Are You Running Your Life, or is Your Life Running You?
Doesn’t it drive you batty when everything is disorganized? It certainly does me. I learned some ways to keep several plates spinning in the air at the same time, and I hope they’ll help you, too - -
Lay out everything the night before, including clothes, shoes, packed backpack, coat, jewelry, umbrella. This is very helpful for children. Instead of asking a small child what they want to wear to school tomorrow, ask them which one of 2-3 outfits they want to wear. Laying out everything the night before gets children in the habit early of planning and organization.
Keep a running grocery / shopping list at all times. I keep mine on an Excel sheet on my desktop and I can easily fill in an item when I run out of it, or preferably before I run out.
Errands - - running to the grocery store? Does the car need filling up while you’re out? Stay in a mindset of “kill two birds with one stone” and you will start looking for ways to combine more tasks and trips into one. Running to Walmart for envelopes? Is there something on that grocery list for dinner this weekend you could pick up while you’re there? Does little Bobby need a new pack of notebook paper? Combine trips. Think ahead.
For that shopping list, I keep mine in columns - - produce, dairy, frozen, meats, health and beauty, outdoor, clothing, and so on. It certainly helps when I’m tired and the store is crowded. My policy is to “get in, get out”. If you have a list with you, it keeps spending down and time, too.
Remember, “work smart, not hard”. Just 5-10 minutes in the morning to plan out your day, errands, meals, shopping, phone calls, etc. can revolutionize your day. My husband doesn’t mind making 2-3 trips to Walmart or the grocery store in one day. He’s laid back like that. It makes me insane. Plan out your errands for the day. If possible, sit down and make your phone calls all at once.
If there is one thing I highly recommend more than anything else, start keeping a daily planner/calendar. It will change your life if you use it consistently. You will find that you start managing your life and it stops managing you. Write it in pencil, not pen. I keep my calendar in a Monday-Sunday format so each new week is separate. I also keep my calendar not on paper calendar or planner book, but on Excel (yep, Excel again). One column per day of the week, with regular, reoccurring (“work meeting every Thursday at 2 PM”) on it each week. For years, I juggled a work/school calendar, and a separate personal calendar and it was too much work. I combined the two into a detailed Excel sheet and it is much more streamlined and organized. If you’re in school, put your classes in columns across the top and assignments, special papers, etc. due highlighted in red in that column. I very rarely if ever get an unpleasant surprise because I monitor that planner system like a hawk; I’m checking next week’s and next month’s tasks and reminders today. If I finish up today, I’m checking tomorrow’s list for anything I could tackle early.
“If it’s in the hand, handle it” was some good advice I got from a professional organizer years ago. If you walk through the house and pick up a shirt off the couch, it’s in the hand, so put it where it belongs now. Once you lay it down again, to take care of it again requires it being handled twice. Enough small tasks like this everyday and you’re doubling your efforts. Teach your children “A place for everything, and everything in its place”. Create attractive cubbies, baskets, shelves, for each member of the family. If something gets forgotten or found, simply put it there for them to take care of.
How much work are you doing for your family that they could do for themselves? I have a friend who wears herself out cooking, cleaning, picking up after, her teens. They are healthy, able, strong, and have a lot of leisure time on their hands and spend it watching TV and texting and munching while meanwhile, she’s running her legs off and crying from exhaustion. Give everyone in the home who can walk and understand, age-appropriate tasks to do. Don’t get pulled into debates about how they shouldn’t have to cooperate with the family to help keep it running. These are not favors they are doing “for” you, but cooperation as a family unit to keep a family system running smoothly. Have family discussions on what’s expected, how it’s to be done, by when and what the consequences are if not done. And then be consistent. Expect the kids to test your limits first.
When my daughter was at home before going off to college, I made our annual doctor’s, eye, physicals, dental appointments once annually. I scheduled them over 6 months in advance so I could have plenty of time and choices on what days and times to schedule them. That far in advance I made a quick call the day before to confirm the appointment. I made it an annual visit – each appointment was scheduled in January so it could be consistent, around our work and school schedules, and where we could travel to the appointment efficiently, and usually at least 2 appointments on the same day (dentist at 10 AM, eye exam at 3 PM, for example). Always take something to work on with you while sitting in the waiting room; whether it’s balancing the checkbook, making a grocery shopping list, writing out a few thank you notes; take them with you and use that down-time. Look around at your typical day – how much down-time do you have? You might have more than you think when you consider the hour or more you have to sit cooling your heels in the waiting room, or for your car to be repaired, etc. Make a habit of always having a notebook to jot reminders in, or a book on your Kindle to read while waiting. This is making time work for you, not you for it.
