“How do you do it all?” My friend sipped her coffee and looked at me somewhat anxiously.
“Ummmm…I don’t!!!” Sheesh. Where did she get that idea? But she insisted I share some of my “secrets.”
I’ve been reluctant to tout myself as some sort of “expert” in time management. There are so many people out there who do it better, prettier, neater than I do.
But maybe you don’t need a perfect example. If you’d like a realistic, messy one, you’re in the right place.
Be warned: I am a struggling, lose-my-mind kind of mama just like many of us are. I don’t believe in perfect systems, I rely heavily on grace, and I have to constantly fight my perfectionism.
But I also know that there are some fantastic time management strategies and systems that really help.
So, because I’m actually pretty geeked about staying on top of things and because so many have asked, here are the best of the best tips I’ve got. If you’re not a “natural” at this, don’t worry. Good time management is a skill you can learn.
(Note: there is a lot packed in here, so be sure to pin for later if you don’t have time now.)
Disclosure: this post may contain affiliate links, which won’t change your price but will share some commission. See here for more information.
Starting with Your Why
Someone wise once told me: Your schedule shouldn’t run you. You should run your schedule.
That seems reasonable enough.
One of the biggest reasons moms get into a time management rut is because it feels like everything is out of control. And in truth, it is.
If you regularly find yourself bouncing from obligation to obligation, with barely any time to breathe—let alone think—it may be a sign that you need to reassess your why:
- Why are you saying yes to commitments that drain you and your family?
- Why don’t you have any time to connect with God, your husband or _________?
- Are you really making the most of every opportunity (Ephesians 5:16)? Or are you just letting every open opportunity get filled?
Most of us have at least a general idea about what’s important. I bet if you sat down and thought about it, your priorities wouldn’t be hard to identify. But if things like God and quality time with your kids and community are important—and your schedule isn’t reflecting those priorities—then something is off.
I recommend taking regular time (personally, I prefer quarterly) to sit down and think about your why. Do it for yourself as well as with your family, to the extent you’re able. And then, record it. Here are some ways you can try:
Whatever you do, keep it simple and keep it visual. I post my word of the year in my kitchen where I see it daily. Otherwise, it will get lost and lose its meaning.
Exploring Your Planning Personality
One of the reasons I have a hard time teaching others about time management is because everyone is so different. What makes me tick may give you a panic attack. Perhaps coming up with a word of the year makes you want to scream.
I think it’s helpful and healthy to know what does make you excited. Checklists? Accountability? Giant paper planners the size of an old encyclopedia? Really cool apps? Freedom and flexibility?
Some people find security in having every task and every second of the day accounted for, while others need a lot of breathing room. Some are self-motivated, others need external accountability, while for others it depends on the moment and the task at hand.
Sometimes you don’t know until you experiment.
I’ve found The Four Tendencies framework extremely helpful in exploring what motivates people, which you can read more about here: How to Be Motivated: The Four Tendencies from a Biblical Perspective
Reading People by Anne Bogel is another very approachable way to look at personality types if you want to explore other frameworks including Meyers-Briggs and Enneagram.
Personality psychology is a fun rabbit-hole for me, but don’t let it overwhelm you. Even if you know a couple of basic tendencies in your personality, that can help tremendously when it comes to time management. Let your unique traits work for you, not against you, and give yourself permission to function differently than other people do.
Yes, Goal-Setting is Worth the Effort
Do you set goals? It can seem like a somewhat frivolous task, especially if you’re the type of person who sets New Year’s resolutions and then promptly forgets about them.
Related post: Goal-Setting: 5 Grace-Filled Hacks for the Lazy Mom
But goal-setting is an integral piece to an effective time management strategy because it’s a tangible way to prioritize your “whys.” For example, if you want to grow closer in your marriage, setting some goals about how you want to grow can carry you from intention to execution.
A lot of the experts recommend the “S.M.A.R.T.” goal system:
- Specific: Goals shouldn’t be vague but detailed, including who, what, where, when and why.
