How to Simplify Your Family Life

A conversation with expert Julie Morgenstern
By Barbara Danza
Barbara Danza
Barbara Danza
Barbara Danza is a mom of two, an MBA, a beach lover, and a kid at heart. Here, diving into the challenges and opportunities of parenting in the modern age. Particularly interested in the many educational options available to families today, the renewed appreciation of simplicity in kids’ lives, the benefits of family travel, and the importance of family life in today’s society.
May 21, 2019 Updated: May 21, 2019

Families today seem to be busier than ever, being pulled in all directions at once. I often hear moms, especially, lament that they don’t feel like they’re succeeding in any one area, much less all of them.

I asked Julie Morgenstern, an expert on organization and productivity, and author of “Time to Parent: Organizing Your Life to Bring Out the Best in Your Child and You,” for advice for families who may want to back away from the hamster wheel and simplify their family’s life.

The Epoch Times: What, in your opinion, has led to this chronic busyness that seems so pervasive among families?

Julie Morgenstern: To be clear, parents have grappled with feeling time stretched for generations. It has always been challenging to find a healthy balance between raising a human, and being a human. In the spirit of our collective effort to “get this parenting thing right,” the pendulum has swung back and forth from one generation to the next. The classic 50s model featured full-time breadwinning career dads with minimal quality family time, and stay-at-home moms who gave up careers to be there for their kids.

Baby boomers modeled self-actualization to teach their kids they could be anything, but were also considered workaholics, whose children—so-called latchkey kids—often felt sidelined by their parents’ ambitions.

Moms and dads today are spending more time with and for their children than any previous generation, perhaps to make up for what was lacking in their childhoods. Because of careers and other demands, they often sacrifice sleep and self-care to do it.

The pressure for modern parents to be perfect is fierce. Instagram, Facebook, and other social media platforms intensify this pressure, as everyone is putting forward their best parenting selves—selecting images and posts that present their lives and relationships in the best light. Parents of all ages now face the modern-day problem caused by the prevalence of technology in our lives, of being together but apart, with everyone connected to a distracting device. Today’s parents and caregivers across all generations overschedule their lives in an effort to be responsive to their kids but end up exhausted and struggling to “be present” as a result.

The Epoch Times: For families, what are the consequences of this frantic busyness?

Ms. Morgenstern: An overbusy, packed schedule puts the focus on “doing” rather than “being.” There is very little downtime for parents or kids—time to just relax, let their minds wander, connect with each other, and process their experiences in a way that is enriching and leads to learning and growth. Hectic schedules leave very little time to connect with each other or process the events of the day together. This is a shame because kids are taking in so much new information every day, it’s kind of like being on a non-stop vacation where you are rushing from one thing to another, leaving you more exhausted at the end, rather than refreshed or enriched. It’s always on to the next thing.

With frantically busy schedules, most interactions and conversations within families tend to focus on logistics, and the to-do list—who’s picking who up, what time practice starts, was the homework done, who is cooking dinner and doing the dishes, why is this house a mess? This can lead families to become very out of tune with each other—which can lead to disconnection, tensions, mysterious power struggles, and trouble relating to each other. That makes spending quality time together even harder—as it’s hard to find something to talk about or to spend time doing together if you have no idea what’s going on in each other’s lives.

Undivided time and attention is the single greatest gift you can give to any person, or project or task, including yourself. But when schedules are packed, it’s easier to be distracted than to be fully present. There’s pressure to do everything all at once. Hours, days, weeks, and months can go by before we know it.

The Epoch Times: What areas of life do you see parents struggling most with, in terms of being able to stay on top of “all the things?”

Ms. Morgenstern: Without a doubt, of the four parenting responsibilities (referred to in the book) P.A.R.T., Provide and Arrange are easily the most time consuming to stay on top of. Each of these can easily co-opt every well-meaning parent’s time and focus away from quality time with their kids and time for self-care.

Provide is about furnishing children with the most fundamental resources for survival: food, shelter, clothing, education, medical care, and physical and emotional safety. Providing involves working and managing money to pay for all the things kids need. Providing can take a huge chunk of time as a parent, and in today’s 24/7, competitive, demanding workplaces, it can be very hard to contain our workdays, and not bring work (or thoughts about work) into our family time. Parents are building careers while raising their kids. The primary dilemma of parents everywhere is: how do I balance earning and managing money with making time for my family?

Arrange is the equivalent of the operations department of a household, and it is a massive logistical task. It involves orchestrating all of the organizing, cooking, cleaning, scheduling, transportation, paperwork, and activities of every family member. To manage it all, a person needs to be organized and flexible; creative and systematic; a big picture thinker and a detail-oriented person. Very rarely are all of these qualities found in just one person, and even when they are, the job is still far too much for one person to manage solo.