Keep a monthly list for each month of things you need and want to get accomplished during that month. It also helps with budgeting. For example, I know that one certain month each year I will have to drive 50 miles roundtrip to renew my car tags. This helps me with scheduling, and my budgeting. If you’re in school, especially college, plan at least one semester in advance at all times. At the middle of Spring semester, start jotting down dates in your planner for Summer or Fall classes, registration dates, reminders to get the required book list. Don’t be so willy-nilly that you can’t get it together enough to register for a class before an in-demand class fills up quickly, or that you forget to purchase the textbook in time to get it before the first day of class. I for years have made it a tradition to take my syllabi on the very first day of class and transcribe every single assignment onto my planner, with reminders in advance of special assignments, exams, finals. If you’re caught by surprise, it was probably because you didn’t plan well. You may need to schedule day or evening classes around your work schedule so plan well in advance. Your boss will appreciate it, too.
Commute? We routinely commute roundtrip to Little Rock, and from our house, it’s 4 hours roundtrip. That’s serious time when you do it several times a week. What can you do even behind the wheel? Listen to books on tape. Have your prayertime. Listen to a soft environmental tape, such as the jungle or ocean sounds or a soft rainstorm. It’s wonderfully soothing for those traffic runs. Put your phone on Bluetooth and make your phone calls (be safe!). Do not text behind the wheel. Leave about 20 minutes earlier than scheduled so that you don’t have to rush and be stressed. If you are driving to an important meeting or interview, then plan out your drive beforehand; look it up on a map or Google Earth or even do a practice-drive. Leave plenty of extra time for traffic jams. Load up the car the night before. Stop for the gas fill-up the day before. Make time work for you, not against you.
If you’re not keeping an organized budget, then start that plan today. Your credit rating could depend on it. Are yours and your spouse’s attitudes about spending different? Do you talk together before making major purchases? Get rid of extra credit cards. If you’re young, don’t start out on credit cards. Do you really need the bells-and-whistles new phone? I have a basic, plain-Jane phone and it’s still more than I use and serves my every need, both professional and personal. Don’t be a slave to your technology, or habits. Finances are one of the four top reasons couples divorce. Get a plan, and stick with it. Remember to include extras in your monthly budget, such as entertainment, things we often exclude, such as gasoline, car repairs, lunches, drycleaning, hair cuts, school uniforms, school books and supplies, tithes. Start a savings account for your child; let them go into the bank and set it up. It will instill pride in responsible finances for a lifetime. Keep a list of your cash outlays – how often are you making a quick ATM trip each week? That adds up – quick. How much are you spending weekly on lattes, or on lunch if you could instead take your lunch?
Shopping - - do you really have to have the $150 sweater and the $200 boots and the $400 bag? eBay offers fabulous deals on designer name items. I’ve done both and I’ll choose a 30 year-old worn Louis Vuitton over a brand-new leather-like cheap bag from a discount store. Shop around, shop nice thrift shops and consignment shops with an open mind. Can those buttons be replaced? That beautiful pair of Cole-Haan leather shoes can be cleaned up and polished and will serve you for years and look like new (and save you about a hundred bucks). Keep an open mind and shop creatively. I created an investment-shopping list for both the male, and female, professional person or new college-graduate that involves designer high-end labels, quality goods, but over time actually saves time and money. Email me and I’ll send it to you free. Fad will end up costing you money and time. Timeless, classic fashion always looks better, fits better, and lasts longer and will end up saving you time and money and you’ll create a good impression. Remember, you create a lasting impression in the first seven seconds. Make it a good one (and do it economically). Shopping online can save you a lot of time and frustration.
It’s easy to pack 5 lunches on Sunday for the week. My daughter took her lunch to school and this was our routine. I wrote little love notes to her on a paper napkin and tucked it in with her lunch and it was our special memento with each other. You can pack 5 sandwiches and freeze or refrigerate them; it takes not much longer or more work to pack 5 lunches than to pack 1 at a time.
Same for cooking - - what can you cook extra and freeze? I discovered (and I hate to cook) that it’s hardly any more work to brown 2 pounds of hamburger and freeze the second one than it is to do one pound at a time. Plan your grocery shopping not around individual foods, but around entire menus. Tacos Monday? Then you’re going to need taco shells, lettuce, sprinkle cheese, hamburger, sour cream….Spaghetti Tuesday? Brown 2 pounds of hamburger Monday with those tacos, and use that 2nd pound for spaghetti Tuesday night. You might cook extra and freeze the other half for next week. It’s great put in the oven under foil with melted cheese on top as a leftover later in the week.
