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How to: Get stuff done!

By Shelah Miner

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My son’s birthday cake, made by my mom

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.

How?

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.

4) Multitask
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.

7) Delegate
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.

About Shelah Miner

(Co-Editor-in-Chief) teaches English at BYU and French at a Salt Lake City middle school. She has an addiction to her Audible account, hates making dinner, and embraces the chaos of life with a husband, six kids, a dog, a lizard and four rabbits.

15 thoughts on “How to: Get stuff done!”

  1. Having a routine stresses me out so badly. Have you ever given a cat a bath? That's how I feel at the thought of being forced into a routine. But the few times when I have forced myself to follow a routine, life has gone so much smoother. Even knowing that, I have such a hard time following one. Like, I cannot do it. Don't fence me in!

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  2. Amen Sister !!! I used to be a perfectionist, now I've learned for my sanity that good enough works for me! And that honestly, store bought cake for a birthday is completely fine and so is a Costco appetizer put into a pretty dish when I need to contribute to a potluck. Life moves too quickly to stress about pleasing everyone. And our kids will still turn out great and know their moms had fun with them but also took time to take care of her own mental sanity! On my phone, so ignore all of the grammatical errors. Im reading Facebook while eating lunch 😉

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  3. I need this. I have a lot to offer, but I feel like I'm failing everyone and everything because I can't force myself into a routine. I lack self-discipline–I know this about my easy-going self–but I need to compensate by holding myself accountable to a written schedule.

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  4. Loved this, thank you! On school holidays so our routine is out of whack, but usually am a staunch advocate of routine. Having 6 kids means we have to be!

    My hubby was watching me this Easter weekend and said he now knows why it takes me ages to get things done without a routine: I try do everything at once.
    He is amazing – he actually spoke to the kids about not asking me to do new things until I had done the last thing, as I would interrupt the former task to help them with the latter that they had brought to me, because I try to help them all the time. I was so grateful, because I hadn't thought about explaining it to the kids, I was simply getting more frustrated that everything was taking so long!

    I do use a timer on my phone (I find I can get loads done when I set myself a timed challenge) and I have determined that I can say, 'No'; that I can say, 'I will do that after I have fed this baby,' (we have 7mth old triplets) and that the older kids will just have to wait unless they are capable of doing said task themselves safely, and that I can accept good-enough to be good enough. (Oh, and to delegate more!!)

    Thanks for the kick in the pants to include exercise in my routine again, though. It's also when I get to listen to my scriptures and my latest book, so you would think I would be on it like crazy, but sometimes that's not the case… am off for a run before the bubs need their feed! Lol!

    Your mum sounds amazing, btw! Personally, I was delighted when our eldest asked to have paper hats and whirlie-windmills to give out for his class for his birthday last week, instead of a party!! And I never intend to bake a cake when my hubby can pick one up from the store on his way home so easily! Lol!

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  5. I completely agree with your ideas. I'm a single mom and these are the things that make my life manageable. I am a person who loves routine and it helps me so much now that I'm the only adult in the house. I don't have to think about when to do laundry or when to clean the bathroom because I have a schedule to get all of the essentials done during the week. Sure there are days or weeks when things get derailed, but most of the time routine & efficiency keep me from getting too far behind on things.

    Learning to say no has been something I've been working on. Doing it makes the people pleaser in me wince a little, but I've learned that admitting my limits upfront saves me from tons of stress when I've taken on more than I can manage.

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  6. You mean I don't have to feel guilty for my love of watching Modern Family?! BTW thanks for all the great tips for all those overwelmed, unorginized moms like me ????

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  7. Just J- I think we all have to figure out what works for us. I used to think chore charts for my kids would keep us all in line, and I finally realized that it was so much more work for me to monitor the dang charts than it was worth. So instead they just know they have to pitch in when I ask for it, and each one has a designated job around the house to do each day. I think being efficient or organized looks different in every family.

    Noelle- It sounds like you're doing a great job adjusting from three kids to six. I have "virtual twins"- two kids the same age adopted from China, and the first year they were both home (they were both one), I was in complete survival mode. And I only had two of them, and they weren't newborns!

    KJ- Learning to say no is so hard! I probably wouldn't have to be so dang efficient if I knew how to say no.

    Jen- Modern Family is the least salacious of my tv shows, so no guilt from me. I almost said Scandal. But that's three loads of laundry.

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  8. bravo! We all inevitably will find that varying degrees of this formula work for us, but the emphasis on doing more less perfectly rings true with me. (And I love that you wrote this piece on a timer)

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  9. I love routine too–to a point. For instance, from the time I get up until about an hour after the kids go to school, my life is mainly run by routine–I start the laundry, wake up kids, read the scripture, get kids going on their chores/lunches/school prep, exercise, shower, say good-bye to kids, eat and read, etc. After the morning routine I am exercised, scripturally fed and have the house picked up. That's when I stop following a strict routine and branch out into more spontanaeity and it is SO much more enjoyable because I don't have to think about/feel guilty for not having done the other things already. I am also a minimalist on lots of things, especially if they are important but not that exciting to me. Thanks for your posts. I really enjoy them.

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  10. Hildie, so glad to know it's not only me that feels mentally undone at the thought of forcing myself to stick to a routine!

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  11. I used to record and watch Oprah while folding laundry–my least favorite chore ever!! So I've had to do this task without O for many years now. Time to find a new favorite routine.

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  12. I love this! I am a mom of six too (living in the Midwest) and I use a lot of these same tricks without ever really having put it to words. And I loved getting more ideas! Thanks for taking an hour to share. We sound similar–I always think it's critical to allow ourselves to do less important things in an easier, simpler way–especially when things like teaching our children the gospel and helping them learn to work, serve, and develop healthy relationships, as well as be involved in various sports, music, and so on takes precedence. I suspect there will be a time I will have more chances to dive deeper into projects and explore doing things a different way–perhaps simply to make something beautiful–but this is how things need to be prioritized for my little family right now! They're what I'm helping make beautful! And it is so fun.

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  13. I was wondering how you can be so busy and write this article! The crazy thing is when I determine not to be so busy and just waste time and not do anything in an unconstructive way. My head was destroying my heart. I have recently learned to use my body to guide me. It is very powerful and so when my BODY wanted to swim off I went. I try to listen to my body and justify that. It is the seat of my soul. I have become happier by stopping ignoring, it in different forms, for 20 years. There is much wisdom and resiliency IN MY BODY and yours. Listening to it is helping me fashion a healing way of life that I gravitate to so effortlessly. It's been four days and I am respecting myself more and it's showing in my decisions! The timer technique needs to follow (much later) now and NOT the other way around. If anyone is struggling with routine. I say LISTEN to your body right where you are. And a little piece of wisdom I learned also is – that you are not your mind- you have thoughts but they are not YOU, so…that's where listening to your body is key to calling out inner conflict for good. Go Well everyone and thanks for sharing.

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  14. Lesson to be gained: You too (and your family) can overload yourself with lots of things as long as you can live with mediocrity? Meh.

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