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How Can a Working Parent Find Time for School?

January 25, 2008 By: Category: Family balance, Family balance

If you have children, especially small children, you probably find it hard to find time to go to a movie or get your hair cut, never mind studying or writing papers. So how do working parents manage it?

If you’re balancing school, work and family, you need to move beyond getting organized—you need to maximize your productivity. This is the new watchword for the 21st century, as we try to get more and more done with less and less time. The productivity approach is perfect for the student parent.

Here are a couple of ideas from David Allen’s groundbreaking productivity book, Getting Things Done. (If you’ve got more on your plate than you can handle, this book is required reading.) These tips can help you lay the groundwork for a more organized, productive life–not just in your return to college but in your career and home life to follow.

Group tasks by context
One of the worst time-killers is doing 10 tasks separately when you could bundle them and do them all together. To be more productive, you’ve got to group your tasks so you can do them in batches.

Find a dry cleaner near your kids’ daycare (even better, use the daycare associated with your school—one less stop to make!). Get your oil changed in the same mini-mall where you pick up cat foo. And if you need to make a phone call, go ahead and get four more out of the way while you’re at it.

To make the most of this technique, you’ll need to group your to-do lists by what David Allen calls “context.” That just means dividing tasks according to where you need to be to do them. For example, you might keep one list for everything to do while you’re in your car running errands, and a separate list for all the personal tasks you’ll do at your computer. The right number of contexts for you will depend on your individual needs and habits.

Before you know it, keeping these “context lists” will be second nature, and you’ll routinely save hours every week.

Document the next action you need to take on every project
If you need snow tires, don’t put “get snow tires” on your list. Instead, figure out the very next action you’re going to take—maybe “ask Karen about the cheap tire place.”

Everything on your to-do list needs to be a concrete, manageable action you can take, not a large, amorphous project that you don’t quite know how to start.

Here’s a hint: if anything on your to-do list feels overwhelming, you haven’t figured the true next action out yet.

Your next action item for getting your applications in might be, “Call admissions specialist” or “email Dr. Roberts for letter of recommendation.” When your to-do list is made of smaller, more manageable actions, you’ll find yourself getting a lot more done. These small steps quickly turn into significant progress toward the big stuff.

Keep a “project” list separate from your “next action” list
In Getting Things Done lingo, a “project” is anything that needs more than one next action. Getting an MBA is a project, and so is finding a new occasional babysitter.

You need to look at your “next action” lists every day to keep things moving forward, but project lists just need a weekly review.

If you have a project that you don’t know the next action for, sit down and puzzle it out until you do. You can’t move forward on a project until you know the next action.

And if you have a project that stubbornly refuses to reveal its next action, it might be a candidate for a “someday/maybe” list.

Create a “someday/maybe” list
Let’s face it, the year you go back to school probably isn’t the year you’re also going to take salsa dancing lessons, perfect your scrapbooking technique or start a blog. You don’t have to lose those dreams—just create somewhere to park them for a little while.

A “someday/maybe” list lets you move these projects off of your daily list, which means you’ll experience less frustration and stress as you see those items every day without acting on them.

Review your project list regularly—every week is best. Use a ruthless eye. If there’s a project on your list that you can’t commit to working on now, move it to someday/maybe for the time being. This liberates a huge amount of emotional energy that you’ll be able to spend on higher-priority projects. And you’ll probably find that “someday/maybe” comes sooner than you think.

Getting even more things done
Don’t stop with these four tips! The Getting Things Done book walks you through these concepts and several more key pieces to the productivity puzzle. Once you’ve implemented the system in your life, you won’t know how you lived without it.

Spend some time creating a productivity system as your first step in returning to school. It will free up the time and energy you need to balance, school, work and family life.

Learn more about Getting Things Done:

  • 43 Folders. Merlin Mann’s excellent site on using Getting Things Done to . . . well, get things done
  • 43 Folders forum. A companion discussion board on how to be more productive
  • Lifehacker. One of the most popular sites on the Web for GTD tips and tricks
  • The David Allen Forum. Good productivity forums run by the David Allen Company