Speaking of Sundays, try to run your schedule and tasks where those proverbial Sunday nights are not times of chaos and stress and last-minute tasks. When you do laundry say on Saturday morning, can you lay out Monday’s outfits then? Ask the kids well ahead of time what their projects are for next week; any science project? Dance recital? Any special school supplies needed for a special school project? How about you; do you have any special work meetings or trips out of town next week? Plan out outfits at least 2 days in advance. Mix and match outfits (that white blouse could go with the navy slacks on Monday and with the black skirt on Thursday) where you don’t have to wash and dryclean 5 separate sets of clothing which could easily equal from 5-15 pieces of clothing per week just for work and school. That’s a lot of laundry, ironing, folding, storing, hanging each week.
Is there money in the budget to pay a responsible teen or a struggling single parent to clean your house or do laundry or mow the lawn once weekly? Think of just 1-2 household tasks you really dread. I personally would rather have a root canal than mop my floors. We used to pay a lovely young lady to do our floors weekly and it cut down on a lot of stress. “Saving” isn’t just about your money – it’s also about your time and frustration (not to mention your back).
Plan one night a week where age-appropriate children can plan their favorite easy meal and let them help you cook. They will learn to take ownership and feel included and special and it’s a great fun and bonding time as a family. I had a big bag of fresh mushrooms recently and usually I accidentally let fresh produce rot. My fridge has things in it that could get up and walk around by themselves so it’s often not a pretty sight! But I learned to use the mushrooms for quiche on those quiet Sunday evenings, then spaghetti Monday, then for veggie wraps Wednesday, etc. Plan menus and you’ll find your grocery store runs are more organized, probably quicker and less stressed, and you may even spend less. Don’t run to the store after work when you’re exhausted and hungry. Would it be easier to pick up a frozen Stouffer’s lasagna and round it out with a fresh salad? Where can you still be nutritious but cut a time-corner? Don’t get in the habit of using chips and junk food and soft drinks as a way to round out meals. Better to use cheese and crackers, fruit and a glass of milk if you have to.
Plan in advance the behavior expectations of your children before you go on errands. Anyone who’s been a parent can tell you what happens when you get little Bobby standing in line at the grocery store. That’s why they put the candy and gum in the checkout line…for little Bobby to drive you crazy for! Tell your children what you expect, not to touch or pick up things in the store, not to stray from you, and to ask permission for anything. Thank them very specifically afterward for good behavior. Do not get pulled into arguments or pleading contests for trinkets and money and snacks at the store. Don’t tell your children, “Be good” – they often don’t know what that really means. Spell out very specifically what your expectation is, (“Bobby, do not ask me for bubblegum at Walmart. Don’t go running off to the toy aisle but stay with me at the cart while we’re in Walmart.”).
Who said mom has to cook and dad has to do the finances? Who’s best at it? Let that person do it. My husband and I have been married 28 years; we have very clearly-defined tasks and strengths between us and it took years to figure it out. Believe me, you don’t want him sewing on a loose button on your silk blouse. Believe me, you don’t want me trying to repair your lawnmower. Neither are going to be a pretty sight. But together, we’re a well-oiled machine. I have my strengths that are invariably not his, and vice-versa. We usually know who does what around our house. You might even experiment with letting your teen or older child take a look at your monthly budget and contribute ideas. It teaches them about appreciating hard work and how far money will go, financial management and lets them have a good glimpse into what it takes to manage a household – a lot harder than it looks.
Keep a 3-ring binder of household details – a tab for insurance, healthcare, auto repair, pharmacy and prescriptions, emergency phone numbers, appliance repairs, clothing and shoe sizes, including information on what to do if one of you is incapacitated (it can happen in the blink of an eye. When I fell 8 feet off our back porch and shattered my leg and had 3 surgeries and spent a year in a wheelchair and a walker, I can tell you your life and livelihood can change in sixty seconds. Mine did. So plan accordingly as if it could). Have a place where even your kids know who to call and where to get the information if they had to quickly. Establish a plan for fire, tornado, flood, family emergencies. Even very young children can be taught how to call 911. Teach them about that household notebook; have it easily-accessible where the insurance company, the police station, the vet, grandma’s office, dad’s secretary can all be quickly reached if needed.
