Here’s a Thought: Leave a Buffer

I grew up with a father who believed if you weren’t 10 minutes early to an appointment, you were late.

When I headed out into the world I carried this belief with me. In the four years of my undergraduate degree, I was never late for a single 8:30 AM class (which I had almost every day). Usually, I was one of the first to arrive – 10 minutes early.

Then I had kids.

Suddenly there were naps to contend with and the inevitable last-minute diaper or outfit change. Also, with a never-ending list of to-do’s, I felt I couldn’t justify the luxury of wasting precious minutes by arriving somewhere ahead of time.

I am rarely late. But I am also rarely early. This wouldn’t be a problem if I didn’t constantly feel anxious that I will be late.

While I still feel pulled in 30 directions most days, I can admit this “under the wire” arrival has simply become a habit. I’m no longer contending with outfit changes or blow-outs. And, even worse, I often plan for it.

For example, I’ll schedule a playdate for 3:00, even though the afternoon school bus drop-off is at 2:50 and it’s a 10-minute drive…under perfect traffic conditions. With that planning, there is no way to avoid arriving on time – at best – or late (well, aside from driving over the speed limit, which of course I’d never do. Hem hem.)

So I’m trying to arrange more buffer into my life.

If the kids are scheduled to come out of quiet time at 2:30, I shouldn’t work on a challenging project until 2:29. Stopping at 2:20 to breath, read a book, or just light a candle and prepare for the onslaught of snack requests and sibling rivalries really helps.

Have a doctors appointment and it takes 30 minutes to get to the clinic? You should plan to leave leave more than 30 minutes before. Preferably more than 31 minutes before, too.

Have a Zoom meeting? Think about making sure to use the washroom, brush the spinach out of your teeth and have the meeting notes all ready so you can log on a few minutes before it’s scheduled to start. After all this time, there are inevitably technical glitches.

Things take longer than expected: kids forget bookbags, icy roads slow us down, computers freeze. Adding in a little buffer can go a long way.

Go ahead. Try it.

Here’s a Thought: Aim for Progress, Not Completion

I’ve already professed my love for lists. Sometimes, I even relish the assignment of new tasks simply because it allows me the satisfaction that comes from recording new items on my to-do list. Another one added…another one to cross off.

In fact, I’ve been known to add items to a list that are already completed. (Friends have confessed to the same behaviour, so I know I’m not alone).

Why? A sense of purpose. A sense of pride. A sense of achievement. “Look what I’ve accomplished” – gold star to me (and I sure do love gold stars).

Sometimes, though, I can get so wrapped up in focussing on the end goal, I lose sight of – or neglect entirely – the process to get there.

That’s why I’m trying to embrace the concept of progress, not completion.

Let’s take laundry. Oh laundry. The never-ending source of work for any parent. Sometimes I look at that jumble of blended cotton and want to cry. Getting it all put away before another load joins the teetering pile feels impossible. But here’s what I’ve found: making progress can be satisfying.

In one particularly tough season of a precarious work/life balance, I told myself I only had to put away three items of laundry each day. My kids create three pieces of laundry before they’re out of bed in the morning, so the math didn’t really add up. Some days, I’d manage a pair of socks (I counted that as a single item), a dishtowel and a T-shirt. But, most days, I felt up to more. I’d stick to three at a time, but 3 + 3+ 3 + 3 adds up to a full load of laundry…eventually.

Remember Desmond Tutu’s sage advice: “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.”

Sometimes the first bite is the most discouraging and daunting. The elephant – be it laundry, an adoption process, the move to a new city, saving for a college education, or quitting a lifelong addiction to smoking – can seem too big to tackle, even in bite-sized pieces. But, in reality, that is exactly how we have to handle each problem. One dollar at a time, we fund that education. Skipping a single cigarette is the only way to quit smoking.

Step by step we make more and more progress. . .which, ultimately, leads to completion.

Go ahead. Try it.

Don’t Quote Me: Plan It. Do It.

