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Parenting is even harder these days. But here are my time management hacks for getting everything done without an overbearing to-do list.

By Kelly Nolan
March 26, 2021
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An illustration of a woman filling in a calendar.
Credit: Illustration: Caitlin-Marie Miner Ong.

It's tough being a parent these days. In between trying to dress from the waist up for your next Zoom meeting and making yet another meal for your kids, there's an endless amount of work piling up. The boundaries between our home and professional lives are muddier than ever, and we need something to help us stay on top of it all.

That's when we often turn to that good ol' standby—the to-do list. We think it will help us feel more organized and on top of it all with those friendly-looking little checkboxes. But to-do lists quickly span pages and pages and grow at a faster clip than we can check things off. Suddenly, we're overwhelmed all over again, which leads to what I call to-do list defeat.

That feeling is caused by the unrealistic belief that we should be able to get our whole to-do list done in one day—even if objectively it'd take four solid days (or weeks) to complete. We don't need that stress in our lives. We need to be able to plan realistically, so we can feel accomplished about today and calm about tomorrow. How can we do that?

Here are some tips that saved me as a mom, attorney, and now, a business owner of a time management company, and helped me manage it all with less stress and more clarity.

Break Out Your Calendar

To-do lists are great for helping you get everything out of your head, but they're just the first step. Here's the secret: everything comes back to time. The meals you prep. The emails you need to send. The project proposal you have to outline. Getting the kids in the bath and bed. These all require time.

That's why we need to tie our tasks to time using a tool designed to manage it—your calendar. It helps you decide when you'll do each task, account for how long each will take, and see whether it all fits with everything else you need to get done that day/week.

I recommend taking your to-do list and sprinkling it over time in your calendar. Once you calendar something, cross it off your to-do list. It's now in a system that will help you remember to do the thing when you need to do it. You don't need the list anymore.

Be Practical

As you plan things out on your calendar, make sure you are being pragmatic. The beauty of the calendar approach is that you start to see how you can get tasks done over time—freeing you from that feeling that you need to get it all done right now.

For example, if you realistically aren't going to get to that project until next Tuesday, calendar it for next Tuesday and get it off your to-do list. There's no reason to have it stare you down and stress you out for the next week when you know you won't get to it during that time.

Go Digital

As someone who used a paper planner through law school, who processes by writing, and still maintains a not-always-healthy love affair with paper products, I encourage you to go digital when it comes to managing your time and tasks.

Digital tools, like Google Calendar and Outlook, let you load up your calendar with all the activities in your life (including your partner's and kids') while retaining the ability to filter what you see at any given time. They also allow you to share certain calendars with others, including family members and colleagues, and easily set certain tasks to repeat on a basis that makes sense (way faster than writing them out in a paper planner each day!).

Leveraging these digital calendar capabilities, you can plot out when you'll prepare meals, run errands, plan for meetings, work through a bite-size step for a big work project, call the pediatrician, change that lightbulb, and tuck your kids into bed. By seeing how all of these things interact, you can better gauge what's realistic for your time and energy.

Factor Yourself In

Plotting all of this out in your calendar also helps you see when you have time for yourself, which is important to prioritize. Seeing these free blocks of time in advance helps you plan for how you want to spend them so you can make the most of them when they roll around—whether it's getting that elusive shower in, making major strides on a work project, or finally reading that fun book gathering dust by your bed.

Kelly Nolan is an attorney-turned-time management strategist and mom. Using realistic time management strategies, she helps modern working women manage everything on their plate with less stress and more calm clarity.

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