It’s Monday morning and the permission slip that’s due today for the class trip is…somewhere. You need to whip up dinner and even though you went grocery shopping two days ago, there’s nothing to make. You wake in the middle of the night realizing you missed the sign-up deadline for summer camp.
Sound familiar? Even under the best circumstances, family life can be chaotic, which is why you need a schedule to have a reasonable chance of calm and order. While that may sound like one more to-do you don’t have time for, the truth is that small investment of your time can deliver big payoffs in more smiles and less stress.
1. Plan by the week, not the day.
With commitments changing almost daily—tee-ball today, tap class tomorrow—you need a plan of action. Pick one day, say Fridays, to spend 10 minutes giving your upcoming week a thorough once-over, says Laura Vanderkam, author of Off the Clock: Feel Less Busy While Getting More Done. You can plan for any disruptions to your family’s schedule, like a late business dinner or extra morning orchestra rehearsals, and start to coordinate carpools, babysitters, and Amazon Prime gift shopping now. “This way you’re not scrambling last minute,” says Vanderkam. (Breathing easy already, right?)
2. Meal plan.
This will open up the most space in your schedule and be your biggest time-saver in your week, says professional organizer Katie Tracy, owner of Simple Spaces, a professional home organizing business based in Parlin, New Jersey. She and her husband plan for a week’s worth of dinners on Sundays, buying everything they need in one big shopping trip. Katie adds each day’s menu to the family’s digital calendar, so if she or her husband is running late, whoever’s home first can get the water boiling for pasta night or start other prep.
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3. Pick the calendar you’ll actually use.
There is no wrong place to create a schedule. Sure, your tech-savvy pal may tease you for your spiral-bound planner, but some people work best with a tactile, pen-to-paper system. Vanderkam uses a paper calendar complemented by a big spreadsheet printout for the family’s upcoming week. You can even combine low-tech and high-tech systems: Tracy’s family uses iCal—even her 10-year-old has access—and keeps a paper calendar on view in the kitchen to keep everyone in synch. To avoid slip-ups, put everything you and they need to remember on it—crazy hat day at school on Wednesday! Gym clothes on Thursday!—and you’ll avoid last-minute trips to the school office.
4. Designate a weekly check-in.
Set aside 5 to 10 minutes to go over the upcoming week with your partner or anyone in your life who helps get everyone where they need to be. “As in every good business meeting, decide at the end who’s handling which action items,” says Vanderkam. Spend a minute or two looking a few months ahead to decide when to mark dates for tackling a home-improvement project, or to discuss summer vacation plans. “It doesn’t have to be all business,” points out Vanderkam. “This is also a good time to make sure you pencil in a night out with your spouse or with friends next week.”
5. Loop in the kids.
Most adults who struggle with organization just never learned those skills as children, says Tracy. When the folder comes home in the backpack, pull it out with your kid and go over it together. If you can’t get to it until after dinner, ask your child to empty it and put the papers in a designated in-box for you to deal with—once a day, every day, so nothing has a chance to pile up. As soon as children get their first phone, add them to any electronic family calendars, and give them some say in some family decisions too. “My daughters, 10 and 4, love to give their input on what we’re having for dinner during the week, and they’re learning to plan ahead,” says Tracy.
6. Steal secrets from bigger families.
No matter your squad’s size, parents with multiple charges have to learn how to maximize their time—so chat them up on the soccer sidelines for their best scheduling advice. They can recommend the flexible tae kwon do studio that allows you to drop in on days of your choosing, the aquatics program that lets you sign different-age kids up for lessons at the same time, or the day camp with door-to-door pick-up and drop-off.
7. Keep one day totally free.
“I make sure we have one day a week without any commitments so if the kids want to go to someone’s house after school, or if we want to do something fun as a family, we can,” says Vanderkam, who has four kids. Room for spontaneous fun and memories: That may be the best argument for an organized schedule.