In the last five minutes, my kids have made their way from the back door to the bathroom and back again leaving fat muddy imprints of their bare feet all over the floor. Twice!
The baby is eating lunch. Her idea of eating is to grab food in her chubby fist and smear it in the general vicinity of her mouth. There is about five pounds of mashed strawberries on the floor under her seat and half a cup of gooey millets on her head.
There are dishes in the sink. A few loads of laundry upstairs. Baskets of clutter that needs to be sorted out. The usual. The odd assortment of jobs that comes from having four small children.
Some extras come from being a homeschooling family, and then the general happenings of life also require attention.
“Mom, you promised to help with Civil War diorama,” says my 9-year old.
“Mom, when are we going to buy Lucy’s birthday present? Her birthday is in three days,” asks my 6-year old.
“I’m ready to do my schoolwork,” shouts my 4-year old standing in front of the open refrigerator with a cup because that’s what he always says whenever he is not sure what to do next.
“AH,” loud intake of breath from the older two kids standing next to the sink.
Baby jumps up and starts wailing like a jet engine. “It slipped, mom,” says my 4-year old sheepishly pointing at a glass bottle of Oberweis milk on the floor.
Everything is Urgent
Not every day is full of milk, mud and a wailing baby, all happening at the same time. But you know what? There had been plenty of days in the past when it felt like I spent all my time putting out the proverbial fires. The days when it seemed like one crisis came at the tail end of another with no end in sight.
Is this how life works when you are a parent with the house full of small children?
Everything is urgent!
Even though it may certainly feel this way sometimes, the answer is no.
Moving faster is not a solution. For every fire put out, five more pop up.
And not everything is urgent. I know many moms feel completely overwhelmed, but today I want to help you find a little more peace in your busy life.
According to a study by Forbes Women, 89% of stay-at-home moms feel overwhelmed by home and parenting responsibilities.
On a typical day, you helped (or tried to help) every kid who asked; You fixed dozens of snacks, picked up more things than you can count, and handled everything thrown your way. Busy. Busy. Then when you went to bed that night, you felt like you were in firefighting mode all the day long and end the day completely drained of energy.
The stress that moms experience is usually the result of having too much to do, in too little time, while being constantly interrupted and confronted with pressing and never ending needs of the little people around you.
For many moms, the greatest source of stress is a sense of urgency. You start stirring chopped vegetables in a pan and your two-year-old yells from the bathroom to wipe his butt. Before you even finished washing your hands you hear your older kids screaming upstairs, “You took my Velociraptor!” “I did NOT!” You let them know that you have confiscated the toy because you tripped on it on the stairs. Then you rush back to see to the vegetables before they burn. And did you just hear the beep of the washing machine signaling the end of the cycle? Got to move it to the dryer.
Everything seems to require immediate attention.
Just like a firefighter, you need to be present, stay calm and make sound decisions. But how exactly can you do that when everything seems urgent, and your heart is pounding, and you have ten tasks in front of you that had to be done five hours ago?
Here is where I want to tell you my secret. I call it…
Which Alligator is the Closest?
Imagine yourself swimming in a muddy river surrounded by alligators. They look hungry. They are everywhere. They are coming from all directions. Do you worry about ALL the alligators with the same intensity? Or do you concentrate on the one closest to you?
If you are like me, you have an endless list of daily responsibilities that need to be done with very little sleep. Your alligators are kids, dishes, laundry, cooking, grocery shopping, picking up toys, and maintaining a certain level of general cleanliness in the home. For homeschooling moms, there are also lessons, dioramas, and field trips, and the fact that when kids are at home all day, they are there to make messes, ask for help, feedback or cuddle 24/7. It’s easy to get overloaded!
And ask yourself one question.
Which alligator is the closest?
In other words, what is happening right now that needs your attention the most?
Just as a firefighter’s ability to manage fire would be different depending on each particular situation, your alligator is different each day.
