Have you ever gotten to bedtime and wondered where the heck the day went, or felt like no matter how many things you checked off your to-do list you still were in the weeds, or just plain had no balance in your life?
For help, we went to Elizabeth Grace Saunders, founder and CEO of Real Life E, a time management coaching company. She “empowers individuals who feel guilty, overwhelmed and frustrated to feel peaceful, confident and accomplished”...sign us up!
Structure in the Time of Corona
Let’s be real: life right now is hard. Over the last couple of years especially, there has been a huge uptick in depression, PTSD, and anxiety...and the data for women specifically reflects the added pressures of things like uncertain school and childcare situations and disproportionate additional household responsibilities. So how do you find structure and balance, especially when mamas already struggle with that to begin with?
Mama Pro-Tip → When we sustain some kind of trauma (like a situation with no escape...for example, living through a global pandemic), our brains can learn that we have no power over our circumstances. This is called “learned helplessness.” It’s important to break out of that way of thinking so small obstacles don’t become huge ones.
To begin, Elizabeth outlines simple action steps to reinforce our autonomy and remind ourselves of what we do have control over. It could be as simple as setting a wakeup time and enjoying a hot cup of coffee alone, going for a 20 minute daily walk, reading a chapter or two of a pleasurable book before bed...baby steps will set you up for success and can lead to bigger things.
“You have to be fluid because if you’re too rigid you’ll break!”
Now inevitably there will be moments where you’ve thought through your routine and made your plan, and unexpected obstacles arise. Be sure to give yourself space in your plan to process that “bad news”...allow yourself to begin where you are and recover from those challenges. Create structure but be flexible!
If you have a home with a partner and/or kiddos who are going through their own emotional trajectory, you can still cultivate flexibility and resilience for yourself while holding space for them. This can look like encouraging physical distance to allow for solo processing time, prioritizing outdoor times, journaling, meditation, prayer, or exercise. The exact “how” varies depending on the ages of your children, schedule of your partner, etc., but the important thing is to focus on improving mental health!
Mental Health First, Everything Else After
Mama Pro-Tip → Simply put, if you’re depressed, anxious, or stressed, you’re not getting anything done. Give yourself some kind of physical activity (preferably outside), meditate, journal, call a friend...find whatever works to fight for your psychological well-being. Mental health first, everything else after!
Prepare a Plan (But Go With the Flow)
If you create a productivity plan, how can you still invite the “flow” and be open to changes? Elizabeth recommends seeing planning as a checklist rather than a schedule. There is more grace in a general task list than there is in a minute-to-minute plan, so if your toddler is taking 20 minutes to go potty or tie their shoes it won’t derail the whole day. The biggest key to this type of plan is to set accomplishable goals; 1 or 2 “to-do” items at various points of the day. And set your expectations low...we will not be as productive as we were pre-pandemic, and that’s ok!
Energy: The Highs and Lows
Whether it’s mental health challenges, insomnia, or just general mama exhaustion, your energy levels will ebb and flow (which can throw a wrench in productivity). Give yourself permission to make gentle levels of progress and honor your body’s rhythms...maybe you can’t do your entire daily plan but you can still do parts. Check out the Pomodoro Technique for time management, which advocates for 30 minute “chunks” of planning: 25 minutes of focused work time followed by a 5 minute break. If you can’t focus at all or are feeling stuck, take a catnap or go for a brisk walk. Of course there will always be time-sensitive things, but in general if you don’t get everything done on your list, there’s always tomorrow!
The Elusive Work/Life Balance
Create a “container” for your work; decide what your hours will be and honor them (9:00 - 5:00, flex, evenings/weekends/naptimes, whatever it is). Do the same for school if you plan to homeschool your kiddos or have them in virtual/hybrid learning. Finally, make a “container” for your social time (yes, even if it’s Zoom happy hour). Determine how much time you need to accomplish necessary tasks and create the frame for it.
Mama Pro-Tip → This is a gimme, but watch your phone use...texting and social media scrolling are big time sucks!
Productivity and Procrastination
We tend to procrastinate for emotional reasons: we have feelings of discomfort, uncertainty or guilt around a project. Identify what your emotional reason is and address it! For example, if you are unsure about a task, the issue may be a lack of clarity...not knowing how to begin or the order in which to do the work. Writing down the steps can help, and inserting them into your daily and weekly “containers” in accomplishable ways is much less intimidating than looking at the enormity of the entire project in one go.
Making the Plan 101
With all this talk about daily and weekly planning, how do we actually make one and stick to it? Elizabeth says start with the basics: identify recurring events (bedtime, self-care, exercise, etc.) and block those out first (do the same thing for your kids). Then, if you’re working, block out focused time based on your own preferences. Early bird? Work then. More productive after lunchtime? Work then. You can break down your schedule however much you need to based on your individual needs and daily life; for example, you can add in blocks for chores or home improvement projects. Tools like Google Calendar or iCal let you color code your schedule blocks so you can get creative with how you organize yourself!
Mama Pro-Tip → Beyond the necessities like work or school, only put things in your schedule that you actually want to commit to. If it’s aspirational but not realistic at this juncture, don’t put it in there and just feel guilty about not accomplishing it. No one will fault you for not training for that half marathon right now.
As far as sticking to the plan goes, practice makes perfect. Eventually you’ll create neural connections that create habitual behavior, like waking at a certain time. If you’re still struggling to follow it, ask yourself some questions: Is it realistic? If not, pare down. Is the thing an actual priority to me? If no, you won’t be motivated to do it so buh-bye. Am I procrastinating? Try Pomodoro or another way of breaking down tasks to manageable degrees. The idea is that the structure is supporting you, not oppressing you.
Finally, give yourself some incentive. Personalize your home office, set yourself up with a delicious beverage in your favorite mug, download a new podcast to listen to on your walk, or just think about the positive impact of what you’re about to do. The biggest thing is not to wait for motivation...often if we start, it will come!