Tranquility by Tuesday: Time blocking, back-up slots, and big questions

I’ve been reviewing numerous time logs over the past few weeks. Studying these logs is always a reminder that people who read time management literature tend to be amazing time managers. It’s not about figuring out how to function; it’s about finding satisfying new tweaks that will take a schedule from great to awesome. Or, sometimes, it’s about asking big questions pertaining to how we’d like to spend our time.

I was thinking about that as I looked at my friend Catherine’s time log. She sent it in as part of the “Tranquility by Tuesday” time makeover series I’m publishing here (more of those to come soon!)

She had originally presented her dilemma as being about protecting space for creative writing in a full life. I did have some ideas for that, but my primary thought, looking at her schedule, was how carefully she had planned it to fit in her priorities.

Catherine (who went to college with me a great many years ago!) works as a strategy consultant, generally on a project basis. The week she tracked, she worked 32 hours, but since she bills her time, she knew that was actually the lightest week she’d had since May.

She also homeschools her five children, ages 3-13. In the course of the week she tracked, she exercised six days, generally an hour each time. She had dinner with friends. She went to a Bible study and to a writer’s group, and then spent a few hours on her creative writing projects. She went to a school carnival and a concert, and to church. She mentioned that she read in the little bits and pieces of time, and finished four books that week.

So how, exactly, did this all fit?

She’d arranged her schedule carefully to block time for these various pursuits. In particular, she did the bulk of her homeschooling in the morning, between 8 a.m. and noon. Her three older children attended a “university school” program two days per week and worked pretty independently the rest of the time, checking in with her for 60 minutes a day to report on progress, answer questions and the like. The first grader needed more active supervision (generally 1.5-2.5 actively labeled homeschool hours per week day) and Catherine also traded off with another mother of young children — who, in another life, was an English professor — to do what they called “Littles U” for primary school work (including for the 3-year-old).

She then blocked 12-6 p.m., roughly, for paid work. She generally uses a college student babysitter to watch the little ones (while the bigger kids continued with school work or reading) though when she tracked her time for me, her husband was home, and he was largely doing the afternoon care. Catherine usually worked from home on her projects, though with another adult around she could go to client sites if need be. She was very good about not getting distracted during this time, which is how she managed to bill 32 hours in this window plus a few hours elsewhere.

Dinner tended to happen right at 6 p.m. when she stopped working. Magic? Nope — she had trained her older children to cook. Each of them took a night, supervised by her husband.

Evenings tended to involve reading, playing, and getting five kids through their bedtime routines. Catherine was in bed at 10 p.m. most weeknights, which allowed her to get up on time to exercise for an hour (generally 6:30-7:30 a.m., though this shifted somewhat) before the homeschooling start.

Because she was so disciplined about time blocking her work the week she tracked, she was able to protect Saturday as a writing day. She went to her writer’s group in the morning, and then spent a few hours that afternoon doing her creative writing (her husband covered; she covered some time he spent practicing and performing music). Though the week was full, there was still some downtime; for instance, she read in a coffee shop on Sunday evening while her kids were at a church youth group.

As she noted, she’d been able to protect her writing time that week because she’d “only” worked 32 hours. Because she was feeling some income pressure, she noted that she often said yes to extra projects, and then Saturday would automatically become a work day. Her creative writing would get pushed forward.

So — since her original email asked for how to protect writing time — my suggestion was to create a designated back-up slot for extra work that was not Saturday. Back-up slots are a good idea in general. If you’d like to exercise three times a week, block four spots. If you’d like to work on your side hustle for 10 hours, block 12-15. The reason is that stuff will come up. Always. The odds of stuff coming up vastly increase as you become, oh, a homeschooling, working mother of five. Even in Catherine’s carefully constructed, time-blocked schedule, she lost 30 minutes on Thursday driving a forgotten homework assignment to the school program. If she consciously decided that Monday and Wednesday from 6:30-8:30 p.m. were back-up work slots, then she would push spillover work to those times instead of Saturday. Alternately, while she’d been supervising the homeschooling for a great many years while her husband had been doing a more traditional job, if they were willing to be creative with school time, he could start to take over some of the first grader’s instruction. This would open up a weekday morning or two as a back-up slot.

So anyway, I sent this in as my suggestion, but when we talked by phone, we wound up having a very different conversation. As Catherine noted, “I confess I am surprised that you didn’t tell me to work more.” While this is sometimes my recommendation, she was clearly working in the hours she’d blocked to work. There are a great many weeks when I clock 30-35 hours of paid work, and I’m not trying to homeschool at the same time. If Catherine was able to support her family working 30-35 hours a week, why should I argue with how she’d made that happen?

