Productivity and Organization Tips & Tools for Parents
(This blog post is provided for informational purposes only; the information is accurate and true to the best of my knowledge, but there may be omissions, errors or mistakes, and no guarantees are made.)
Hey mamas and papas! Want to explore ways to create more order and harmony in your work and home life? I love helping individuals and families create practical systems that will make the days feel less rushed and more purposeful, including developing realistic household and family schedules that work; exploring block scheduling and other productivity approaches; creating easy family meal plans and meal prep strategies; and creating a variety of family systems such as household chore delegation, establishing daily routines, and creating positive behavior charts and daily routine task lists for children. I’ve compiled a quick list of productivity and organization tips and tools for parents below. The goal of these organization, time management, and productivity systems is to help you thrive in your personal and professional lives. Each tip and tool has been personally tested and has proven to be particularly effective in our family or clients’ families.
Weekly meal planning/prep and grocery delivery service
I am a big advocate for weekly meal planning and using a grocery delivery service. These two things have made the biggest energy- and time-saving difference in the life of our family over the past two years. I cannot emphasize enough how helpful it has been. While it takes time on the front end, the rewards of smoother evenings and hardly any last minute trips to the grocery store are so worth it. Here are some meal planning suggestions that proved especially helpful for our family:
Choose a meal planning day and stick to it. We usually do this on a Saturday or Sunday when we have more time. When meal planning, create a weekly dinner menu, as well as a brief list of ideas for lunches and snacks for the kids (and adults, if you are so inclined). Post the list on the fridge or in a shared app (more on this below). Then, use the weekly menu to build your grocery store list and keep you organized throughout the week.
Each week, when you are planning your weekly menu, you can switch the meals around based on your scheduling needs. For example, if Thursday is your busiest day in the coming week, make Thursday a “soup and grilled cheese night” or whatever particularly easy meal you have decided on for that week. When figuring out which days of the week will be crazy and which days will be less so, plan to do some of the prep for future meals on the less crazy days. Prepping even 1-2 ingredients the night before can make a big difference.
With meal planning, I suggest starting very simply at first. Pick the types of meals your family enjoys and designate them each a day of the week. The idea behind the weekly dinner menu is that you can vary the types of ingredients week-to-week, but you always know what type of meal to make on a given day, which makes planning easier. For example, you can vary the type of tacos you make on “Taco Tuesday,” or the type of slider and vegetable you have on “burger night.” I know that some people like far more variation in their diets or like to completely stay away from processed food (or maybe you need to make modifications for dairy- or gluten-free diets). Mix it up, as desired, on your weekly menu, but I suggest taking a simplified approach the first month or so. For a sample weekly menu, go here.
Grocery delivery service
I highly recommend considering the use of an online grocery shopping and delivery service like Instacart, Shipt, or HEB Delivery. This changed our lives and that is only slight hyperbole (no ads or sponsorships as always with Enriched Family; I just genuinely love this service). Imagine, no more spending 1-2 hours on the weekend driving to different stores and grocery shopping with kids in tow, or running to the grocery store last minute to buy "something" to make for dinner that night when you and the kids are already tired and hungry. This is a recipe for disaster and a whole lot of impulse buying. You know what I'm talking about.
Combined with meal planning, using an online shopping service has actually saved our family money because we are more thoughtful about what we buy and less wasteful as common ingredients are used throughout the week in our pre-planned meals. We are also able to be more thoughtful about the money we spend and better stick to our weekly grocery budget as we can see the total cost of our online shopping list from one or multiple stores. With Instacart, for example, it is easy to remove items from our online shopping list before confirming the order if the total amount is over our weekly shopping budget (obviously much easier than putting items back when one is already at the check-out line and the groceries have been rung up). The cost of a grocery delivery service more than pays for itself when you think about time spent, as well as reductions in impulse buys. For example, a February 2018 article in Real Simple noted that the average shopper spends approximately $2.71 for every minute in a store (Rachel Cruze, Real Simple).
If you haven’t used an online grocery shopping and delivery service yet, Instacart, for example, allows you to create an online shopping list for a variety of stores (here's a partial list of stores available to me in my zip code in Austin: Whole Foods, HEB, Central Market, Costco, Petco, CVS Pharmacy, local food co-op, et cetera). Then, an Instacart employee shops for the items you have selected and delivers your groceries to your home, in some cases within just a few hours. Amazing! As of January 2019, an annual Instacart Express membership costs $99/year (or $9.99 for a monthly plan) for unlimited, free delivery on orders of $35+. Worth it!
