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Back-to-school season seems to make the hours go poof, so here's how to magically grab a whole bunch of them back. You'll get more done, you'll get more sleep, and you'll get more joy out of every day. Fall, bring it on.
For real, the first few weeks of school are kind of a crapshoot. Backpacks aren't going in the right place; summer-drunk kids aren't making their lunches. To get through our complex days, experts say we entrust 40% of our decisions to habit — but those habits aren't in place yet. That's why the pace feels frantic and moving permanently to a distant tropical isle starts looking awfully good.
But hold on: Though Google data says searches involving "stress" spike in the fall, they drop by the time the holidays roll around — and one poll found October to be a particularly happy month. Systems are in place and you remember you can breathe.
So how do you get through the "OMG" chaos? "Success builds on success," says behavior researcher B.J. Fogg, director of the Persuasive Tech Lab at Stanford University. Plan your mornings so you begin with a win every day, even if it's tiny. You could sweep the crumbs from around the kids' chairs (feels good, right?) or give yourself a foot massage (even better). Pretty soon you'll be cruising through the drop-off lane, barely remembering what all the agita was about.
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Long, lovely suppers are a wondrous thing, but they're absolutely not the only time you can cozy up with your kid. Even when sports team schedules (theirs), work travel (yours), or deadlines (everyone!) get in the way, these moments pay dividends.
Breakfast: Americans eat about 25% more breakfasts than they did in 1994, according to restaurant industry research, and for many late-working parents, breakfast is a more reliable all-hands-on-deck moment than dinner. It can be the bonding-est time of the day.
While running errands: It's easier for kids to open up when your eyes are on the road and no one's going to walk away from the conversation. A British study this year found that kids were more likely to confess — bad grades, friend problems — in the car, partly because they didn't have to look directly at their parents.
At bedtime: They're sleepy, which means defenses are down, and the pre-zzz's lull is naturally a snuggly, intimate time. If your kid is a sleep delayer, connect for a set amount of time — one five-minute back rub, for instance. Experts suggest maintaining that nightly check-in for as many years as you can.
Watching TV: A kid's media diet has to come with lots of talk from you, interpreting or inspiring thought about what they're seeing. One scene can launch a dozen conversations. This is why the universe invented the pause button, folks.
Via text: Thumbing it out can get you responses to questions without the added "What's that face about?!" drama. It's not for heart-to-hearts, cautions family counselor and parenting expert Alyson Schafer, but kids can sometimes be more candid in their "native" language.
Or just fine: "Sometimes, the good-enough dinner really is good enough," says Lynn Barendsen, executive director of The Family Dinner Project, a nonprofit housed at Harvard University. For more joy and less work, do like these moms.
"No one can leave the kitchen until dishes are in the dishwasher (not the sink), and every one of my four kids needs to help clean up. That truly has increased my happiness quotient, because cleaning up sucks!" —Carolina Buia Barefoot, Palm Beach, FL, Blogger At Barefoot Palmbeach.com
"There's this idea that parents are solely responsible for meals, which isn't how it should be. Often children are home before their parents, so they can take things out of the fridge, put a casserole in the oven, or start a rice cooker. It's less work for you if your family does this together — and it builds kids' confidence and skills." —Nutritionist Cheryle McKee, Owner Of Nourishing Abundance, Frederick, MD
"As a single mom for over 18 years, I don't have much time for brilliance in the kitchen. I lean heavily on 'brinner' — breakfast for dinner — which is easy and always a hit." —Marjohn Heath, Chevy Chase, MD
"We go around the table and ask everyone to say a good thing and a bad thing that happened that day. It gives us information without a grilling session and ensures that each person has space/room/time to talk (which, in a family with four kids, is vital)." —Carla Norman, Montreal, Quebec
It's not bad parenting or innate slackerdom that's behind your child's inability to remember his notebook: "Children don't develop the mental tools to form habits the way adults do until they get to be teenagers," says psychology professor Wendy Wood of the University of Southern California. "They tend to be spontaneous and a bit scattered. They need parents' help structuring their days." (Translation: You're giving "necessary prompts," not "nagging.")
