We all dream about things that might make life more enjoyable and relaxed -- whether it's taking a three-week vacation to Hawaii, hiring a live-in maid, or sending the kids to boarding school (well, maybe just for a couple of weeks). But fantasies aside, there are lots of small changes that can quickly brighten the everyday. Here, some easy real-world ways to give yourself a boost:
Create a toy-free zone.
When we moved into a larger house two years ago, I decided that the first floor would be off-limits to all toys. It's taken a bit of training to get my kids, Mathilda and A.J., to cart their stuff upstairs every evening, but the result is worth it: I can walk through the living room at the end of the day and enjoy the new hardwood floors without being crippled by stray Legos.
You needn't spend big bucks on designer bouquets to get a lift from fresh flowers. Every other week, Lisa Woods, a mom of three in New Castle, Pennsylvania, goes to Wal-Mart and buys herself the most beautiful dozen roses she can find. "They cost only about ten dollars, and they're my favorite flower," she says. "I could waste that money at a fast-food drive-through or something, but instead I get the pleasure of a week's worth of beauty."
You don't even need a whole arrangement: Stop at the florist and pick out just two or three gorgeous stems, put them in your favorite vase, and enjoy their simple elegance.
Set the table.
What are you saving that wedding china for? Okay, holidays, but why not Tuesday dinner or Saturday brunch? The joy of having nice things is in using them (and seeing how pretty they look on your table). If you're worried about letting them get too close to your rambunctious toddler, give him the plastic dish while you and your husband enjoy the plates you spent hours choosing.
Find your inner peace early.
When I wake up in the morning, I try to lie very still for a few moments, slowly stretching my arms, legs, and back. It feels great, and instead of starting the day already rushed and frantic, I'm calm. (Don't forget to hit the snooze button in case you relax so much that you fall back to sleep!)
Keep a log.
No matter which sort of exercise you do -- running five miles, doing 25 sit-ups per day, or walking the stroller around the neighborhood -- keep track of it on a calendar or in a journal. It's a satisfying and simple way to feel you've accomplished something that's good for you.
Only buy clothes that fit.
Stop buying things two sizes too small (and feeling guilty that you don't wear a size 6 after two kids) or too big (tents aren't flattering on anyone). Whatever your size, you're sexier and slimmer in clothes that flatter your shape.
Discover your niche.
You'll never stick to any workout that you hate, so find something that makes you feel good before, during, and after. It doesn't have to be an actual sport, either. "I really enjoy walking through old cemeteries," admits Maria Swanson, a mother of four in Sewickley, Pennsylvania. "There's a lovely one close to our house, filled with trees and birds." She goes there frequently for the exercise as well as the tranquility.
Cemeteries not your thing? Bounce on a mini-trampoline for a solid workout (always supervise your kids if they want to try it too) or break out the old roller skates.
Drop one activity per week.
Paring your kids' schedules will leave everyone happier and calmer. You don't have to forget about soccer, dance, Gymboree, or playdates -- just don't do them all at once.
After work, Nanci Schwartz of Lady Lake, Florida, sometimes heads outside with her husband and 19-month-old daughter, Acadia. "We all sit and draw on the sidewalk with chalk," she says. "It's great family time for us, and it makes me feel happy because it reminds me of my own childhood. Plus, it's helped us meet more of our neighbors."
Set up a reading hour.
Whether or not your kids can read yet, designate some time every afternoon (before dinner is ideal) or evening as "quiet time." Fill a corner with cozy pillows, a basket of books, and a light snack. And when the kids are otherwise occupied, use the spot to relax with your own good read.
Be a subscriber.
To have precious quality time with her husband, Susan Nielsen, a mother of two in Spokane, Washington, buys season theater tickets. "Since we prepay, we don't put off going," she says. "We always have a wonderful time, with dinner before the show."
Tell him what a fine job he's doing.
Every time I praise my husband for being wonderfully gentle with the kids, or for his endless patience, I'm likely to get compliments in return.
Talk to him while he shaves.
Or when he's outside washing the car. Or when the commercials come on during Monster Garage (you might want to mute the TV). Point is: You can snatch some time during the day for a little chat -- the dishes you would've started can wait.
Get happy feet.
Relieve leg strain by using a comfy footrest under your desk (a couple of phone books works too); you'll have more energy at the end of the day.
Leave your desk for lunch.
At least once a week, drag yourself out for lunch. Skip the fast food and go to the nicest place you can afford. Or bring a sandwich and eat it outside. Having a bright spot in the middle of the workweek helps you make it to Friday.
Indulge in a small luxury.
I keep gourmet flavored tea bags at my desk. At $5 a box, it's not the cheapest brew around, but it's well worth the kick I get when I smell cinnamon and orange wafting through my office.
Host a girls' night in.
Once a month, Maria Swanson gets together with a few girlfriends for wine, dinner, and catching up. "We take turns being hostess," she says. "We all have kids, jobs, and plenty of other obligations, but it's something we never want to miss."
A shopping trip without the kids is well worth the planning it's sure to take. You'll be able to dish freely and try things on without having to worry about your toddler crawling into the dressing room next door.
Lend a helping hand.
What's easy for you isn't always for someone else, so find out who loves what. Call a friend tonight and offer to have her kids over for dinner (what's another box of pasta?) if she'll make her famous brownies for the preschool bake sale tomorrow.
I'll take those (and a glass of milk) over a trip to Hawaii any day.
Charlotte Latvala is the author of Baby's First Year Workbook and the mom of A.J., 5, and Mathilda, 8.