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Take Charge of Your Family’s Schedule With These Sanity-Saving Strategies

Admit it. We all want to be that mom. You know, the one in line at Starbucks — with impeccable Jimmy Choos —  who’s balancing a baby in one hand and a BlackBerry in the other. She effortlessly zooms through the carpool line, meets with business clients, lunches with friends and, yes, still has time to pick up the kids from soccer practice and get dinner on the table. Her daytimer screams “Alpha Mom,” yet her easygoing demeanor makes us all wonder: How does she keep her cool? More importantly, is her togetherness an inborn trait or can we, too, establish enviable order?

The key behind any multitasking mama is organization — not just of your junk drawer, but of your priorities. Learn how to tame even the busiest schedule with these tips from eight juggle-it-all moms and de-cluttering professionals.

1. Hone Your Home Base

Before you slip into the poised ego of “I-Can-Do-It-All” Mom, get down to the basics. It’s impossible to operate on the fly without an established home base. This spot should harbor all of your family’s important documents … except not in a 3-foot-tall Leaning Tower of Paper. Instead, craft a command center in your home, suggests Plano mom Tonia Tomlin.

Tomlin, mother to 3-year-old twins Sydney and Peyton, owns home organization business Sorted Out, LLC, and is also author of the book Chaos 2 Calm: The Moms-of-Multiples’ Guide to an Organized Family ($17.95, Sorted Out Publishing, available in bookstores or at www.chaos2calmbook.com). Tomlin says she juggles numerous speaking engagements with running her business. “Mail, soccer schedules, medical records, bills, paperwork from school — it needs to be sorted into a communications center,” says Tomlin.

Shannon Semenuk, a Richardson mom of four boys ages 3-10, says her family’s command center was the first step to getting their lives under control. Her necessities: Her computer, phone, school directories, schedules and family records all must be kept in one place, within arm’s reach. She also makes pieces of her modular center portable so she can grab a tote of papers and toss it in her car’s backseat. She uses extra time, such as in a carpool line, to take care of business. “I’m always grabbing something on the way out of the house,” she says.

Tomlin recommends installing an easy-to-use modular system that can be customized for a family’s needs. Pieces such as a magnetic whiteboard calendar, letter bins and a corkboard hang on rails attached to the wall and can be easily added and rearranged. “Each kid can have his or her own bins for sorting stuff,” she says, adding that her favorite center is Pottery Barn’s “Daily System” (available in stores or online at www.potterybarn.com, starting at $12).

2. Project Your Agenda

All mamas touting a membership to the Sisterhood of Systemization know that every good mom has a plan — so write it down! Whether you choose a croc-embellished Kate Spade planner or a free, downloadable iPhone app, figuring out a method to synchronizing your family’s schedule all starts with time management.

Semenuk signs herself up for numerous volunteer positions in her community, not to mention the duties required by her leadership role as president of her kids’ elementary-school PTA. “Having a really good planner is key.” she says. Her choice? The Polestar Family Calendar, made by a company in British Columbia (available at www.amazon.com). The planner includes monthly as well as week-by-week planning space, and space for to-do lists, to-buy notes, appointments and meal planning.

Michelle Mize, a working Dallas mom of three boys, uses an online calendar called Airset. The Web site, www.airset.com, offers free digital calendars that can be updated on the go. Mize says the program sends a reminder around 5pm every day, with the complete schedule of activities for the following day. “I can share the Saturday schedule with family and it will give the date, location and even the duration of the games, so they can decide if they’d like to attend,” shares Mize.

Regen Fearon, a Dallas mom of three, can attest to the importance of having a good plan. However, moms shouldn’t simply pencil in a date or event, she says. “Pay attention to the details! They’re what make us crazy,” she laughs. Fearon, who is developing a software organization system set to release early next fall, says her program, tentatively called The Plum Life, will allow users to list all of the details and “tag” helpers to the event, alerting the system to either text or e-mail other participants (like a dad who’s on carpool duty) a timely reminder. “We all need help communicating the details to others,” she adds.

3. Prepare for the Expected

What’s next in the quest for organization? An answer to the one question every mom dreads after a busy day: “Mom! What’s for dinner?” It’s those simple words (sung in harmony with grumbling tummies) that can throw your Alpha-Motherhood plan into a tailspin.

Lisa Kanarek, a Dallas mother of two boys, author of four books and a professional home office consultant, is embarrassed to admit she has the numbers to Pizza Hut, Royal China, Snuffers and Gazeebo Burger all programmed into her cell phone. But, like Tomlin, Semenuk and Mize, she says she rarely gets takeout anymore.

“Now that we’re all on a healthy eating kick, we’re eating out less,” Kanarek says of her family. “When I go to the grocery store, I try to plan for the week.” Sometimes that means making her sons, Blake, 14, and Kyle, 12, tag along to pick out things they like.