In Austin, in addition to Instacart, there is HEB Delivery (order online and have the groceries delivered) or Curbside Pickup (order online and pickup at your local HEB). HEB charges a $4.95 online order fee for all orders; for home delivery an additional $5.00 service fee is applied (rate quoted in my area in January 2019). Another option to check out for your area is Shipt (in my area, Shipt delivers from HEB, CVS, Central Market, and Target). Shipt is currently offering a free, two-week trial. Many grocery stores are providing this convenience or are considering it in the future, so check where you shop most frequently.
Household chore delegation and routine task lists for kids
Personally, I find that mapping out who is primarily responsible for what chores in the household is particularly helpful for keeping things in order and minimizing tensions over housework and other “care work.” For example, in our family, my husband is responsible for walking our dog in the morning while I finish getting our children ready for school and get them on the school bus. If for some reason he can't do this because he has an early meeting, it is up to him to check in with me in advance to cover. This division of labor makes the mornings so much smoother as there is no question about who is doing what and no sudden surprises. While it may not be possible to divvy everything up, focusing on the key chores and mapping out who is responsible for what during the crazier parts of the day should go a long way to making things smoother and reducing resentment.
I also find that a daily routine task list for children is very helpful for keeping them on task and minimizing parental nagging (hopefully). Example here (you can make a list with pictures instead for younger, preliterate children).
While we are on the subject of chores and daily routine task lists for kids, if you give your children an allowance, I highly recommend RoosterMoney, a free app that allows you to easily manage and track allowances, and even savings goals, for your children.
Shared family calendar with family/household schedules and to-do lists
If you don't have a family calendar, I highly encourage you to start one! This has made our lives so much easier. We publish a shared "Family" calendar to iCloud that syncs across all our devices. My husband or I can set events and appointments which appear instantly on our phones and computers in a special color for Family. You can use Google Calendar for a similar, shared calendaring function. We also use a shared notes page in the iPhone Notes app to jot down notes to each other and keep a running list of to-do items for the weekend.
There are also free calendaring/family organization apps you can use such as the Cozi Family Organizer (it has a shared calendar, schedule tracker, activities list, grocery store list, and to do lists).
Another great app is Our Family Wizard, a co-parenting app for divorced or separating parents/two household families. The goal of this app is to facilitate communication and minimize conflict in co-parenting relationships. Features include: a shared calendar (you can track your parenting schedule, share appointment details, and easily submit requests for changes to parenting time all within one application); secure messaging app; expense log (you can track your shared parenting expenses, attach receipt files to each expense entry, and keep accurate payment histories); and a secure info bank (keep all of your most important family information in one safe place, including medical histories, insurance information, emergency contacts, school schedules, files, photos, etc.). Annual subscriptions start at $99/year. More information here.
Approaches to calendaring and to-do lists
a. To-do lists. I love a to-do list. Seriously, the organization geek in me shines when making to-do lists. I also find that the processes of writing down my to-dos, even in a “brain dump” session, helps tremendously if I am feeling anxious or stressed. Maintaining a consistent to-do list strategy will help you be more focused and productive. After all, if you aren’t clear on what you need to be doing and in what priority, how are you going to achieve your goals? The key is picking a system that works for you and sticking with it. Want to write your tasks down on paper old-school-style? Great, though I do recommend also maintaining a master list electronically so that you don’t lose track of things that are not the main priorities for that specific day. Prefer to use an electronic to-do list app? Great, there are a ton of free apps out there. For example, Wunderlist is a good, free option. Choose whatever system will be helpful to you and use it consistently on a daily basis.
b. Proactive to-do list for the following week. Towards the end of each week, I like to review my master to-do list to see what work I need to prioritize and complete before the end of the week. Then, on Fridays, I create my to-do list for the following week. Proactively looking ahead this way will help you manage your time, work flows, and deadlines. It is about controlling your time and not letting it control you. Be sure to revisit this list frequently to be sure you are spending your time productively throughout the week.
c. Block scheduling. I am a strong proponent of block scheduling. It is another method for controlling your time and not letting it control you. Also, remember Parkinson’s law … “work expands to fill the time available for its completion.” In other words, recognizing that tasks will expand to the time available and sometimes beyond, it is best to keep the time allotted for specific tasks realistic, but relatively short. For example, when planning out my work for the following week, if I need to write a blog post on a particular day, I will give myself 1-2 hours and schedule this writing block time in my calendar. I usually set a timer to work on discrete tasks like this and when the work block is complete/the timer goes off, I stop and assess my progress. Hopefully the task is complete, but if not, I give myself another burst of work time, but much shorter, usually only 30-45 minutes, to complete the task. Then I assess again. Otherwise, one could spend half a day or more completing a task that could actually be completed in just a few hours.
Another block scheduling approach that I have found very helpful is to schedule times throughout the day to respond to calls and email (for example, at 9am, 1pm, and again at 4:30pm). Then, work offline as much as possible when not handling responses during these communication blocks of time. That is, close out all Internet windows that do not pertain to the task at hand and turn off email and messaging alerts so that you can give your concentrated focus to whatever you are working on. Even if you are doing a work-related Instagram post, set a timer to get it done and don’t get sucked into the social media vortex.
