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How to Build Systems for a Productive Life as a Parent

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Productive Parenting System

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

Much of our frustration and failure in productivity comes from the recurring, mundane, daily must-dos of life. These little, repeating tasks seem so unimportant that we often overlook them. When overlooked, however, these small tasks can add up to pretty big losses in productivity.

Systems help us to deal with the recurring stuff of life; we don’t want to, or need to, eliminate these things. We simply want to make them more efficient. Think “streamlining.” Think “simplifying.”

Think “having a plan for breakfast so you don’t have to run out for milk at [7:30] in the morning when your kids are starving.”

Think systems.

Whether we realize it or not, we depend on systems. This is true in parenting as in all of life. The better our systems are, the easier – and more productive – our lives will be.

Systems Are Everywhere

Systems Everywhere

There’s a system you follow for getting dressed in the morning, for making sure you eat daily, for doing your work.

These may not be the most efficient systems, but they work to some degree.

When you’re a parent, you are responsible not only for the stuff of your own life but also for your child’s life… at least, up until a certain age when we hope that they start taking that responsibility for themselves.

The more responsibilities you have, the more complicated life becomes. The more complicated life becomes, the more overwhelmed, stressed, and frustrated we get.

Systems help to reduce the complication.

Sure, you can spend ten minutes every morning scratching your head over what you’re going to make for breakfast that both you and your child will eat – that’s an inefficient breakfast system – or you can build an efficient breakfast system that will save you time and frustration.

Once we start seeing the systems that make up our lives, we can start changing them for the better.

We can change them from the default setting, which is usually inefficient and frustrating. We can consciously and carefully build streamlined, flexible, and enjoyable systems.

That can make life better for us and for our kids.

Where to Start

Start looking for the systems in your life as they already exist. Don’t judge. Don’t stress. Just notice.

As you notice your own systems, you’ll also start to notice where they break down or become frustrating and inefficient.

As you see where your current systems fail, you can start to decide if you need to level it and build a brand-new system, or simply tweak your current one a little bit so it’s working for you.

Where Is the Pain?

Where is the pain?

Regular pain points in your life are often signs of broken, inefficient, and/or out-dated systems.

What are the areas in your life that fit one or more of these descriptions?

  • This area is a source of continual frustration for me and/or my child.
  • This area is one that I often avoid, consciously or unconsciously, by procrastinating or creating obstacles and distractions.
  • This area is one that is necessary in daily life, but it always seems to take too long and be too complicated.
  • This area is a continual drain of my time, money, or other resources.
  • This area seems to continually create conflicts between the people involved.

For parents in general, and parents who are interested in productivity especially, the following areas are common issues:

  • “Kid clutter”: toys, clothes, and general stuff that collects and gets left everywhere.
  • Transition times: coming and going anywhere, especially on a schedule.
  • Meal times.
  • Bed/nap times.
  • Having your own personal/adult time.
  • Keeping up with regular work demands.
  • Keeping up with household chores such as laundry and cleaning.
  • Having time for hobbies, exercise, personal life, social life, etc., while also being a parent and staying productive.

Do any of those areas strike a chord of pain in you?

An Example of a Bad System

Let’s take “kid clutter” as an example. I have four kids; the oldest is 8. I am continually picking up dirty socks, muddy shoes, balls, Legos, game pieces, paper scraps, and markers and putting them where they belong.

For a while, I thought I just didn’t have a good enough system for storing and organizing this stuff.

But I do, really. There are designated places for all of these things. My kids know where things go.

The problem was not the storage system, but the “getting stuff back where it belongs” system. Was there a system already in place? Sure. It was a very basic but effective one: the old “Kids drop stuff wherever they want and Mom goes around and picks it all up” system.

It was pretty efficient for my kids, but not for me.

A Better System Starts with a Goal

Start with Goal

A better system starts with one simple question: what is the point of the system?

The goal of a system determines how you build the system. So before you can build a better system, examine your goal.

In the “kid clutter” example, if my goal is merely to have a clutter-free area, then the system is working. I’m putting away the clutter.

But that isn’t the goal.

The goal is to get my kids to put their own stuff away, so that

a) I can do other stuff and;

b) We can have a clutter-free (or at least clutter-reduced) home.

Components of a Better System

Let’s take a look at some common system components.

  • Goal. As discussed above, what is the point of the system? What behavior are you trying to produce? What is the desired output of the system? Figure this out first, as it will direct the entire system.
  • People. Who’s involved? Who does the work? Who maintains the system? Who needs to know about the system? Who is a threat to the system?
  • Capability. This includes both the mental ability (knowledge, memory) and the physical ability to use the system. There’s no point in asking my kids to put their toys away on a shelf they can’t reach.
  • Resources & Supplies. Resources are the reusable parts or tools in a system, e.g., a hammer. The supplies are the consumables, e.g., nails. Resources have to be maintained. Supplies have to be restocked. Both resources and supplies need to be organized in a defined space.
  • Space. What area does the system cover? Is it a portable or a fixed system? What space is designated for storing the system’s supplies and resources?
  • Methods. What are the steps in the system? What behavior is required from system users?
  • Prompting. What activates the system? Is it a certain time (schedule-initiated) or is it linked to another event or habit?
  • Tracking. How do you know the system is working? Tracking can be very simple. It can be an accountability set-up, a part of your daily or weekly review, or a scheduled look at the system to judge if the system is meeting its goal.

Build, Implement, and Adjust

Build, Implement, Adjust

To start using systems consciously in your life as a productive parent, the first step is to identify the system you need to build.

Then you build it.

Start by defining the goal. Then go through each component on the list above, defining and organizing what your system requires. It’s best if you write it all down so you can have something to reference.

Next you implement the system.

Start using it. Make sure all the components are in place. Don’t try to use a half-built system. Wait until you have what you need. It doesn’t have to be perfect, or perfectly arranged, but it does need to be complete. Otherwise it will break at that missing piece and you will become frustrated with the system.

Use your system consistently for at least a week.

Then adjust it.

Usually we won’t get our systems right the first time through. We’ll use them, and realize that as an example, steps 5 through 7 of the system can be eliminated, or that the space we’ve set aside really isn’t adequate, or something like that.

After a week of consistent use, review your system. Is it working? Is it reaching the goal?

Can it be simplified, streamlined, improved?

Do the tweaking now, then use it again consistently for a designated period of time before you review and adjust it again.

Remember that every new system will have a learning curve with it. Don’t give up on a system just because it is new, unfamiliar, and a little bit difficult at first.

As you get familiar with your system, you will be able to see how to improve and you will be able to use it – and teach it – almost effortlessly.

What areas in your life as a productive parent would benefit from a good system?

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

Cover image credit: clement127

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Posted by Bruce Harpham  | March 9, 2015 at 3:41PM | Reply

This is an excellent explanation. I particularly like the point made that most of us have “bad systems” in place.

I also like the idea of connecting a good system to a specific goal rather than somehow coming up with some kind of abstract system disconnected from reality.

P.S. Well done on the images with this post – they all work together elegantly.

Posted by David  | February 28, 2015 at 10:29PM | Reply

Great to see a parent-related article on AE. Many of the tips I read on here are great in theory but just don’t work when surrounded by young children who constantly demand our time and attention. Keep it up guys.

Posted by Byron J. Williams  | February 4, 2015 at 7:05AM | Reply

Great article…parenting is an oft neglected topic when considering career and entrepreneurial endeavors, but this article hit home. Keep them coming…Thanks!

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