Getting Things Done: How One Metro Mom Does It
by PJ Kaiser
Everything I used to know about time management and organization as a management consultant went out the window when I became a “Professional Domestic Manager.” I’ve come to the conclusion, over many years of trial and error that successful organization – at least for me – is all about compartmentalization. When I worked in an office, 99% of my brain was focused on my work tasks while I was at work. I found it much easier to focus my attention, organize my work and get things done.
Since being at home, I still have very important tasks to do apart from caring for children, which is, of course, task #1 for a parent: paying bills, managing home repairs and our condo association, dealing with insurance issues and countless other routine and ad-hoc tasks. Early on, I was constantly dismayed at my inability to focus on these tasks and wondered whether my brain had truly turned to mush with my first pregnancy.
Over the years, however, I’ve been getting better at keeping all the balls in the air and getting things done, even with limited available time. I still get off track frequently, and when that happens, I remind myself of my original approach which I outline below for you too.
Before I share more, let me say that I write this from the perspective of a stay-at-home mom but the concepts apply if you are a working parent – either from home or in an office. You will undoubtedly need to extend the categories below to include “work tasks” and figure out the best way to manage them.
First, discover your personal productivity guru. My guru is David Allen: “Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity.” This is a book I would have laughed at while I was a management consultant, i.e., before I had kids. The tips in this book are straightforward and virtually anybody who is a successful professional already does 80% of what Allen recommends. But as a stay-at-home mom newly-discovering the need to manage her time, I found this book invaluable.
The approach I’ve gradually developed over time is to use lists to manage my tasks. Common sense, right? What’s key is to compartmentalize tasks so you focus on one arena at a time instead of worrying that you need to do the laundry at the same time you’re trying to refinance your mortgage.
My 3 areas can be loosely labeled:
- cleaning tasks
- mail and bills
- personal projects
Let’s look at each of these one by one:
- Cleaning Tasks: A schedule for each day assures focused cleaning for specific areas of the house. If I stay on schedule for the week, I never have to spend the whole day cleaning but I keep up with it by doing one or more zones each day. Two key resources I recommend are Fly Lady and an app called “Home Routines” (which also has a web interface). Originally, I put my cleaning “to do’s” on one giant list along with completing enrollment paperwork for school, paying the mortgage, etc. This approach didn’t work because the school and the bank don’t care whether your faucets sparkle – they have deadlines. So, my cleaning routines are much more flexible and I allocate time each day to stay on top of them.I also have designed my cleaning tasks so that I’m not only keeping the house clean but keeping the house clutter-free. Or, let’s be honest here – trying to keep clutter to a minimum.Include things like “clear surfaces, clean closets, etc.” in your weekly routine and just plan on spending a little time each day or week on them. You’ll be surprised at how things can stay organized with just a little bit of upkeep. The Fly Lady has lots of pointers on how to accomplish this.
- Mail and Bills: I use a “to do” manager – “Remember the Milk” – which allows me to specify due dates, priorities, etc. and I can use their web interface and synchronize tasks with my iPhone. These tasks are the ones managed most like my old work tasks. The “Getting Things Done” approach is against using due dates and priorities, but through trial and error, I’ve found this approach works best for me.The mail and bills category includes all tasks that don’t fit into either of the other two categories – essentially everything except cleaning that is needed to keep our household running smoothly. It involves a combination of scheduled tasks (eg, clean the fish bowl weekly, change the furnace filter every three months) with ad-hoc tasks (eg, return the call from the dentist’s office, buy a birthday gift).
- Personal Projects: I add these to my “Remember the Milk” to do manager, but at a lower priority than my “mail and bills” tasks. This includes my writing or any topic that I’m researching or any work that falls into the “just for me” category. I put it at a lower priority not to minimize the importance of doing it – we all need to take time for ourselves – but to indicate that the urgency of the tasks is different than household management.
The key to success with this approach is to schedule time to address the 3 categories of tasks. Make an appointment on your calendar every week or even every day to make progress on your lists and then stick to it. Doing so helps you manage which things you can do while the kids are home and which tasks you need to do while the kids are at school, daycare or with another caregiver.
You might find you don’t need to split up the tasks into 3 separate lists. For me, having it all in one list was confusing and it didn’t allow me to get to a level of detail that I wanted, especially for cleaning tasks. I feel a wonderful sense of accomplishment from simply ticking items off my list when they’re done.
Using this approach, I actually have more time to spend with my kids and can relax more while being with them without having to worry about what’s not getting done. I know the urgent things are on my list and that I will get to them in due course. Maximizing the time you have with your kids and making the most of every minute is SO important.
If you’re a new mom, you may be thinking this approach would be difficult to implement and would take time to keep up with. My advice: start small and focus on those areas that are causing you stress. When your babies are little, they are obviously 24×7 responsibilities. But if you still need to find time to do things like pay the bills and go grocery shopping, then you need to have a system to remind yourself that these things have to be done. You may not need or want to have a system for cleaning when your kids are babies.
Life is too chaotic to force organization into an area that doesn’t have to be organized. Take it easy on yourself and only manage what needs to be managed. In those early days after bringing my first baby home from the hospital, I could easily see myself just putting four or five items on my to do list each week and having trouble keeping up with those. Incorporate organization into your day only when you’re ready and whenever it’s needed to help you manage things that aren’t getting done on time. This approach will hopefully keep you both calm and organized.
Interested in more time management and organizing tips? See our related article: Two Resources for Taming Your To Do List.
P.J. Kaiser is a former management consultant turned stay-at-home mom. She lives with her husband, two young children, and two goldfish in Hoboken. She writes fiction and edits the Metro Fiction column here at the Metro Moms Network. Connect with PJ on Twitter.
Tags: CHOICES, pj kaiser, planning