Podcast: Life and household management systems for keeping chaos at bay

Best of Both World podcast with Laura Vanderkam

I know I’m always looking for a new trick that will help me get through life with less hassle. Yes, whether I succeed or fail at reaching my goals does not depend on buying a travel sized bottle of sunscreen and a travel sized bottle of hand sanitizer, and putting them in my jacket pockets at Disney World. BUT it does feel satisfying to have these items without carrying a bag!

In any case, this episode of Best of Both Worlds is all about our favorite systems for home and family life. In it you’ll learn about:

Sarah’s bag-switching ritual. The work tote contents get transferred to the diaper bag on Saturday morning, and back again on Sunday night. The ritual helps with mindset transition, but it also means too much crud never builds up (I just have one bag, but then again I neither commute nor have a kid in diapers. Also, I’m pretty sure I’d forget my keys in the wrong bag every single time.) Sarah now keeps a pair of bounce-y house socks in her diaper bag after needing to buy too many pairs when they wind up at such places!

Sarah’s current morning routine. She sets the coffee maker to brew her a cup when she wakes up. (I love this idea and when I replace my current coffee maker I might try to figure this out.) She manages to get some writing/planning time, and a workout in, by 7 a.m. each morning! I’m usually just getting out of the shower around that time, but I did recently come up with a new activity for the 8:10-8:25 a.m. window I was struggling to use: strength training. I heave a kettlebell around my office, or use my resistance bands. I don’t use the whole window, but having a “cue” for a certain time increases the chances that this happens. Sarah talked about putting toothbrushes in a downstairs bathroom so the kids don’t have to go back upstairs to do this. I think this can be a great idea for families with a tight morning time line and a 2-story house.

Sarah also came up with a hack for avoiding the long car pool line at her daughter’s school. She parks about 5 minutes away at a playground and walks her daughter over. They get fresh air and some steps, and avoid the half hour wait.

Shower nights. We instituted a routine of M-W-F just to avoid arguing with the kids over this (I’ve never been one who believes kids need to bathe nightly, though my oldest kid does now of his own volition).

Date nights. Sarah has a Saturday night sitter that she books about 2 months ahead for whatever weekends she and Josh aren’t on call. They can figure out the actual date later, but knowing that the sitting is in place means this happens. My husband and I tend to do Friday night (when it happens; it doesn’t too often). Our childcare theoretically lasts until 8 p.m. on Friday, so we can grab an early dinner or go to an art museum with evening hours.

The hand-me-down closet. I have three boys, and while some stuff must be retired, a lot of it can be passed down. We have a walk-in closet in one of the boys’ rooms (there are 2 jack-and-jill rooms for the 3 of them; pairings will be fluid) with boxes labeled things like “4T.” It’s been fun to see clothes come out again for the little guy that I saw on the big boys many years ago. Another thing on clothes: I don’t monitor outfit choices (other than “no you can’t wear shorts” if it’s 20 degrees out). My general philosophy is that I control what comes IN to the house, but once it is in the house, outfits are a matter of personal expression. My daughter is rocking the print-on-print trend (also the tutu-over-jeans trend).

The key bowl and the membership card slot. We belong to a lot of area museums/playplaces/zoos/aquariums/gardens. All these cards go in one spot on the desk in the kitchen/living area. Likewise, we have a bowl for spare car keys; all 3 vehicles have a spare key in that bowl so any car may be moved if necessary. In general, I am a big fan of objects having a home. My oldest son’s cell phone may be in one of four places: on his person, in his backpack, charging in my room (this is where it sleeps overnight), or on his bedside table. I’m not saying this prevents things getting lost…but it helps.

In the Q&A section we address a question from a reader with an 8-month-old who’d like to find time to work on her novel. Since she’d also just started a full time job, we noted that she could “slow her roll” in Sarah’s words and decide that the novel was not a huge priority right now. However, if she did feel a burning passion to write, it’s definitely possible. She might not be able to find 20 hours a week, but she could find 4. We suggested having her husband take the morning shift 2 days a week, with her going to a coffee shop to write for an hour or two before work. (The alternative is going after work to the library one night a week — though she mentioned that evenings weren’t a great time for her in terms of energy.) The family observed the Sabbath, so Saturday was out, but we thought that she could come to an agreement on Sunday that each parent got their own time for 2 hours or so. That would still leave plenty of time for chores and family activities.

