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Time Blocking, ToDoist, and Temper Tantrums: How I Do Life as a Freelancing, Homeschooling Mom of Four

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Annie Mueller

This is a guest post by Annie Mueller. She is a writer and mom of four. She blogs about productivity for creatives at FreakishlyProductive.com.

Hi, I’m Annie, and I’m…

I’m a productivity addict.

It’s true.

But what’s also true is that I obsess over productivity because I’m not naturally great at it, and I want to be better.

I’m a married mom of four, a freelance writer, a home schooler, frequent traveler, party-hoster, laundry-avoider, obsessive reader, overachiever. Some days are great; others are chaotic. Some weeks end with me hiding in the coat closet, weeping softly and binge-eating out of the Nutella jar.

But most of the time, we roll along pretty well. That’s because, over time, I’ve focused in on a few key strategies and techniques that really work for me.  Productivity itself is not that complicated; it is based on a few basic, universal principles such as knowing your goals, working efficiently, focusing on priorities, and using resources (like time and energy) wisely. The options in how you apply those productivity principles, however, are nearly endless.

These are my choices, the methods that have worked well for me in taking those big productivity ideas and applying them to my finite (but full) little life.

The Foundational Strategy: Time Blocking

Time Blocking

I learned a while back that scheduling my day into time slots, or even assigning particular times to activities, causes more stress than productivity.

This is partially because I don’t like being boxed in and feeling like I’m under pressure.

It’s mostly because I am doing life with four young kids, which means flexibility isn’t a nicety, it’s a necessity. Tying tasks or errands to a particular time of day meant that I always felt like I was failing. I couldn’t finish Task A in time to transition to Task B. Or an inevitable kid-related crisis or need would pop up, and we’d be off schedule… again.

Enter my new strategy, suggested by my husband who does not ever think in terms of minutes or hours or schedules or deadlines. He thinks in terms of NOW and WAY OFF IN THE DISTANT FUTURE.

Using timeblocks or timeboxes isn’t a new concept, but it wasn’t one I had really tried before. What I had always used before to manage my life was a combination of a calendar and a to-do list. Pre-kids, this combination had worked fairly well for me.

Post-kids, this combination became deadly. At the end of every day I was frustrated by my inability to keep us all on schedule, and guilt-ridden because I’d only managed to do maybe 2 out of the 27 things on my ever-growing list.

Now I use my calendar, and lists, with the time blocking strategy, like this:

  • Time-bound activities (birthday party, doctor’s appointment) get added at the appropriate date/time on the calendar.
  • Days get divided into blocks of time.
  • Tasks, projects, or focus areas get assigned under those timeblocks.

A timeblock does not mean “finish these assigned tasks”; it means “work for this block of time on these tasks, starting with the first and working until you finish, then starting on the next, and so on.”

In a single timeblock, I work for a focused amount of time on a designated set of tasks or a particular project or an area. But the goal is not to get the tasks done or reach a certain place in the project; it’s simply to work for that amount of time, focused on what I’ve assigned to it.

Editor’s Note: See also, outcome vs output.

What isn’t done in that block gets assigned to the next related timeblock.

Here’s what a typical day looks like for us, using the timeblock strategy.

A Typical Daily Schedule

Typical Daily Schedule

A typical weekday gets divided into 7 main time blocks, punctuated by our regular routines:

Annie Mueller Timeblocks

Working this way gives me two things I desperately need: flexibility and structure.

Since we homeschool, I have the flexibility to start and end our days as I see fit. We don’t have to start school at 8 in the morning. We don’t have to do school at all in the mornings; we could do afternoon school, or evening school, or a little bit of all three.

But too much flexibility results in chaos. Life is easier when you stick a good bit of it into a sturdy structure. That way you don’t have to rebuild it, from the ground up, every single morning.

We might have friends over on Wednesday night, resulting in a later bedtime for everyone; Thursday morning, I’ll take advantage of our flexibility and let the kids sleep in later than usual. But when sleepy little faces start appearing at my elbow, I’ll end my Work Block and start in on our Morning Routine.

Flexibility and structure work together beautifully.

My Favorite Productivity Tools

Productivity Tools

There are so many great productivity tools. I get to try and review quite a few new apps and I love doing that. Some I incorporate into my systems. Some I use for a while but find they don’t work for my purposes or style.

But a few tools have been my consistent allies.

