Priorities, baby, priorities—or, “I don’t” as an answer to “How do you do it all?”

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I finally figured it out, and so I’m going to tell you. You see…

Ender: “Mom! Where are you?”

…you’ve been asking me for years, “How do you do it?” What I thought you were asking was “How do you work and take care of your babies; how do you write and homeschool” and variants on the above…

Flora: “Moooom! Where are you? Ender wants you!”

…and I would tell you, and you’d get this glazed and confused and frightened look in your eyes, and never actually—so it seemed to me—hear anything I said—certainly in no way heed my unadvice. But I had this immense epiphany the other day…

Cinder: “Mooooom! I want to make cookies; where the hell is the margarine?”

…that is was my fault—I wasn’t telling you what you needed to know, because I wasn’t hearing what you were asking. You see, while I thought you were asking…

Flora: “Mom, Ender just stole my orange marker, tell him he has to give it back!”

Cinder: “Hey, Mom, can you wash the good cookie sheet? It’s covered with chicken grease.”

Ender: “It’s! Not! Fair!”

… while I thought you were asking, “How do you find the time to write and take care of the kids and take care of the house and exercise and have a life and, and, and,” what you were actually asking…

Flora: “Mom, Ender won’t leave me alone!”

Ender: “Mom, Cinder pinched me!”

Cinder: “Mom, the little bugger stole my Lego guys again!”

…what you were actually asking is…

Ender: “Maaaaaa…”

Jane: “Shut up, shut up, shut up! GET OUT OF HERE! Now! Outside! All of you! Give me 30 minutes, and then you can come talk to me. Now—out. OUT!”

Flora: “Mom, it’s like zero degrees out. And raining.”

Jane: “OUT!”

Cinder: “Maybe she just means out of the room.”

Jane: “OOOOOOUUUUUTTTTT!”

Ender: “But I’m hungry!”

Jane: “There are bananas and bagels in the kitchen. GET! OUT! AND STOP ASKING ME FOR SHIT! OUT! NOW!”

… what you were asking me was “How do I work (write) while interacting meaningfully with my children while making amazing dinners while keeping an immaculate house while pursuing my personal interests ALL AT THE SAME TIME.”

Yeah. So, the answer to that…

I DON’T.

YOU CAN’T.

YOU WON’T.

If you have this picture in your head of your laptop computer on the kitchen table, and you writing a novel—or, fuck, even a 1500 word article—while washing the dishes, peeling potatoes and teaching your children math and having a meaningful conversation with your lover…

Cinder: “Are you done yet? About that baking tray…”

Jane: “Clean it yourself or make chicken-flavoured cookies, I don’t care, leave me alone!”

Flora: “Is she done?”

Cinder: “No, she’s still pissy.”

Jane: “Writing! I’m still writing!”

Cinder: “Writing, pissy. It’s kind of the same thing.”

Jane: “Only when you interrupt me. NOW GO AWAY!”

…you are dooming yourself to failure, because all those “while’s” are impossible.

You know this intellectually, right? You can’t, oh—have a shower WHILE typing on your laptop. Make risotto WHILE scrubbing the kitchen floor. Paint a bedroom wall WHILE having sex.

So. You can’t write (work) WHILE interacting meaningfully with your children (or cleaning house or making supper or buying groceries or doing yoga or…)

Now, you CAN—I do—do most of these things sequentially, at different parts of the day-week-month.

But…

You will do some better than others.

And choosing to give time to some things will mean less time for others.

Priorities, baby.

Again, you know this, intellectually, right? But practically… you never seem to hear me. You know, like when I tell you what a crappy housekeeper I am, or that my children eat cucumbers and mustard as snacks when I’m on deadline? And you think I’m being funny?

The truth: say, I have two hours. In those two hours—I can write a story—edit a chapter—craft a rough draft of a pitch.

Or. I can make risotto.

(I don’t, by the way, know how to make risotto. But I understand it involves standing at a stove for an eternity, stirring a pot of rice. Fuck. That.)

Or. I can scrub the kitchen floor and the stairs. Or, do laundry or make the beds or declutter.