I’m a big fan of Laura Vanderkam. I find her no-nonsense advice refreshing. There are no complicated rules, just straightforward suggestions for how to arrange your time to fit in personal wants and needs. She says things you might expect to hear from a pragmatic, but loving, friend.

Plan it in, and do it anyway.

Laura vanderkam

I regularly find myself repeating a particular turn of phrase or idea from one of her books or weekly blog posts.

A personal favourite: Plan it in, and do it anyway. She notes that when we say we wish we had more time, what we’re really looking for is more memories. Endless Friday evenings spent scrolling on Instagram are unlikely to produce meaningful memories, but that magical Handel’s Messiah concert we attend in an old cathedral likely will.

So her suggestion: plan in something that excites you.

To me this has meant: booking the concert tickets, scheduling the walk with a friend, arranging that evening bonfire on the beach. When things come up, which they inevitably will – the baby slept fitfully all night, which means you also slept fitfully; it’s raining; or any number of other reasons that would entice you to reach for your pajamas and settle in for a night of mindless scrolling – do it anyway.

Admittedly, there are times when the opposite approach may be both ideal and highly memorable but I think, in general, our future selves are far happier when we capitalize on opportunities for adventures.

These don’t have to be grandiose affairs. They can be as simple as going out for a dessert crêpe with your spouse, taking your daughter to a Saturday matinee at the local movie theatre, or setting up a tent in the living room for a weeknight campout, a family highlight during our ongoing lockdown.

They could be big too. That temporary Matisse exhibit at the Met or a whirlwind 24-hour trip to Paris are sure to leave a lasting impression.

So, the next time you feel like there just aren’t enough hours in the day, identify some potential adventures (big or small). Then, plan them in and do them anyway.

But don’t quote me…

A To-Do List Hack: E-mail Yourself

As a busy mother and small-business owner, I sometimes feel like I should add “professional juggler” as a line item on my CV.

Amidst the work deadlines, Friday grocery order and choir/baseball/tennis/ukulele club pickups, there are dental appointments to book, baby shower gifts to purchase (then wrap and deliver), and any number of other competing interests, errands, and tasks. While the best way to ease the burden of a to-do list is to remove items from it, sometimes responsibilities simply can’t be culled. Children still need to eat, bills still need to be paid on time (though auto-billing is a huge step in the right direction here). There are some people, lucky ducks, who can keep the spiderweb of tasks organized without much administrative effort on the back-end. Not me.

I always have a list on the go. Multiple lists. I have lists on my phone (a shout-out to the free AnyList app), lists on my calendar, lists in my daytimer (including annual, monthly, and weekly to-dos), and a daily to-do list on a good old-fashioned pad of paper that moves constantly between the kitchen counter and dining room table. If I’m not organized, it’s not for lack of trying.

But when unexpected to-dos pop up, or I feel the crunch of a time-sensitive task that I want to get done in the near future, but that doesn’t necessarily have a firm deadline, I like to send myself an e-mail reminder. The email can sit there until I’m ready to complete the task.

  • Send Leah a graduation card + money.
  • Call the plumber about the shower leak in the guest bathroom.
  • Don’t forget to include the numbers from the latest grant in the business plan update.
  • Text Mom.
  • Happier podcast quote: “Don’t yuck someone else’s yum.” Write this down!!!
  • Track down Hannah’s jacket at the playground.

A caveat: this really only works effectively if you check your email regularly and if you keep your inbox relatively clear. When I send myself an e-mailed action item, sometimes I will immediately move it to hard copy (a digital calendar or list, or my favourite paper pad) but, usually, I will simply leave it in my inbox until I’ve completed the task. If I’m out for the walk and remember I promised to loan someone a book, I’ll quickly email myself while on the go. If you have hundreds of emails in your inbox, this strategy is likely to fall flat. But if you see it routinely, checking off items is as simple as swiping left, and deleting the email.

Go ahead. Try it.