Little kids are tough. Anyone who’s been through the baby and toddler stage knows that caring for them can by physically exhausting.
However, there are schedule upsides. For one thing, young children go to bed relatively early. This means that a couple might be able to spend a reasonable amount of grown-up time together after the children go to bed (even if neither party has energy to do much beyond watching TV!)
Likewise, before the school years, two career couples generally set their childcare hours to cover their working hours, as opposed to trying to adapt their work hours to school schedules. When the work day doesn’t need to start at the crack of dawn, it’s possible to use the hours before work for personal pursuits.
When those conditions change, all sorts of good habits can go out the window.
That was the struggle for Leah Burman, who volunteered herself for a time makeover for my Tranquility by Tuesday series. She’s a software developer and agile coach whose kids are 12 and 9. “I want to find time for regular exercise and fun/time with my husband without kiddos around,” she wrote.
Previously, she had exercised early in the morning (5:30 a.m.) before work. She had downtime with her husband in the evening after the kids were in bed (8:30 p.m.) and before her bedtime (10:00 p.m.).
“Now the kids are older and up until pretty much when I start getting ready for bed, so hubby and I have very little time without the kids around weekday evenings,” she noted. Complicating matters: He’s a collegiate athletic coach, so weekend competitions make weekend date nights challenging during the season.
As for exercise, this was now complicated by a work schedule change. With older kids, Leah and her husband no longer had regular during-the-week childcare. Leah had decided to work from 6 or 7 in the morning in order to leave in time to pick up the kids from school (her husband took the AM shift of getting the kids ready and out the door). “This has killed my morning workout routine and I’ve tried to motivate to workout while the kids are at afternoon activities or later at night, and it just doesn’t work well for me,” she wrote. “I end up skipping a majority of the time.”
I know lots of people would like to find exercise time and couple time in the midst of a full schedule, and I know that the usual “use your mornings!” advice doesn’t work for everyone. So I asked Leah to track her time and send in her schedule.
The first week she tracked was impressive already — which is a hazard of offering to do time makeovers for people who read productivity blogs and books. Leah was using her commute to listen to podcasts. She had planned all sorts of weekend adventures, a habit she says she got into when the kids were little and she had 20-some weekends a year of solo parenting because of her husband’s events. They went boating with friends. They went to a county fair, apple picking and — rounding out the fall agricultural theme — to a vineyard for a wine tasting too. She had carved out a chunk of her work time for “deep work” and had specifically labeled it as such.
As for exercise and couple time? This was honestly…not bad. She worked from home one day a week (something that she had negotiated to do regularly) and she and her husband had lunch together then (collegiate athletic practices generally happen later in the day so he had flexibility earlier on). She lifted weights on Saturday, and went for an evening walk with friends in the middle of the week. In both cases, it wasn’t a lot, but it was something.
I find this is often true. We tell ourselves that we rarely or never do things. In fact we do them…we just don’t do them as much as we want. But “not as much as I want” is a very different story than “never” or “almost never.” Time tracking can reveal this.
In any case, I had a few time management mantras that I thought would be helpful for Leah as she tried to build more exercise and couple time into her life.
The first: Move by 3 p.m. Exercise is a great way to start the day, and if you are a morning exerciser — as Leah was in a past life — this is awesome. That said, not everyone can go to the gym every weekday morning; starting work at 6 a.m. makes that process painful. But just about everyone who is physically capable of walking can build in short walk breaks during the day. Doing so not only has physical benefits, it boosts productivity. People return from their walk breaks refreshed and able to focus. Walking for 15 minutes at some point by mid-afternoon will build in more than an extra hour of physical activity to the week.
Leah found that she often needed a break by mid-morning (starting work at 6 a.m. will do that!). So she was willing to try this, and agreed to look at her schedule each work morning and see where it could fit.
As for her favorite form of exercise — lifting weights — and couple time, both of these could benefit from another of my favorite mantras: Three times a week is a habit.
Honestly, this mantra can be life-changing. Aiming to do something daily — as in 7 days a week, or even 5 — can make people give up. But for most things, daily isn’t necessary. Things do not have to happen daily — nor do they have to happen at the same time every day — in order to count in our lives. Anything you do three times a week has a regular place in your life. And often aiming for three times a week is quite doable.
In Leah’s case, she didn’t need to do early morning workouts in order to lift weights three times a week. She could certainly do her routine on both Saturdays and Sundays. She could also probably make space for it on her work-from-home day, possibly when she would have been commuting. That would be three times right there. Coupled with her daily walks, she would be getting quite a bit of exercise.
For couple time, they also needed to look for non-traditional moments that could happen regularly. The weekly lunch date was a great idea. They could also think small. Leah mentioned that they’d used to do a regular during-the-week date night. It had somewhat fallen by the wayside with kid activities and such. There was no reason not to revive this, especially now that the kids no longer really needed a babysitter for short periods of time. They could go out for a drink after family dinner at a place nearby, leave the 12-year-old in charge, and literally be back in 75 minutes. They could also look for little moments on weekends when the kids could be told to entertain themselves. Leah mentioned that they had a porch off their bedroom that could be theirs for conversation if they chose to retreat there. One lunch, one during-the-week drinks, and one weekend bout of porch time would get them to three adults-only conversations without anyone having to stay up late. And three times a week is a habit!
Leah agreed to try this too. She tracked her time again, and the log she sent in was worthy of many gold stars. She had built in a walk break during each work day. “Small iterative changes can add up,” she wrote. “I love walking 15 minutes outside each day. I have a little streak going now. I’ve done that every day since October 5. This requires a bit of up front planning, like this week when rain was coming,” but she made it work, “and it just feels great!”
She lifted weights three times that week: twice on weekends, and one weekday morning. She and her husband had lunch, went out for drinks, and had several long conversations (not just one!) They’d also started walking the dog together occasionally, which gave them a nice bit of couple time while getting this chore out of the way. She noted that they were “happily surprised to find how much time we could unearth if we were intentional about it.”
She said that the “three times a week is a habit” mantra really helped her reframe her situation. She needed to look at her schedule “and throw away older conceptions about time. My kids are 12 and 9 and for the past years I’ve always exercised on weekdays while I had childcare” — since her husband was frequently gone on weekends with coaching. “Once I was only looking for 3 times a week to exercise it was obvious that I could do that on Sat/Sun and one weekday morning. My kids are old enough to stay home weekend mornings and they are just going to be sleeping while I’m out exercising early in the morning anyway.”
Once she thought about how she and her husband could “sneak away,” they found loads of opportunities, which made her “much more confident that we’ll continue to have a fun relationship together even after these crazy kids leave the nest!”
(Oh, and the weekend adventures continued unabated: she went out for drinks with friends, went to Joseph and the Technicolor Dream Coat, and to a harvest festival. Phew!)