What systems are keeping chaos at bay in your house these days?

32 thoughts on “Podcast: Life and household management systems for keeping chaos at bay

  1. Question for Laura: do you have 1 nanny that works 8a-8p 5 days a week or do you have a more than 2 nanny? That seems like a long work week for 1 person.

      1. @Linda- probably. My husband and I both travel and without family nearby to cover that’s going to be hard to pull off.

  2. Morning routine – my boys are 13 and 11 so older than yours and as we are in the uk, wear school uniform. Recently I have given them each a written list of to dos in the morning – get dressed, hair/teeth/deodorant (written reminder essential), make bed, draw curtains, breakfast at the table, check school bag ready. If they do all of those then they can have screen time until their phone alarm tells them it’s time to walk to school. (I’ve left for work by that time). It’s been a game changer- independence and I can focus on my to dos. 😊

    1. @Cathy. We do something similar with much younger children. All four of our children, even our 3 yo, have to get up and get dressed (with assistance for the 3 yo), make lunch if taking to school (my 11 yo always buys, my 8 yo never will) and pack their backpacks etc. Once they are completely ready to walk out the door they may have screen time until 8:10. They have to walk out the door at 8:15 so the last 5 minutes gives them time to put on outer wear. If they get their responsibilities done quickly they will have more screentime. If they are slow they will have less. Works for us. Plus they learn to pack their own lunch from nursery school (again with guidance).

  3. Laundry – at least a load per day, normally gets put on first thing in the morning and then either hung on the line in good weather or tumbled/hung inside in bad weather – this often happens in the evening in the winter! We have lots of loads mainly due to sports kit – I’ve if my children plays rugby twice a week which is a muddy load each time…

  4. I have so many bags! I also have a work bag, weekend bag for errands, a therapy bag when I am due to take my kid to his therapist (.has his homework and also has the health insurance debit card). One trick is that I don’t have a wallet. My cell phone had a hideaway pocket to hold a card and my drivers license. I leave small amount of cash in every car. So no wallets!
    Also leave grocery bags for every car (we swap cars sometimes) and basically leave duplicates everywhere to avoid forgetting things.

  5. Love the shower schedule idea. We usually don’t need one, since showers are mandatory after practice for our kids. The daughter was injured this season, and there was nagging involved to get her to shower and wash her greasy hair.

    @Cathy: I’ve done a version of your morning routine involving tv cartoons and a timer set on the oven since my kids were in kindergarten. Works great for mine! Granted, we’re based out of Switzerland where kindergarteners are expected to walk to school by themselves.

  6. I realize I also have these slots of time where I don’t really feel I can do anything productive because they are “too small”. Any tips on that?

    1. @Maggie – good question. I think I’ll do a post on this – I wrote my weekly newsletter about it last week! It’s tough – but very satisfying when you come up with a good answer to what you can do in these slots.

  7. Re: your listener question – I’ve been juggling a full time job and a creative side hustle (book reviewing) since my 2.5yo son was 7 months old. I’ve relied heavily on my lunch hour (unpaid but mandatory!), paid breaks (once I was done pumping) and my commute (when I read the books I need to review). It’s not terribly fun to work through my lunches and eat at my desk every day, but I sort of meet my deadlines! Obviously not possible with every job, but I’ve found it’s my only protected, guaranteed, regular time to myself so I try to take advantage of it.

    Also, as a fellow aspiring writer who can’t find the time to write, I do usually feel good about time spent reading – examples of great writing, other books in the genre I am interested in writing, books about writing books. Even if I only find 15 minutes a day to write, spending more time reading helps me feel more connected to the “world” of writing, and can be accomplished while watching your kids play! I feel no guilt: it’s good for kids to see parents reading recreationally!

    1. @Jessica – great suggestions. Using small bits of time is very smart – and reading is a great prep activity for writing better!

    2. Along those lines, I think some of the more mindless child care activities can be spent planning in your head what you are going to write (or whatever your hobby/activity is) when you get the chance. Then you can just hit the ground running instead of staring at a blank screen and feeling intimidated, or not using bits of free time as well as you could. You might forget some of what you were thinking of but chances are you’ll remember some of it.

