When I was a girl, long before the advent of Mommy blogs and Pinterest, my mom knew a thing or two about awesome birthday parties. One year I had a cake decorating party where she made all of the girls their own individual cakes, and then she sewed aprons and chef’s hats for all of us to wear while decorating the cakes. Another year, she created a replica of the Millennium Falcon out of cake, frosting, ice cream cones and candy for my brother’s birthday, which was served to a group of totally unappreciative four-year-olds. When I turned sixteen, she threw me a surprise party, and I thought she had a stomach bug because she locked herself in the bathroom for two days to decorate the cake.
Yes, you read that right, two days.
When my mom takes on a project, it’s invariably creative, beautifully executed, and perfect. She doesn’t take shortcuts, and it shows. Those aprons my nine-year-old friends and I wadded up into balls when we finished our cakes didn’t have a stitch out of place. Whenever I have a project where I know that details count, she’s the first person I call.
But she would be the first person to tell you that all of that perfection has a cost. She pays in time.
Yesterday was my daughter’s birthday. She got half a dozen cheap presents I bought on Amazon and her older sister wrapped while I was getting the oil changed (in between trips to the orthodontist and the bakery, where I ran in and grabbed a cake). She didn’t have a birthday party, because she said she didn’t want one, which was fine by me.
I’m not quite sure how to say this without sounding full of myself, so I’m just going to say it: people often ask me how I manage to do the things I do in my life. I’m not the CEO of Facebook or anything, but I do keep six small people alive, work part time, hold a church calling, volunteer at my kids’ school, exercise, read, write, and (with lots of help) keep Segullah moving forward from day to day. Most days I even go to bed before 10pm, with the laundry folded and no dirty dishes in the kitchen sink.
I prioritize efficiency over perfection.
Here are a few tricks I’ve learned over the years that have helped me learn how to squeeze as much as possible out of the twenty-four hours in the day:
1) Set a timer
When I first started teaching writing, the grading nearly did me in. I’d get a huge stack of papers, and feel an incredible amount of stress about giving them all the appropriate amount of attention. When a colleague told me that she set a timer, and gave a certain amount of time to each paper, it felt so liberating! Suddenly I could spend my time focusing on the one or two things I really wanted my students to get out of an assignment, and I could let go of all of the comma splices along the way. These days, I apply the timer to lots of things– writing blog posts on my personal blog, folding a load of laundry (an episode of Modern Family is the perfect amount of time to fold two loads), or monitoring my kids’ piano practice so I don’t have to.
2) Make a list (unless it stresses you out)
I’ve written before about how I love to make lists. But the truth is, after a week or so of list mania, I get fatigued. So I try to save the lists for when I’m working on a big project.
3) Get in a routine
When my life is in a routine, I don’t need a list all that much. I know I need to empty the dishwasher every morning, throw in a load of laundry after I shower, make dinner, prep my Primary lesson, because those are things I do every week. It’s only when we deviate from the routine (like on vacation) that the laundry piles up and the exercise doesn’t happen.
I know, multitasking has had its day in the sun and people now think it’s bad for you. I’m not talking about texting and driving or checking Instagram while reading stories to your kids (who, me?), I’m taking about listening to my scriptures while I run, or reading books while I sit outside of my preschoolers’ bedroom to make sure they actually stay in bed when they’re supposed to be falling asleep. It definitely beats playing 2048 for an hour.
5) Learn to be efficient
A few years ago, I was listening to the Planet Money podcast while cleaning up stuffed animals in the basement (once a multitasker…) and they interviewed an efficiency expert. I kept crossing the room, bringing an Elmo doll or a stuffed puppy back to the stuffed animal bin, as Matt LeBlanc (not from Friends) talked about taking fewer steps and working in quadrants to be more efficient. I still think about that interview when I’m picking up the house. My husband jokes that I get into a fugue state where I don’t think, I just organize. I just think I have my head in the game.
6) Do the most important thing last
I know this sounds stress-inducing, and it is, but when I have too many things to do and not enough time to accomplish them all, I often save the one I know I absolutely have to get done for last. That doesn’t mean I’m procrastinating planning my lesson until an hour before class, it just means the lesson gets planned and the bathroom gets cleaned.
I’m a recovering anti-delegator, but now that my kids are old enough to do their own laundry, why not let them? What’s the sense in having a willing staff if you insist on doing all the work yourself?
8) Not all things are important enough to be stressed over
I started this blog post an hour ago and gave myself an hour to write it. Is it the most beautiful piece of prose that has even come from my brain? Not even close. But it’s (almost!) done.
9) Know your limitations, and don’t spend too much time on stuff you don’t love
Since I’m not a detail-oriented person, I’m not a great copyeditor. So when I have a job that requires very close reading, I use someone who has that skill. While I like to cook, I hate trying to make a nice dinner when I need to be driving kids to lessons and supervising homework. So I save my fancy cooking for Sunday and we eat grilled cheese and soup from Costco during the week.
10) Be a little selfish
I’m a runner because I carve out the time and trust that my family will fill in the gaps when I’m gone. I write while my kids watch tv, and read books when I could be a better Suzuki mom. Life’s hard enough without these small pleasures.
One of my life’s great pleasures is working with my mom. We actually find that despite our different approaches to projects, we make a great team. She focuses on the pretty details and I wash the dishes (imperfectly but quickly), and everyone is the happier for it.