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A working parent’s guide to making the most of your time

AP Photo/Mary Altaffer
Put small scraps of time to good use.
Published This article is more than 2 years old.

Much of the literature aimed at working parents assumes that it’s impossible to have it all. Yet look around at the people you know, and you’ll see plenty of people who are managing to build careers and raise happy families at the same time. What’s their secret?

To find out, I studied time logs from 1,001 days in the lives of women balancing big careers with raising kids. I wrote about their strategies in my book, I Know How She Does It: How Successful Women Make the Most of Their Time. So if you’d like to make more of your time in 2016, here are some ideas that can help.

Try tracking your time

If you want to use your time better, you need to know how you’re spending it now. You can use a time tracking app or a spreadsheet—whatever works–but try to keep going for a week.

The point of this exercise is not to see how much time you’re wasting, but to make sure you’re not telling yourself stories that are untrue.

For example: “I work full-time, so I never see my family.” There are 168 hours in a week. If you work 45 hours a week and sleep 56 hours per week (8 hours a night), that would leave 67 hours for other things. If you make time for your family during those 67 hours, maybe you can ditch the guilt.

The fun stuff comes first

Certain activities, such as housework and tending to email, tend to expand to fill all the available time you’ve got. It’s futile to wait until you’ve finished responding to every message in your inbox, or until the house is sparkling from top to bottom, to do the fun stuff. At that rate, you’ll never get a chance to relax with a novel or take your kids to the movies.

Instead, take a few minutes on Friday afternoons and think through your top two to three priorities for the next week in the categories of career, relationships, and self. Using a three-category priority list reminds us that there should be goals in all three categories. Look at the whole of the next week—the next 168 hours—and see where you can fit in pleasurable but often-delayed activities.

Ask for forgiveness, not permission

The vast majority of women I studied for I Know How She Does It had flexibility in their schedules—even in industries such as finance that no one perceives as flexible.

That’s because many of the women had just decided to work the way they wanted to work, and see what happened. There are lots of reasons a person might come in a little later to work some days. Maybe there was traffic. Maybe she was attending a breakfast at her child’s school. Who knows? If you can still get your work done, maybe you don’t have to make a big deal about the exact details of your schedule—which gives you more room to hit the gym before work or leave a little early to pick up your child from soccer practice.

Think 168 hours, not 24

A lot of the harsh work/life trade-offs that people perceive are the result of what I call the “24-hour trap.” Maybe you believe you can’t take your team out for drinks because “working parents can’t do happy hours.” You’d feel guilty being away from your kids.

But your team probably doesn’t want to hit the bar with you seven nights a week! If you spend one night with your team, you’re home six nights. Six far outweighs just one.

The 24-hour trap mindset pits work against family. Look at 168 hours in a week, however, and you can be the kind of boss who nurtures her employees and the kind of parent who’s home reading bedtime stories (almost) every night.

Make the most of small scraps of time

Many of the women I studied in I Know How She Does It were masters of putting small moments of free time to good use.

The easiest thing to do while you’re waiting in line at the grocery store or up early on a Saturday morning is pull out your phone and check email, but that’s not the only option.

One woman got her kids ready for school 10 minutes early, and then used that small block of time to play with them. Others seized upon small moments of free time to read ebooks, call relatives, or squeeze in some crafting time.

When you’re a working parent, leisure doesn’t always present itself in four-hour chunks tailor-made for a trip to the spa. But that doesn’t mean it’s nonexistent. Happy people know that small moments can have great power—if we choose to make the most of them.

📬 Kick off each morning with coffee and the Daily Brief (BYO coffee).

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