Feel like you can't get anything accomplished? Try some of these proven productivity principles.
Does this sound familiar?
You’re dodging toys, shoes, books, and kitchen tongs (how’d those get there?) on your way to your bed after another long and exhausting day of kid-wrangling. You try to pray a quick evening examen, but you literally cannot remember what even happened today. It’s just a blur of cleaning messes, separating sibling battles, and preparing endless amounts of food. You don’t even want to look at the to-do list you made for today because it feels more like a wish list at this point (and besides, it would take a genie to help you cross anything off of it!).
Somehow you didn’t get ANYTHING you meant to do accomplished today--even though you're pretty sure you didn’t sit down once. The overflowing laundry basket taunts you from the corner as the negative voice in your head tells you, “Who are you even kidding by thinking you could do more than wipe butts today?”
You’re torn between wanting to pursue your own passions and dreams and feeling guilty for even considering it during “this season of life”. The advice to just lower your standards or to accept that you’re just not going to get very much done while you have little kids makes you want to scream in frustration. I mean,
Is it too much to ask to unload the dishwasher and read 10 pages of a book without being interrupted!?
Or maybe you’ve been at work all day, trying to function on 6 hours of fragmented sleep all while trying to act like you got as much sleep as your boss (who obviously doesn’t have a teething toddler...). You rush out of work as soon as you can to pick up your kids from school and daycare--feeling like a slacker employee for having to be the first one to leave the office...but then again, you can’t be late for after-school pick-up again!
On the way home the employee-guilt transitions into mommy-guilt for having to be away from your kids so much...but you’re also kind of dreading the moment when you all walk in the door and the whining, tantrums, and food demands start in full force.
Now all you have to do is figure out dinner, give the kids their baths, and slog through the bedtime routine--which seems to just be getting longer and longer every night. You try to have any quality time with your spouse or time to yourself before having to drag yourself out of bed to do it all again tomorrow.
In either scenario, you fall asleep with your mind whirling with all the undone tasks and things you need to do that just keep piling up no matter how hard you work.
You’d love to feel like you were actually productive and spending quality time on all of the things that are important to you...but instead, you feel like you are just failing. at. everything.
Look, I hear you. I’m not going to sugarcoat it--this parenting business is extremely hard, frustrating, and often thankless work. While there are about a million techniques, tips, and systems for time management that abound in the world--I don’t plan to talk about any of them in this article.
I think that before any of those scheduling hacks can really work, that you have to embrace a few basic mindsets and attitudes (and no, I am not going to tell you to just lower your standards and accept that you won’t achieve any meaningful goals for, oh, say the next 5-10 years!)
So without further ado, here are 11 basic productivity principles that I hope will really help you find some peace (and maybe actually get more stuff done too!):
Principle #1: There will always be more to do--you will never get it all done
What do the world’s most productive people know about getting stuff done?
That they can’t do all the things. No one can.
Not even the supermom that you see every week in your women’s group who has so many kids she drives a 15 passenger van, but somehow has managed to bring freshly made gourmet scones to the meeting with perfectly blown-out hair and kids that behave like little angels at Mass. I’m telling you, even she doesn’t do everything.
I don’t say this to denigrate anyone, but really, we can all put on a good show for each other at times and be quite convincing too--but there’s a lot that we don’t see. In the supermom example, she may have someone come clean her house for her, or maybe she has a regular sitter to help with the kids, or maybe she has a large and supportive family nearby that can help her. The truth is that we never see the full picture of anyone else’s life.
But I can guarantee you that no one--and I mean no one--is “doing it all”.
You can work and work and work for all 24 hours of every day and there will still be more that you could do. Seriously. If your day was magically 28 hours, you could fill them up and still have more to do. If you had 30 hours in a day--you could work for 30 hours and still not be finished.
Once you know that you can’t do everything you can stop trying to, and instead just focus on trying to do the important things.
Principle #2: You can’t actually manage time--only yourself
The phrase “time management is actually a misnomer--you have zero control over time and you are certainly not its manager. However, great news: you have been given free will and an intellect by God so you ARE in control of yourself. You CAN manage what you choose to focus on or not focus on, prioritize or let slide, stress out over, or accept. No one else controls you--not even your kids.