Or, read a chapter or two of Harry Potter or Hank the Cow Dog or Wow! Canada to the kids, teach Ender to read, help Cinder with his math…

These are all things that I should do, and do do at some point in a week (month… year… except that risotto thing, that’s just NEVER going to happen).

But if what I need to do—want to do—with those two hours is write a story… then I have to use those two hours to write the damn story.

And that may mean ensuring other-adult child care for my children.

Jane: “Moooom! I’m on deadline, can you please come and take the monsters AWAY for a while BECAUSE THEY WILL NOT LEAVE ME ALONE!”

Or, leaving the house for two hours for an adjacent coffee shop, so that the house—“The fridge really needs cleaning today, Jane, it does, it does, clean me!”—doesn’t make its passive-aggressive demands on me.

And, picking up a roast chicken or frozen pizza from the grocery store on the way home instead of making the perfect, healthier pizza crust from scratch (this, by the way, I can do and I do do… just not on deadline days, y’know?).

I have become much better at this over the years. Accepting that my time and energy are limited—as are yours—and becoming better and better at channeling that time and energy into the things that are really important to me.

So. I write. Every day. (Really. Sometimes, utter crap. But. Every. Day.)

Read with my kids. Take them on amazing adventures. (Most days.)

Exercise religiously, no matter how urgent the deadline, because, health.

Make guilt-free time for my friends and loves and just for myself, too—but not so much for organizing the Tupperware drawer (or for people who drain me).

Scrub the kitchen floor only when it gets to THAT level of filthy—or I desperately need to procrastinate (sometimes, that happens).

Never, ever make risotto.

Cinder: “You done yet?”

Jane: “Two minutes.”

(I think, by the way, that if making risotto is an essential part of who you are and need to be, you will find a way to make risotto and write/work and take care of your kids and all those other things. You will maybe let something else slide more than I do. Read less, stir more. Stay home more—the stirring demands it—and skin your knees in the wild less.)

Priorities, baby.

Cinder: “Hurry. I didn’t scrub the tray that well, the chicken fat caught fire and I can’t turn off the smoke alarm.”

Jane: “Coming.”

Priorities.

You’re welcome.

xoxo

“Jane”

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P.S. Speaking of priorities—I’m taking a sabbatical in October and November from Nothing By The Book while I pursue other priorities. Stay in touch via Instagram (@NothingByTheBook), and come back in December, will you? I promise I will be back.

Oh, and babes—I want to take my brood to Cuba, Mexico or some other hot-and-beachy place for (ready for this?) January, February, March 2016. If you’ve got a lead on affordable and cockroach-light accommodation (so long as we’re walking distance to a swimmable beach, we are not picky, and will co-habit even with pestilent insects), email me at nothingbythebook@gmail.com.

“Jane” out.

Life hacks for work-at-home moms and other crazy people: always have a Plan Z (and, be a Timelord)

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My day goes horribly wrong at 10:08 a.m., when the planned child hand-off misfires, and, instead of starting my working day with a child-free and care-free work-out session, I show up at the gym with a crying five-year-old in tow. You know how there are moments when… oh, what? Essentially, you need to make a conscious decision:

“This day will not go as planned. Attempting to fulfill the agenda I set for it yesterday is suicide.”

And then, you need to take a five minute—five second, even—pause to weep. Then breathe.

Then, you need to do physically exhausting, difficult things for a while. No, really. Take a page from my active children: when the world’s just not right, and you want to punch someone… run. Hang upside down from the ceiling. Do push ups until you puke. (That’s 14 for me…)

And then… you look at the day and think. OK. So. No six-hour block of time during which I was going to do all the things. AND write the next great novel. OK. So. What can I do instead? What bits and pieces can I pick off the agenda instead?

And maybe the answer is… none of them. Today, none of them is going to get done. Today needs to be a kid day, a sick day, a play day, a no-earn day, a no-set-goals day.

But often, the answer is… Well, fine. No way can I write today, that won’t happen. But. I can send THAT long overdue email. And I can book THAT interview. And I can follow up with THAT client about THAT no-show payment. (Excuse me… I’m going to go do just that…)

And maybe, with the five-year-old in tow, today is the day that I prep suppers for the next two days… because that buys me an hour, two on each of those days, during which I can do, if not ALL THE THINGS, then at least some of the things.

