Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Time Management for the Unschooling Parent

Time management books have a lot of great ideas, but they usually work off the assumption that the reader is either using them to manage their time at an out-of-home job or that the kids are in school most of the day or they don't take into account having kids at all.  A few books are designed for stay-at-home moms or even homeschooling moms, but then they usually include advice on how to schedule your kids lives right along with when to do your dishes and laundry.

So I'm going to offer a few ideas on managing your time as an **radical unschooling parent, so you can spend more time with your kids and less time in crises mode with things like cleaning, bills, appointments, shopping, etc.  I'm no expert by any means, and with 4 kids including an infant, being the President of a non-profit organization, and for several months every summer my husband is out of town for work, so I'm solo parenting (going on 5 months right now), I can't keep up on everything. But I can get a little something done in every area, almost every day, and compared to a few years ago or even last year, things run a lot more smoothly.  These are things that have helped me, and I hope they'll help you too.     

Time is the Great Equalizer

How many hours are in your day?  Take out the amount of time for the sleep you need.  However many hours are left is the amount of time you have with which to work.

Now write down everything you do in a day- cleaning, dishes, laundry, paying bills, packing your spouse's lunch for work, making meals, walking the dog, everything- and how much time each thing takes.

You might want to keep a record as you go for several days, so you get a realistic picture of how
much time things actually take.  You might think it only takes a 5 minutes to do the lunch dishes, but then your 5 year old wants to show you something, your 2 year old wants to help, and your 10 year old decides that now he's hungry after all, so you fix him something and make more dishes.  You have a choice- be resentful about these perceived interruptions or enjoy the time you have to be with your children and do things for them.  Choose joy- after all, that's probably a big reason you choose unschooling in the first place!  And because you're unschooling, you're not rushing to get the dishes done so you can go do school with the kids so they learn something- this IS the learning!  When they are watching or helping you do the dishes, they are learning.  When you are answering their questions or having a conversation while you do the dishes, they are learning.  So be realistic and write down that doing the lunch dishes takes 30 minutes (or whatever it takes for you).

Also write down how much time your children need your undivided attention.  Obviously this is going to be different every day, but you can get a ball park estimate.  Be aware of your kids' natural rhythms.  Maybe your daughter really likes spending time with you first thing when she wakes up, but you notice she's ready to go do her own thing after an hour or two.  Maybe your son wants to be left alone in the morning, but likes you to stay up with him at night.  

Now you have written down how much time it takes to do things, and probably one of two things happened.  There were things you never got to during the day that you didn't have time to do or you cut into time you wanted to spend sleeping to get it all done.  Either way, if you're like most people, there are more things to do in a day than there are hours to do them.

Fitting It All In

Getting it all done is going to be easier now, because you know how much time each task takes.  If those things added up to more than the number of hours you're awake, you're going to ruthlessly cut the things that aren't directly linked to the happiness and well being of your family.  Your best friend likes to text 30 times a day, and you now realize that replying is taking up an hour of your day.  Sorry, honey, we're down to 5 replies per day.   Maybe you've been cooking gourmet meals 3 times a day, and then you're frustrated that the kids won't eat them.  Stick with PB&J and fruit for now (or whatever you kids like) and spend the hours your just saved with your kids. No one can tell you which things to drop and which to keep, because it's going to depend on the individual dynamics of your family.    Personally, I hardly spend any time on makeup and clothes.  I've never cared about makeup, but I do imagine the days when I have time to put together a decent outfit and do something other than a ponytail with my hair.  But it's about priorities and those aren't mine.  Maybe that's important to you though, so you cut something else.     

Doing a little something every day consistently is better than doing a huge chuck of a project for hours one day and then not again for a week.  The book The Slight Edge talks about consistency.  An example of this for me is yoga.  I would love to do yoga for an hour each day at home and take a yoga class a few times a week.  Realistically, that doesn't fit into my life, so I would only do it sporadically, on the rare occasion when I could carve out an hour of my day.  Then I realized, it doesn't have to be all or nothing.  I can do 20 minutes a day!  20 minutes done consistently 5 or 6 days a week adds up to more than an hour once every week or two.  Plus my body gets the benefit of it being a habit.