1. What are your priorities?
Some alligators are evident: crying kids, kissing boo-boos, changing diapers, attending scheduled events like classes, playdates and field trips, and cleaning up messes. But there aren’t that many truly urgent tasks in an average day. If that’s not the case for you, do some soul searching. Do you have control over things that require immediate attention? Do you have too many outside commitments? Are the kids always rushed and uncooperative?
If the task is not overdue, due soon or has great consequences for not being done right away, it’s an alligator that is still some distance away. You have time to plan.
The danger lurks in deciding which alligator to tackle next. Asking: “Do I have to do this RIGHT now, or can it be put off until later?” is not going to help you make the right decision.
Decluttering or organizing activities is never something that has to be done right away, but the longer you delay, the less motivated you will feel to do them. What’s worst is that repeatedly thinking about doing those activities drains your mental energy. Research indicates that not being able to cross out an activity from your mental to do list diminishes your productivity because it interferes with other tasks you might be doing.
Your life is probably not the same on any given day, but you can still write down all your usual tasks or categories of tasks and think about your priorities. Time with kids? Clean house? What’s your happy balance? My priorities would look different from yours. I start with kids because when they are happy, they are more likely to give me space to do other activities. Then I ask myself: What is the worst that can happen if I delay this today? The answer to this question helps me decide on the course of action.
For example, If I ask myself “can decluttering be put off until later,” the answer is yes. But if I ask myself “what is the worst that can happen, if I don’t do it today,” then I realize that not only I hate looking at untidy piles but searching for missing items wastes a lot of my time. This answer gives me enough motivation to tackle decluttering right away.
Reward your brain for staying focused on one task. If you read your kid a book while eyeing a clutter pile and making plans for dinner, you are not only missing out on the intrinsic value of each activity, but you are actively depleting your mental resources by switching your thinking from topic to topic.
You might need to keep an eye on a crawling baby while reading a book to an older kid, but most multitasking is self-induced. If you turn on the TV while loading the dishwasher or peek at your phone during your kid’s bedtime routine, you are increasing demands on your brain. Combined with sleep deprivation and constant interruption – two other activities that increase mental fatigue – you are actively creating a situation which uses up your mental energy at increased speed. By mid-afternoon, you will feel as if you are performing at the limits of your capabilities. First, you begin feeling sleepy. Next, your ability to stay calm goes. Irritability follows. Finally, you lose temper.
Focusing on one alligator at a time will keep you calmer and more productive. And the more you do it, the better you get at it.
3. Routine tasks can become urgent if you are not careful
The trouble with many non-urgent, routine responsibilities is that they can easily become urgent if ignored long enough.
Lunch preparation may not in itself be stressful, but if you are confronted with a bunch of hungry kids wailing all at once, “I’m hungry,” and you have no lunch, then baby has a sudden meltdown (probably in response to the energy in the room), lunch can quickly turn into a crisis.
Planning for the routine tasks is an important step in dealing with your alligators. My important, routine tasks are meal planning/grocery shopping/cooking (lunch and dinner are often cooked in the early hours of the morning), homeschool planning (detailed lesson plans), one-on-one time with each kid, as well as everybody’s exercise and reading time.
The reason I take the time to plan things like one-on-one time with each kid is that it is something that can easily become a nice thing that I never seem to get around to. Without one-on-one time, it takes more time and more energy to gain the same results because kids are uncooperative or worse, dissolve into unexpected meltdowns at the most importunate moment. Hello, stress.
4. Beware of seemingly Urgent Activities that are not all that Urgent
If you want to get more out of your day, beware of tempting distractions. The ping of a Facebook notification, a text, an email, all fall into this category. We instinctively want to react immediately. They break up the routine, but we are busy, so firing off that reply starts to feel like an urgent matter.
“Mom, I’m thirsty.”
“Just wait a second, I want to finish this message.”
In this same category, I also include other interruptions and distractions.
