I’ve been watching a lot of Netflix lately. Scratch that. I’m kind of always watching Netflix. At one point last year as I sat consuming my weekday dose, I came across an interesting show about organizing. You’ve probably heard about the Marie Kondo “spark joy” series, too. I started watching it because, well, hey, I could use some tidying tips just like all the other moms I know. It definitely delivered. I learned a whole new way of folding (basically fold all your clothes into little rectangles, organize vertically when possible, and put like shapes or sizes together).
But a few episodes in, the message for success with struggling families was clear: you need less stuff than you think you do, and you’ll be able to enjoy your life more if you only have to take care of the things you really cherish. Only choose items in your life that “spark joy.”
Like I said, it’s a little cheesy, or at least it seems that way on the surface. Somehow, though, as you watch these families part ways with their unnecessary clutter and start to truly enjoy their belongings and their spaces, it’s almost, dare I say, tear-jerking. Episode after episode you watch people get back to what they intended for their families, for their homes, for their lives. It gets real deep real fast, people.
Of course, that next weekend, I started doing the things I had learned. I went through my house category by category, parting with the excess, neatly folding and arranging. My house was definitely cleaner and calmer. It wasn’t perfect — with two kids under the age of six trailing me pulling freshly sorted crayons and toys onto the carpet behind me, it’s never going to be — but it was better. Probably more important than that, though, was the mental process I went through. I learned so much by analyzing, piece by piece, item by item, what I really needed and what was weighing me down — what things I didn’t even really care about but just kept picking up and putting back on a shelf over and over again out of routine.
The more I practiced mindfulness about what sparked joy for me, the more easily I was able to make really good decisions about what I actually wanted my home to be like and look like (i.e., decluttered). Plus, the more I looked at my house that way, the more I started to look at my life that way. The more I pondered, the more I started to think about what tasks I commit to doing week after week, day after day. These are the tasks I feel I have to do, to keep up with the Joneses or to keep myself overly busy just because that’s what “we moms” do or just because I’ve never taken the time to think about it.
I started thinking about how sparking joy is usually pretty far down on my priority list (it’s high on my list for my kids, but it’s relatively low on my list for myself). I started realizing that not only was it time to clean things out and get more joy in my house, it was also time to declutter my schedule and get more joy in my home and with my family.
One of the psychologists in my pediatrics clinic taught me a powerful trick to that end, as organizing your life according to joy levels is a lot more complicated than deciding to donate a five-year-old shirt you’re done wearing. She asks families she sees in our office to get a monthly calendar and write down all of their obligations — meetings, appointments, big school projects, after-school or weekend activities. Unless it’s something they really look forward to all week long, she has them write it all down in red. Then she has them take a blue pen and write down all the activities they do that are for relaxation, for recreation, or for fun.
The results are often shocking to patients as they realize just how much time they spend throughout the week spinning plates. It turns out, the more plates you have to spin, the more work it takes to just keep them all in motion. It’s one thing to get my two daughters to dance class or to music lessons. It’s quite another thing to set three alarms a few months ahead so I don’t miss the opportunity to sign them up in the first place. No wonder I’m (we’re) all stressed to the max. In some ways, we’re choosing to be.
Doing Less So You Can Accomplish More
I’m probably never going to perfectly declutter my home while my kids are young. The constant influx of artwork, clothing, and toys almost guarantees that. I can though, along with all the other families I meet, work on a less-is-more mentality. When our physical spaces, our schedules, and our minds are simpler, they allow us to focus more on what really matters, instead of focusing on trying to maintain a bunch of junk. The studies are clear on this when it comes to the workplace, but it’s true at home, too: the more scattered you are in your focus, the less productive you are. The more you multitask and overload the system, the less likely you are to do any of your tasks well.
I’m also probably never going to be the most organized mom out there. Since perfection is overrated, though, I’m not too worried about getting a Housekeeper of the Year award. To me, getting decluttered isn’t just about cleaning up my house (though that is an amazing by-product). The way I declutter or organize might very well change next month — or the next time I watch a Netflix series — anyway. It’s more about figuring out what’s really important, what really brings joy — in our homes, our schedules, our lives. And, well, who doesn’t want a little more of that?