- Measurable: The more you can quantify your goal, the better: for, example, saving a certain amount of money.
- Achievable: While it’s good to push yourself, goals should be something you can reach in the near future.
- Relevant: Don’t just set goals because that’s what you should do. Only set goals that are directly related to you whys.
- Time-Bound: As much as possible, work with a deadline, ideally within a year of when you set your goal. If you don’t meet the deadline you can adjust later.
I know, I know, it feels a little “businessy.” But this approach can be really helpful in your personal life.
If it feels a little overwhelming walking through this process on your own, there are a lot of resources available, including a mini goal-setting workbook in my free resource collection.
I also enjoy PowerSheets from the Cultivate What Matters shop. This is a beautiful workbook that I keep on my kitchen counter and refer to frequently to stay focused.
Budgeting Your Time as a Precious Resource
Until fairly recently, I was often frustrated with this sentiment: There just aren’t enough hours in a day to get everything done!
It was humbling to consider that the problem was not, in fact, with the order of the universe. Rather, the problem rested with my own discontent, lack of focus and poor boundaries and self-discipline.
But the playing field is level for everyone. We all get 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 52 weeks a year, no matter who we are, where we’re from or what we do.
And while we can’t control all of our circumstances, we can control how we respond to them—specifically how we spend our time.
You probably know you should budget your money, but do you think of your time in this way? Money is tricky because we’re all working with different amounts. Time is a lot more predictable.
I find it most helpful to budget my time each week with a method called “time-blocking.” It’s something most of us do anyway without even thinking about it. If you have an appointment every Monday at 3 p.m., you’re essentially blocking out that time.
Do you similarly block out time for things that aren’t hard appointments but need to get done? Simple things like:
- Grocery shopping
- Meal preparation
- Time in transit
The key to making time-blocking effective is actually writing it down and making it visual. You can do this electronically or on paper.
If this process sounds overwhelming or you’re not sure where to start, I’ve found a 7-day time log to be very helpful in highlighting where each hour of the day can go. Once you track your time for a week, you’ll know how to adjust it in the coming weeks. (The printable worksheet below is also available my resource collection.)
You can also see an example of time-blocking in How to Rock Your Schedule.
There’s a modern parable about a professor who demonstrated to his students how to fill a jar with rocks efficiently. You add the large stones first, and then the smaller stones and sand will fit in the empty spaces.
The same principle works with time. If you put your big “rocks” into your schedule first, you can then fill in the less important ones wherever they will fit.
Prioritizing tasks is where many of us slip up in day to day time management. This can especially feel like the case if you spend a lot of your time “putting out fires”—responding to your kids, replying to messages, and generally trying to prevent all the balls from falling.
It can feel impossible to stay on top of things, let alone get ahead and working towards your goals. Many moms find their to-do lists defeating because they tend to grow instead of shrink (and they rarely disappear!).
I think it’s important to keep a “to-do” list of what you want to accomplish, but it should be a tool that empowers instead of discouraging you.
There are a few of tricks I use that make my to-do list less guilt-inducing:
- Break your tasks down into categories. I personally have five: home, work, family, home and personal. This feels a lot less overwhelming when I can see that I’m balancing these different areas.
- Identify one or two top priorities each day. You’re not going to get to everything, so just focus on something. Be proud of yourself when you complete it.
- Rewrite your tasks regularly. I rewrite a fresh to-do list each week. This helps me keep focused and rethink about what’s really important. I rarely finish my whole list from the previous week, but when I don’t transfer an item from one week to the next, it helps me see that it really wasn’t that important to begin with.
Habits, Routines and Anchors
Did you know that about 40 percent of what you do is done unconsciously out of habit? (Source.) It’s the reason you can mindlessly do things like brushing your teeth or driving to the same place while having your train of thought on something else.
Building habits is one of the secret tools to effective time management. The fewer mental calories you have to expend, the more productive you’re going to be.
That’s why it’s important to build high priority activities into your schedule at the same time each day or week. I personally have to work out and have my quiet times in the morning. Otherwise they just don’t happen.
