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Save Yourself and Your Kids: A Guide to Intentional Time Management

Save Yourself and Your Kids: A Guide to Intentional Time Management

On a normal Monday, I’m usually sitting at my desk, by myself, in silence, while my kids are at school following a minute-by-minute lesson plan their teachers have created for them.

But today is not a normal Monday.

Today my children scurry around the house building blanket forts and drawing pictures and teaching themselves ballet. Sometimes I join them, sometimes I coordinate educational materials for them, and sometimes I get my own work done. That’s the new normal.  

I’ve come to accept it, and it’s actually not so bad. It’s certainly not ideal, but I’m left wondering if the way we did things before was really any better, especially for our kids. Children really only have two sources for learning about time management: us (their parents), and school. Is either source providing a practical method? In a time of crisis will they be able to count on what they’ve learned to stay safe and sane?

Our relationship with time

Most adults treat time as if it were unpredictable, like a wild animal that we are trying to tame. We act surprised when we don’t get much done during the day, or blindsided when we can’t manage to do everything we need to do. Somehow we always feel like it sneaks up, or drags on, or flies by.

In schools, time is treated like a game of Tetris that gets progressively faster and more complicated. Every piece has to fit neatly with every other piece, and it has to be done in rapid succession so that the entire curriculum can be accomplished on time. Teachers and administrators often complain that there is not enough time in the day for everything that is required. Sadly, these steadily increasing requirements have caused many schools to cut programs like art, music, library, and physical education — programs that are arguably invaluable to childhood development.

Neither the typical adult’s view nor the school’s views is very realistic, because time is neither unpredictable nor rapidly changing. Time is the most constant thing on the planet. Maybe instead of teaching our children to try to warp it, stretch it, and compress it, we should be teaching them to use it wisely.

Right now our planet is in survival mode, and we are all doing our best to cope with the new normal. While it’s tempting to stick our heads in the sand and let everything unravel, we would be better served by using this opportunity to reevaluate our relationship with time. Being more intentional with our time and embracing its constancy allows us to feel more at peace, and shows our children how to thrive, no matter the situation.

Here are some time management waypoints that I teach to entrepreneurs, adapted with examples relevant to working parents:

1. Align Your Compass

“Each man should frame life so that at some future hour fact and his dreaming meet.”

– Victor Hugo

The first thing I always encourage entrepreneurs to do when approaching something new (whether it’s making a strategic decision or starting on a time-consuming project) is to consult their compass. In a company this process is called mission alignment, however it is a very powerful exercise for individuals and families too. If you haven’t already, you may consider developing a personal or family mission statement to use as a guide for your home life.

Without using a compass we run the risk of becoming aimless, seeking out random things to occupy our time or waiting for things to happen. Another danger of not using a compass is that we could hitch our wagon to someone else’s compass and follow their course rather than our own. Neither of these outcomes is sustainable. It is human nature to strive for meaning, and we will never find it if we haven’t identified what it looks like for ourselves.

However, when we have a clear vision of what is important to us we can use that vision to construct a life that is full of meaning. As Laurence Gonzales notes in his book, Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why, “Doctors and nurses often survive better than others [in life or death situations] because they have someone to help. They have a well defined purpose.”

Now is the perfect opportunity to identify our purpose. If we talk to our kids about what matters to us and listen to what is important to them, then we can develop a compass together and let it guide us through the uncertainty.

2. Embrace Boundaries

“Daring to set boundaries is about having the courage to love ourselves, even when we risk disappointing others.”

– Brené Brown

Boundaries are important no matter what we are doing, but in times of chaos they are critical. When we have a set of rules that is clear, concise, and practical, we can proceed with efficiency and prevent ourselves from becoming overwhelmed. In order to achieve our best results we must embrace discerning boundaries.

Artists know this well. Deciding how to frame their subject is one of the first steps to creating a masterpiece. As Martin Scorsese once said, “Cinema is a matter of what’s in the frame and what’s out.” Countless good ideas end up on the cutting room floor every day, because there is only room for the best ideas.

Boundaries—whether self-imposed or mandated by an external source—force us to be more resourceful and creative. One of my favorite stories about resourcefulness is NASA’s response to a crisis during the Apollo 13 mission. As depicted in Ron Howard’s movie about the mission, the team on the ground is given a collection of supplies that are onboard and tasked with literally fitting a square peg into a round hole. Despite the dire constraints—limited time (before the astronauts ran out of oxygen) and limited resources (since they were on a ship in outer space)—the team develops an effective solution…a solution no one knew was even possible until the boundaries forced them to explore it.

Hopefully we aren’t facing such dramatic circumstances at home, but we are experiencing something unprecedented and we need to honor the boundaries in order to move forward.

When school closed last month to prevent the spread of virus, our family immediately set up a daily schedule to follow at home. We were doing really well with our new routine—learning, playing, exercising and resting, when suddenly (three weeks after school had been called off) we received a mountain of schoolwork from my daughter’s teacher. I looked at the stack of worksheets and lesson plans and I literally felt dizzy.