  8. We do a lot of “if, then…” stuff with our kids. If you unload your section of the dishwasher, then you can eat your breakfast. (The three older kids take a drawer of the dishwasher each, and the youngest does the plastic stuff). If you do your laundry and two weekly chores, then you can join us for Friday movie night. If you pack your school lunch three times a week, then you can keep your allowance (and not pay us for school lunches).

    We also have our kitchen organized so that the kids can reach everything they need to unload the dishwasher, set the table, and make their own lunches. A system up front saves a ton of time and energy!

    1. +1 to if…then! My girls have breakfast once they’re dressed, hair and teeth brushed 🙂 They are slow/distracted eaters, so this really works to get out the door for school. They also have a detailed weekly chart that lists all of the self-care/jobs they need to do each day (feed the dog, get the mail, do homework, etc) and if they’ve checked off everything they can have screen time. It works so much better than me nagging them, especially now that the younger one can read (what does the chart say?).

  9. Wednesdays are “date night” at our house. Wednesdays are also “church night” in my part of the US, so kid activities (sports practice, etc) are rarely offered that night. Our kids are (finally!) old enough to stay by home by themselves for a few hours. This is one of those activities that I anticipate every week!

    We have a low key meal at home on Friday night. We plan meals for the upcoming week, submit the Kroger Clicklist order, then pick up Saturday morning.

    Once a month, DH and I prepare a weekend brunch (veggie hash and mimosas!) – another ritual that we anticipate and savor.

  10. Some of my household hacks:
    – my purse essentials are in a canvas pouch, so if I’m moving between bags, I only need to move the canvas pouch and wallet. My keys and phone don’t live in my purse, so forgetting those things is a non-issue. The canvas bag also keeps the bag neat.
    – I order toiletries online in six month supplies so I never spend mental energy keeping track of whether we’re running low on x,y, or z item and if it needs to be added to the grocery list this week. Other items that are too expensive to buy in 6-month supplies (basically vitamins) are autoshipped monthly.
    – We love to pick up certain items from different grocery stores, so we keep a master list of items we get from each stores. Some of the stores we go to routinely (like we go to Costco once a month), and having the master list makes it easy to create a shopping list in 5 minutes. Other stores we happen to go to only if we’re in the neighborhood. We keep the master list on a google doc that both me and my husband can access while we’re out and about. Sharing it via google docs was essential for simplifying grocery shopping enough that my husband would do it too.
    – Repeat items where possible for everyone in the family. For me, all of my underwear, socks, tights, bras, etc are the same (and all black). I buy just enough to have a 7-14 day supply of each category, which reflects the fact that I usually do my laundry every 7-10 days (but want extra of some items to be on the safe side!). After moving to this system, I was surprised to realize that I was spending time and mental energy each morning picking between different underwear, and that just wasn’t worth it.

    1. @Alyce – I like the all black underwear and bras idea. Might need some light bras for t-shirts but yes, this is definitely not a category to be putting much mental energy into!

  11. New recommendation from the American Dermatology Association is that you don’t bathe your kid more than a couple of times a week. Kids who are bathed too often develop more allergies / strips skin of natural oils. See Sandy Skotnicki, Beyond Soap. Nice to be following current recommendations and simplifying bedtime!

    1. @Karen – definitely! Sometime I will compile a list of things people do that just make more work for themselves and aren’t actually helpful. Nightly baths will be on there. Probably scrubbing dishes before putting them in the dishwasher as well.

  12. It was a great and engaging episode. Would you believe me if I told you that in the morning before this podcast was due, I was thinking about how how interesting it would be to bring a man’s perspective on best of both worlds. So you can imagine my surprise when the two of you mentioned at the beginning of the podcast that you are planning to have Josh as a guest soon!

  13. It doesn’t “save time”, per se, but is more of a multi-tasking tip. My 6yo is in a Mandarin Immersion elementary school and we aren’t native speakers, so there is a fair amount of homework AND it’s challenging. She is not a people-pleasing kid, so it’s been a real struggle to get her to just sit down and do her homework (which is enough that it needs to be spread out over a couple of days), let alone worry about whether she’s “doing her best”. What helped dramatically was taking her to a favorite restaurant, and hanging out there while doing her homework. I usually bring something I need to work on as well, and we take advantage of the Happy Hour specials they have running at the time and call it an early dinner at 3:30 or 4pm. It’s made a previous struggle a LOT more pleasant and I get 1:1 time with her (sometimes her sister comes too). We’ve had days where we’ve knocked out almost all of her homework in one session and just have a tiny bit left over. I also find that mornings are easier to get her to do the harder items and since she still gets up so early, we have a reasonable chunk of time before leaving for school.

