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A few weeks back, a friend and I were sharing our experiences about fitting exercise into our already-full lives as working parents. At one point she said, “I know you’re able to fit in exercise and a lot more into your life. It makes me believe it can be done. I think I need to get better about managing my time.”

I hear (and say) this line often. When we parents are overwhelmed, need to take on a new project, or fit in some more stuff into our lives, we call our beloved friend – time management. Yes, it’s ultimately about how we manage our time, but not just in terms of getting more efficient or productive. It’s also how much we understand about who we are and what matters to us. How are we filling up our lives and what’s the why behind it? Ultimately, it’s about what kind of life we want to live and the impact we want to create for our families and in the world.

First and foremost, it’s about being very clear about what’s important to me at this point in my life. This changes over time as my needs evolve. The relationships I have with my kids, my husband, my work, the greater world, and, most importantly, myself have changed. It’s asking myself, “What do I need in my life and how much is enough? Can I let go of (or outsource) some so what I have on my plate is the right use of my time?”

My marriage is incredibly important, yet spending time on the couch every night once the kids are in bed isn’t my highest priority. Do I miss those days of spending a lot of time together? Yes, absolutely. However, I’m okay with my kids staying up late so we can spend more time with the kiddos together. My house often stays messy and that’s a choice we both make to have time to exercise, work on our projects, and spend more time with the kids at night. Again, I dream of having that brochure-ready home and I know many, many parents have homes that look like hotels, but I’m not willing to make the tradeoffs at this point and, on most days, I feel fine about it.

It’s also being managing my energy. There are activities and people that fill up my energy bank and there are others that completely deplete me, then there are some that are neutral. It’s been useful to be aware of where my energy level is so that I know how to optimize. Exercise and nature are two of those energy-boosting activities so, a couple times a week, we put both the kids in the stroller and head out for a long walk after dinner (the preschooler loves the idea of a night hike to a coffee shop to get an apple or croissant while making pretend soup with the sand and sticks on the way). We all get exercise and my husband and I get to connect on our walk back while both the kids sleep peacefully in the fresh air.

A couple months back my son and I spent an entire Sunday afternoon with lots of paint. He did his pre-school version of exploration and nurtured his creativity while I got to do my version and, as a bonus, create a piece of art for our living room.

Finally, it’s about planning – meticulous planning. The people and activities that matter are often on my calendar days, weeks, and often months in advance. The camping trips, dates with my husband, time with my close girlfriends, and self-care retreats are often marked in advance on calendars. I spend Friday afternoons planning my work and non-work week to make sure I’m spending my days in ways that matter.

Moments of serendipity are few, but knowing there are fun things to look forward to gives me double joy (anticipation plus the real event), and I can manage my energy more effectively around the things that fall into the “have to do” category (dishes, are you listening?).

Yes, I’d love to have a few more hours in my life every week. I’d love to have time where I can spend hours reading, going to a leisurely yoga class, volunteering, and having long conversations with people who matter. But, at this season in my life, I can still have these, of course in abbreviated chunks that are often interrupted by the kids. (“Mom, I need food even though this is your precious 10 minutes of reading time before bed,” or “Mom, can you please wipe my butt even though I know you’re trying to drink your bowl of soup?”) I’m not going to complain. I’m grateful for these rich, joyful, and magical hours that I have in my life.

Who said motherhood doesn't come with a manual?

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