Habit tracking can be an effective way to introduce a new habit into your daily life. There’s a modern legend about how Jerry Seinfeld wrote a joke every single day and kept track of this habit my marking an X on his calendar. His vision was to not “break the chain” of X’s. Writing a joke every day doesn’t guarantee a comedian’s success, and to my knowledge, Seinfeld never verified this story. But if it is true, it certainly didn’t hurt his chances!
For the same reason, routines are very powerful. In particular, the process you go through each morning sets the tone of your whole day. If your life feels like a mess, start getting it together by creating a more intentional morning routine. I highly recommend Crystal Paine’s e-course, Make Over Your Mornings, if you want a step-by-step walk through how to do that.
In addition to daily habits and routines, the concept of regular anchors in your schedule is a powerful way to better manage your family’s time and fit in those high priorities. An anchor is something you and your family practice on a regular basis, intentionally, beyond just daily maintenance. Some of the weekly anchors in my life include family night, a date with my husband, one-on-one time with one of the kids, and a day of rest.
Related post: 5 Benefits of a Weekly Family Night
Being Realistic and Giving Yourself Grace
Having said all this so far, I wanted to pause and offer a little reminder to all of my fellow control freaks out there…
Being a mom is time-consuming, no matter what your other responsibilities are. For some reason, a lot of moms feel pressure to be ideal caregivers while also running a home, supporting the family part-time or full-time, being great wives and faithful Christians, and staying sane.
I recently spent a week with my younger sister, who has two toddlers at her feet. She apologized for not being able to help more with dishes and I had to laugh at her—she absolutely had not extra time for dishes because her kids were too demanding and took priority. I was happy to be the primary washer of dishes, as I’ve graduated from that mind-numbing stage with my own kids.
We hate this, but as moms, sometimes we have to let certain expectations go and accept grace.
Plan your day…and then let it go, because it’s probably not going to go that way. And it’s okay. Remember, you schedule is not your master. You are the master of your schedule. And more importantly, God is your master. He sees it all, and frankly I don’t think he cares how many items you checked off your to-do list. Take each day as it comes, take credit for what you did accomplish (it was probably a lot!), and let tomorrow worry about itself (Matthew 6:24).
Related post: 11 Bible Verses to Banish Mommy Guilt
The feeling of busyness ebbs and flows with seasons. Sometimes schedules are more demanding at certain times of the calendar year, and you need to let go of cramming everything in. And sometimes the demands are for entire life seasons, like when you have an infant or toddler, an illness, or other long-term challenge.
Be aware, aim to be patient, and adjust your expectations accordingly.
If you fall of the wagon of being organized with your time, it’s okay. Whether it’s for a day, a week, a month or more, you can always pick up where you left off. In fact, having a good system in place prevents you from derailing as hard as you might without it. Time management strategies are there to help you, not make you feel bad about yourself or cause anxiety.
Discovering Your Favorite Planning Tools
This is the part that can be overwhelming but also fun: discovering which planning system works for you.
Up until a couple of years ago, my planning system was pretty messy. I had a wall calendar and a bunch of notecards on my kitchen counter, on which I would write everything from phone messages to grocery lists.
I’ve since discovered that there are much more efficient ways to do things!
Most of the “planners” you find in office supply stores are simply calendars with flowers printed on them, perhaps with a section for notes or phone numbers. This system is so obsolete—that’s what smartphones are for!
A high-quality, functional planner is so much more than a calendar. A calendar helps you not forget appointments, but a functional planning system will help with the following:
- Daily time blocking
- Task management
- Habit tracking
I personally find a lot of value in writing things down with pen and paper—it helps your brain process and retain what you’re planning, which is an important part of effective time management.
I’ve used a variety of planning tools, and currently I use a weird hybrid I sort of invented.
As I mentioned above, I use PowerSheets to help me brainstorm, prioritize and set goals. This workbook helps me set and reassess goals every month, as well as annually and quarterly.