Google Calendar has been my calendar of choice forever, basically. Actually I prefer paper calendars, but for the purposes of sharing important time-bound events with my husband, Google Cal is the best. He adds his stuff, I add my stuff, and hopefully it all works out. If it doesn’t, at least we’re both aware of it.

Annie Mueller Todoist

My Todoist Projects

ToDoist is my task manager. Really, my whole life manager. I love its clean interface and its simplicity and its lovely functionality. I happily pay for a premium membership and consider it worth every penny a thousand times over.

I’ve set up projects in ToDoist that correlate to the main time blocks in my day, and I also have more specific projects, most related to my work. Task List is for any item that doesn’t belong to a specific project. The Calendar project is where all the time-bound events get funneled, so I can see them as I plan each day without having to switch screens.

IFTTT and Zapier make Google Cal and ToDoist play nice together. I’ve set up automations so that anything added into Google Cal automatically gets sent to ToDoist as an item in my “Calendar” project.

Paper and Pen still remain my best tools for note taking, brain storming, idea tinkering, and outline drafting. I have one notebook that I use as a journal/catch-all, one dedicated to notes from reading, and one for writing outlines.

Weekends and Checklists

Weekends, Checklists

People tend to think, when you school from home and work from home, that you have plenty of time to just fit in all the home stuff, like cooking and cleaning and laundry and creating Pinterest projects.

Perhaps this is true for some people. It is not true for me.

I have a Weekend Checklist. When I get through that checklist on the weekend, the next week is going to be a good one. A productive one. One in which I don’t start out already feeling behind.

When I don’t get through that checklist? Well, Mondays kind of suck if I don’t get through the checklist, because I am unprepared and playing catch-up while also playing keep-up, which turns out to be an impossible game.

My weekend checklist is super-exciting. Want to see it?

Annie Mueller Weekend Checklist

I know you’re jealous of how awesome my weekends are

Actually I felt kind of bad for a while about requiring time for this stuff on the weekends. Weekends are for fun! Parties! Relaxing! Movies! Naps! Yay!

But the thing is, this list doesn’t take that long and having it all done relieves a huge amount of stress and chaos and gets us all prepared for the week to come. I might take the kids and do grocery shopping Friday afternoon, get the family to help with food prep, laundry, and cleaning for a couple of hours on Saturday, then take an hour or so at my desk on Sunday to get through the rest of it.

Because the Weekend Checklist has made my life so much better, I have proceeded to make checklists for other things. We now have a Pre-Party Checklist, a Post-Party Checklist, a Travel Checklist, Chore Checklists, and School Checklists.

Some of these go in ToDoist for my benefit; some go on Google Drive so I can share them with Joe; and some get printed out for the kids.

I don’t want to over plan and suck the fun out of life, but all of the crazy checklist making has had the opposite effect. This stuff needs to be done. When I’m the only one who knows about it, I’m the only one who can make it happen.

As soon as I put it on a list, however, and share that with other people? We can all help accomplish it together and get through it faster. The result is that I don’t feel exhausted and frustrated from having to do all the work, and we end up having more time to do fun stuff together.

Dealing with What You Don’t Plan

Dealing with what you don't plan

There’s another element to this idea of being a productive parent, and that’s the stuff that doesn’t show up on a checklist.

You don’t plan for your kids to get the flu, but they do.
You don’t plan for your spouse to need an appendectomy, but it happens.
You don’t plan for a neighbor to need a ride to the hospital, or a friend to need emergency babysitting, or your editor to need the piece tomorrow instead of next week, or your client to throw an extra ten hours of work your way…

But this is life. And life refuses to be reduced to a calendar or a checklist.

Frankly, I’m really thankful for that. We need the chaos and the crisis to interrupt us; we need the unforeseen opportunities to blindside us.

We need to be reminded that life is more than a schedule and a set of goals, and we are more than workers or doers or achievers.

We are people, full of infinite creativity and possibility. We are people, and we belong to each other first; we belong to each other more than we belong to our own productivity or our own priorities.

Life’s unpredictability reminds of us that. And if you’re a parent? Well, kids are the most consistent way to bring inconsistency into your life.

It’s when you have to put down your laptop and read a book to your sick kid that you get a free reminder: this isn’t about you.

It’s when you’re leaving that grocery cart full of food and carrying a screaming toddler out to your car that you get another one: you don’t have it all figured out.

