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5 Ways to Make Your Days Run More Smoothly

Before Molly Gold had her first child, she knew exactly what she needed to do each day and how to keep track of her accomplishments. And then she had her son. Suddenly, her days seemed to careen out of control. "I had this beautiful baby and I wanted to be home with him, but I was so frustrated by all the errands, laundry, and dinners that needed to get done," says Gold, who lives in South Riding, Virginia, and now has three kids.

As Gold  -- and every new mom  -- discovered, having kids and running a household may not be rocket science, but it's not exactly a walk in the park, either. You're effectively launching a new business, with all the challenges that entails. How do you structure the openness of your days  -- or the hours before and after work  -- to meet the often opposite demands of parenthood and life? How do you deal with interruptions? And at day's end, how can you feel not just exhausted but also accomplished?

For most of us, figuring out the answers to these questions is ongoing. In my house, my youngest daughter's decision to stop napping turned the entire family's schedule upside down. Gold's family of school-age kids experienced a similar upheaval with the birth of their new baby sib. But whether you're brand-new to motherhood or an old hand at it, you can learn and adapt time-management strategies from other moms who've spent years figuring  -- and often refiguring  -- them out for themselves.

Contributing editor Barbara Rowley's last feature for Parenting was "Fun in a Pinch" in the February issue.

Think differently about housework

It isn't necessarily the chores you do that can drag down your day. It's the ones you don't do that are the real drain. More times than I can count, I've noticed the dirty shelves in my refrigerator and dropped everything to clean them  -- derailing my schedule  -- or added them to my mental to-do list and obsessed about it. Either way, my day becomes a little more frantic.

Wendy Wilkins became aware of the same problem, and with four kids (ages 10, 8, 2, and 4 months), she decided she couldn't let cleaning up dominate her life. So the Ainsworth, Nebraska, mom devised two solutions.

She designates one day of the week for different chores, leaving two days free for the things she might not get done. This not only breaks up her housework (an approach many moms recommend), but has a bigger benefit: "It's a sanity saver," she says. "For instance, I know I always mop on Thursday. If the floor is dirty on Saturday, I can just say, 'Oh well, Thursday is coming.'"

As for larger cleaning jobs (sweeping the garage, cleaning out the fridge), Wilkins keeps a file divided by months with individual cards listing these types of chores. Whenever she has some extra time, she pulls a card. When she's finished the task, she files the card into the following month's section.

The best part of her system: It does away with those never-ending (mental) obligations. "I keep it in the file and then I don't have to keep it in my brain," she says. "It really helps me see that the chores I set out to accomplish on a certain day can get done and that the other things will be done on another day."

Make an I-did-it list

One day, the husband of my friend Melissa absentmindedly compared her to another mom who seemed to get lots done every day. "I don't even think he was aware that he'd hurt my feelings," she says. "But I had this moment of self-doubt about what I do all day."

This inspired her to revise her to-do list and instead write down everything she'd actually accomplished  -- from laundry and food shopping to picking up the kids and running an art gallery. That gave Melissa the boost she needed. "When you reflect on what you really do every day, you realize you're a lot more effective than you give yourself credit for."

I keep a three-ring binder, with pages for writing down goals and keeping vacation information, schedules, and errand lists. In the inside pocket is my to-do list divided by my four priorities: family and friends, work, personal, and community. Just looking at the four headings, as well as the things that I need to do, makes me feel more balanced and successful  -- a written acknowledgment that each day I'm taking care of the things that matter to me.

It's also important to look at a to-do list as a pick-and-choose affair, says Melissa . "It doesn't bother me if I don't get things done in a certain order. You have to go with the flow and just finish what you can."

Be flexible  -- but have a bottom line

Of course, life with kids demands give-and-take. But it's a good idea to have a few nonnegotiable moments to make sure your day doesn't get derailed. When Kim Speek's oldest child started kindergarten, mornings were complete mayhem. A big part of the problem: No one could agree on what to have for breakfast.

So Speek, a mom of two in Boulder, Colorado, instituted a set breakfast menu: oatmeal on Mondays, eggs on Tuesday, and so forth. Once she stopped asking her children what they wanted to eat, the morning routine was more relaxed. "At the kids' request, we started doing a set menu for lunches, too, which makes packing them the night before a breeze," she says. "And some of my friends have started doing this for every meal."

"I have to have a simple list of chores so I know how to map out my days," says Laura Hargrave, a mom of a preschooler and a kindergartner in Austin, Texas. "Because if we don't start our day with a schedule  -- even if it just involves going to the grocery store in the morning  -- we all fall apart."

A plan not only gives you a sense of control, it short-circuits those endless discussions brought on by too many choices. So if you know a trip to the park at least once a day is vital to your sanity, stick to it  -- regardless of your kids' moods.

Be number one (at least once a day)

I know I need exercise, as well as time for myself, so part of my daily plan includes knocking off both goals by going on a vigorous walk with my dog. Sometimes, though, I can't get to it because of one chore or another. Then I find it's almost dinnertime and I haven't even gotten close to getting out the door.

Putting your own needs off  -- even until later in the day  -- is often a big mistake, says Mandie Crawford, a mom of seven in Calgary, Alberta. "Because we have so many things on our plate, we tend to do everything for everybody else before we think of the things that are important to us."

The problem with this approach? We're often out of time or energy by the time we take care of everyone else. But more important, our actions tell our families that our priorities aren't, well, priorities. "I spent the longest time wanting to go back to school, and then I finally signed up for one class," says Crawford. "It was a small step, but it was enough to make me feel as if I was no longer putting myself last."

In order to escape that trap, Laura Roe, a veterinarian in Bozeman, Montana, says she schedules appointments to play tennis or to exercise along with her work appointments and the activities of her two daughters, 3 and 6. She says she's able to be selfish with her time because she takes the long view. "You're going to be a mom for the rest of your life. A few hours off a day isn't going to have a big impact on your kids. And it makes you a better mother when you are with them."

Do less  -- and do it slowly

Sure, there's much about your life on the job that can be useful and make your days at home more effective. But there are some tactics that don't make the transition quite so well  -- such as speed, efficiency, and multitasking.

When productivity becomes the ultimate goal at home, important things get pushed to the sidelines. There's no time for me to explain to my 4-year-old how to set the table, say. And there's no time for me to focus completely on any task: Just when I start to pay a bill, I get up to empty the dryer; on the way to fold the laundry, I help my daughter pick up her blocks. With so many things half done, it's easy to start feeling totally overwhelmed and underproductive.

At certain times of my life, the answer was clear: I simply needed to do more  -- and do it faster. But having kids has taught me that this is no longer an acceptable solution. I can't feel good about a day where I crossed everything off my list but didn't connect with my kids or enjoy the day during the process.

Now, as much as possible, I try the opposite approach: I do less more slowly and I try to enjoy it more. Whether it's spending an extra moment brushing my daughters' hair and tying it up in a special bow or lingering over the pages of the book I'm reading to them, I've discovered that a smooth day at home with my family isn't a race  -- it's a stroll. And that's made all the difference.

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