If this article were a new car, it would have one of those ridiculously big red bows on top of it. I don’t know about you, but as a go-go-go working mom of two, gaining an extra hour would be one of the greatest gifts I can think of. Not so I can wash the grill pan soaking in the sink or respond to the three work emails that popped into the inbox. I mean another hour to — oh, I don’t know — sit. Or do something about the sorry state of my toenails. That’s where these big-red-bow tips come in. Take a look at what experts have pinpointed as the top time sucks in your day — then follow their solutions and, guaranteed, you’ll find yourself with free time. As someone who got an advanced preview of these genius tricks, trust me on this one! I’m admiring my new pedicure right now.
Time Waster #1: Being a Type-A Parent at Home
Face it: Most of us aren’t chilling out around the house — we’re in Accomplish Mode. And we need to dial it back a little:
- Don’t go it alone because it’s easier. Yes, guys have stepped way up in both their help with the kids and housework. Still, a Pew Research poll found that women are taking on 18 hours of cleaning and other chores, compared to their husband’s 10 hours. So: delegate! “Asking my husband to do the grocery shopping was tough to let go of. He’s poky and might pick up the wrong thing or buy a brand I don’t love — but he does it and I appreciate it so much,” says time management expert Shari McGuire, author of Take Back Your Time. “The time and hassle it saves me is incredible!” School-age kids can certainly pitch in by unloading the dishwasher or making their beds.
- Lower your house-cleaning standards. “Even if other parents are coming over. But since they probably have a messy house, too, they’re not going to think less of you,” says McGuire. “In the process, you’re going to be far less stressed and be able to carve out time to relax.” Can’t fathom that? Then baby step it: Start by just making sure the areas that will be seen (like the entryway) or that you spend the most time in (the living room, say) are tidy, and don’t worry about the rest. Got piles of paperwork in your home office? Or loads of laundry stacked up in the bedroom? Close the door. Done.
- Schedule a mandatory breather. “I used to always get to the end of the night, tuck my son in and then go off and clean up the kitchen, while my husband would kick back in the living room. And I thought: He’s onto something here!” says McGuire. “So I made up a rule that if he sits and decompresses, I do, too. Giving myself that permission made such a difference. I go to bed happy, not exhausted and spent.” You should do the same. Name a time (and no, it can’t be 11 P.M.!) and make it known that you’re off the clock after that.
Time Waster #2: Not Having an Errand Strategy
A little advanced planning can save you a surprising amount of time each day. Take a look:
- Consolidate your chores. Research at Cornell University found that grouping similar activities together saves time and is far less stressful than ping ponging from one thing to something completely different. That’s because anything that causes you to mentally switch gears — like leaving “work mode” to go pick up the dry cleaning on your lunch break — actually adds anxiety to your day. Choosing one time to bang out all your errands, however, can have the opposite effect. And even though it may seem like a timesaver to dash out here and there, think about it: What eats up fewer hours in the long run — going out five times during the week, or once?
- Have snacks handy. “It’s crazy how fast 15 minutes can get away from you when you’re out with the kids. All of a sudden they’re hungry and you have to stop at a convenience store or drive thru to feed them,” says McGuire. She suggests keeping a basket of healthy, nonperishable snacks in the car (think baggies of trail mix) and water to prevent that speed bump.
- Take advantage of after-school activities. “When your kid is at gymnastics or karate class, you don’t need to watch 100 percent of the time,” says McGuire. “Bring something to work on—thank you cards or emails you need to send. You can focus when they’re really participating instead of when they’re warming up.” If you kids are older (say, fourth-grade on up), let them know you’re going to slip out for a few and run to the grocery or ATM.
Time Waster #3: Using Downtime on Unfulfilling Stuff
The average working mom has three-and-a-half hours of free time a day, according to the American Time Use Survey. Shocked? It’s true. The reason it can feel like you have zilch is how you’re spending it, according to John P. Robinson, Ph.D., director of the Americans’ Use of Time Project at the University of Maryland, College Park. To get them back:
- Don’t get sucked into social media. Facebook and Pinterest are great for keeping up with friends, but we tend to get lost in them, McGuire notes. She suggests setting a timer for 10 minutes — pop in and pop out — and get back to real life. Another good reason to limit yourself: Research has found that the more hours you spend on social media, the greater your risk of depression and stress. Not exactly relaxing.
- Cut down on TV. The average American spends three hours a day in front of the tube. “But research shows that in terms of happiness, watching TV is one of the lowest rated activities — and it wastes so much of our free time,” says Dr. Robinson. In fact, TV ranks way down near housework in terms of things we enjoy doing. What does reduce feelings of frazzle? Activities that are more engaging — especially social interactions like playing with the kids, volunteering, walking the dog, and socializing, he explains. Click off the TV and do one of those things, instead; you’ll feel much more rejuvenated.
Time Waster #4: Letting “Free Moments” Elude You
Another surprising stat from Dr. Robinson: Not only do working moms have more leisure time than we realize, we actually have more than our moms did 20 years ago. “However, that free time is usually fragmented—a few minutes here and there—rather than in big blocks,” he says. And since we often don’t seize those moments, here’s how to start now:
- Pinpoint exactly what you do. Have you ever wondered where your day went? “Often we fritter away time without realizing it. Especially at home,” notes Dr. Robinson. Luckily, there’s an app for that. Toggl (iOS, Android; free) ATracker (iOS; $5), and other time-trackers will help you figure out exactly how you’re spending every moment and where your “black holes” are—so you can avoid them, or do something more enjoyable with them.
- Use your commute to unwind. The average American spends 46 minutes a day traveling to and from work—that’s a big chunk you have all to yourself, no kids, no other demands. If you use it to do something nice for yourself, you’ll be happier when you walk through the door at the end of a long day. Listen to a book on tape, or a playlist that takes you back to your carefree days. If you use your bus or train ride to work, knit or just gaze out the window and daydream instead.
Time Waster #5: Being Inefficient on the Job
A few research-proven strategies can save you loads of time at work — so you can get out earlier and relax at home (instead of catch up). To become more productive:
- Map out your day first thing. Take a few moments over your A.M. coffee to jot down a few priorities — and don’t move on to other tasks on your to-do list until you finish them. Going into the office with a plan — even if your boss throws you a couple of curveballs — will keep you from getting distracted by less important job stuff. Major time saver!
- Stop checking your email every two seconds. “Every time your email dings, it interrupts your train of thought. So turn that sound off, as well as IM. Just by making that one change, you can gain up to 20 minutes of productivity for each interruption you ignore,” says McGuire. She recommends setting aside a few specific times when you’ll check email — and only check it then — to stay focused. Because get this: Research shows that workers spend a quarter of their day reading and responding to email. The less often you look at it, the fewer interruptions — and the more you accomplish.
- Spend more time actually working. People report spending 20 percent of the day — or about two hours — goofing off on non-work-related things. We all love a little watercooler gossip or Internet shopping. But devoting even an hour more to the job — and being more mindful of not allowing yourself to get too distracted — will help get more off your plate. That way, you can enjoy your after-work hours instead of fretting about all the tasks you didn’t get done.
- Have a hard stop. Work has a way of bleeding into our home lives when you check email after dinner, or do other office-related jobs. McGuire’s strategy: “Let coworkers know that after a certain time — say, 7 P.M. — you’re offline. And stick to that rule. You need to give yourself that time to decompress.”
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