When I was a kid, my nickname was: “Busy Lizzie.” Now as CEO of an online project management company and mom to two young kids (not to mention wife, daughter, sister, friend…), I’m still running at full speed most days.
There are plenty of people who give work-life balance advice like, “Take time for you.” “Do yoga.” “Just disconnect.”
For better or worse, I’m not one of them.
While it stings to admit it, the truth is that I’m a Type-A, perfectionist control-freak. I spend many of my waking hours thinking about priorities, organization, and how to be more efficient – both at work and in spending time with family and friends. You would have to pry the goal of being both a great mom and a great CEO with a clean house from my cold dead hands.
Here is the set of hacks I’ve worked out to optimize my time and get the most out of every day. I won’t claim that these eliminate life’s inevitable exhaustion, anxieties, and frustrations, but they might help smooth the way.
1. Invest in your relationships the same way you do in your 401k.
By this I mean make small, regularly scheduled investments. My husband and I have a babysitter that shows up every other Thursday night. That means we have to actively *cancel* our dates instead of actively *schedule* them. It’s too expensive to go out all the time, you say? We like to joke that babysitters are cheaper than a divorce. I use the same rule of thumb with friends, family, my dentist, and my hairstylist: never leave one social event/visit/appointment without scheduling the next. The mental overhead it can save is priceless.
2. Pay for services, not for stuff.
I was at a business lunch recently with a woman who remarked: “Wow, I had that same bag about four years ago!” Yup, that’s right. I don’t have much of a handbag budget, but I do have a budget for someone to help with the yard. I only own one pair of boots, but I have my groceries delivered to my doorstep almost every week. As a rule, I try to spend my resources on things that free up time instead of take up space.
3. Treat your home like you do your inbox: get rid of everything you don’t truly value.
If my daughter realized how many pieces of her artwork have gone straight into the recycling bin, she would be mortified (Don’t worry; I still have a huge box of her finest work.). The same goes for every birthday party goody bag toy, unloved stuffed animal, outdated magazine, stain-covered shirt, and extinct piece of media that crosses my path. I can’t stand to have stuff piling up on the counter or leaping out at me when I open drawers. It adds a small amount of friction to every little task, and that can add up to a significant emotional burden. That’s why I try to get rid of at least 15 things every single day. They might be pieces of junk mail or leftovers that are past their prime, but small, frequent acts of de-cluttering can make a big difference in your stress level.
4. When it comes to parenting, comparison is the root of all unhappiness.
I realize that parenting email lists, blogs, and books are supposed to help you raise happy, well-adjusted kids, but for me they backfire. The deluge of advice, product recommendations, and Pinterest boards adds to my anxiety, it doesn’t alleviate it. My answer is to shut them out almost entirely, and to focus my energy on what’s going on within our own four walls. We pick puzzles over piano lessons, drawing pictures over Disneyland and bowls of popcorn in front of the TV over kiddie 5ks. For now, downtime at home and some undivided attention seem to be the key ingredients in their happiness.
5. Conquer meal planning and you can conquer the world.
My number one logistical challenge is how to feed everyone. Four people x (3 meals + 2 snacks) x 7days = 140 times a week we have to prepare or purchase food. Throw in picky eaters, health concerns, and social calendars and you’ve got yourself a ball game. Here’s the hack: make a one-page categorized list of all of your family staples, organized by section in the grocery store, and leave room to write in the random stuff. (Here, go ahead and use mine.) Print out a copy for each week. Start by highlighting the things you’re running out of. On the weekend, plan your weekly meals and add any additional items to the list. Go to the store one time (or order online!) and shop from your fridge and pantry the rest of the week. I know it sounds like a lot of trouble, but it pays back in spades.
6. Allow yourself at least one vice.
Chocolate, reality TV, bad science fiction, use your imagination. I don’t care what it is, but allow yourself at least one indulgence for whenever the stress gets to you. In my case that’s most nights, when you’ll find me on the couch with a glass of wine, watching reruns of The West Wing. Sure, I usually head back to work for a couple more hours it’s over, but by that point I’ve recovered sufficiently to take another whack at my to-do list.