As a working parent, it’s always challenging for me to get – and stay – on top of the countless demands of modern life: basketball practices for my 9-year-old son, late nights at the office, play dates, volunteering, endless laundry, meal prep, and more. And while technology can be a lifesaver (see tip #4 below), it also puts a lot of extra demands on my time, from monitoring my son’s online activities to keeping all the drivers on my laptop up-to-date.
“We are busier than ever,” says Mark Sirkin, Ph.D, Associate Dean of the School of Social and Behavioral Sciences at Mercy College and the author of Regain Your Balance: At Work, with Family, in Life. “Many of us are working longer hours, especially those who have transitioned to the gig economy, and we’re constantly connected to work through technology,” he says. Add to that the fact that our kids’ lives are more scheduled than in generations past, and it’s no surprise that parents aren’t left with a lot of downtime.
Thankfully, there are concrete steps we can take to save time and stress, and to make sure we’re focusing our energy on what matters most to us. That doesn’t necessarily mean striving for work-life balance, says Maureen Corcoran, work-life Strategy Leader at Prudential. “Our employees told us that balance, which implies equilibrium in the hours spent at work and home, is elusive and not always desirable. You can have it all, but not necessarily all the time and at the same time. The point is to be as effective as possible based on your circumstances and goals.” Here’s how:
Be more mindful
“There’s good news for parents who are stressing over whether working outside the home is negatively affecting their children,” says Corcoran. She points to the groundbreaking book, Ask the Children – What America’s Children Really Think About Working Parents. In it, author Ellen Galinsky reported that only 2% of kids said, “stay home” when asked what they wanted to tell parents. “The real worry for children of working parents was the parents’ level of stress,” says Corcoran. More recent data backs this up: In the American Psychological Association’s 2010 Stress in America survey, more than two-thirds of parents said their stress had slight or no impact on their kids, but only 14% of children reported that their parents’ stress didn’t bother them.1
To counter these effects, it’s essential to be mindful of what your behavior and conversation is communicating, says Corcoran. “Take a couple minutes to purposely de-stress prior to coming home,” she says. You might try stretching before leaving the office or use some simple deep breathing techniques.
Unplug more often
Another key to relieving stress at home: Taking control of your devices. According to the American Psychological Association’s 2017 Stress In America Survey, almost half of parents say they feel disconnected from their families even when they’re together. The reason? Technology.2 Tracy Sigmon and Tee Shipmon limit screen time for their family of four. “We’re intentional about how much we use our phones and laptops. When we’re together, the focus is on our family,” says Tracy, an architect in Memphis, Tennessee. So unless you’re on call, turn off those alerts and you won’t be tempted to respond to every email and text the moment it comes in.
Ask for help
“It really does take a village,” says Dr. Sirkin, “but we’re more isolated than we used to be. So what do you do if you don’t have extended family nearby? Build your own.” Step one: recognize that you don’t have to do everything yourself. Step two: Create a network of parents who can help out in a pinch. Have a frank conversation with a few other families about supporting one another in times of need: when the babysitter cancels, when you can’t be in two places at once. Then make sure you give as often as you get. Offer to watch your friends’ children for a few hours on the weekend, say, if you’ve been asking for a lot of favors. You might also consider setting up a babysitting co-op so you can get some kid-free time whenever you need it, without shelling out for a sitter.
This principle also applies to immediate family. Working moms still report3 doing more housework and childcare than dads. Getting help on the home front sometimes requires letting go of perfection and letting partners handle chores and childrearing duties their way. I’m also a fan of teaching kids to be independent. At the age of 8, my son started doing his own laundry and cleaning the bathroom. I can’t say the work is always impeccable, but he’s learning valuable life skills, and I’m not the one doing it.
Tap into tech
Ordering everything from groceries to household products online saves time, and, if you use an app like Honey that automatically applies coupon codes, you might save money, too. I like Amazon Prime for its free two-day shipping and other benefits, including access to Amazon’s Prime Pantry. I’m also a fan of the following free apps:
- Key Ring, where you create shopping lists, browse circulars, and store coupons in addition to managing all of your reward card info.
- Remember the Milk, which lets you categorize your to-do lists by day, priority, type (work, kids), and more.
Make your money work for you
Especially in households that are juggling two or more jobs, time can be even more valuable than cash. Consider whether there are tasks you’d be better off outsourcing, allowing you to spend more hours with your family. For instance, you might hire a company to clean the gutters, or pay a neighborhood kid to rake leaves. Even if you’re on a tight budget, the hours you bank might be worth the payoff.
Fit in fitness
Don’t have time for the gym? Mom of three Elizabeth Secchia of Leverett, Massachusetts, an administrative assistant who also runs her family’s wedding photography business, works out with her kids. “It’s important for me to exercise so that I have enough energy to get through my days, but I don’t have an extra hour to spend away from my family. So I find ways to get my heart rate up with the kids. We do things like play active games, go for hikes, and go sledding.” I do the same with my son, working squats and lunges into the middle of dance parties and relay races.
Catch your zzzzs
When the to-do list seems a mile long, it’s tempting to short yourself on sleep in order to check a few more things off the list. But in the long run, you’re not doing yourself any favors, says Dr. Sirkin. “With regular sleep, the quality of your cognitive functions will be more efficient and you will think more clearly,” he says. Translation: Get more sleep and you’ll get more done. To do so, go to bed and wake up at the same time every day. And don’t check your phone or watch TV a few hours before bed.
It might sound counterintuitive, but work-life effectiveness often calls for taking care of yourself, even when things are at their most hectic. By relying on the resources available to you -- from technology to a network of friends -- and by regulating your own energy levels and stress, you’ll be better able to manage the multiple demands of modern life.
Mary Giles is a former editor of Parenting and FamilyFun magazines. She appears frequently on the Today Show.