Half Hours and Setting Limits

In my ongoing quest to combat perfectionism and chronic late-night attempts to do it all, I have developed this new idea about time that is making a big difference: allotting half-hour chunks for the big stuff. The things that torture me are the more global, strategic, long-term plans I have for my family, each of my children, myself, my marriage, and so on, and it is awfully hard to say, “There! I am finished working on that.” Not only that, but knowing that these brain-fillers are never going to go away and will always be changing and growing and throwing curve balls, “done-ness” is not even a reasonable goal. So I have to find a way to put in time on them, but also be ready to walk away and do all the recharging necessary to get up and do it all again. Clearly, I won’t survive otherwise. This way, matters are getting addressed but I still get to check a box that says “done” at the end of the day. Here is a list of 5 things just off the top of my head that are ongoing projects I want to put time into researching, and there are dozens more.

  1. Books for the kids (at appropriate reading level, challenging, address interests of the moment, acceptable moral content….)
  2. Family activities that take advantage of our area and ages and interests and don’t cost very much.
  3. Music or creative activities for the kids that don’t cost very much but expose them to new and enriching ideas.
  4. The best ways to maintain flow of inventory efficiently and keep costs down.
  5. Meals to try or other food-related strategies to satisfy picky eaters but make them less picky!

I am still working on what exactly gets those half hours and what falls into what category. But it’s a start.


I am going to introduce my family to a concept that I have finally shaped in my mind called “Discrete Time Units,” or DTUs. So often I am asked to find out about a possible activity or set up an activity or assist with some project that will require a CHUNK OF TIME, or DTU. To truly understand how a scooter is to be put together, I will need to be given time and space to study the directions (many times) and mess around with the device without interruption. Some things just warrant that kind of dedicated attention. We got an ice cream maker for a birthday present for the twins, and everyone is desperate to make ice cream. Well, I need some time to wash all the parts, plan re the ingredients, and read the directions. If you want to know if you can have some violin lessons, then I will need some time to do some research on that. Do you see? In the ever-swirling chaos that is summer vacation, nothing is going to get done — including the dishes and the laundry, let alone the bills and the shopping and the cooking — without some DTUs for Mommy.

Time is Not My Friend

It is dawning on me that there are many different ways to think of time. This topic has been much on my mind of late as I seek the elusive goal of “getting organized.” The number one thing I must organize, it seems to me, is time, and I have an adversarial relationship at best with the clock. My traditional approach has been to print out the first page of my multi-page to-do list, hopefully with the highest priorities right there, and then to try to pick my way through the tasks around an increasingly whiny and needy toddler in the morning, and then around him plus three exhausted and emotionally drained girls in the afternoon. How’s that been working for me? I’d rather not talk about it. But if I had to pin down what is most hopeless, I’d have to say it’s the amorphousness of the list, the gelatinous and ever-changing nature of what there is “to do” in real life, and a total lack of clarity on what constitutes a “priority.”

I have mentioned before that I see a lot of value in GTD (Getting Things Done by David Allen), and that system has certainly helped me find better ways to capture the whispy threads of what is out there “to do” and weave them into a semi-coherent strand. But mothers, and probably most other people (as Allen acknowledges), are in a constant state of fluidity, so plodding through a list (if you ever even pin it down) is not an option. So here are some other ways to think of time that have worked for me:

1. Think in ten-minute chunks. For example, I tell myself: “This is my 10-minute decluttering chunk of time.” During those 10 minutes, I can surely find a way to stave off the toddler for the greater good of accomplishing something and feeling so very much better. The word “accomplishing,” though, is redefined as “working toward a goal for 10 minutes” (time-based) instead of “cleaning the living room” (task-based). This same approach works for larger chunks of time, too.

2. Think small. I frequently tell myself the next three concrete tasks I have to
do, and force myself to think only of those until they are complete. This again
gives a quick sense of accomplishment because I make sure the tasks are not too
time-consuming. For example, the list could be: empty dishwasher, get mail,
take out trash. Ten minutes at most to feel that gratifying sense of completion. I then make a new three-item list till it’s not feasible anymore.

3. Think big. What can also help, paradoxically, is thinking of time in week-long
chunks. Knowing only too well that no day will go as planned (or even close), it helps to think about what just “needs to have happened” by Friday. Then I can use my other methods to chip away at the bigger picture when it makes the most sense. The one flaw here is that that picture of the week is so much in flux that frequent checking-in with the bigger plan is required.

I am still working on developing more methods, since my house still resembles a landfill, but at least I have a few strategies at my disposal to keep me going. Sorta.