After careful consideration, I decided that this new stuff was not within our boundaries right now. It’s not that the materials aren’t good; it’s that I’ve already discovered a method that is working great, and I’m not going to mess with it. A big part of my personal mission right now is maintain as much consistency as I can for my kids; and because of that I decided to draw this (boundary) line in the sand. (Note: I’m not advising everyone to actively ignore their child’s schoolwork…my daughter is in Kindergarten and in our house this particular format of learning is not more important than our sanity right now.)

Boundaries can also include limits to (or complete exclusion of) social media, TV, or something else that may be distracting. We tend to impose these boundaries on our kids, but reducing distractions is really important for adults, too. In these constraining times, we can’t afford to squander the precious moments we have to ourselves. We need to set boundaries to exclude things that don’t serve us.

Once we have our boundaries defined—what’s included and what’s not—everyone can then re-calibrate their expectations as necessary. For example, at our house we all expect that during “quiet hour” it will be quiet. That means we can read, write, draw, or rest; but we can’t watch TV, play with toys, or talk loudly. If the boundaries are developed together and agreed upon ahead of time they are much more likely to be respected.

Finally, it’s important to discuss the consequences of disrespecting the boundaries. Onboard Apollo 13 ignoring the boundaries meant certain death, but when it comes to time-management the consequences are not usually so severe. Disregarding boundaries of the scheduling kind will likely result in an undesirable trade-off (e.g. if we spend “quiet hour” scrolling through Facebook instead of working then we will get even further behind in work, or have to spend the evening trying to catch up).

3. Being present

“The ability to be in the present moment is a major component of mental wellness.”

– Abraham Maslow

Once we have developed a thoughtful schedule guided by our compass and framed by our boundaries, then we can stop thinking about what to do next and start thinking about what we are doing right now.

It is important to focus on the activity that we made time for during the time that we made for it, especially when time and resources are limited. After all, if it is important enough to make time for it, then it is important enough to give it our full attention.

Even when we are in circumstances beyond our control, it pays to be present. In Deep Survival, Gonzales notices that people who tend to survive against all odds let themselves be mindful in critical moments. In one example Debbie Kiley, a professional sailor, survived 5 days in a Zodiac with no food or water. As the rest of Kiley’s crew paced, became frantic, and eventually died from insanity or illness, Kiley concentrated on the sky and the beauty of the starts.

When we are in the moment we can let go of fear and do our best work. It’s not easy to do—most of us have lost touch with this skill—but it is simple to get back to. All we need to do is focus on what we’re doing right now: breathing, reading, noticing what’s right in front of us.

4. Schedule un-scheduled time

“Nothing is pleasant that is not spiced with variety”

– Frances Bacon

By nature humans crave routine. Having a routine helps us feel a sense of control and security, and it can help children become more confident and less anxious. But living in a completely structured environment can be stifling. Time management should be realistic and forgiving and enjoyable. It’s not about lining up as many productive tasks as we can fit into our day, it’s about making sure there is time for everything that is important to us.

We can let our mission and our boundaries guide us in creating the space we need for the things that are most important. But, allotting time does not mean we have to micro-manage ourselves. If we reserve adequate space on our calendar, we can run wild within its boundaries.

A great example of this on a larger scale is Google’s “20% work” policy. The company values innovation so much that it allows its employees to use 20% of their time to explore ideas on their own. And it’s working. Utilizing this method, employees have generated some of the most popular tools on the internet: Gmail, Google Maps, and Adsense.

Schools would do well to adopt a similar strategy. While structure is important, kids also need to feel like they have some control over their own lives. Scheduling free time gives them a chance to be creative and make connections, and take charge of managing their own time.

5. Reassess

“Intelligence is the ability to adapt to change.”

– Stephen Hawking

One crucial aspect to consider when managing our time is that circumstances are always changing. It’s important to be aware of what’s working and what might need to be shifted.

At our house we reassessed one big part of our normal routine: dinner as a family. Before the shutdown it was very important for my family to eat dinner together every single night. Now that we have been spending every minute together during the day I proposed an adjustment to that rule: What if one night a week we ate dinner separately? This has been a big hit at our house! Every Thursday we set up separate dining spaces and we each have a “date” with one other person from the house. It works well because it gives us some one-on-one time that is somewhat rare during our shelter-in-place. It also gives us something special to look forward to.

Embracing change is similar to embracing time: both are undeniable. The sooner we accept the facts, the sooner we can use them for our benefit.

Maybe instead of trying to tame time as if it were a wild animal, we could choose to treat it with respect. Instead of treating time as an enemy that is baring down on us, we could decide to accept its steadfastness. Maybe now is the time to developing a more deliberate relationship with with time, not just for our own sakes, but for our children as well.

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