What helps me be flexible, is that when things are getting done on a small scale, consistently, *most* days, it's not such a big deal to miss a day.  For example, I don't budget and pay bills only on payday or even once a week.  I do it daily.  Which means that most days, I'm just opening a spreadsheet, inputting the $20 I spent yesterday and closing it.  Easy, 2 minutes of my life, but just opening it reminds me what bills are coming up that I need to be aware of, and it means I'm keeping track of my spending every day so that I'm not scrambling at the end of the week to figure out where the money went.  And if life gets hectic and I miss two days of the week and then I don't do it on the Sabbath, I've still succeeded in doing it the other 4 days a week, so more often than not and plenty often enough to be organized.  

 I'm talking about the potential problems of this...
Get your house under control.  The book The House That Cleans Itself has some great ideas for streamlining cleaning and making your house fit your natural tendencies.  When you were timing how long activities took throughout the day, how many things took twice as long as they should have because you couldn't find the supplies?  Or because you had to clean off the space to do it.  Your daughter wanted to paint, but it took 10 minutes to find the brushes, 5 minutes to clean off the counter from breakfast 3 hours ago, and you discovered a rotten apple stuffed in with the paper.  You're trying to get everyone ready to go out the door, but
...not this.
you can't find a clean shirt for one kid and in the mean time the toddler gets undressed.  You want to
help your son find out more about the plant he found, but the laptop is dead and it takes you 10 minutes to discover that your 2 year old buried it under the pile of dirty clothes in the bedroom while pretending it was a snake.

Yes, a great thing about unschooling is that many people realize that they don't "have to" do things any certain way.  You can shrug off your mother's voice in your head telling you to make your bed every morning, and you can revel in the pure fun of letting your kids make a fort with the couch cushions or paint the shower walls.

But it really is easier to help kids explore their interests if you can easily find supplies, and it really is more fun to make a temporary mess in a clean space, than to make a mess that turns an already messy house into one worthy of a CPS call.       

Take a day off.  Seriously.  For me, that's the weekly Sabbath from Friday sundown to Saturday sundown.  Take your day off according to your religion's sabbath or the day your spouse has off work or whenever.  Just do it every week.  When I started implementing it, it was for religious beliefs, and I had NO IDEA how on earth I was going to fit all the things I couldn't fit in to 7 days, into 6 days.  Amazingly, things started fitting better!

One thing about unschooling is that we don't have an outside structure being imposed on us, so days blend into weeks blend into months.  Some people really enjoy that aspect and that is probably an important part of deschooling.  Eventually, however, life's natural and cultural cycles catch up with us- the bills need to be paid every month, holidays roll around, seasons change, and one important part of helping our kids explore their interests is providing the opportunities to do related things.  Taking one day out every week to see what is coming up, setting aside the money for that holiday trip to grandma's, deciding to switch out the summer clothes for winter clothes this week or getting your kid signed up for that robotics convention, means you're not panicking at the last minute.

Also on the Sabbath, I don't clean or shop or run errands or work my to do list.  I just rest.  As much
as a I can with 4 young kids in the house, anyway!  I spend time with them, like I do every day, but when they are busy doing their own thing, I do self care things for me. 

Plan out your week and your day.  Here's the dilemma I imagine all unschooling parents face-  How to get the things done that need to be done (cleaning, shopping, any other commitments) while respecting that our kids are separate human beings, with their own desires and needs for how to spend their days?  We need to grocery shop or go to the post office, but they don't want to leave the house today.  We need to make phone calls, but they are playing loud music and dancing.

I remind myself in those moments that I chose unschooling.  I chose not to send my kids away so I could get other things done.  I chose to be with them.

This is where flexibility is the key.     

Now that you've cut your activities down to the essential ones for the peace and happiness of your family, organize what you have left to do.  What I have done is laid out everything I need to do- making meals, daily cleaning, outside commitments, managing finances, working my to-do list, and things just for me like yoga and writing.  Then I organized it around time set aside to give my kid my undivided attention, based on when they tend to need me most.