If you get into a mindset of looking at your household like a business, it will be run more efficiently and easily. Make sure you have household administrative items, such as stamps, envelopes, tape, glue, markers, 3-hole punch. When you purchase school supplies, get extra and store them on a closet shelf, including those invariable poster boards. Every parent can tell you stories of having to make a run at 10 PM on a Monday night to Walmart for a poster board their child forgot to tell them was for a school project Tuesday morning (and if little Bobby has a school poster due Tuesday morning, are you really going to let him wait until Monday night to start working on it? He’ll carry those habits into adulthood. Check in with them this week about projects due next week and later. Don’t get caught by surprised and don’t let them hang responsibilities until the last minute).
Don’t let tasks build up. Everything you put off until tomorrow, has the potential to start running YOU. Create a plan, and problem-solve on how to get that task DONE. What steps will it take to get that big task done? Most people feel overwhelmed with a major task when they’re not sure where to start first. I have been known to paralyze when I’m faced with a monstrous project and just don’t know where to begin. So sit down, and break it down. Take one bite of it at a time and reward yourself with praise and affirmation when you get any part of it done. Create a list of the things you plan to complete today. Tomorrow. This weekend. Next week. And be realistic with yourself; if you over-commit, you’ll be faced with discouragement and disappointment.
Are you a morning person or night-time person? When are you most productive? Plan around when you know you’re at your most dynamic. I’m a fireball of organization on Monday morning at 4 AM. However, I’m usually in a coma by 8 PM. I know when I’m ready to tackle the world and when I’m so bleary I can barely spell my own name. Be real with yourself. Don’t get into the bad habit of leaving things to the last minute. Work as far in advance as you can and you will find your life is becoming more manageable and calmer. I know when I put off studying for an exam or writing a massive paper even a day or two, my stress level builds proportionately. Rather, plan your days well – I attend a doctoral program full-time online. It’s busy and very stressful (don’t let anyone tell you that online classes are easier or let you cut corners because they do not! In fact, they are not structured for the person who can’t self-discipline their time and resources well).
Don’t forget to schedule leisure time. It puts importance on it (because it is important), and delineates when it’s time to play and when it’s not time to play. Put hard work before play and your children and you both will begin to really appreciate the satisfaction of hard work well done. Instead of playing and watching movies when there’s a stack of work to do, get the work done first and then play. This will give your children good habits for a lifetime. I know I can’t fully enjoy a trip out of town on a Saturday when I know I’ve put off that paper that’s due next Monday. But I certainly can when I write that paper first, before our trip.
Haven’t worn that blouse in a year? Have a family plan where one Saturday morning every few months everyone combs through clothes, coats, toys, household items that just aren’t being used. If you haven’t worn it or used it in 6-10 months, get rid of it. Everyone bags up those items in their room and then donate them. You can call some places that will be happy to pick them up from your house and leave you a tax receipt. And when you donate – please respect the dignity of those the items are given to; make sure all donated items are clean, folded, neat, and in very good shape. Don’t donate something you wouldn’t want to be given yourself. Make sure toys are not broken and are clean. This teaches your children empathy and respect for others and appreciation of what they have been given. You can always check with your church or child’s school nurse as they’ll always know someone who could use the items you have no use for. When you consider donating, please don’t forget things like tampons, bras, water bottles, diapers, tents, coats, gloves, scarves, socks, for the homeless.
Schedule a family night once a week where everyone (even the kids) brainstorms over their collective planners and calendars. Observe your family; are they stressed out all the time over their busy schedules? Are your kids getting enough rest and sleep or bouncing between dance class, athletic practice, a mountain of homework, youth group and family? It’s good for kids to be busy but not to the point they are stressed out and exhausted. Kids need more rest than we think they do. Start cutting out some TV time at home (for everyone in the home). Look at the hours per week spent watching TV and on social media. You might be stunned.
Getting a plan, creating schedules and to-do lists, starts putting your life back in your hands and you not at the hapless whim of your life. What’s the first thing you want to eliminate? So much time on TV or social media? Then do it. I make a practice of checking the TV schedule quickly, and setting to tape the programs I want to watch; it prevents mindless (and time-consuming) channel-surfing. I can watch a taped 1-hour documentary in about 45 minutes, because I can zip through the commercials. Make even your TV time work for you. Put down the phone and start making face-to-face contact – most importantly, with your family. Really consider having a family policy of no technology allowed at the table. Even a 30-minute Happy Meal at McDonald’s before dance class can be a time of togetherness when you breathe and put down the cell phone. Those moments often won’t come to you – you’ll need to be mindful and intentional in creating them all around you.