There are times when having too much to do means you need to just do less, but, the reality is, not everything can be brushed aside. Households have to run, meals have to be made, clothes have to be washed, checkboxes have to be checked. Even our daily tasks don’t have to overwhelm us, though. Efficient working moms use these tricks to get it all done with the least amount of time and stress possible.
They Batch To-dos
Instead of spending all week thinking about what you need to get done to make your life happen, take a chunk of time to make a plan. A half hour should work just fine to organize your day or your week (maybe less once you get really used to this method). Then, set aside another hour or two to, in one sitting, try to move through as much as possible on your list. If you’re still not done once the timer goes off, plan another two-hour chunk in a few days. Compartmentalizing our to-dos reduces our mental load, allowing us to be more mindful throughout the day.
They Refuse to Equate Chores and Errands With Self-care
Sometimes I take a vacation day, and I spend every minute of it running errands for my family. Usually, by the time 5:00 pm rolls around, I feel tired and grumpy. I often wish I had just gone to work. At the very least, I feel disappointed and wistful about how I used my time. Errands are a necessary evil, but don’t get them confused with quality moments alone or with your loved ones. I manage to get most of my checklist items crossed off without lifting a metaphorical finger. You can too (hint: the next few tricks are major players in my success).
They Off-load the Tasks They Hate (or That They Don’t Do Well)
I’m not always good at cleaning my house. So I hired someone to take care of the number one task I don’t want to do. Hiring a house cleaner reduced my stress, forced me to organize my house the night before she arrived each week, and gave me back my precious time so I could spend it on more important things, like anything else. Note: I fully understand that not everyone can afford house cleaning services, but the idea is to outsource house work in whatever way you can, in a way that fits into your budget.
I’m also not great at cooking weekday meals other than spaghetti and meatballs or chicken teriyaki out of a freezer bag. I shine when it comes to holiday meal extravaganzas, but my husband is a weekday wiz in the kitchen. Since he and I both know I would probably succumb to takeout every night if he didn’t cook consistently (and because we keep working at being parenting teammates), he wears the chef’s hat in our home most Mondays through Thursdays.
Remember, you are not the only person who can take care of your home, your kids, your bills, or your calendar. The running list of tasks that fills your mind all day long — the appointments you need to make, the dry cleaning you need to take in, the groceries you need to buy — is unhealthy, and it steals away your ability to focus on the here and now. One way to reduce your mental load is to simplify the number of tasks you have, either by getting rid of them or by delegating them to someone else (when financially and logistically possible).
For the tasks you have to attend to, reduce your time thinking about them by automating. Thank goodness we live in a modern world where, for a small fee, we can automate almost everything we do. I would wither on the vine if it were not for autopay and internet grocery and household goods delivery services. Diapers, wipes, sippy cups, household items like paper towels, hand soap, and toilet paper — I get them all from online ordering.
I do not want to spend my time in a big-box store for basics. Wholesale grocery shopping in person gives me a headache. The regular grocery store is not much better. It’s fun to pick out something to add to our family meals or to carefully select a few specialty items when I’m out and about, but using my “me time” to head solo to the store wastes my time. Hauling two little people around as I try to shop is also less than ideal.
Instead, I order groceries and household goods every week using online apps and have them delivered to my home within two hours. Look for sales or free shipping to help lower the cost. My bills are all on autopay. I shop online for kids’ clothes, focusing on quality basics that can be handed down child to child. I would rather spend a little more money but only have to shop four times a year (with some fun, “let’s get a special outfit” outings sprinkled in) than pay less per item and have the clothes last less than a month.
Another good tip is to shop the clearance racks and pick some items for your child for the next season. This requires a bit of a guessing game on sizing, but a little bigger is usually a good move. I have go-to sites I use regularly for clothing and shoes, so I’m familiar with the sizing and fit — both for my kids and for myself. This is very budget-dependent, but, especially if you have multiple kids and they are the same gender, buying quality over quantity makes a big difference.
Want More Joy? Stop Trying to Do It All
It’s challenging to be a modern mom trying to do it all. Why? Because you were never meant to. Instead, consider a different path. Look for ways to use technology to your advantage, share household and parenting tasks with your village, and take time to truly take care of yourself so you have the bandwidth to pause, gain perspective, and choose a motherhood journey filled with more sparks of joy (and fewer to-dos).
This is a modified excerpt from “The Working Mom Blueprint: Winning at Parenting Without Losing Yourself.”