“Mom, where is the book I was reading?” My instinct is to help to look. I’m a good mom. I’m helpful. Besides, I reason, it was probably me who shoved it somewhere when I was picking things up. So I stop whatever I’m doing and help to look for the missing item.
I’m not saying, never help kids to look for lost items. It can be a great bonding experience if you resist turning it into a lecture. Just beware that if you routinely drop what you are doing, over time, it adds up.
Take the time to think about your urgent activities that can be ignored without any repercussion. If you can’t resist the urge to check on the vibration of your cell phone, turn it off and check what is new at strategically assigned intervals throughout the day.
5. “Just getting it out of the way” is a losing strategy
Personally, my biggest time waster is picking up toys. Sure, it makes my house look better for all of five minutes before my kids pull out the toys again. And it’s not like picking up now will translate into fewer toys on the floor at the end of the day. It always takes the same 15 minutes (by our sand clock) to pick up all the toys no matter how many are out.
Why are we driven to pick up toys, clean up a kitchen island, check emails and do other short and sweet activities that negate themselves within ten minutes of completion? Some need this “one quick thing” to feel like they’ve done something productive. And others believe that they are capable of amazing accomplishments once they “just get this thing out of the way.” Whatever the reason, all those many quick things add up and will eat away at your time.
If you are not careful, you can easily end the day frustrated by the lack of productivity and with the nagging feeling that you never completed anything significant even though you never stopped moving.
6. Preparation for the future imagined ills create present sense of urgency
So many tasks that seem urgent are hypothetical constructions. “If the baby doesn’t get a good nap now, she will be a mess come dinner prep time.” The baby might or might not be cranky without a long nap. She might be cranky come late afternoon even with a good nap. Or she might not need a long nap today. It didn’t happen yet, but it’s already an urgent, high-intensity situation. You are in a fight mode to get that nap in on your terms.
If it’s possible for you to arrange the day in such a way that the baby can take a good nap in her own bed, that’s great. But don’t create an unnecessary sense of urgency rushing everyone out of the park because you are trying to make a perfect decision and letting baby sleep in a stroller or car seat is not it, in your view.
Imagining possible future ills can be so absorbing, you will start to feel the panic before anything bad has even happened.
You don’t have the energy to “live out” all hypothetical scenarios. “What alligator is the closest right now?” None. Enjoy the park.
7. Multitasking is unproductive
Parents pride themselves on their ability to multitask, but, you are not doing anyone any favors. Not only multitasking causes a 40% drop in productivity, but can also possibly damage areas of the brain that deal with cognitive/emotional control AND lower your IQ. So next time you are loading dishwasher and washing machine while eating breakfast, answering kids questions, and peeking at your phone, reconsider.
Of course, asking moms not to multitask is like asking dolphins not to sleep and swim at the same time. Who is going to watch the kids while you are peeling potatoes for dinner?
But when the opportunity comes along, make quite sure you don’t forget to take advantage of it. I know I can get ten times more things done if I wake up an hour before anyone else and focus on one thing at a time.
It’s all About Choices
So on this memorable muddy/milky day, I asked myself which alligator was the closest, and the answer was “BABY!”
So, I ushered the older kids out of the kitchen, and away from broken glass and mud, while I comforted and cleaned up the baby. Then, when the baby was happy, I planted her in a swing with a special toy while I vacuumed the glass and mopped the floor.
Of course, the three older kids kept poking their heads around the corner inquiring urgently, “Is it done yet? Can we come back? How long is it going to take? Can I have a snack yet?” But they were not the closest alligators at that moment, so I smiled and concentrated on the floor.
It takes deliberate practice. But if like me, you want to shake off counterproductive behaviors to build a better life, it’s so worth it.
Ask yourself, which alligator is the closest? And see what happens when you identify what needs your attention the most and focus on that one thing?
If you find yourself losing patience with your kids more often than you can count, it’s time to rethink your mindset. Read about One Simple Mental Trick that will make you a more patient parent