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By Laura T. Coffey
TODAY contributor
updated 5/18/2009 2:51:01 PM ET 2009-05-18T18:51:01

All moms are working moms, and all moms face the challenge of prioritizing how they spend their time. Time management becomes absolutely critical, though, for mothers who must devote 40 to 50 precious hours a week to a job. For women in such situations, it’s crucial to streamline and simplify pretty much every imaginable area of life.

In her new book, “Working Mom’s 411: How to Manage Kids, Career & Home,” author Michelle LaRowe notes that many moms with full-time jobs are left with about 40 hours a week to get all of these things accomplished:

  • clean the house;
  • do laundry;
  • shop for groceries;
  • take care of errands, which may include paying bills and handling financial matters;
  • help kids with homework;
  • be present at kids’ activities;
  • spend time with partner;
  • spend time with friends and family members;
  • pursue personal interests of any kind;
  • and “maybe — just maybe — sneak in an hour to go to the gym or to soak in a bubble bath.”

Hmmmm. No wonder so many women I know are so tired!

The following tips may not solve every time-management challenge that confronts you, but hopefully they’ll help you think about ways to simplify and save time as you manage your own unique schedule and circumstances.

1. Have places and times for key items and tasks. If you’re constantly tripping over shoes, losing library books or running late in the mornings because your kids can’t find their backpacks, homework or school books, something’s got to change. It may be time to institute a system for packing up backpacks with all necessary contents and leaving them by the door before bedtime — no exceptions. Baskets and low-cost storage bins also can help you organize the most troublesome items in your life. As for tasks, having a rough idea of when you’ll tackle them can give you a sense of calm throughout the week. For instance, if you know that you’ll run errands on Fridays after work (when stores, post offices and other establishments are less crowded) and you’ll do laundry on Sunday mornings, you won’t feel your blood pressure rise at the thought of trying to cram those activities into already jam-packed workdays.

2. Smooth out the bumps in your mornings. Mornings are exceptionally rough for many working moms. It can be hard enough to get yourself ready, out the door and off to work on time, right? Well, that whole process becomes exponentially harder when you have to wake, feed, clothe, pack for and transport a small human being in addition to yourself. Here are some ideas for helping you wrest control of your mornings and arrive to work on time, despite all the challenges involved:

  • Do as much as you possibly can the night before. Set out clothes for the next day — both for yourself and for your child. Pack lunches. Make sure diaper bags, backpacks and work satchels are completely packed and ready to go.
  • Wake up one full hour before your child does. This will allow you to drink coffee, get dressed, take care of your own pre-work tasks and get breakfast staged before the kids get moving. Once they do wake up, you’ll feel less harried because you’ll be able to focus your attention on them.
  • Plan to arrive everywhere 30 minutes early. (Note: You’ll probably never arrive anywhere 30 minutes early.) But this mindset of trying to arrive early will give you a much better shot at showing up where you’re supposed to be on time.

