Cooking meals, doing laundry, and going to work are all essential, but they often mean less time for parents to spend with those they love most. A recent survey by the Bureau of Labor Statistics showed that moms with kids under age 6 spend only slightly more time on household chores than dads do, which shows that all parents are pulled in many directions. "Certainly work, marriage, kids, and feeding the family are all high priorities, but there are healthy approaches to all of these that don't require moms to feel so out of control," says Hollee Temple, co-author of Good Enough Is the New Perfect: Finding Happiness and Success in Modern Motherhood. Follow these practical tips to save time on everyday responsibilities and spend more time with your family.
Divide your to-do list into three categories: Don't, Delegate, and Do. "There's always one thing on your to-do list you know you're not going to do. Cross it off," says Stephanie Vozza, author of The Five-Minute Mom's Club: 105 Tips to Make a Mom's Life Easier. "Go through each item and ask yourself, 'What happens if I don't do this?' If you're doing a task out of guilt or habit, move it to the Don't section." Decide if someone else can do the tasks in the Delegate column. Could a spouse, babysitter, coworker or neighbor handle something? For the items that must get done, draw or put stickers of a happy face next to the things you like to do, a dollar sign by items that save or make money, and a clock next to tasks that will save time later, Vozza suggests. These symbols will remind you why these things matter.
Take advantage of every existing resource. Ask your babysitter to prep dinner, pick up the toys, or restock the diaper bag. Find out if your dry cleaner can pick up and deliver clothes or see if a diaper service or laundry service fits into your budget. Coordinate errands by location so that you can finish as many as possible in one trip. If friends or family members offer to help out, take them up on it—and don't be shy in reaching out first for help. Assign specific tasks, like yard work or garage clean-out. Remember not to take too much advantage of one person's generosity, and don't forget to offer an incentive or a thank you, like a dinner invitation or a special IOU.
You may be able to fold clothes and set the table faster than a 5-year-old can, but when you include the kids, you turn chores into bonding time while teaching valuable skills. "The job of a mother isn't to be a personal assistant," Vozza says. "A mother's job is to teach a child to become independent." Even a small child can put toys in a basket. Invent a family clean-up game, where adults and kids compete to see who can get the most done the fastest, or make up a family song to sing while you work together.
If you spend hours each month looking for lost shoes or keys, create an organized system so that everyday items for each family member have a regular place. Set up hooks or a small basket near the door for house keys. Give each person (including parents!) a basket or cubby by the door with his or her name on it to hold coats or rain boots. To prevent morning stress, do a last-minute check before bedtime to ensure that the next day's clothes and shoes are accessible. If you have to check work or personal e-mail, catch up on messages before the kids wake up in the morning or after their bedtime. The same goes for talking on the phone—wait until the kids are in bed before making or taking any missed calls.
Productivity at work creates more relaxed time at home. Sometimes you can get more done outside the office. See if your company will let you arrive earlier (or later) at the office or let you work from home one day a week to reduce the commute. Before approaching your boss, check with coworkers or Human Resources to see if it's a reasonable request. If business travel is taking too much time, suggest other solutions, such as skipping a trip, alternating travel with other coworkers, or participating via conference calls or Skype. When you are in the office and can't cancel a meeting, clarify your next steps before it ends; this will reduce follow-up e-mails.
Sign up for school or city e-mail or text alerts; you'll get updates about snow days or transportation delays so you can prepare and plan for them. One-stop shopping sites such as Diapers.com and Soap.com allow you to save time and money by purchasing groceries and drugstore staples at the same time. To avoid scheduling conflicts and determine free time, program important dates—like parent-teacher conferences, school holidays, field trips and business trips—into the calendar on your smartphone. Download an app that will sync the entire family's calendar across different phones.
If you're making lasagna, double the recipe and freeze one for later in the week. Steam extra vegetables and put them in the fridge to drop in a pasta salad the next day. Get creative by turning your leftover entree into a sandwich for tomorrow's lunch or mix extra fruit salad with cereal and yogurt for breakfast. Look online for recipes that are easy and family-friendly. Keep the freezer stocked with frozen veggies and fruits; they can save you from a last-minute dash to the grocery store if you've forgotten a side dish or dessert. It's also okay to give yourself a break once a while by keeping a couple of frozen pizzas (choose veggie-heavy ones for more nutrition) on hand for those evenings when you need to stay late at work and don't have time to cook.
When you give up trying to be perfect, you create more time. "Stop comparing yourself to the mythical supermom who has it all together at work and at home—she doesn't exist," Temple says. "Figure out what your priorities are and pursue those. Something has to give." Each person's priorities are different. Do the things that help you feel happy or less stressed. If you feel calmer with no papers on the dining room table, involve the kids in helping you clear it off. If you can live with a few stray papers, and would prefer to cook with the kids and try a new recipe, do that instead. "I don't like to cook," Vozza admits. "I thought if I tried hard enough, I could become the next Food Network star. Instead of changing who you are to match the task, change the task to match your lifestyle. Spend time on what's important to you."
Don't wait for holidays or vacations to connect. Sunday breakfast, Friday game night, weekend shopping, or gardening can bring the family together. "We dine out on the same night each week," Vozza says. "We know not to schedule outside activities because it's sacred family time." Whatever tradition you choose, make sure everyone, including parents, honors a set time. Everyone should show up and unplug. No texting, no Facebook, and no TV. "Don't let your schedule run you," Vozza says. "Enjoy each other."
Ansley Roan is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She writes about faith and spirituality, health, and parenting. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, Glamour, and Teen People.