Time management has never been my strong suit. I begin most days well-intentioned, with big plans to DO THIS and DO THAT, which mostly degenerates into watching videos on Facebook and taking quizzes to determine who was Rory’s best boyfriend on the Gilmore Girls.
So I was really struck by a recent piece in The New York Times called “The Busy Person’s Lies.” The author, Laura Vanderkam, is a time management expert who’s written a few books on the subject and suggests that we often think we are busier than we really are. In the essay, she shares her experience tracking her own activity for a full year, which included writing, extensive travel to give talks on time management and giving birth to her fourth child.
And I was like, what is my problem? My fourth child is 13 and I have a hard enough time just getting to the food store, much less traveling for work or writing a book.
I have come to understand that I need structure in my life and without it, I flounder. I can’t have too much time on my hands and find the more I have to do, the more productive I become.
So, when I left work to care for my first child many moons ago, I had a lot to figure out. With just a newborn at home and tons of hours to fill in the day, I’d often spend much of it shuffling around the house in my pajamas carrying my little crybaby and waiting for his dad to get home.
But then more kids came and the crybaby got a little older and the days became more structured. Breakfasts and coloring and story time at the library, mid-day naps and maybe a walk around the neighborhood followed by chicken nuggets, tubbies, a story and then – blissfully – bed.
When the older kids were in high school, I went back to working full time and although things were bonkers – four kids in four different schools – it was kind of impressive what I was able to accomplish each day. Not only was I doing the regular parenting stuff – making meals, food shopping, back-to-school nights – but I also launched and managed a local news site — reporting on and writing, like, five stories each day — and attending grand openings, school assemblies and municipal meetings a few nights each week. Somewhere in between all that I also started a blog.
To get that job, I had to take an intense three-hour long writing test, which happened to fall the day before Thanksgiving. I went up to my office (really a desk pushed next to my bed), instructed my children to stay out of my way, ploughed through all the writing, was told I got the job, came downstairs and started cooking Thanksgiving dinner for 20 people.
Fast forward three years and a company-wide layoff later and I found myself once again with not only hours of unstructured time each day but also wondering how I ever managed to fit a full-time job into all my mothering duties.
But now, about three years after that conference call layoff, the kids are that much older and self-sufficient (well, in theory, anyway). Now that a year of moving and renovating a new house is behind me, I kinda find myself floundering again. I mentioned this to my friend Dan the other day and he said, “I hear that a lot from my clients who don’t have jobs. They can’t seem to get anything done.”
But I don’t really want a full-time office job. I mean, I do, don’t get me wrong. But I still have a seventh grader and three months to fill during the summer. There’s only so much Netflix I’m willing to let him watch each day.
I really want to develop freelance opportunities and work on a bigger writing project and am tired of trying to figure out how to squeeze that in between cleaning the kitchen and trips to Trader Joe’s.
According to Vanderkam, the first step is keeping track of how you spend your time, which I started doing a few days ago and it’s been an interesting exercise (you can print out or download a spreadsheet here). I’m trying to approach the process with positive intentions and not as a way of beating myself up.
Vanderkam, whose most recent book is aptly titled I Know How She Does It, writes, “Keeping a time log is not about figuring out how much time we waste. It is about making sure we are not telling ourselves stories about our lives that are not actually true.”
I mean, I know that being a single mom with four kids can be time-consuming, especially in the summertime with everyone at home. There are a lot of distractions. But I also know that I could manage my time a lot better. Like, do I need to check Facebook every 15 minutes? I think not.
Working from home can be challenging, but rather than scrolling through photos of kindergarten graduations and cat videos — and man, I love a good cat video — I’d really like to concentrate on more productive activities. Like, maybe writing or starting a meditation practice. Or food shopping, for that matter.
“Just because you know where the time goes doesn’t mean that you need to punish yourself for wasting it or feel bad about spending it the way you do,” Vanderkam said in a recent interview with KJ Dell’Antonia for the NYTimes Well Family blog. “Are you happy, or not? If you’re happy, celebrate that. There’s nothing wrong with sitting on the porch drinking a glass of wine and staring at the trees.”
Vanderkam was able to keep track of her days in 30-minute increments for an entire year. That’s 8,784 hours. And she had a newborn. How hard can it be for me to do it for a week?
I’ll keep you posted.
Do you know where all your time goes? What are some of your time management tips? Share in the comment section below.
When I’m not trying to figure out where all my time goes, I write about being a mom to grown, and almost grown, kids. Sign up to get all of my latest posts sent right to your inbox by typing your email into the box below. You can also follow me on Facebook and Twitter.