How to Organize Your Family Life

The New Year can dawn over a wasteland of torn wrapping paper, dried-out Christmas trees, unwritten thank-you notes and a sinking feeling that you're even farther behind on your to-do list than you were before the holidays.

The temptation is often to keep slogging along, no matter how tired or slow you feel, until you get it all done. But for most people, that's not a solution that works. You'll ultimately just be reacting to problems as they present themselves, with little control over your schedule.

Instead, take control of your family's schedule by setting goals and priorities. To help meet those goals, you'll need a calendar, a to-do list and some reminding system to keep yourself and other family members up to date on upcoming events or responsibilities.

The experts recommend you start with the big picture first.

The beginning of a new year is a good time to assess your family's schedule, says Molly Gold, a one-time meeting planner and president of Go Mom !nc., which specializes in planning products for mothers. The South Riding, Va., mother of three suggests families make a dream calendar of activities that are important to each member of the family, decide which are realistic and spread them throughout the year and use that as the foundation for building a family calendar.

Goals will vary from one family member to another and they'll require some decision making. Ice cream for breakfast, for instance, is not a goal to incorporate into the family calendar, but a weekly outing that the whole family can take together to a favorite ice cream shop is. Goals can be as modest as having dinner together as a family three times a week or as ambitious as finding a vacation that the whole family can take together and enjoy. Then, decide on your family's rhythm.

"You need a big overview for the month or the week," Gold says. She breaks her week up into Monday through Thursday and then Friday through Sunday. She suggests families decide what kind of structure they want for their week — get all work done during the week, leaving weekends for leisure? Leaving some tasks for weekends? This is a way to build in pockets of time for relaxing and recharging along with the many necessary tasks of life.

Set boundaries around the things that are most important, says Jim Loehr, author of The Power of Full Engagement: Managing Energy, not Time. Home and family are most important for most people, but they need to put boundaries between home and work. "Boundary setting is really a huge part of time management," says Loehr.

Start With Today

Once you understand your priorities and have laid out a broad blueprint, you can begin. The best place to start is today.

Vida Harband, who lives in San Francisco, does just that when she's feeling overwhelmed. She's responsible for an impressive number of schedules. As part-time corporate counsel for a few companies, she works from home and from clients' offices. She's got different schedules and tasks for each client. Then there are her family schedules, her husband's and their two young sons'.

When she feels underwater, she just starts from the moment, laying out what has to be done first. "I don't worry about how to necessarily fix all the things that aren't quite right. I start from the now, what do I have to do today, what do have to do next week, what do I have to do next month?" she says, finding that these moments are when prioritizing is key.

Goal setting, prioritizing, decision-making, scheduling, all of these are fundamental principles of time management. They are the foundation of technological tools like the Palm OS, Pocket PC, Outlook, iCal, Entourage, personalized online calendars such as the Yahoo! calendar and myriad other products that can help families regain control of their schedules — and their lives.

Families need to track events and appointments that are important or necessary to them. Some of these are recurring events, such as weekly classes or extra-curricular activities such as sports events. Others are one-time only — doctor's appointments, holiday concerts, etc. Put them all on a calendar. Make a central calendar where everyone can see it. This can be an old-fashioned paper calendar or a print-out of an electronic or online calendar.

Harband, always organized herself, made the switch from a small Filofax and an electronic Rolodex to Palms for herself and her husband when she found herself having to frequently remind her husband or having to check with him to make sure he remembered family appointments that involved him. Now she simply beams appointments from her Palm to his — no more need for reminders. Such data sharing doesn't have to be limited to between parents — kids and parents can easily share dates for school projects, sports events, concerts and similar special events as well.

Paper Works, Too

Harband is not completely electronic. The main family calendar is a paper calendar in the kitchen. It holds playdates and other family appointments which Harband writes in by hand. Harband shows that calendar to her boys, but they also have calendars in their bedrooms. Because of the nature of her work life, she keeps multiple to do lists.

The everyday lists are handwritten — for someone on the go, handwriting is easier than entering on a handheld, but her long-term list is on her computer and handheld. She knows that the program will remind her at a designated date before the task should be complete, which allows her to "let go" of that task until the appropriate time.

She keeps an electronic list of birthdays that remind her automatically, but she also transfers them to the kitchen calendar as well.

Prioritize

Prioritizing is key to time management, according to Rose Rodd, director of marketing for Palm, whose operating system is an industry standard. Electronic to-do lists — be they Palm, Pocket PC, Yahoo! task lists, iCal, Entourage, etc. — can be categorized and prioritized. That means you can look at your overall to do list or your work or family to-do list. You can often color code them, too.

The beauty of an electronic program is that you can program in reminders — getting a discreet beep, an e-mail, or a text message on your cell phone or PDA. Such reminders mean you don't have to worry about forgetting about them, freeing your brain up for other tasks.

Additionally, writing down such reminders benefits you psychologically. Many time management experts recommend writing down tasks or problems to be dealt with before going to bed, because that act often helps you let go of the problem, making it easier to go to sleep, and awake energized for a new day.

Time Management Tips

Here are some time-management tips from experts Gold, Harband, Loehr, Quiesser, and Rodd:

Have a calendar. It can be printed or electronic, but interactivity and multiple access points are important. That's why having an online version such as Yahoo!'s calendar (which is free) is helpful because every family member can add to the family calendar and update it from their respective locations, be it home, office or school. Print out paper versions and hang it in a central spot — and make sure everyone in the family is aware of what's on it. Even younger children like to know about scheduled events. Like adults, they don't like having events simply sprung upon them. Program in reminders. Once, twice, whatever it takes. Program in important birthdays and give yourself a week or two notice to mail a card. It's much better than, say, having your mother remind you after the fact.

Delegate. "We wonder women think we should do it all," says Lori Quiesser, an executive in Indianapolis. "Well, we can't." The same goes for wonder men, too. Hand over tasks to your spouse, babysitter, and, remember, kids can be a big help, too.

Eliminate clutter. It's distracting and eats energy. Gold first thought her son should learn to keep track of the library books he was always losing. Then she realized she could give him the structure to keep track of them by designating a place for them. End of problem. If your entryway is a mess, figure out why and design a solution. If coats aren't making it into a distant closet, put up hooks for coats and backpacks.

Set specific times for doing your e-mail, and don't check it first thing in the morning, suggests Loehr. Instead, accomplish something that's a priority, then turn to e-mail later. Designate times to check e-mail, say, twice in the morning, twice in the afternoon (when you're probably less productive anyway) and, if you must, once after the kids are in bed. E-mail is a reactive thing that can consume hours of time, reduce your ability to concentrate, and keep you from accomplishing your main goals.

Practice a healthy lifestyle. Eat breakfast, and a healthy lunch. Eat half of a power bar instead of a candy bar for a mid-afternoon snack. Take breaks during the day. Schedule in regular workouts such as morning or evening walks, two trips to the gym during the week, one during the weekend. "People think time is the critical resource," says Loehr. "It's not time, it's energy." Exercise is like putting money into a bank account. You can draw on the energy to get more done in less time.

Schedule down time. Much of our lives are spent expending energy, says Loehr in his book. Using all your energy without taking time to build it back up leaves you exhausted, burned out, and non-productive at both home and work.

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