Some things just don't make sense to be done daily.  Like grocery shopping.  So I broke that down into two parts- meal planning and grocery shopping and try not to do them on the same day.  There are a few other things that I do weekly, but I do them on different days of the week.  So I'm only doing one weekly task every day

On paper, this looks like a schedule, but the way it works out in reality is not strictly structured.  My kids have no idea that I've done this, except that they recognize a loose routine to the day, but since that flows with their own natural rhythms it works for them too.  I don't hold them to it, it's for me.  The way I do that, is by being willing to totally mix things up.  Knowing that I have everything written down so nothing is forgotten, and knowing that I really do have enough hours in the day to do it all, and doing things consistently most days, so that it's not such a big deal to miss a day, frees me up to easily switch things around.

I usually do yoga in the morning before the kids wake up, but if they wake up early and need me, no big deal.  I just do yoga later while they are happy playing or while we watch tv together or if they want to join me, we all do it together.

On paper, I walk the dog every day after dinner, but if the kids want to go to the park at 10am, I say sure!  We hop in the car, go to the park, and take the dog. Or if they don't want to walk with me, I can walk her up and down our street while they play in the yard.  Or we all just go stand at the edge of field at the end of our street and let her play there.  Or one of the kids will decide to walk her around our neighborhood.  

Flexibility is about making choices based on your values.  If you're clear about your values and priorities, then creating a system like this shouldn't lock you in to an unchanging schedule.  It should just help you see the big picture, and all the little parts that make up the picture, and in any moment you can choose which part to paint next, according to everyone's needs and your principles.  

Be willing to constantly tweak this.  I've been doing some version of this for at least a year now, and I was playing with other methods for a few years before that.  Still, every week, I look to see if there was anything that consistently didn't get done that week and see how I can work it in better the next week I look at what worked really well and learn from that.  I pay attention to the kids' changing needs. 


If you managed to make it through all of that, here's the short version:

Consistency and Flexibility
Subtract the number of hours you sleep from 24 hours.  This is what you have with which to work.

Time everything you do.  If the amount of time things realistically take, accounting for the time it takes with kids helping or needing you in the middle of it adds up to more hours than you have in the day, take a hard look at what you can cu

Cut out or reduce anything that doesn't contribute to the peace and wellbeing of your family.  Combine things if you can, but don't plan on multitasking all the time.  Make sure there is generous time set aside for giving your kids your undivided attention.

Write down the list of everything you do want to keep in your life and how long it takes, which should now fit into the number of hours you actually have in your day. 

Do things for less time every day instead of a big chunk of time weekly or monthly, so that you can make a little progress every day.  This is the consistency part. 

Take note of things that could be done faster or more efficiently or with less stress if you were better organized or if the house was cleaner.  Learn how to organize those things and keep the house clean.

Lay them out in an order that makes the most sense based on your kids needs and natural routines/habits, and your family dynamics.

Now be willing to totally mix up the order in which they happen.  This is the flexibility part. 

Do things consistently every day, but be flexible about when they get done, how they get done, where they get done, who does them.  It's a lot easier to be flexible when you know that you CAN do it ALL today, so switching a task you planned to do in the morning to the afternoon or switching today's weekly task with tomorrow's isn't a big deal.

Take a day off every week to plan for the upcoming week.

And of course, take what works for you and your family and discard what doesn't- something at which most unschoolers are probably pretty good at doing. 

**This is assuming you are a radical unschooling parent, and that you've been doing this for some time.  If you're still deschooling, if you're only "unschooling some things," this might not be helpful for you as there may be a tendency to turn it into a schedule or to start using it to control how your kids spend their time.   



  1. Thank you for this. I'm currently boxing things up we don't have space for. And hoping to find a bigger place for us. I so want to find space in the day for reading to the kids. I really need a way to occupy a toddler while we read. She gets into so much trouble ever time we have sat down, I dread it now! Suggestions appreciated !! (:

  2. Would she like to "read" her own board book while you read to the bigger ones? Is she an old enough toddler to be ok in the bath while you sit right outside the door and read? Pile up some pillows and cushions on the floor in the hall to get more comfy. If she still nurses or naps you can read to the older ones while she does that. I have sometimes read to one or two kids while one or two others were watching tv. Sometimes in the same room and sometimes in a different room. You can read outside while she jumps on a trampoline or plays with the dog or in a sandbox or whatever she likes to do. Give her something to dump out, like a tub of blocks or a low drawer full of tupperware, and let her go ahead and make a mess while you read. Put her in a highchair with a snack or some coloring. .