Recently I was navigating a particularly hectic Monday at work – meetings all day, a big evening event to attend – and I stopped at home just before dinnertime to catch a desperately needed 30 minutes with my kids before jetting off again. As I walked in the house, sweating in my “gotta look nice today” suit, I heard a screaming from upstairs – the kind of high-pitched screaming you know is more major injury than sibling squabble.
Turns out my 8-year-old had just stepped on a nail, and her dad was at that very minute cleaning out the wound. Quality time was gone. I comforted fast-food style and left for my work event feeling guilty even as I strategized for the night ahead.
Sound familiar? If you’re a working parent, you know family and career can frequently pull you in opposite directions. And you know how hard it can be to juggle these two (often) competing priorities. For me, finding work-life balance involves relying on a handful of tools and strategies to maximize my work productivity, simplify life tasks and organize everything so I can succeed at my job and enjoy family time (nails in feet not withstanding).
To help you do the same, here are some of my favorite tools and tips to try on for size.
Set Up Your Space
There’s an art to organizing your work space, especially if you work from home. For me, the most important component of a functional home office is the part that welcomes my kids while allowing me to work. So I created a portable learning station that includes a mailbox for my kids’ homework, canisters of pencils and art supplies, chargers for their laptop and iPad, books and puzzles, and a snack tray. You can easily create something like this yourself with items you have around your house or office – and some input from your kids.
Don’t work from home? Creating a work space for your kids still has its benefits. Now when I find myself home in the afternoons with my kids, they’re able to settle into their station and study, be creative and stay occupied. I can finish out my job tasks, and they understand that we’re all working – together. Over time they’ve learned to respect the work time and have built self-sufficiency skills. Win-win.
Write It Down
Craving more organization? I highly suggest giving paper and pen a try. About three years ago I went back to paper planning, and it’s changed my life. Yes, there are great ways you can digitally plan, but pen and paper offer something different. Handwriting helps you understand and remember information, and it’s nice being able to look at your schedule and notes anywhere you are, with or without a device, power charger or the appearance of rudeness in a meeting.
Having great gear and supplies can be motivating, so I researched and tested products until I found a favorite calendar (a tie between the Moleskine weekly extra-large and the Exacompta weekly planner) and a high-performance pen (Lamy Safari fountain). Do a little product testing yourself, and you just might find you’re more likely to paper plan with your favorite pen in hand too. Now I record my commitments, my kids’ appointments, my work notes – and I schedule in family time to hold myself to it.
Get a Little Digital
While I love paper planning, and you might too, there are definitely benefits to adding technology into your planning mix. And conveniently enough, there’s a host of apps and digital chore trackers that can help you and your family stay on task.
This year I began using Trello, an online tool that lets you organize your projects. I use it for work and also for personal projects, like tracking family chores and planning trips. Every project and task can be assigned an owner, the cards are easily moved from one status to another and kids can use this simple visual tool. You might also want to check out Cozi, another option that my family and working-parent friends have used. This one gives you air-traffic control for schedules, shared shopping lists and multi-user chore charts.
Of course, what works for one person or family might not work for you. As Lifehacker writer Melanie Pinola notes, whatever tool you use, keep it basic when you have a busy schedule and kids. A mom of a 9-year-old herself, Pinola swears by online grocery shopping with features such as saved shopping lists. She also subscribes to Fancy Hands, a site that puts a team of virtual assistants at your disposal, to schedule doctor appointments, plan vacations and complete chores. (And her family limits extracurricular activities to two, wise advice I should probably adopt myself, ahem.)
Just Try It
In the words of the wisest parents coaxing kids to eat their broccoli, just try it. I routinely employ the powerful five-minute rule when I have an unappealing task to tackle. I’m a crazy procrastinator, but it’s true that if you begin a dreaded task and work on it for five minutes, you can overcome your resistance and find the flow. And then you can move on quicker to time with your kids.
Michelle Goodman, work-from-home veteran and Seattle author of The Anti 9-to-5 Guide and My So-Called Freelance Life, suggests using time-tracking tools such as Toggl and the PomodoroTechnique to help you stay on task. So next time you’re faced with a daunting project, turn on your time tracker and see what happens after those first five minutes.
Take a (Screen) Time Out
This might go without saying, but it’s most working parents’ biggest challenge in a round-the-clock work culture: Turn off your devices. Pick a time to turn on your devices each morning and a time every evening to stop using them – at least for work tasks. Or consider powering down entirely. If you’re like me, you might peck away up until dinner and power back on after 9 p.m., which doesn’t leave a lot of time for family. But I’m working on it. I’ve begun by cutting out weekend work email (baby steps!). Look at your schedule, where can you make room for a screen time out?
It took some trial and error, but I’ve found these and other work-life balance techniques that work for me, and I’m still always tweaking and trying new approaches to improve my efficiency and organization. The key is to think about what helps you work best. Maybe these strategies will work for you. Maybe not. My best advice? Come up with a short list of tools and rules that do help you, and hold yourself to using them.