The hours before school can feel a little more zoo than Zen. Lucky for us, Laura Vanderkam wrote the book on time management, I Know How She Does It: How Successful Women Make the Most of Their Time—and with four children, ages 9, 6, 4, and 1, she has a few favorite strategies for smoother mornings.
The antidote to the explosion of shoes, jackets, and book bags all over your house—and trying to locate them before you leave? A dedicated departure (and landing) zone using whatever space you’ve got: the mudroom, a hall closet, or a corner with hooks. “That spot remains sacred: Coats, backpacks, and shoes come off there and stay there,” says Vanderkam. It doesn’t matter if shoes aren’t lined up Pinterest-perfect, she insists: The point is that they are there. Kids—and moms—just need one everyday pair by the door. (A “shoes here” sign, or a picture for preliterate kids, can help keep Crocs corralled.) The launch pad can also be the place to charge your phone, stash keys, and stow sunglasses, so you can grab them on your way out.
The ultimate timesaving trick: Let them buy it. If that’s not an option, make lunch when you’re already in the kitchen. “If you just started boiling water for pasta for dinner, that’s a good time to make a sandwich,” says Vanderkam. “If you’re serving breakfast, cut fruit and put that into small containers for the next couple of days.” Or train your kids to help: At the end of the day, everybody takes his lunch box out of his bag, dumps the remains, and puts it on the counter. Even better: Have kids make their lunches; they can start as soon as they reach elementary school.
“I’m talking about Mom, not kids, here,” says Vanderkam. If you invest a little time organizing your closet on the weekend, you’ll cut down on a morning time suck: indecision. Pare down your wardrobe to a set of nine outfits, work or casual, that you know look great on you, and rotate them.
And if you’re losing time in the morning over kid fashion battles, stop. Yes, you could help her pick out and set aside her outfit the night before. But Vanderkam doesn’t even do that. “If your child can dress herself, usually around age 4, just let her,” she says. Those crazy fashion combos she comes up with are part of the charm of having young kids—a stage you’ll even miss someday.
That gives you just enough cushion not to stress about making the school bell in time. “The school bus gets to us at 8:40, but my kids put shoes and coats on at 8:32,” says Vanderkam. “If it takes them two minutes, we hang outside for six minutes. But if they dawdle and it takes them five minutes, we’re still fine.”
Every Friday, Vanderkam looks ahead to the following week to get a general feel for the landscape—to divide duties, such as driving, with her husband and to spot anything looming (like an after-school activity with a late pickup). Small details go in, too, so there’s no last-minute panic. Vanderkam says, “My son had a field trip, and his teacher requested nicer clothes. He usually wears sweats, so I put a note on my calendar that he needed to wear real pants.”
There’s a certain narrative about mornings—craziness! chaos!—but they don’t have to be that way. “Morning can be a good time to enjoy one another’s company,” says Vanderkam. “Family dinner might not happen if life after school or work is hectic, but family breakfast could happen. That’s quality time together.” (Bonus: Breakfast is a happy family meal since everyone likes it—and all but the littlest ones can even grab their own.) Keeping positive will set the tone for the day—and week.