Take a deep breath and let that sink in.
In kid lingo: you’re the boss of you.
What this means is that you can let go of trying to control time (which is impossible) and instead pour all your energy and attention into managing you.
Principle #3: Only God Exists Outside of Time and Space--Everyone else needs a schedule
It’s nice to think that we’ll get around to something “some time” or “later” or “anytime”...but let’s be real, does that ever work for you?
I’m willing to bet that most of the time it doesn’t.
Only God exists outside of time and space--the rest of us need to have a schedule and the space to execute it.
Einstein once said that the only reason time exists at all is so that everything doesn’t happen all at once. Without at least a rough schedule or routine, your day will feel like a giant jumble of tasks that will (mentally) feel like they are happening all at once.
Get into the habit of embracing scheduling as a way of ensuring that you have adequate time to do what you want to do. And if there’s no room left on your calendar? Yep, you probably guessed it: It’s time to cut something (see #1 above).
Principle #4: Planning Your Day is Essential (doing it the day before is best)
You know the old adage, “failing to plan is planning to fail.”
It’s unfortunately quite true.
If you wake up in the morning and think you’re just going to “wing it” with your tasks for the day or that you’ll get around to things when you can--the chances are high that you won’t.
It’s also extremely helpful to make your daily plan the day before. I call this the “next-day plan”. Yes, you could come up with a plan on the fly, but it is way tougher in the heat of battle to figure out what really needs to be done.
I recommend taking about 5-10 minutes in the afternoon or evening (not a time when you’re kids are climbing on you or asking you for something) to just write down what your top 1-3 tasks are for the next day. How long will each task take to complete? Then, look at your planner or calendar and write down when you plan to do the task and (important!) what your kids will be doing while you do it.
For instance, you may really need to clean the bathroom. Are you going to give your kids spray bottles with water (if they’re little) and let them help? Or for bigger kids can you teach them how to do it while with you so they can learn? Or is this something you’d rather do alone during naptime or TV time? Anything you choose is fine, as long as you plan it in advance.
If that sounds like too much or too complicated though, pare it down to the simplest form and write just 1 task that is your Most Important Task (MIT) for the next day and put it where you’ll see it first thing in the morning.
Try to get that MIT done as early in the day as you can, and voila, you’ve made successful progress on something important :)
Principle #5: If you don’t consciously set your priorities, they will default
A truth universally acknowledged, (much like a single man in possession of a good fortune being in want of a wife…) is that if you don’t decide what is important and take action on those things,
You will literally run around putting out all the urgent-but-not-important fires in your life and I can guarantee that what you most aspire to will not happen.
It's much easier to do a bunch of little easy things and convince yourself that you are “getting so much done” than it is to do the big, hard, scary things that will truly move you forward towards your goals.
Principle #6: You are not uniformly focused and energized--schedule tasks based on your personal energy levels and “best times”
There are truly morning larks and night owls in the world (and then they meet and get married…)
But kidding aside, you really are most productive at a certain time of day and certain kinds of tasks are best suited for those times.
For instance, if you are at your most creative, driven, and productive in the morning, don’t schedule a mundane, easy-to-complete task for that time. Personally, I'm best in the mornings so I try to do all my most important work then--and so I never fold laundry or clean the kitchen before lunch, because I really don’t need to be at my best to do housework!
Also, if you happen to be a menstruating woman (any men reading can feel free to skip to number 7 now), there are going to be times of your cycle that are way easier to get things done than others.
For instance, women tend to be super-energized during the week of ovulation and to feel boatloads of confidence--which plummets a bit during your luteal phase (post-ovulation) when you may just feel super sleepy, moody, and maybe even a little unsure of yourself and weepy. And of course, during actual menstruation, you’re probably not exactly chomping the bit either...
So, knowing all of this isn’t meant to make you curse your lot as a woman, but to recognize that the kinds of work you schedule for each phase of your cycle may be different. For instance: menstruation is a great time for brainstorming, The week after is a good time for creative or detail-oriented work. Ovulation is execution time. And your luteal phase is a good time to evaluate things.