I also like to set certain days/times as “open for meetings,” while blocking others. I usually try to block off Mondays and Fridays as “no meeting days,” as much as possible. I use this concentrated work time to get a jump on my priorities for the week on Mondays and use Fridays to wrap up any important projects. Then, when scheduling meetings I try to stack them with just small breaks in between so that I am not wasting a chunk of potential productive time in between meetings.
I also build self-care time into my weekly schedule. Sometimes I have to skip it, but I am so much more likely to exercise if I have a plan for the class or activity that I will do each day and it is blocked on my schedule. I schedule daily meditation time (10 minutes) on my calendar as well. While I may skip it some days, having it on my calendar makes me so much more likely to stop and take 10 minutes for myself.
Prioritization of tasks, a.k.a. tackling those to-dos
So now you know what you need to do, but what if all the items on your to-do list seem important? What do you prioritize and how? There are many, many task prioritization and productivity hacks that can help you tackle your to-dos. Don’t get stuck on this - just choose an approach that seems helpful and doable. Below I have included a few options:
a. 1-3-5 Rule. There is no point creating a super long to-do list that there is no way you can accomplish in a day (save this for your master to-do list). The 1-3-5 rule recognizes that there are only so many hours in a day and helps to prioritize and control your daily to-do list. The idea behind this rule is that you identify just nine things that are essential for you to complete that day, including one big task, three medium tasks, and five small tasks. This approach will set you up for success and the process of whittling down your list to nine items will help you prioritize those things you really need to get done that day. Check out the following article at The Muse for more information and a 1-3-5 free, downloadable template.
b. Where to start? Okay, now you have your to-do list, prioritizing your nine things, but where should you start in the morning? Maybe with those five small tasks to ease you into the day? No, productivity experts will say start with the harder tasks that are most important. There are a number of ways to look at this - one way is to focus on revenue generation. That is, always tackle the tasks that will lead to revenue generation first. Utilize your brain power to tackle these goals, then save the smaller, less brain-intensive tasks for later in the day. Another way to approach this is to tackle whatever task or tasks on your list you are dreading/are making you anxious/or are making you want to procrastinate, but you know are essential to complete. There are various terms for this in the productivity/time management world such as “eat the frog” or “most important things first.”
c. For those super hard to start tasks/projects that you are just dreading, try the Pomodoro Technique to help you get started (thanks to Robin, a colleague in my Pregnancy and Parenting Professionals networking group, for introducing me to this productivity approach). The Pomodoro Technique is a time management technique developed in the 1980s by Francesco Cirillo. The idea is that you use a timer to break down work into short periods, usually repetitive time blocks of 25 minutes (but you can choose whatever relatively short interval of time would work best for you), followed by brief breaks. This technique recognizes that half the battle sometimes is just getting started. Committing to short bursts of work time can get you in the flow and before you know it you have already made significant progress on something you were previously dreading.
Quarterly family planning
Ha. Not that kind of family planning. The last idea I will leave you with is quarterly planning for your family and relationship. I was introduced to this idea recently when listening to the RISE podcast, I think? If it wasn’t that, it was one of Rachel Hollis’ podcasts. Anyway, most of us are familiar with quarterly planning in our work lives, but how many of us apply this approach to our home lives? Full disclosure: This is the one tip/tool on this list that I have not personally tried yet. However, I love the idea of sitting down with my partner and mapping out together what the next quarter is going to look like in terms of our goals, plans, schedules, etc. If you are a single parent, you can sit down with whomever is your major support person to do this planning — maybe it is your co-parent, your babysitter, your sister, your nanny, or the kids’ grandparent. Personally, I can see how this strategy would be very helpful to proactively identify potential tension points when my husband and I are going to be pressed for time and energy, such as when we each have work trips and are going to need extra assistance from each other and/or a babysitter. If summer is coming up, we can focus on planning our kids’ camps or our summer vacation. Or maybe we focus on setting out some date nights for the quarter. The key is sitting down and communicating so we both know what is on the horizon and also identify and make time for those things we want to prioritize. As I said, we have yet to do this, but it is on this quarter’s master to-do list!
Here’s to greater harmony and productivity in our work and home lives! As always, take what seems helpful and leave the rest.
*Remember, if you ever want help with customized productivity coaching, or planning and implementing individual, family, or professional organizational goals and strategies, Enriched Family is here to support you. I offer a free, 20-minute initial phone consultation to all new clients to discuss matching your needs and priorities with my services. In addition, I am offering a 15% discount to clients in January and February 2019. I invite you to click on the "Let's Get Started!" button below to contact me with any questions.