“How’s it going?”
“Busy. Good, but busy.”
We’ve all had this conversation. However you feel about busy-ness – whether it’s a badge of honor, something to be avoided altogether, or just an inevitable part of life – most of us do not enjoy managing the minutiae of the busy life. I know I’d rather spend my time tickling my kids, reading something without pictures after they go bed, or checking out the new yoga studio down the street than figure out how and when I’m going to actually do all that stuff.
I spent my childhood longing for the sweet freedom that adulthood promised. Now that I have it, I find I’m actually happier when I go out of my way to limit the number of choices required of me. That experience, it turns out, is not unusual. According to psychologist Barry Schwartz, less is more when it comes to options. People tend to be happier when they have fewer choices.
Enter routines. We know they’re good for kids but they might be better for adults than we give them credit for. By creating “rules” for what, how, and when we are going to do things, routines limit or even eliminate the pesky choices that drain our time and energy, leaving us with more room to engage with the people and things that matter to us.
Creating routines takes some up-front investment, but once you have them dialed in they’re worth the hassle. Here are some strategies you can use to minimize decision-making and maximize time and energy for the pursuits that bring you joy.
1| Divide and conquer
My husband and I have a deal: Until 7 a.m. every Tuesday and Thursday I am free to “sleep in” or work out while he gets our kids dressed and fed. Monday and Wednesdays, we switch roles. This has been our agreement ever since I got the green light to exercise after our first child was born.
Kate Darby and Marc Neff, who are professors, parents of two, and avid runners, have a unique way of making sure they both get their miles in. On weekends, one parent drives the kids to the park and the parent runs to meet them. On the way home, whoever ran to the park drives the kids home, and their spouse runs home solo.
Katie and Daniel Westreich, parents of two, take the concept a step further. Every week, they grant each other an entire day off from parent duties of any kind, including even seeing their two children. Westreich jokes they have trademarked the arrangement “20 percent divorced.”
2| Schedule all the things
Savvy parents take the time to schedule all the things in advance. Jessica Ziegler, the co-author of Science of Parenthood, relies on phone alarms for everything: “One for Get The Kids Up, one for 10-Minute Warning/Brush Your Teeth, one for GTFO.” What did we ever do before phone alarms with customizable labels!?
Joy Jackson, a stay at home mom of three, has a phone alarm scheduled to ding three times a week at 9:45 p.m. after her kids are tucked in for the night. “It’s the sex alarm,” says Jackson. “It says, ‘Hey, reminder, you guys like each other, but have your busy days made you forget?’”
Lorin Oliker Allan is a stay at home mom who relies on a weekly delivery from a local farm for her family’s eggs, milk, and produce.
Elyana Funk’s two daughters have piano lessons every Thursday afternoon, which means Thursday is always pizza day. Says Funk, a non-profit administrator, “I order it earlier in the day and schedule it so that it arrives when we do.”
3| …And use a shared electronic calendar app to do it
My husband and I started using a shared Google calendar when our first child was born over five years ago. My husband had been trying to bring me over the dark (read: electronic) side for years, but as a paper lover at heart, I wouldn’t budge – until we had a child and I had to make sure someone was watching our kid every time I went to work on a Saturday, worked out, or met a friend. Now, I’m never surprised when my husband “invites” me to happy hours with men I don’t know, and he’s come to expect “invitations” to girls’ night.
Galit Breen is a mother of three and author of “Kindness Wins,” a guide for teaching your child to be kind online . Breen has had her kids enter their own events on the family’s iCalendar since her two older kids were 10 and eight. “We’re all on the same page,” says Breen. “They don’t need reminders from me because they’re the ones who put them there, they see double-booking instantly so that we can take care of it in advance, and it’s so much less busy work for me!”
4| Simplify your meals
Melissa Proia is a stay at home mom of three kids under the ages of six. She has egg frittatas every morning for breakfast. It may sound elaborate but it’s actually far simpler than even cereal or instant oatmeal. Once a week, she mixes up a nine eggs, a pound of ground turkey, and veggies, bakes them in a casserole dish, cuts and wraps them into nine squares, and all she has to do is grab one and heat it up each morning.
On Sundays, Sam Watts – a busy stay at home mom who juggles five part-time jobs – plans her family’s meals for the week, puts all the ingredients on her shopping list, and does her weekly shopping. Having this system dialed in means she never has to take extra time to think about dinner.
Amy Muller is a mom and project manager who volunteers for her local Boulder, Colo. Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America chapter and hits ballet classes in her spare time. Muller takes it a step further with a weekly dinner schedule featuring chicken Monday, taco Tuesday, and pizza Friday, that rarely, if ever, varies.
5| Batch process
Never do something one at a time when you’re going to need to do it every day, every week, or every month. Stay at home mom Meryl Hertz Junick does all her school lunch prepping at once. This way, she says, “I just need to refresh the containers in the insulated totes each night or morning.”
I make a double batch of just about every time I bake muffins or prep a meal in the slow cooker. Those items freeze well and my future self always thanks me.
With two children in elementary school, Elyana Funk says it feels like her family attends two birthday parties every weekend. She saves time by stockpiling birthday presents.
6| Do it the night before
I am the worst procrastinator. The more deadlines I have, the cleaner my house is. But even I swear by doing as much as I can the night before. I make my kids’ lunches while I make dinner.
Elyana Funk has her coffee pot prepped and ready to go before she goes to sleep.
Brittany Bouchard, a bank manager and mom of two girls, makes getting her kids dressed a breeze by putting entire outfits together on a hanger. So instead of helping her children choose a top, a bottom, socks, and underwear, each outfit is pre-planned and ready to wear. All her kids have to do is grab a hanger and go.
Jess Allen – the popular online trainer and fitness blogger at Blonde Ponytail – even preps her kids’ breakfast the night before to make mornings smoother.
When I was a kid, all I wanted was the freedom to be an adult and do whatever I wanted. Now that I’m an adult, that freedom can feel overwhelming and I find myself longing for some of the constraints I had as a child. That’s not to say I don’t enjoy the occasional Netflix binge, third glass of wine, or extra helping of dessert. But I am happier when I can put some of my adult responsibilities on auto-pilot and devote my limited mental energy to the areas of my life where it matters.