Those are good reminders. If we’re willing, they keep us humble, flexible, and open to accepting help.

And that’s exactly how we need to be if we want to be truly productive: willing to learn, able to change, and ready to work with others to reach truly great goals.

Do you want more parent-specific productivity tips? Then check out our free Productive Parenting seminar. We’ll show you our top 3 productive parenting hacks that will free up more time for you to spend with your kids. Click here to register for the next available seminar – it’s completely free.

parenting-webinar

This is a guest post by Annie Mueller. She is a writer and mom of four. She blogs about productivity for creatives at FreakishlyProductive.com.

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10 Comments

Posted by Janeson Keeley  | January 28, 2015 at 7:30PM | Reply

Great story! I’m am freakishly impressed!

Posted by Dottie  | January 29, 2015 at 12:50PM | Reply

Yessss! Finally, productivity advice for us mommies :)

I envy you for two things; the 1st is that you homeschool–I want to but my hubby thinks its crazy and I’m scared I won’t do it right.

Secondy, I’m jealous you get to work in timeblocks. With an infant, I haven’t been able to implement that strategy successfully yet.

However, I have one thing I want to accomplish for the day and I work on that one thing whenever time permits (when Lindsey is asleep.) Surprisingly, I meet my goals.

Posted by Chirag Mehta  | February 3, 2015 at 11:27AM | Reply

Inspirational blog post. Todoist is my app of choice too. Mainly as I do not have an iPhone.

Posted by Kevin Miller  | February 8, 2015 at 10:30AM | Reply

Your blog post is also the answer for someone like me, in the Tech Community. I am the Director of Technology for a large non-profit and also handle desktop support for a staff of 60. In my world the IT part of my job is projects (work) and the desktop support it the constant interruptions (kids) and when someone gets a virus or has a computer crash (flu) your entire schedule has to change and you cannot get to your projects.

I will say that I have asked how to handle it many times from blogs sites, even this one, but many don’t get it because they are “creatives” and can spend the entire day by themselves.
I never thought that my situation is live a working mom running a home. Great Post!

I’m going to give the time-blocking a try.

Posted by Dragan Ruzic  | February 8, 2015 at 5:13PM | Reply

Great overview and a fantastic add-on with the screenshots of your own setup.

Posted by Annie (Andrea) Mueller  | February 9, 2015 at 4:56PM | Reply

Janeson, thanks! :)

Posted by Annie (Andrea) Mueller  | February 9, 2015 at 5:00PM | Reply

Dottie, my youngest is 3 1/2. Time blocking and/or working in large chunks is something I’ve just been able to start doing regularly in the last year. With an infant, you really have to focus on “being ready to work” at any moment. Having prioritized to-do lists and big projects broken down into shorter tasks will help you take advantage of the time you get as it’s available… because usually the hardest part is getting started! When you don’t know what time you will have – i.e. how long baby will sleep – it makes a huge difference if you’re able to jump right into a task instead of shuffling papers and making decisions with those precious minutes. Having your one thing for the day sounds like a brilliant idea for this stage in life. (And on homeschooling – I wouldn’t do it if my husband weren’t on board with me. You gotta have help/support! Who knows… maybe down the road yours will consider it!) :)

Posted by Annie (Andrea) Mueller  | February 9, 2015 at 5:02PM | Reply

Chirag, thanks. Todoist is pretty great, isn’t it?

Dragan, glad you liked. Thanks!

Kevin – hilarious. You’re right. The correlations are there, same scenario, just different terminology. I hope some of my methods can help you hack your own work system to flow even when you have a crisis at hand.

Posted by Rose Mannigan  | February 10, 2015 at 3:15AM | Reply

Great article and beautiful pics as well! I use both Google Calendar and Todoist and I just love them. I usually combine these 2 apps with Timeneye (https://www.timeneye.com/): it’s a time tracking app that integrates with Google Calendar. Basically all my meetings and events are automatically converted in time entries – in this way I can monitor the weekly and monthly time effort for meetings. Great way to boost my productivity!

Posted by Bruce Harpham  | March 11, 2015 at 9:36AM | Reply

Thanks for sharing the Weekend Checklist – that was helpful. By writing out the upkeep/errand tasks into a single resource, it makes it feel much easier to manage.

Did you find that using a checklist improves your results (e.g. reduction in time needed to complete weekend tasks)?

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