Therein lay the rub. It turned out that the family was having serious conversations about whether this was sustainable. While it is possible to work 30-35 hours a week, flexibly, and homeschool, this becomes more difficult as the work hours go north. Catherine wanted to support her family well, and she was also feeling, as her kids started to get older, that the time might be right to nurture her professional ambitions in a different way. As her husband was pondering doing something more creative or non-traditional as his next career move, she was looking seriously at full-time jobs with benefits. This would involve a lot of family changes (like potentially enrolling the children in more traditional schools), but one of the upsides of thinking, deeply, about our time is that sometimes we see that life can change and evolve over time. So we shall see what this next chapter will bring!

27 thoughts on “Tranquility by Tuesday: Time blocking, back-up slots, and big questions

  1. She sounds amazing! Would she be willing to be a podcast guest? I’d love to learn more about homeschooling. My kids are still preschool-age and younger, but it has always intrigued me!

    1. @Courtney – it intrigues me too! I don’t think I’m temperamentally suited for it, but I actually wrote my senior thesis in college on homeschooling policy.

  2. I’m a homeschool grad myself and we’re looking at possibly homeschooling our child, but we’d both be trying to work part-time so I’m not sure how it would work. This was really helpful. I wonder how it’d work without older kids to help out?

    In my case, my mom didn’t work and that made it easier for her to teach my sister and I. Interesting to see that 30 hours of work per week appears to be an upper limit.

    1. @Kaitlin – glad it was helpful! I think with working and homeschooling, it’s important to remember that there are two separate components to what “school” provides. There’s the actual instruction, and then there’s custodial care (kids are out of the house, during which parents can do other things). The actual instruction need not be the entire 7 hours, and if you think about how much time kids spend waiting for other kids in a group setting, the curriculum can happen at a more rapid rate. So to homeschool kids and work, you need to figure out how you’ll provide that, say, 20 hours of school and then how you’ll provide custodial care for the time you are working. If both of you work 3 days a week, for instance, you could stagger it, with one parent doing the schooling on each of two days, and then hiring a sitter for custodial care on the fifth day (that person wouldn’t have to do teaching duties). You could also do mornings/afternoons shifted, and then not have the issue of needing another caregiver.

    2. Kaitlin, our homeschool looks very different now with toddler, 1st grade, 5th grade, 7th grade, and 8th grade than it did when we had all littles. But homeschooling, like housework, can expand to fit the time you give it. A lot of what I did in the early years was lay foundations for structure and independence (although I don’t think I realized I was doing that at the time, it was just out of necessity!). I did a lot of research along the way about different philosophies of education and what is really covered at each grade level. My goal is to have my kids be well-prepared for college and able to jump in to a traditional school setting for high school. That has taken some strategic outsourcing at various times, but now that we are in the middle school years with the older kids, it’s nice to see that I think it worked.

      Also, I worked less at some times, and more at others. Being able to surge or pull back at different times has been helpful.

  3. In so many of these conversations about time management, I find myself asking: When do these people find time to do the “keep the lights on activities” for a family, the things that aren’t sexy or exciting or necessarily all that time-consuming individually, but can really add up? For example, feeding the family (whatever form that takes), making and going to medical/dental/health appointments, filling out the multitude of school/daycare/camp forms, setting up play dates (for kids and adults!), doing/folding/putting away laundry, tidying up the house (we’re not talking OCD levels of clean), etc etc etc. I see how long it takes to do these things in our home, even with a LOT of outsourcing and sharing responsibilities with a spouse, and I find it hard to believe that I am an outlier.

    1. Very much agree with you. I spent 8 hours per week on these things on average, my time tracking revealed. And that’s without any children!

    2. I often have the same thought. When I read that people have time to sit down and read a book, I think “who’s cleaning up the dishes? What about packing up tomorrow’s daycare bag? Folding laundry?” We outsource cleaning, lawn, and have kids in full-time daycare, but there’s still a lot to get done! I should track time because I guarantee I spend at least 10 hours a week on these tasks.

      1. @KGC – Plenty of folks have time to pick up a book. Dishes and folding laundry do not take all 168 hours of the week. I think everyone should track time — it’s a great way to figure out where priorities like reading could fit, or how time might be redeployed.

        1. No, of course dishes and laundry don’t take all 168 hours. Work, sleep (not enough), running, time with kiddos, commuting, etc., take up most of the rest of it. But I guess my point should have been that these small things weren’t specifically mentioned (though I now see the explanation below in response to Rinna’s comment) and I do sometimes wonder when or how they happen. I do think I could benefit from time tracking, and would be very interested to see the results. Just haven’t pulled the trigger yet!

