Why 'dropping the ball' will help you win the school year

Ask yourself these five questions to help shorten your to-do list.

August 22, 2019, 4:15 AM

Tiffany Dufu is a catalyst-at-large in the world of women’s leadership and the author of Drop the Ball, a memoir and manifesto that shows women how to cultivate the single skill they really need in order to thrive: the ability to let go. Tiffany is Founder and CEO of The Cru, a peer coaching service for women looking to accelerate their professional and personal growth.

As the summer winds down and moms prepare for back-to-school season, the fall can feel like Armageddon approaching.

Weeks before we've packed away the BBQ grill, we're bracing for the epic battle with our children over reinstated bedtimes and homework routines they've long since forgotten. Typically we respond by frantically trying to get more done, but the secret to a successful transition isn't doubling down on endless tasks -- it's shortening your to-do list.

Here are the top three tips that will ensure your triumph this fall.

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1. Redistribute household labor

You can perform every task on your to-do list better and faster than everyone else, so you might as well just do it yourself. I know. But this flawed logic is one reason why women end up with everything on their plates.

One of the most important tools for dropping the ball is creating an management excel list, or MEL, that outlines the tasks required for your home to function smoothly. Each row should represent a duty like "make school lunches" or "unload dishwasher." Each column should represent an individual. If your kids are old enough to go to school, they’re old enough to have their own column.

Resist the temptation to populate the spreadsheet on your own and present it to your family with the majority of Xs in your column. No need to point out the obvious. Instead, populate a blank spreadsheet as a family activity. As you're deciding who should fulfill each duty be mindful of switching things up. If your list is exhaustive, you'll all realize that no matter how many dedicated individuals are in your household, it's impossible to complete every task. Create one final "No one" column for all of the duties you'll agree aren't going to happen until your family revisits the MEL in a few months. This will allow you to curb the resentment along with the recycling.

2. Focus on your highest and best use

Even after your family has drafted a MEL, there will likely be one-time back-to-school tasks still on your to-do list. You may need to hire a new babysitter or pull out winter wear from the basement storage. One of my personal tasks involves creating and posting lists like "Kofi's Morning Routine" to remind my 12 year-old that he needs to brush his teeth every morning. In order to drop the ball on some of these tasks you'll need to do your own priority assessment. Just because these tasks need to be done, and you know you can do them, doesn't mean they’re the most efficient use of your time.

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Ask yourself these five questions as part of your priority assessment:

1) Is this an essential task? You probably don't envision people eulogizing you at your funeral by saying, "She got everything checked off of her back-to-school list." Ask yourself whether or not this task truly ladders up to something meaningful.

2) Do I do this really well and with little effort? If the task requires research or you'll need to learn a new skill to complete it, the answer is no.

3) Is this something only I can do? You might not like how someone else does it, but are you truly the only person capable of completing this task?

4) Is this something that would be highly irresponsible to delegate to others? For example, if you're a single parent there’s no way around meeting your child’s teacher.

5) Does this task bring me joy? Hand embroidering your child’s initials on his or her new backpack may be on your bucket list. No need to deny yourself.

Tally up your responses and prioritize any task that receives three or more Yes’s. For all the rest, see Tip 3.

PHOTO: "Drop the Ball" by Tiffany Dufu.
"Drop the Ball" by Tiffany Dufu.
Flatiron Books

Get help. Now.

How did you feel the last time you delivered a meal to a family in need or sent flowers to cheer up a friend? Awesome, right? That's how it feels to help you, too. If a friend, neighbor or colleague ever offers to help you out, your answer should always be yes. Giving people an opportunity to help carry your load is the best way to build the village of support every woman needs and deserves. If it's too much work to think of a way someone can help you, just delegate a task from the "No one" column on your family's MEL.

If no one has offered to help you lately, the people around you likely have no idea that you're drowning. Are you stressing because you still need to get school supplies or figure out bus routes? Send everyone you trust an email SOS:

Hi X: I'm reaching out because I'm feeling a lot of anxiety. So I've decided to do something that's really hard for me: ask for help. I wrote a list of the things that are causing me the most stress. As you can see, a lot of it is related to the pressure to get everyone ready for back-to-school. Is there any chance you might be able to help me with one of them? It would mean the world to me.

You are not going to receive a motherhood pink slip for asking for help. In fact, you’re likely to get some hugs because people who are vulnerable give other people permission to be courageous.

It’ll take weeks for your family to settle into the new fall routine, so manage expectations and cut yourself some slack. The most important item to check off your back-to-school to-do list is enjoying the last few days of summer.

(Editor's note: This article was originally published on August 22, 2018.)