Or maybe, today’s the day I have a mid-day bath. Or hey, today’s the day I call the client who knows and loves my kids… and interject family reality into the life of Corporate Canada.

“Want to grab a coffee with me and this gorgeous redhead I know?”

And so, some of that happens, and also this: I meet a friend who’s going to a play matinee, and she takes my progeny into the play, and I sit outside the theatre and I write…

Not the six hours I planned to have. But one hour, two hours—hell, 20 minutes—is better than zero.

When I talk with work-at-home parents and parents who’d like to… but can’t imagine how the hell to do it, I find the difference between the two groups is pretty simple. Those of us who work-at-home have two skills.

First, we know how to turn on a dime. To reposition. To recognize that Plan A just went out the window, Plan B is impossible, but maybe, maybe we can take some elements of Plan F and Plan X and graft a zombie that will see us through the day. (Also, we have Plans A through Z, and their variations, in the back of our minds at all times. Because Plan A pretty much never happens…)

Second, we’re Timelords. We know how to grab every last minute of productivity out of those 20 minutes when we have to.

If I had had my six hours, as planned, some of my time would have gone to… making coffee. Drinking coffee. Going for a walk. Checking Facebook. Maybe popping in a load of laundry….

In the 90 minutes that my son is watching Y-Stage’s Pinocchio, I work for 88 minutes. (I have to take a pee break at the 67 minute mark.)*

I leave you today with the most useful productivity-sanity strategy I’ve acquired over the past decade. Turn reading – writing – sending email messages… into three separate tasks.

Mind-blowing, I know. Bear with me. Consider:

  1. It takes no time at all to read email messages. And you can do it during periods of distraction, with children turning summersaults in the background.
  2. It takes no time at all to send an email message. And, ditto.
  3. It takes time, concentration and attention to write email messages. And nothing worth reading (over 144 characters, anyway) was ever typed with thumbs on a phone.

So. Read your messages on the fly if you must. Why not (actually… so many reasons to why not. But more on that another day). But don’t respond. Think. Then think some more. And then, when you have that 20 minute-1 hour block of time… think about it, that’s really quite a lot of time, and yet not enough time to write a draft of the next great Canadian novel or even a barely coherent-but-fileable feature… write out your thoughtful e-mail drafts… that actually answer the question your clients / sources / grandmothers raised in their email.

And then… you can send them out when you’ve got a minute or two here or there. And you will never think, “Oh, crap, why did I hit send!” on anything again.

You’re welcome. You may not realize what I’ve done, but I’ve just completely changed your life.

xoxo

“Jane”

P.S. For about 10 minutes last week, I changed the world. Read about it here: Women in Leadership: Opportunities lost, and not because our bosses are misogynist pricks.

I become a Timelord, and tell you why when you say “I’m too busy,” I think you’re handing me a lame excuse

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It happens like this: Sean buys me a Dalek dress and…

…actually, no, it happens like this: I’m trying to get together with a friend, and we’re comparing schedules, and arrive at a date 18 days out.

“Seriously?” I say. “This is the first time that works for both of us?”

She shrugs. “We’re amazing people with full, busy lives. You’re in deadline hell until the 8th. I’ve got this, that and the other until the 13th. Then you’re on a new story. Then…”

Then… I become a Timelord. I bend the laws of time and space, and we get together the next day. I’m still in deadline hell. She’s still got this, that and the other. We take a break for a slushy walk and a glass of wine.

Deadline hell is there when I come back. So is laundry, and a living room that looks like it’s been ransacked by very unskilled terrorists. And an eternal construction zone on the bottom floor of my house. And… oh, so many tasks, duties, obligations that can contribute to making me feel “too busy.”

And, ok. I’m busy. Stuff to do, always. But I’m not “too busy.” I’m not too busy to do the important, fulfilling. Or just the… fun. I’m not too busy to live. And neither should you be.

Want to know the secret to being a Timelord? It’s three-fold.

First, to steal shamelessly from United States Brigadier General Rhonda Cornum: “Prioritize A, B and C. Discard C.”