          1. I find that cleaning fills the time you give it. I like to set a timer so I don’t dawdle. I also usually listen to a book. Since I have a housekeeper and relatively low cleaning standards, I only spend 3.5 hours per week on cleaning. Grocery shopping is done online in the elevator at work, husband picks up. I spend Sunday or Monday night planning (Bills, Babysitters, meals, etc.) the week for an hour or 2 . And I read everyday for at least 1-2 hours.

            Track your time. It is amazing how revealing it is. Tasks fill the time you have more often than you may realize.

          2. @Abigail- setting a timer can be a great idea for little tasks. If you know that you have 45 minutes for these things, you tend to prioritize and work efficiently (e.g. not so much comparison shopping…) vs. if they’re always an option.

    3. @Rinna- if you’re commenting on this particular time log, you can add up the numbers I’ve described and see that there’s still plenty of time for these things to occur. I didn’t print the whole log for privacy, but there’s laundry on Saturday morning, ironing on Sunday, home admin Sunday evening plus week planning etc. 32 hours of work, 20 hours of homeschooling, 6 hours of exercise, and about 12 hours for the other stuff I mentioned is 70 – with 168 minus 50 or so for sleeping this stuff to keep the lights on happens in the other hours.

    4. When you homeschool, you don’t have all the forms to fill out for all the activities because you are the one doing those things with your kids. You don’t have to get the daycare bag ready for the next day because you’re at home. The down side of being home all day is that you have all day to mess up the house, but if you tidy before meals (10 minutes or less) and before bed, you can keep on top of it. You also can take ten minutes to put in a crock pot meal or put chicken in the oven for supper but because you do it as part of your day, it’s not on that long list of logistics to do the night before (and it doesn’t probably show up on your time sheet because you spend most of the half hour doing something else). All of those mundane tasks get done in little mini-breaks throughout the day. When you are gone for 10+ hours a day (including commute and lunch hour) it takes a lot more planning to get those mundane chores done because you only have a small window of opportunity in which to do them.

    5. Fair point… I also always find it very interesting that those things never get mentioned when people report on time use. I think it says a lot about the little value we put on those tasks. They are not worth mentioning because they are not work. Yet they are. They are all tiny bits of time that add up – not to 168 hours for sure, I agree with Laura’s suggestion to track time (I did once and it was not as much as I thought) – and since they’re mostly boring activities, they create frustration and a feeling of lasting longer than we thought.

      1. (Reading and commenting on phone did not work well – again! This was meant as a reply to Rinna’s comment. Sorry for the confusion!

      2. @Ellie – this is an interesting phenomenon- anything we don’t want to do, or find boring, tends to expand in our mental accounting of it. That’s one reason people tend to overestimate work hours and underestimate leisure time. Housework likewise expands and is over-estimated (by both men and women).

  4. I identify with many other commenters regarding all the other household chores. Dinner is cooked by the older kids but there are SO many other things to do in running a household. I try and spend one day/week getting most of the house stuff (groceries, laundry, dinner prep) done and then focus the rest of the week on my work. Some weeks that works but other weeks not so much! Super helpful, though. I love seeing how everyone squeezes things in as I often feel like I could never add anything new.

  5. Laura, thank you so much for sharing this! I love the make-over Tuesday, it is so helpful to see how real people are dealing with their time, rather than read that “research says that women tend to spend more time in the kitchen, etc”. I would love to read and learn from more personal stories, and this one was very helpful! Thank you!

    1. @Irena – excellent, many more to come! Though I probably won’t run them on Tuesdays since that’s the podcast release date 🙂

  6. As a time-management loving, homeschooling mother of four (with a few side gigs), I found your first paragraph very much like a pat on the back. 😊 Thank you! Tweaks can be satisfying, although the realization that something can be pushed off the schedule entirely is even more so.

    1. @Jennifer – oh, much can be pushed off the schedule! I think that is often the biggest time management breakthrough.

  7. I’m so looking forward to the rest of this Tranquility by Tuesday blog series. I found this blog post so inspiring to see somone get so much done, (and not all of it being work related) makes me feel that I can do more too! I can’t wait to see what else you have in store!

  8. I really appreciated this post! I also hope to homeschool and work and would love to hear Catherine or another homeschooling mom on the podcast!

    1. @Natalia – for the moment, yes. I have a fair number of these in the hopper! I may collect more if I turn this into a bigger project.

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