Maybe you've got a kid who struggles for four hours over what could, on another day, be 20 minutes of homework. Or maybe you can't get the kitchen clean because oh, look, there's that box you were going to sort through! It's all about focus and how hard it can be to muster that up. Employ the Pomodoro Technique: Originally created by a grad student frustrated by his lack of concentration, it breaks up work into chunks of time, providing boosts of accomplishment (and breaks) that vanquish that Will this ever be over? feeling. "I've seen it work for super competitive star students and for kids with learning disabilities," says schoolhabits.com founder Kathryn Azevedo, a tutor in Massachusetts who has worked with over 3,000 kids (and who uses the technique herself for cleaning). To do it:
Choose a task: Minimize nearby distractions and place a blank piece of paper or a notebook nearby.
Set a timer for 25 minutes: It's just 25 minutes, right? Right. (Fewer might actually be more reasonable for a little kid, but do pick a specific time frame.)
Work until it goes off: No interruptions or distractions allowed. If you suddenly realize you have something else you must do, write it down.
Make a check on the paper and take a break: Give yourself five minutes to stretch or check your phone. If the 25 minutes got you in the zone, you may be tempted to power through. Resist! Your brain needs to regroup.
Repeat until you've made three or four checks, then take a longer break: This time you'll take 20 or 30 minutes off.
REPEAT UNTIL FINISHED!
For kids:1. Keep a steady bedtime: For younger children, pick an hour (before 9 p.m., please) and stick with it.2. Have a bedtime routine — a warm bath, a snack — that signals that sleep is coming. This can start as far as an hour ahead: Let 'em lounge!3. Spend time as a family. A study last year suggested that, for teens, it led to better sleep.4. Read together, say a prayer, have a ceremonial passing of a water bottle — just take the time to connect, even if your kid's too old to be read to.
For you:1. Even a drink and a half can affect your sleep. Keep any imbibing moderate, and do it early (e.g., a couple of hours before you snooze).2. Avoid doing work — even answering email on your phone — in the two hours before bedtime.3. Do your next-day planning early in the evening. Your last hour should be devoted to relaxing.4. Go to your room only when you're ready to get in bed — alone or together. (In other words, reserve the room just for zzz's or xxx.)
For both of you:1. Check the temperature in the bedrooms: Cool (around 65°F) is best.2. Sixty minutes before bed, turn off all devices. For kids, video games and social media seem particularly disruptive to snoozing, according to a 2016 study.3. Set phones to charge outside the bedroom.
5 minutesFind all of your essentials: shoes, backpacks, keys, wallets. Establish where they are now, and you won't be hunting for them under the gun in 10 hours. Bonus points: If they have designated spots, get their owners to put 'em there.
5 minutesDo a five-minute family pick-up. Make this part of the kids' regular good-night routine, and set a timer; there'll be less grumbling if they know it really is just five minutes. (Joke's on them: If you're a four-person family, y'all just collectively cleaned for 20 minutes!)
2 minutesClear your sink. It doesn't take much time in itself, but if you do it regularly, you'll inevitably end up taking more control of your dishes and counters, swear cleaning experts Marla Cilley and Dana White.
20 secondsLook in the fridge. Yup, that's all you have to commit to — looking. But chances are you'll end up considering tomorrow's breakfast and mentally planning lunches.
10 secondsGive a thought to gas. There's nothing worse than remembering you're on empty just as you turn on the car. This way, if need be, you can revise your leave-the-house time in your head for the next morning.
5 minutesGet into pj's. Even if you're still planning to stay awake and finally catch up on Game of Thrones, go ahead and do your bedtime stuff. The call of routine is so strong, you may find yourself hitting the hay anyway.
Got 5 more minutes?Jenny Rosenstrach, creator of the blog Dinner: A Love Story, suggests putting the ingredients for a morning smoothie into a blender, then popping it in the fridge. Breakfast — without the dicing and measuring — will be waiting.
Really on a roll?Devote a bit of time to what Dana White, author of How to Manage Your Home Without Losing Your Mind, likes to call "procrasticlutter": you know, like that laundry you just couldn't put away or those forms you have to sign. It may not greatly change your tomorrow, but keep it up and it'll really change your a-month- from-now.
