Getting More Family Time

by Barbara Rowley

Getting More Family Time

Having a baby changes your life. But first it changes your days, your hours, and your minutes. From the moment you know you’re pregnant, your new life as a timekeeper begins. You count months before delivery, then minutes between contractions, then segue almost instantly into counting the hours between feedings and naps. Soon you’ll be counting time-outs, school days, and curfews.

Before my daughter, Anna, was born two years ago, I never knew how many hours I slept and often didn’t wear a watch. Now the rhythms of our days are regulated by clocks. I have four hours of free time on the days when I have a babysitter, and two to do chores during nap time when I don’t. These days I wear a watch and look at it often. So do my friends with school-age kids, who spend their days dashing from music lesson to birthday party to playdate.

On the other hand, while we’re all watching time so closely, we feel less in control of it than we ever did. It gets lost. It slips away.

Yet just because time is elusive doesn’t mean it’s impossible to track. Developing ways to make each hour enjoyable  — and getting more time for you and your family  — can be easier than you think.

Barbara Rowley writes regularly about children and family for a variety of national magazines.

Keep an Eye on the Clock

Ironically, one of the best ways to beat the clock is to watch it more closely. Just as keeping a food diary of what you eat in a 24-hour period can help you see where your calories come from, an hour-by-hour diary of a day or two can help you understand where your time is going.

The Americans’ Use of Time Project, a study at Pennsylvania State University, has used such diaries over the past 30 years to track how people spend their days. The results are often not what the participants predict, says Geoffrey Godbey, Ph.D., a professor of leisure studies at the university. "People are surprised that they don’t work as many hours as they thought, that they watch more television, and that despite the fact that they often say they’re too busy to sleep, they spend a lot of time in bed  — asleep."

"Until I kept a time diary, I would have thought, ‘Hey, I’m a professor  — I don’t watch much television,’" says Godbey. "It turns out I watch fifteen hours a week."

Do What You Like

Just knowing where your time goes isn’t enough. You also need to separate the activities you’re enjoying from those you’re not. Then, decide which of the unenjoyable tasks are really necessary.

Researchers at the Strong Families Study  — an ongoing, international survey of 14,000 families that’s been conducted over 20 years  — found that people regularly overcommitted themselves to things they didn’t like to do. The strongest families recognized this once they made a list of the tasks that made their lives seem hectic. "Inevitably they found activities that weren’t important, that they didn’t have to do, and that didn’t make them happy," says Nick Stinnett, Ph.D., lead researcher in the study and a professor of human development and family studies at the University of Alabama, "so they simply stopped doing them."

Why hadn’t they noticed those aggravating activities before? Maybe they never found the time, Stinnett suggests. "All of us get in a rut and act as though we’ve got to do certain things, but we really don’t." Being more selective (such as not going to every PTA meeting and resisting the chance to sign the kids up for more than a few sports and lessons) creates free hours and relieves a great deal of stress.

Set Three Daily Priorities

It’s easy to get caught up in the barrage of things that experts, friends, and family members tell us we should be doing every day. Tune those expectations out, and start a small and contained list of daily goals. Write down the three top priorities in your life in no particular order. Then note the smallest amount of time you’d feel comfortable devoting to each priority each day, and let these minimums form the base of your schedule. For instance, if you’d like to spend at least an hour with your husband and an hour alone with your child, and know you can’t get away with working less than eight hours, those ten hours should make up the core of most of your days. This exercise can help you see when you’re overreaching: If your daily minimums add up to more than your waking hours, you need to reevaluate what you’re trying to do.

Try Strategic Combinations

Most parents are already pros at doing two or even three things at once. This isn’t a bad idea, as long as you realize that some combinations are better than others. You can combine daily exercise with spending time with a friend, if both of you like to walk or play squash. But taking a toddler out to dinner while trying to get conversation time in with your spouse is probably a bad idea. Your toddler’s goal  — to have your attention  — directly conflicts with your desire to talk to your partner.

On the other hand, kids can make active, happy participants in a housecleaning day  — a successful combination of chores and family time. In fact, the time spent on this combined purpose may actually be better than time that’s planned exclusively around children. "School-age kids often find it easier to tell you things when you’re both relaxed and doing something together rather than when you’re focused on them exclusively," says Stinnett. "Families report over and over again that doing things like family chores gives them an opportunity to communicate."

Know When One is Enough

Sometimes even when you can do two things at once, it isn’t the best idea. Trying to talk to a friend while you watch a TV movie, for instance, or to listen to your child rehearse a speech while you wash the dishes, will probably make you all feel rushed. Similarly, trying to squeeze an activity into too short a time  — such as a family ball game during the 15 minutes dinner’s cooking  — will probably make everyone feel cheated. Some activities aren’t worth doing unless you can give them the full attention they deserve.

No Cramming on Weekends

Research shows that two-thirds of our free time comes on weekdays, in small blocks of time that often get lost. This results in a weekend crunch, as families try to fit leisure, chores, exercise, errands, and other obligations into Saturday and Sunday. If this describes your life from week to week, you may need to find ways to spread things out.

To avoid the stress of last-minute cramming, keep an on-going to-do list that breaks tasks into small increments easily accomplished in 15 or 30 minutes. Instead of writing "clean the kitchen," which could not possibly happen while the kids get ready for bed, jot down "mop the floor," "throw out spoiled leftovers," and "restack the pots and pans"  — all as separate, quickly accomplished tasks. Also, keep projects, such as a photo album that needs to be updated or a shirt that needs new buttons, in a spot where they’re easy to grab for ten minutes at a time.

Get Help If You Need It

If meltdowns seem to occur on a regular basis in your house  — especially if they happen at the same, predictable times  — by all means, ask for help. For Nancy Prochaska, a mother and an assistant professor of business at Kennesaw State University, in Georgia, 7:00 to 8:30 in the morning was a nightmare each and every weekday. She finally hired someone just to help her four kids, all under age 7, get dressed and fed during that hour and a half. "It’s important for parents to be honest about what help they need and when they need it," says Prochaska.

You might also find unconventional help. For instance, a college student might amuse your kids during the predinner hour while you cook in exchange for a meal and the use of the washer and dryer; an older neighbor might come over each night to help get teeth brushed and pajamas on in exchange for rides to the supermarket.

Don’t Plan Every Moment

Of course, not every minute has to be used in some quantifiably productive way. In fact, in Stinnett’s research, children and parents both identified unstructured, unplanned time as the happiest  — and possibly most important  — family time of all. "The things that are consistently mentioned in our surveys as the most enjoyable times are activities like walking in the park, reading, fishing, and telling stories," says Stinnett. Doing these sorts of things spontaneously can allow families to relax and enjoy each other.

Even time-management experts agree that building some truly free time into each week is crucial. "Time management can take on a life of its own. You have to be loose enough to do some things on the spur of the moment, or life isn’t fun," says Stinnett.

"In American culture, our identity is becoming based on what we get done," adds Godbey, and the lesson this teaches our children  — that time is to be consumed rather than enjoyed  — is a dangerous one. "Not all acts need to be a means to an end," he says. "We don’t have to be constantly working at something or trying to improve ourselves in some way. Every now and then, we should just be joyfully hanging around."