A wise friend once said: “Talking about parenting is like talking about politics.” She was right.
Because of the highly personal nature of parenting, people tend to have strong opinions of the way things “should” be as a working parent.
Being pulled in different directions – the expectations from both work and home, and the stress that comes with them – can mean parents struggle with questions such as “Can I make it home in time for dinner? Will I be able to help with driving to evening activities? Can I even arrive in time to tuck my kids into bed? How much work travel is too much? Is it okay to take time during the day to exercise if it means leaving before the kids go to school or getting home later? Is it okay for me to see my friends if I feel like I barely get enough time with my family?”
As a time management coach, my role is not to criticise your parenting style but to encourage you to live a life aligned with your values. As a working parent, that requires you to be exceptionally intentional with your time. Part of that is developing and living by a values-driven schedule.
A values-driven schedule requires you to determine what is most important to you and your family, then plan your calendar around those priorities, rather than fitting your family and yourself in around whatever might land on your schedule. This helps ensure that you can feel overall satisfied with your time and parenting choices, instead of feeling guilty or frustrated that you’re not investing your time in the people and activities that matter most to you.
Here is a three-step process to create a values-driven schedule, based on strategies I’ve seen be effective for my clients who are working parents.
Step 1: be clear on what’s most important
Begin by listing these key items:
The categories you want to include in your schedule: Consider time for work, family, exercise, learning, social activities, alone time, hobbies, etc.
• The level of achievement you want in these areas: Identify your goals and the time commitment required. Going to the gym to work out for 40 minutes three times a week is a different time commitment than training, just as making time to see some of your child’s soccer games requires less time than coaching the team. Be realistic about how much time you’ll need for each category you’ve written down.
• Essential rituals for yourself or your family: Maybe you want to be home for family dinner at least three nights a week, attend a service at a place of worship each week and detach from electronics by 10pm so that you can connect with your spouse before bed. Write down these routines and how regularly they should happen.
Your time choices not only affect you, but also the other members of your family. As you make this list, have some discussions with your children and spouse or co-parent about what matters most to them. For example, maybe your son doesn’t mind you heading to the office before he gets up, but it would mean the world to him if you left work in time to see him in his school play.
This is also a really good time to identify what’s not important for you to do. Perhaps there are professional organisations where membership would be nice, but the decreased time with your family isn’t worth the trade-off right now or you may get outside help with some tasks such as house cleaning, lawn care, errands or handyman items so you can use that time working on your side gig or spending time with your kids.
Step 2: define why they’re important
Once you have defined your categories, levels of achievement and essential rituals, think of why each one of them is important to you. Go through each one and write down why you believe they are significant.
Thinking about the why can strengthen your resolve to follow through. It is one thing to say: “I should exercise”, but it’s another to frame it as: “I want to exercise because I want to live a long, healthy life where I can be present for my children and my future grandchildren.”
It can also help you weed out false priorities. For instance, if the strongest reason you can think of for taking a job that will mean 50-75% travel is that it is the usual next step in your career path, step back and think again. Would you love that job? Would it help you fulfil your potential? Would it match your goals? If so, go for it. But if it is just what people usually do, but you’re not that excited about it, seriously consider whether it is worth that much time away from your family.
As you evaluate the why, look at everything from a 50-year point of view. Think about what you wrote down and ask yourself, “Fifty years from now, what choices would I have been happy that I made? What would matter to me? What wouldn’t?” In the moment, things like a work contract can seem so incredibly urgent and important, but over the 50-year span, making or missing memories with your family will likely be what you remember.
Step 3: fuse your priorities with your schedule
Once you’re clear on your priorities, identify related actions and include them in your calendar. This helps to make doing them more automatic and makes it much easier to live a values-driven life.
Start by plugging your essential rituals into your calendar, then add new items as recurring events based on your priorities. Exercise: go to the gym on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday before work from 6:30-7:30am.
Have discussions with the people who they might affect about how you can make it work for all of you. Maybe your spouse helps with getting the children ready on the mornings when you go work out. Return the favour the other days.
With your children, there may be days when you need to work late to make up the time you took off to take your child to dance class or to participate in another extracurricular activity. But if you explain to them that you want to make time to talk before bed and really follow through on that commitment, it can help them still feel heard and connected. If your values-based schedule adjustments impact on your normal working hours, you may also want to have a discussion with your boss to explain your intentions.
The needs of each family are unique, but the importance of values-based scheduling is universal. Think through these three steps and to create a schedule that reflects your priorities and values, so that you’ll look back with satisfaction on the choices you made as a working parent.
This article first appeared in The Harvard Business Review.