3. Feed kids on your terms. Here are some ideas that can help you save both time and money:

  • Invest in a crock pot if you don’t have one. And while you’re at it, invest in a good crock-pot or one-pot cookbook that’s tailor-made for people who are insanely busy. With some lickety-split advance planning over a weekend, you can devise a menu plan for the week that will allow you to come home from work each day and swoon with gratitude and relief because the house smells so good.
  • If the idea of devising a menu plan for the week makes you roll your eyes because it sounds too exhausting, pretend your boss is requiring it of you and your next performance evaluation and raise will hinge on whether or not you do it. You’d probably be able to knock out a simple menu plan and jot down a workable grocery list in 20 to 30 minutes — if that — if you had to do it for your job.
  • Breakfast for dinner is A-OK. Why not have some eggs, toast, hash browns and bacon or sausage for dinner every now and then? It’s fast and simple, and your kids will love it. Just serve some fruit along with it or load up the egg dish with a bunch of vegetables and you’ll feel even better about going this route.
  • Remember other easy options that kids love. Quesadillas, omelets and grilled-cheese sandwiches are almost always popular with kids, and they’re easy for harried parents to make. You can also incorporate ingredients and/or toppings that you know your kids will like.
  • Get your kids to help you in the kitchen. Here’s some advice from my friend Rebekah Denn, a talented food writer and mom: “Enlisting young kids to help with the cooking usually makes everyone happier. The children are interacting with me instead of trying to get my attention. I can say something like, ‘Can you grate this cheese for me?’ or, ‘Can you crack the eggs in a big bowl?’ instead of, ‘I’m cooking dinner, I’ll talk to you when I’m done.’ ”
  • When packing lunches for school, do it the night before with your kids’ help. This will save you precious morning time and increase the odds that the food you bother to pack will actually be eaten.
  • In your car and in a sacred spot of your home, keep two separate stacks of take-out menus for restaurants that serve reasonably priced food that has at least some redeeming nutritional value. When everything blows up in your face during a busy week, don’t feel guilty about opting for a take-out meal that everyone will like.

Video: Working mothers of the year

4. Stockpile important gear in important places. The gear will keep changing as your child ages, but the principle will remain the same: Store stuff where you’re likely to need it so you can save yourself time and frustration. For example, a low-height, lidded plastic container in the trunk of your car or on the floor of the backseat could contain these sorts of items:

  • Baby wipes (no matter how old your kid is);
  • Toilet paper or tissue;
  • Paper towels;
  • Change of clothes for each kid, along with diapers if needed;
  • Snacks that won’t melt and/or go bad, such as fruit leather;
  • A big beach towel, which can double as a blanket when needed;
  • Band-Aids;
  • Toys and books.

In that same vein, you can keep all bath-related items in a basket near the tub so you won’t be tempted to leave young kids unattended while you rush off to get something you forgot.

5. Juggle kids’ after-school activities. If you’re working full time, you simply may not be able to attend every single activity that your child does. Your whole family needs to understand that and banish guilt about this area of life once and for all. That said, you often can make arrangements to attend the events that matter most, especially if you have plenty of notice for those events. And you also can find ways to help out your kid’s teacher and school by offering to do tasks that won’t require you to make an appearance in person during regular school hours. Just ask the teacher what you can do during your off hours; he or she will appreciate it, and that’s good for your kid.

When it comes to choosing activities for your children to pursue, keep these general principles in mind:

  • Be sure they really want to do it. Otherwise this activity may become far too frustrating for everyone involved, and you don’t have time for that.
  • Ideally choose an activity that’s close to home. My buddy Heath Foster, a longtime journalist and mom of three, gave me this advice: “Never drive more than 10 miles for a weekly activity. It’s not worth the hassle unless you are trying to create an Olympic athlete or it is something they are unbelievably passionate about.”
  • Make friends with other parents who may be able to give your kids rides to activities when you can’t. Be sure to return the favor in ways that fit into your schedule.
  • My friend Heath also pointed out that it can be wise to limit activities for kids. “The simpler your child’s schedule, the less distracting their needs will be during the day,” she said. “Kids really don’t need to be as busy as we keep them to be happy.” She said she typically tries to let her kids choose two activities each — one active and one creative — although she sometimes breaks that rule if the circumstances truly call for it.

6.Make sure you’re not slipping at work. Especially in this economy, you’ve got to keep your game face on. This applies no matter how many times you had to get up in the middle of the night the previous evening to tend to an inexplicably crying kid. In rare cases — cases that involve an unusually empathetic boss — you can talk to your employer about what’s upending your personal life and making you so bleary-eyed. In general, though, it’s typically best to keep that sort of soul-baring to a minimum and throw your shoulder into the work at hand. Otherwise, you may get branded the wrong way in the workplace and your advancement could suffer for it.