Mize plans three meals a week with leftovers or something simple like pasta and spaghetti sauce for the additional days. While she says she enjoys cooking, she doesn’t hold herself to gourmet standards. After all, she’s just happy if she can find a healthy, quick and simple meal that both boys will eat.

Tomlin recommends scheduling time for meal planning on your calendar just like you’d schedule a dentist appointment. And, she adds, you can find menu-planning templates on the Web, some that even generate shopping lists. Two favorites: Dinewithoutwhine.com, which generates weekly menus with shopping lists, and Supercook.com, where you can enter ingredients you have on hand and get a recipe in return.

4. Share the Load

Some say it takes a village to run a family. If so, moms must master management. The first lesson in Management 101: Delegate. This skill often gets left behind in the midst of being busy — it’s easier to do a household task yourself rather than explaining how to do it to someone else … right? Plus, every multitasking mom needs a good sidekick (whether it’s your spouse or your quick-to-volunteer 4-year-old).

“In the long run, no,” says Michele Wahlder, a Dallas life and career coach and author who has encountered many clients with a must-do-it-all attitude. “If we take the time to have teachable moments with our kids, it might save us the time from having to do a task every day,” says Wahlder. “Give your kids instructions.”

For example, Semenuk’s boys are responsible for putting away their clean laundry, changing the sheets on their beds, dog care and some age-appropriate yard work. Mize says her older sons help keep the house picked up. “They understand that both their parents work full time and they are expected to help out,” she explains. (For more age-appropriate clean-up tasks for kids, look to our sidebar at left.)

Dr. Carol Doss, a Dallas-area licensed professional counselor, says dads should also share in household tasks, but moms shouldn’t be perfectionists when their spouses volunteer to help. “He doesn’t make the sandwiches like you do, or he puts clothes on the kids that you wouldn’t choose. You have to let go of that. If the clothes are weather appropriate, that’s enough. Men give up because women are always trying to tell them that they’re doing it wrong.”

5. Don’t Forget Yourself

Not even the fanciest planner (and matching accessories) can emotionally fulfill a busy mom. You might be able take care of it all, but be sure that “all” includes you.

Doss says that moms, whether they work inside or outside of the home, traditionally have taken on “more than any one person needs to take on to be able to maintain mental health, so they have to take time for themselves.” If not, she says, one more stressor added to life, such as a death in the family, can put an overstretched person over the edge.

Self-care for moms can start with taking a few minutes in the morning and/or before going to bed at night to simply practice being grateful, Wahlder says. “When we focus instead on the negative, how much time we don’t have, how the house is messy and the children are acting up, all those negative thoughts actually build neuropathways in our brains that make it easier to go down those paths again … and you start feeling that it’s all too much, that you have no control in your life,” she explains.

Dr. Geetha Shivakumar, assistant professor of psychiatry at UT Southwestern Medical Center’s Women’s Mental Health Center, says that taking time for exercise has often helped her clients who are suffering depression and anxiety after adding a new baby to their lives. She says sometimes her role is to help moms rediscover favorite activities they haven’t been doing for a while. “They’re so overwhelmed, they forget these were things they once enjoyed and sought comfort in.”

This might require some creativity on your part. Or, as Semenuk puts it, finding a “non-traditional use of time.” Last year, she took a Spanish class at Richland College, something she’d wanted to do for a long time — at 8am. “My husband was home at that time and was able to watch the boys,” she explains. Kanarek switched up her exercise routine to early-morning workouts. She says, “When you work at home, it’s easy to drop the kids off at school, come home and start working, intending to do it later. Then suddenly it’s late afternoon, and your child calls and you have to pick him up unexpectedly from school, and that exercise and shower haven’t happened yet.”

Doss says that if you can’t find time for yourself, it’s time to cut something out of your schedule. “Cut back on the extracurriculars,” she says. “Do the one thing that’s most fulfilling to you and let the other stuff go. And don’t feel guilty about it.”

Kanarek learned to say “no” when her kids were younger. “I was the volunteer mom, doing everything,” says Kanarek. “By the time my oldest son was in fourth grade, I got burned out. And I realized how crazy it was that I was doing all that volunteer work for my kids but it was taking me away from them! So when people would ask me to do something, I’d tell them that if I say yes, I’m not going to do a very good job, so I have to say no. After awhile, no got a lot easier.”

Making time for your interests and goals while your children are young not only sets a good example for your kids of how to lead a healthy, balanced life, but it also lessens “empty-nest depression,” says Doss. “Otherwise, when your kids grow up and leave home, your significance will leave, too.”

This article was first published in the September 2009 issues of DallasChild, FortWorthChild and NorthTexasChild. ©ISTOCK