Above all, if you are in the phases of your cycle when you do feel extra tired or need extra rest, don’t beat yourself up over how little you accomplish those days.
You are not lazy--you’re human.
Principle #7: Don’t make “getting things done” or crossing off a to-do list an idol
Sometimes we can get so caught up in being productive and having a completely checked off to-do list that we can push forward with little regard for HOW we are getting things done or with what kind of attitude.
Your to-do list should serve you, not the other way around.
If you find yourself steamrolling over your kids, spouse, coworkers, or friends in your drive to get more things done at any cost….It’s time to stop. If you have been pushing people aside all day so you can just...do...one...more...thing--then you may have allowed the “to-do list” to become an idol for you.
Once you’re aware of that, take a minute to turn to God in prayer and ask for some guidance about what really needs to be done, and how you can do it in a way that is loving and life-giving. Which brings me to number 8…
Principle #8: Focus on just doing the next thing with love (this is an antidote to overwhelm)
Following on the point above, take the advice of St. Therese and “Do small things with great love.” Or big things. Or medium-sized things. The point is: do whatever you do with as much love as you can in that moment.
I like to think of it as not leaving any love on the table.
Love is never wasted. I find this adage particularly helpful when I’m feeling overwhelmed by all the things that I have to do on a given day. If I try to imagine doing all of it, I want to freeze--or curl up in a ball and sleep.
But instead, I think, “Ok, what’s the next thing?” Then, offer it to God in love and for the person(s) you're doing it for, and then just do it. With love.
Principle #9: It is way more efficient to do one thing at a time (no more multitasking!)
This may be hard to believe until you actually try it, but I promise that multi-tasking is one of the least productive things you can do. Trust me. When you try to do two things at once, you’re probably not doing either thing very well and they’ll both take twice as long (at least).
You may think you can make dinner and help with math homework, or play with your kids and check your email, or write a blog post while doing virtual school, or make breakfast and pack lunch boxes--but really what you’re doing is rapidly switching between tasks.
And all that constant task-switching takes a toll on your productivity.
Now, there are notable exceptions: for instance, if the two things you are doing are listening to an audiobook or podcast while doing something mundane like folding laundry, cleaning the kitchen, or driving. That’s probably fine. But for almost everything else: try single-tasking.
Principle #10: You should eliminate the phrase “I don’t have time” from your vocabulary
The truth is, if something is a priority for you, you’ll make time to do it. Besides, telling yourself, “I don’t have time” is just going to make you feel bad and somehow deprived. Yes, time is a scarce resource, and it’s totally true that there is not enough time in a day to do all-the-things.
But there is enough time to do the important things.
If exercise is a priority to you, you’ll make it happen---even if it isn’t exactly in the form you wish (like taking your kids to a track so you can run while they ride their bikes...you’d probably rather run alone, but you gotta do what you gotta do).
If prayer is a priority, you’ll find a way and a time to fit it into your schedule (if you’re struggling with this, ask the Holy Spirit to help you find the gap you need).
Starting today, replace “I don’t have time” with “That’s not a priority for me right now.”
When you make that simple change you’ll start to feel more in control of what you’re choosing to do and what you’re choosing not to do--and less like a victim to time. For instance, you could totally reorganize your kids’ toy room if you wanted to block the time and schedule it...but it’s not a priority right now.
There, doesn’t that feel better?
Principle #11: Rest is essential for your productivity
If you’re serious about being more productive: go to sleep.
Seriously. Sleep is critical to productivity (and almost every other function in your body too).
You will work faster and more efficiently at everything you do if you're getting the quality and quantity of sleep that you need.
If you’re dragging through your days like a mombie, it’s time to do whatever you can to get more sleep. That may be working out a schedule with your spouse for nighttime parenting, hiring a sitter so you can nap, cutting out TV so you can get to bed earlier, working on sleep training the baby, optimizing sleep habits, etc. Check out this blog post for more detailed strategies to help you get more sleep: 40 Easy Things You Can Do to Get Better Sleep
So there you have it. 11 productivity principles that will help you rock your days--even if you have little kids!
What are your favorite productivity principles? Let me know in the comments!