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!