a list for friday: how to cram a full-time job into part-time hours

Before I became a wife and stepmom, my daily schedule looked something like this—long, unstructured days to answer emails, brainstorm ideas for clients, and crank out copy. Although I had a full schedule of friends, choir events, and wandering through Target, I managed to work 50 or 60 hours most weeks.

Then I moved to Philly, into a home with an equally-busy husband, two middle schoolers, and a dog who sheds the equivalent of a Maltese. Now my days include painting fingernails with “Crackle” polish, answering the same question 11 times, loaning my iPhone for important game-playing on any car ride over 90 seconds, and compiling massive grocery lists. (These people want to eat dinner. Like, real ones. EVERY NIGHT.)

On a good week, I’m able to work about 35 hours. In addition to learning to say no to some things, I’m surviving on this schedule by beginning to use the time I do have more effectively. Here are the tactics keeping me sane.

1. FOCUS. This is the biggest one. No multi-tasking, unless it’s paying bills or skimming church newsletters while the TV’s on. Almost everything is done quicker and better if I concentrate. This means…..

2. …..turn off the internets. If it’s work that requires thinking (and for a writer, most work does), I try to close every browser window except the one I’m working in. If I don’t need the internet for a task, even better—I use Freedom to stop me from going online at all. No matter how good my intentions, when I get writer’s block my biggest temptation is to spend waste time online. I buy willpower if I can’t muster up enough of my own.

3. Cook on Sunday. Okay, this one is pure speculation. Right now we plan meals in four-day chunks, shop twice a week, and share the cooking. But now that we’re developing something of a fall schedule (and my football-loving, tired-from-pastoring husband will be napping Sunday afternoons anyway), I’m going to try doing most of the prep just once a week. Even if it gives me extra time only a night or two, it will be worth it, and I’m not really worried about disappointing any budding gourmets—these are children who could live on spaghetti and orange soda.

4. Work in one-hour or half-hour blocks. This is helpful when I’m facing a writing project that feels overwhelming—it’s amazing how much you can accomplish in an hour, and it’s easier to talk yourself into starting. It’s especially effective when the project is due tomorrow and the kids will be home from school in 45 minutes. As the great Leonard Bernstein said, “To achieve great things, two things are needed; a plan, and not quite enough time.”

5. Make it more fun (or at least more satisfying) by competing with yourself. At least once a day I’ll get ready to start something, eye the clock, and set a must-be-done time—then I’ll try to beat it. Am I nerd? Perhaps, but I’m a nerd who’s trying to get things done while Nina interrupts cleaning her room to ask, “Jen, I just spilled old perfume on my knee. Do you want to smell it?”

6. Use “lost” time. I think (and sometimes dictate notes to myself) while running, driving, cleaning, or waiting for soccer practice to end. And here’s something Matt doesn’t even know—I daydream, make mental to-do lists and plan future blog posts during our family read-aloud times before bed. Hey, I’ve already read the Harry Potter series.

7. Be present. This seems counterintuitive considering the confession I just made, but physically I’m still being present for the family time, and in this specific case that’s what matters. But if we’re talking, eating dinner together, hanging out—I’m there. The phone is across the room and I’m doing my best not to think about work. Likewise, when I’m working, I’m not chatting with the kids. Unless Nina is cleaning her room.

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