    1. My dad used to do this with me at a local coffee shop when I was a kid! Made homework a lot more fun 🙂

  14. For young kids you can just let them sleep in the clothes that they are wearing the next day. My oldest 2 (3 and 7 years) were basically wearing sweats and leggings every day anyways so why not just wear them to bed and wake up dressed?

    1. @Sophia – Some of my kids sleep in the clothes they wore the previous day (if it’s not a bath night). Does require remembering to get dressed in the morning, but it saves on laundry…

    2. My kids do this so regularly (sleep in tomorrow’s clothes) that I quit buying pajamas. They never wore them…
      We live in Puerto Rico, so it’s always warm weather. Nightly showers are imperative for us, though, because… sand. We have a standard night routine: dinner, showers, family time, bed. After showers the boys just throw on shorts and in the morning they add a t-shirt.

      1. @Annie – yes, that fun mess of sunscreen + sand might dictate slightly more frequent showers…

  15. What works for me now with a 4 years old and a 15 months old:

    – Packing meals for school: even though we cook dinner every night, I sign up my son for the hot meal at lunch so we just have to pack breakfast and snacks. I make a schedule for the week so my husband and I can take turn preparing that in the evening (my husband used too often the excuse of « I don’t know what to pack » and it also ensures that we don’t pack the same thing that the other parent planned the day before / keep some healthy balance over the week).
    – Kids clothes: as much as possible, I try to prepare clothes the night before (doesn’t happen every day though). For buying new clothes, unless I notice things really got too small and urgently need to be replaced, I wait for the change of seasons (before fall/winter and before spring/summer). I do an inventory and check how much new stuff is needed. I then shop at an outlet mall that has serveral brands of kids clothes. I spent half a day there and buy loads of stuff. If I still miss specific items, I order online.
    – Evening routine: we take turns. One goes put the kids in bed and one cleans up the kitchen and prep for the next day.
    – Morning routine: I wake up at 6:15, hit the bathroom/get dressed; my husband usually comes in around the same time; I wake up my son at 6:30 (hoping he hits the bathroom around 6:45, the time I get the little one out ouf bed); kids get dressed up (my husband helps my son to get started then he goes down to finish up packing the stuff for the day); we go downstairs around 7:00, put on shoes and coats and leave around 7:10. I drop my son at school and hop on the train at 7:30. My husband leaves at about the same time and drops our daughter to childcare. (Now breathe! That often feels like the most painful part of my day as it is a race against the clock. I especially became very jealous of people who can get breakfast at home!)
    – Laundry: I usually do 4-5 loads over the weekends (that one is fully one me). The dryer saved my life here (no more bloody socks or underwear to hang!) and I usually do the ironing on Sunday/Monday evening (watching TV to make it bearable) so we’re good for the week.

  16. I forget where I learned this idea, but my girls who are 8 and 5 get their own days where they can go first, choose things (like which way to walk to school, which seat to sit in), things like that. Oldest gets even days, youngest gets odd days. And my husband and I get the 31st if there is one that month! It eliminates a majority of the negotiations that can happen on a daily basis.

    I also meal plan and prep as much ahead as I can.

  17. Yep, I can understand 10 loads of laundry a week. We have 4 kiddos, but our biggest dilemma is a lack of closet space. We only have a 3-bedroom house, so the kids double up and one of the closets is actually too small even for 2 kiddos. We have utilized under-the-bed totes because I detest dressers. Towels for 6 people plus the abundance of kitchen towels and wash clothes is easily one-day-a-load, clothes probably every-other-day.

    We only have 2 bathrooms, so I have the kiddos brush their teeth in the kitchen so they aren’t holding up the bathroom for someone with a more urgent need. Besides, the kitchen sink gets wiped up more times a day than I care to count, so I don’t have to wash an extra sink or look at toothpaste globs there either.

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