I also use my Google Calendar as a way to track all of my appointments, as well as share them with friends and family as needed. Frankly, while I like writing things down on paper, my phone is convenient and won’t forget things as much as I will.
For task management, I loosely follow a bullet journal system. I like it because I can do it exactly the way I want to; plus I have a very small journal that I can fit into my wallet.
This is proof that it doesn’t have to be pretty in order to work!
At the beginning of each week, I write out tasks for different priorities in my life in my journal. On the busiest weeks I use a highlighter to prioritize which are most important. Every day I revisit my weekly task list and mark off items.
Next to my task list, I sketch out a time block calendar for the week. This is especially helpful when I’m really busy because it helps me visualize where I’m going to fit in my high priority tasks.
I’ve been experimenting with planners for a while now, and this is the system that works best for me. As I mentioned above, knowing your personality is helpful in determining the best system for you.
The very first planner I tried that helped me tremendously was the Living Well Planner, which contains a lot of the tools that will help you manage your tasks effectively.
Cutting Out Excess and Time-Wasters
So far I’ve talked about what to fit in to your schedule, but I’ve left out a very important piece: what to cut out.
You can’t do everything. Nor should you. This is the tough reality that I wrestle with every day.
If you know your whys and set goals, hopefully it will be clearer to you what makes the top of the list and what doesn’t. The tough part is taking action…and getting comfortable with saying “no.”
When you go over your schedule, fill in your top priorities first. Then be realistic about what time is left. Do you honestly have the space to add that extra sport or meeting or commitment? If not, give yourself permission to cut it out. It’s excess, and probably better left off the agenda.
It’s also worth mentioning that if you’re not careful, you can fill up your days with time-wasters that aren’t planned. How often do things like your smartphone and Netflix binging eat up your time? Again, a time log can highlight when you’re most likely to waste your precious time on things that aren’t high priorities.
Related post: 20 Strategies to Break Social Media Addiction.
Planning to Plan
Having a great planning system is all well and good, but it’s pretty useless if you don’t make the time to use it properly!
One of the most critical time management strategies is planning to plan. And planning might take more time than you think.
I personally set aside time (anchors, if you will) daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly and annually to assess my priorities and goals, manage my tasks and structure my daily schedule. Here’s a breakdown of what that looks like:
- Daily: 5 minutes to go over my task list and time block when I’m going to fit certain tasks in.
- Weekly: 30 minutes reassess my priorities and tasks for the week and sketch out a time block of my schedule.
- Monthly: 1–2 hours to assess the previous month, look at my goals and prioritize what I want to accomplish in the coming month.
- Quarterly: 1 or more hours to glance at “big picture” vision, adjust, narrow down what I want to focus on for 90 days.
- Annually: Several hours, possible over several days, to take time in reflection about long-term vision and goals, plan for the year.
While I do much of this as an individual using my PowerSheets, I often include my husband in the conversation, as I’m not flying solo here. More and more I’m also including the kids, particularly at monthly meetings, so they know why we do what we do.
Building Your Life Around Rest
Pay attention now; this might be the most important thing you read in this whole article.
For far too long in my own life, I made the mistaking of “fitting in” most of my self-care around my schedule, whenever I had time to spare (i.e. rarely). The result, unsurprisingly, was a burnt-out, exhausted, cranky mama who did lots of things, but few of them well.
It took me awhile to understand rest the way God intended it. Rest (Sabbath) is at the core of the Creation story and has been a consistent theme throughout the biblical narrative. It’s not an add-on; rest comes first.
This means a whole new way of looking at the way I manage the time in my week. Am I putting my relationship with God and my spiritual health first? (Hopefully this is reflected in my vision and goals.) This goes beyond having Bible study; this means building my life around biblical rest for my whole self.
I created a toolkit, with a handy-dandy self-care checklist, that explores biblical rest if you’re interested in learning more. Trust me, if you’re new to this, it can be the most powerful change you can make to manager your time well.
I have a full e-course about the power of Sabbath as well, called Choose Rest