You know this. You probably do this. But you know what? You’re probably discarding the wrong C. See, getting together with my friend for a glass of wine—that’s an A. Right up there with reading to my kids at bedtime, meeting my deadlines, and NOT skipping a single work-out session.

Second—ready? This is the big one—realize that amidst your “I’m too busy,” you’re going to piss away a lot of time. OK, let’s not make it about you: in the middle of my “I’m so busy! Waaah!” I’m going to piss away a lot of time. I’m going to feel burnt out and spent, and will need to recharge and get refreshed before I can slog through another 12-hour “must produce” day. I can spend that inevitable piss away time unproductively, feeling like I should be working-doing-something, wallowing in guilt and ick… or I can plan to spend it in a re-energizing way: taking two hours away from deadline hell to go sledding with my kids. Recognizing that by Wednesday night, there is no way I will be capable of working into the night, and so, that’s a really good night to go to the theatre, yes, babe, let me arrange for a babysitter.

Third—and this is what separates the Companions from the Timelords, beloveds—I say yes to 20 minute commitments. It goes like this:

“Mom? Can we go sledding?”

And I look at the clock, and it’s 11:20, and Sean and I are doing a kid-and-car switch off in 30 minutes; his workday over and mine beginning. And my “too busy” instinct is to say “No.” Right? By the time the snowsuits are on… You know what? Screw it. I say yes.

We’re out the door in 5 minutes, on the hill in 10. Sean meets us there; I effect a snowpants- into-“suitable for client clothes” change in the truck. I make my meeting, cheeks frostbitten, a little sweaty—but happy. I spent 20 minutes outside engaged with my kids doing something, instead of inside, marking time until the switch-off, listening to bored kids whine.

It also goes like this:

“Hey, I’m five minutes away from your office and with a 35 minute gap until my next interview. Time for a coffee?”

And like this:

“I’m heading down south to Costco this afternoon with all three kids. Meet at the River for a sanity walk before or after?”

That’s all:

1. Prioritize—but make sure “A” includes the things you really need to do. Yoga, if that’s your thing. Poker night if that feeds your soul. Chocolate. Wine. Sex.

2. Plan for piss away time—and turn it into time for stuff you want to do that feeds your mind-soul-body.

3. Say yes to doing something for a very short time—use your “in-between” and “waiting” time instead of just filling it. A walk can be a 20-minute commitment. Less. As can getting naked with your lover. Or writing a blog post, pitch or long-overdue email letter (remember those?) to a forever friend—or at least the first draft of one.

So… Timelord with me, will you? And don’t tell me you’re too busy. I know you’re busy. Me too. Kids, family, money-tied work and love-tied work. Volunteer commitments. Dishes that won’t do themselves, and a bathroom that refuses to self-clean (is there a warranty for that?). And also: books I want to read, plays I want to see, events I want to experience. Friends I need to see. Places I need to  be.

And yeah, sometimes, deadline hell, work hell, this-that-or-the-other (the newborn, the un-potty-training toddler, the sick parent, the near-death experience, the divorce, the massive natural disaster, the nothing-else-matters event) takes over everything. Of course. Sometimes, you can’t bend the laws of time and space.

But most of the time… I can.

xoxo,

Jane

NBTB Timelord

P.S. In a totally coincidental unplanned, event, my Strategy Session column this month is about Sweating The Big Stuff:  stop putting out the fires and start strategizing. And it opens with Brigadier General Rhonda Cornum, whom I met in Martin Seligman’s Flourish.

P.P.S. For the bloggers in the audience: When I am in deadline hell, blogging—in particular, that aspect of blogging that involves interacting within the blogosphere and doing all those social media things, becomes “C.” And gets discarded, without a second thought, without guilt. Writing for the blog(s)* becomes “B” (when I’m truly a Timelord, it is “A”).

*If you can’t get enough of me, and having out-of-box ideas about education, I also write about unschooling and my kids’ learning journey at Undogmatic Unschoolers. My real self’s business writing portfolio is hangs out at Calgary Business Writer. Looking to connect in the SM (social media, get yer mind out of the gutter) universe? Go to Find “Jane” … or just follow @nothingbtbook on Twitter. Easiest, lowest effort, highest ROI act.