What are you supposed to do, though, if you’re feeling a nervous breakdown coming on? Here are some ideas:

  • Take a personal day every few months. That’s the whole point of personal days: to meet your personal needs. While the kids are at school and you don’t have to pay for a babysitter, spend an entire day in bed if necessary.
  • Use break times and lunch breaks to play catch-up. Be extremely careful about handling personal business — making pediatrician appointments, checking the school district’s calendar online and so forth — during your regular work hours. Your activities may be monitored. Take on such tasks only during designated break times.
  • Find allies where you can. Fellow moms at work may understand what you’re going through and prove to be excellent confidantes. If you have genuinely trustworthy friends at work, vent to them about your travails — not to your boss.

7.Devise a system for tackling housework. Every household is different, and every mom you meet will have different standards and sentiments about how to handle the never-ending obligation of keeping a home clean. Here are some overarching ideas that may be helpful, however:

  • Make sure your kids are pitching in. Sometimes — or, heck, much of the time — it may seem easier to do everything yourself so it will be done the way you want. But it’s good for your kids to have a share in keeping the house clean and neat. It will teach them the importance of teamwork and give them survival skills and beneficial habits that will last a lifetime. Even children as young as 3 and 4 can pick up their toys, put garbage in the trash can, water plants and help feed pets. To eyeball a chore-readiness chart and see what kids typically can handle at different ages, click here.
  • Divvy up tasks with your partner. If you’re both working, you’re both tired — and it’s only fair that you should both share the work that needs to be done around the house. Play to each other’s strengths when deciding who will be responsible for what.
  • If you can possibly afford it, do some outsourcing. Even if you can only spring for cleaning help once a month, it’s better than nothing — especially considering how exhausted you probably are. Farming out some duties to reasonably priced hired help can prove to be both a sanity saver and a marriage saver.
  • If your child-care provider comes to your home, make sure that person is willing to do at least some light cleaning. Your home — or at least your main living areas — should feel neat and organized when you walk in the door.
  • Don’t be a perfectionist anymore. Maybe your home was always immaculate before you had kids. That was the past. Let it go. You can allow spotlessness and perfection to reign once again after your kids have left for college.

8. Carve out time for romance. Make arrangements for a date night, put that night on your calendar — and don’t break the date! No matter how tired you are! Plan the night several weeks out if necessary so you’ll have plenty of time to make babysitting arrangements. Also, anticipating the upcoming night out will be half the fun. Have the babysitter stay until the kiddos have definitely gone to bed so the two of you will have an entire evening together, just the two of you. Another idea: Once or twice a year, coordinate personal days or vacation days where the two of you stay home together while the kids head off to school.

9. Maintain at least some semblance of a social life. Much like those scheduled date nights with your partner, you can make specific plans with your close friends and add those details to your calendar as well. If at all possible, arrange to have Dad watch the kids so you can really and truly get caught up with girlfriends who matter to you. Or, if necessary, become more laid back about hauling the Pack n’ Play over to a friend’s house and letting junior sleep in an unfamiliar room for an hour or two or three so you can get some adult time on a weekend evening. Yes, this can be semi-inconvenient, and this approach won’t work for every kid — but it can be worth it to give yourself some down time to talk, laugh and preserve important friendships.

10. Remember what matters most. Mother Teresa said it’s not how much you do, but how much love you put into the doing that matters. Ticking items off of your massive to-do list with great efficiency may feel fabulous — but always stay focused on the big picture. Why is it that you’re trying so hard to be so organized and knock so many items off your list, anyway? It’s so you can maximize the time you’re able to spend with your little ones — while they’re still little and they still crave your time and attention. Time that you actually get to spend playing, talking, reading, snuggling, walking and laughing with your kids trumps any errand, e-mail message or chore in importance. If you’re feeling overwhelmed and your son or daughter wants to talk, just take a deep breath, settle down and start listening. That pile of laundry can wait.

Sources and resources:

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