Rules for Relaxation
Rest and relaxation should be a standing item on our to-do list, but stopping to rest becomes like eating that first Thin Mint. We’re suddenly staring at an empty cookie sleeve and watching our third hour of Netflix for the night without a clue what just happened. We should set and stick to limits, and waiting until we’re burned out or exhausted to finally take a break makes that hard.
Kristie takes a 20-minute nap in the afternoon almost every day. When her boys were little, she had downtime after they went to bed (a daytime nap was never gonna happen at that point in her life when fears of her son redecorating the living room walls in Sharpie or mountain climbing off balconies were real). Now that her sons are older and stay up later, she lost that evening time. So now she carves out time to rest after she gets home from work while they’re doing homework or hanging out. And it’s just 20 minutes, pretty much without exception.
Full confession, I’m really good at rules and not so good at regulating my relaxation. My natural tendencies push me to be all in (workaholic mode) or all out (Oh, did you text me three days ago? My bad). I’m still working to find a better balance here.
Don’t forget about sleep. Getting enough and being smart about when and how you get it. Though I could probably sleep longer, around 7 hours of sleep works for me. An extra hour or two might feel nice, but it’s not worth the sacrifice in things I need or want to do. A certain 7 hours also works best - for me it's midnight to 6:45 a.m. these days. Kristie wrote a fascinating post about why getting up earlier is the wrong message for moms. It was all about the science behind the natural preferences for sleeping and waking that make some of us night owls and others early birds.
2. Time block bigger tasks
It’s easy to let certain tasks hijack too much of our time. There are bigger projects - at work and at home - that might not be “done” for a long time if ever. We need to decide how far we really need to get on a project or how much time we can afford to spend on it up front, with the big picture of our day in mind. Then we need to set a time limit and stick with it. Create an appointment in our calendar for a set time. Set a timer on our phone.
I’m a great time manager except when it comes to grading. Compulsive commenting and second-guessing make the process go slower than it should. So I decide how long each paper should reasonably take and keep hitting reset on my phone timer. When it goes off, I need to wrap it up, assign a grade and move on.
3. Break down bigger chunks of open time
As college professors, Kristie and I teach both in person and online so we don’t need to be in the office every day. On days when we work from home, we have larger blocks of time to organize. Lack of a plan tanks productivity every time. What’s that quote? “A goal without a plan is just a wish.”
Look at the must-dos and want-to-dos and break the day down. It doesn’t have to be all work and no play, but setting a realistic plan for what you’ll do and when you’ll do it holds you accountable. I'll write it out on my daily calendar: 8-9:30 check email; 9:30-11 grade papers; 11-1 pick up groceries and meet Steph for lunch. You get the idea.
4. Stop time-sucks before we start
We’ve got to know our weaknesses and rein them in. A look at our past behaviors will make them pretty darn clear. I honestly don’t watch a ton of TV, but once I sit down I have a hard time getting back up. So I’ll give myself a TV night every once in awhile when it’s not a big deal if I don’t accomplish anything else. And on other nights, I just don’t turn it on.
Really think about whether you should limit/eliminate (at least during certain days or times)
- Social media
- Games on your phone or laptop
- Internet surfing
- Phone calls
And then figure out a way to do it that works for you. I like this list of apps that save you from yourself by doing things like locking you out of your social media and other distractions after a set amount of time. Or tracking how much time you’re spending in certain apps each day and letting you know. That might be the accountability you need to reclaim important fringe hours.
Get More Things Done
Once you see (or create) new pockets of time, you need to have some fringe minute to-dos at the ready. Tasks on the to-do list that can be completed in 5 -15 minutes.They need to be top of mind or easily accessible and also prioritized.
My fridge and pantry were empty this morning. Like can’t-wait-one-more-day-for-groceries empty. And I had a full work day ahead of me. I knew if I could get my online grocery order in before lunch, I could swing by for pickup on my way home. Getting the order in before noon was my priority, and my radar went up for fringe time.
I got the kids on the bus, got ready for work and rolled in about 10 minutes before my first meeting. I jumped on my phone and logged into Walmart Grocery Pickup to reserve my pickup time and start loading a cart from my Favorites list. It only took a few minutes to grab the things I buy every week, but I didn’t have time for any meal planning. Fast forward a couple hours and I’m in class with students working in groups. They needed 10-15 minutes to get started before I checked in, so I jumped on my recipe board on Pinterest and came up with a few meal ideas. I texted my husband about whether he needed anything and texted me sitter to see what I could bring as a group meal contribution. One more trip to my online cart on my phone and I had checked out before my students needed me to come around.
IMPORTANT NOTE: lots of things don’t take nearly as long as we think they take.
- Unloading the dishwasher = 5 minutes
- Folding one bin of laundry = 10-15 minutes
- Packing a lunch = 5 minutes
We’ve got to push through the avoidance and jump on the things that need to get done. Fewer excuses.
I’ll end with a starter list of things that can be done during fringe time. Feel free to modify or add to create your own master list. See what you can do with your fringe hours this week, and share any tips that might help other moms on our Facebook page!
- Call your spouse while driving to/from work or errands during the day for a quick download while kids aren’t interrupting
- Embrace a few minutes of silence to pray, think, calm your mind
- Listen to podcasts or audiobooks
- Catch up with friends or family with a phone call
- Fold laundry
- Respond to texts you’re putting off
- Send a quick text to check in on a friend or just say hi
- Make a grocery list
- Order groceries online
- Do a household tasks (switch laundry, empty/load dishwasher, put away a few things)
- Return a phone call
- Read (to yourself or your kids)
- Pay a bill
- Register or renew an activity or service (Is soccer season coming up? Time to renew the zoo membership?)
- Work out (even a few sit-ups or jumping jacks count)
- Make/change appointments
- Take a walk