How long does it take you to get where you're going in the morning? If you're like most of us, says transportation researcher Alan Pisarski, chances are the number of minutes you'd give as an answer is the rosiest possible estimate. "Usually the time it would take on a Saturday afternoon at 3 p.m.," he jokes. First, be brutally honest about how long your commute really is. Then, because we're not yet teleporting Star Trek–style, settle in and make it a better ride.
Get informed: If your commute has a use — besides blasting your blood pressure like a party horn — research suggests it's as a chance to transition, to mentally switch over from mom to worker bee or vice versa. The American Automobile Association has deemed audiobooks a low driving-distraction risk, so listen to something motivational or informative, but not too technical or alarming, says Tom Vanderbilt, author of Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us). "Your main task is still to pay attention to traffic."
Embrace the boredom: Research has found that some of the most creative thinking happens when your body is in motion but there's not too much thought needed — yep, just like driving a well-traveled route. And evening is particularly fruitful, studies say. So if you've been chasing a breakthrough on that vexing office conundrum, put on calm music and let your mind wander once you hit the highway on your way home.
Switch it up: A top reason commuting is stressful: It's totally unpredictable. "One stalled car can delay hundreds of commuters," says Vanderbilt. Varying the way you get to work keeps you from overinvesting in the idea that it should take exactly 27 minutes, so you can enjoy your time and stress less. (If choosing the back roads lets you see more nature, all the more soothing, research has found.) Pisarski makes this a habit. "Even if it ends up taking a little longer, I think, Well, I got to drive by the lake."
Stay in your lane: Lane-hopping is one of the most dangerous driving activities, but even if you think it's saving you a teeny bit of time — which is definitely not a guarantee — are those seven seconds/two car lengths really worth the collision risk? Thought not. Oh, and you know that arrival estimate Waze just gave you? It's not like some Olympic record that's there to taunt you into beating it. "That defeats the purpose," says Vanderbilt. "Not to sound too Zen, but just go with the flow."
Add humans: For our species, happiness and company go hand in hand, yet 76% of drivers commute alone. So if you can, shake that up by getting in some time with your husband, a colleague, a friend, or your kids — even if the overall drive is longer, it will be happier. Bonus: "Statistics say we're better drivers when we have passengers," says Vanderbilt.
Weekends are our happy times: Everything from scientific studies to light-beer commercials confirms it. Which is why it can be so teeth-gnashing to face down a Sunday night — after two days of nonstop tournament games, grocery-buying, and laundry—thinking, I didn't do anything I wanted to do! It shouldn't be that way, says Brigid Schulte, a mom and the director of the Better Life Lab at the New America Foundation. "Our weekends are uniquely precious, so we have to protect and curate them," she says. Here's how:
THURSDAYSchulte suggests thinking ahead to one thing that will make you really happy — whether it's a closet reorganization, a few hours of reading time, or attending a family barbecue — and making that your weekend's tent pole. Make it doable, but schedule it and commit to it. That way if you only get one thing done, it'll be the one you wanted to do most.
FRIDAYIt's 4:45 p.m., and your desk is still piled with papers — meanwhile, your brain is sodone with the week. This is the time when many of us think, I'll just take this work home with me. Instead, push on through, and don't let the office follow you out the door. Even just answering an email here or there takes an outsize toll on your weekend, says Schulte. Her best tip: Try to rid your week of busywork so you won't find yourself in this position to begin with. A third of the work we do, she has found, is just to prove to others that we are working.
SATURDAYGreat news: Research says you're likely to wake up in a cheery mood on Saturday — it's the happiest day of the week. To keep it that way, try to stay away from stores. Time-use studies say we think of Saturday as our get-stuff-done day, so you'll run into fewer folks if you shift your errands to Sunday, Friday night, or almost any other time. And if you do have to hit the big box stores: "The most fulfilling way to get through must-do tasks is to make them structured, meaning setting clear objectives and time limits," says Schulte. Endlessly wandering aisles doesn't qualify.
SUNDAYIf you've reached the second half of your weekend without doing any socializing, you need to correct that stat. Saturdays and Sundays remain enjoyable even as more people have flexible work schedules (meaning, say, Tuesdays off instead of Sundays) because they're the days we're most likely to find others to play with, studies say. This is also the day you'll feel the payoff of finishing that paperwork on Friday: It should help ward off "Sunday neurosis," a creeping anxiety that attacks mostly white-collar workers as the start of the workweek approaches.