By Laura Vanderkam
One child can introduce chaos into your daily schedule. So it seems like large families would never make it anywhere on time. Yet talk to parents of big broods and you find that their households often function quite well. Their secret? These 10 time management tips that help them do more and stay calm.
1. BATCH TASKS
Meagan Francis, mother of five and host of The Mom Hour podcast, says, "One thing I’ve always done is group like tasks together. If I’m signing permission slips, for example, it’s easier and faster to go through a big stack all at once then deal with them one by one as they trickle in." To be sure, "This has necessitated some ‘training’ for my kids," she says. "They know they can’t just wave papers in my face, but need to put them in the inbox on my desk so I can take care of them all at once."
2. DON’T RE-ARGUE EVERYTHING
House policies cut down on the whining. "For many years we had a universal bedtime of 7:30 p.m. for all the kids," says Abbi Perets, a mother of five who lives in Israel. It might be early for the older ones and late for the younger ones, but you can always let people read with a bedside lamp. Perets says, "You have to have some unbreakable rules. For example, no sleepovers in the middle of the week, or all play dates end by 6:00 p.m., or you can only do an extracurricular on Tuesdays."
3. GET IT OUT OF YOUR HEAD
Keeping track of one’s own schedule is complicated enough, let alone half a dozen other people. That’s why you need a system. Tammy Metz, a Colorado-based mom of 10 (nine of whom still live at home), uses Google Calendar for her family schedule, but has other systems, too. "We have a paper calendar on the wall in the kitchen and a lovely dry erase board that lists in detail what is going on that week plus what’s on the menu," she says. "This cuts down on the constant stream of questions that come our way each day from the children asking what we are doing that day. And if people are motivated, they can start a meal."
4. TAKE A PORTFOLIO MANAGEMENT APPROACH TO STUFF
Big families can generate a lot of clutter, so many are ruthless about minimizing extraneous things. That said, stuff you use a lot should be easily accessible. "Keep low-cost supplies you know you’ll need on hand," says Carrie Lukas, managing director of the Independent Women’s Forum, and a mom of five. That includes art supplies and "other items kids run through frequently, and you can drive yourself crazy trying to keep track of: socks, gloves, pencil sharpeners, tape."
Likewise, "When you find a good affordable birthday present in your kids’ age group, buy several of them so you have them on hand for last-minute gifts, and so you don’t have to go to the store every time there is a birthday party," Lukas says. "Remember, your time is valuable, too."
5. GIVE THINGS A HOME
Metz says that in their house, "Everything has a place. We take time to put things in their place, so when we need them we can find them: shoes, jackets, bags, papers, etc." Things that go out the door are generally located near the door. "We also have a basket that holds things that need to be returned to others," she says.
Francis says that these days she sees herself "much more in a household manager role than I did when I had fewer kids. Think Mrs. Hughes from Downton Abbey. Sure, I do some housework, but the majority of my time is spent delegating to my ‘task force’ and then following up to make sure it was done correctly (or done at all!)."
Jamie Smith, a professor who has five children, agrees that big family management is all about "teaching kids to be self-sufficient in an age-appropriate way. I offer my kids a lot of autonomy and I expect them to use it well." So, for instance, she doesn’t make lunches, though she will help younger children with tasks such as slicing apples. Likewise, "We start early teaching our kids how to get around town, and we expect them to pick up on those skills. We were free-range parents before free ranging was in the news." Independence is a virtue she wants to foster for its own sake, "but incidentally? It saves me a lot of time."
7. MINIMIZE TRAVEL TIME
Some parents feel like they spend their lives in the car. Parents of big families simply can’t ferry everyone everywhere. "Our kids learn early that it’s normal to ride the city bus, and normal to bike to soccer practice, and normal to walk a half-mile to the library without complaining even if it’s cold," says Smith. Key to this is that she chose a home in a walkable neighborhood that’s convenient to public transit and her job. Result: "I do not ever wait in a school pickup line; I do not ever get stuck in morning commute traffic because it’s just a short walk to my office." The kids’ activities also get put through this rubric of accessibility. "I nudged my daughter toward ballet rather than gymnastics, because the ballet studio is an easy walk from our house, but the gymnastics facilities are a 15-minute drive."
8. BUILD IN A BUFFER
Metz says her family knows how long it takes to get to all their regular destinations. Then, "We generally add 15 minutes to this for general forgetfulness. Many times this kid or that will have to run back into the house for a forgotten item."
9. LET IT GO
You can waste a lot of time worrying about things that don’t matter. Perets says, "My house is only all clean at the same time for 10 minutes after the cleaning lady finishes. The rest of the time, something is always messy. And there is always more laundry to do. I’m okay with that."
Lukas says, "Ideally, I’d stand next to my 3-year-old while she colors and all the caps would be put back on her markers. But when you have lots of kids—when I’m jumping up to deal with the 1-year-old or helping the 10-year-old with homework—that doesn’t always happen." For a long time, she felt it was "a moral failing" to allow markers to dry up. "Now I try to cut myself a break and keep this in perspective. Markers cost a couple dollars a pack. If they only last for a few hours of coloring, that’s really not a big deal."
10. SKIP UNNECESSARY STEPS
Michele Jones of Charlottesville, Virginia, has five children under age 10. "When we need to be somewhere early the next morning, I have the kids sleep in their clothes," she says. They might be a bit wrinkly, but kids get wrinkly anyway, and that’s one less task on the to-do list.