Arranging for family life is different and more complex than organizing for a single person. Not only is the volume of stuff to organize greater, but it also requires you to synchronize family members’ plans. That requires some advanced coordination skills.

Because arranging for a family takes so much time and brain space, it often prevents parents from ever being able to relax, connect, and be present. Arrange can easily take over your schedule (and your brain!) at the expense of other things you’d prefer to spend time on. Even families who successfully keep things in order often resent the amount of time it takes.

The Epoch Times: What have you heard from children who struggle with this kind of overload? How does this impact them?

Ms. Morgenstern: They feel stressed. There is no time to just “chill” and they get overly worried about keeping up with their peers in terms of academic performance and extracurriculars. Kids who are overly connected when they are younger get antsy—they want to do something physical. I had one mom report that her kids—who are highly addicted to Minecraft—told her, “I think I had enough screen time—I want to go out and skateboard.”

The Epoch Times: What advice would you give to parents who yearn for more simplicity in their family’s life?

Ms. Morgenstern: Find a block of time every day when the whole family is together, and everyone is off and fully removed from their devices. The time can be used for interacting and relating to each other—playing, talking, sharing adventures, or even being in the same space, doing “together but apart time” with casual chat from time to time.

You should have a block of time on the weekend dedicated to the same function—unstructured time on Saturday or Sunday, where everyone is hanging around—either doing activities together or doing their own thing (as long as it’s not on a device). This free, unstructured time serves as a built-in pause in the day and the week.

The Epoch Times: Are there practical steps parents can take to reduce the noise, slow things down, and focus on what truly matters to them?

Ms. Morgenstern: Make mindful transitions. Set your intention before you cross any threshold.

When you are crossing any threshold—and switching from any one quadrant to another (for example, after a long work day) build in a minimum of 10 minutes before you arrive home to shift gears. The most common challenge working parents share with me is, “I walk in the door after a long day and just need a little space before I can handle my kids and the house and all that stuff.” But kids don’t get that you need 20 minutes to clear your head—they’ve been missing you all day!

When walking through your front door, instead of thinking about your workday, or tomorrow’s to-dos, shift your focus. Ask yourself, when I walk through the door, what is my intention? Maybe it is to be present for your kids and partner, or to make your family laugh.

The same is true when you leave home and go to work. Getting out the door in the morning can be hectic and stressful. Don’t carry that stress into the workday—it will dilute your ability to be present at work, which means you’ll get less done, and feel obligated to stay later at the office or get back on the computer after the kids go to bed to compensate.

Apply selective perfectionism: think MAX-MIN-MOD.

As a parent, with so many things to do every day, it’s easy to lose perspective, and always think you have to do things par excellence. Perfection is a drive for safety—no fear of criticism or wrongdoing. MAX-MIN-MOD is a tactical handbrake that slows you down enough to ask yourself: “Before I do this, what am I trying to achieve?” Then you can consider, what’s a good enough job?

Here’s how it works: For any task or activity that threatens to swallow you whole—or you’re procrastinating on because it’s so overwhelming to complete to perfection—define three levels of performance: Maximum (MAX) Moderate (MOD), and Minimum (MIN).

First, MAX. What is the maximum I can do? What does truly perfect look like? Write down very specifically all the actions you envision that would add up to the most stellar job. Next, ask what is the minimum I could do? Imagine you have run out of time, you can’t skip out on the task, but need to do the most basic version that will still get the job done. Then, define MOD. What is something above the bare minimum, if you have a little more time to make it special, but not go crazy?

Resist the siren call of technology: Be a media mentor. Just like table manners and four-letter-words, kids imitate what their parents do. If you want your kids to have a healthy relationship with technology, model it yourself! The best thing you can do is actively mentor your kids in their relationship to technology, by developing and communicating your own personal rules and establishing household rules to use technology with intention. Make conscious choices about what you use technology for and when.

Show your kids, through your own deliberate choices, that just because you can use technology for everything, doesn’t mean you should. For example, maybe because you work on a screen all day, you read paper books at night. Maybe if you are playing a board game and someone can’t remember a fact, the house rule is don’t Google it. Stay connected to the people at the table, relying on (gasp) memory alone!

The Epoch Times: Do you have any simple tactics that parents could immediately apply to relieve some pressure in the short term?

Ms. Morgenstern: To contain “provide:” The goal is to be super focused and productive while at work, so it’s easier to tie your day in a neat bow, and be present for your kids and family when you’re at home.

Here’s how. Treat each day like a resume. You were hired to do a job based on your unique talents, skills, and experience. Get clear on what’s being asked of you, and get your job done. Resumes speak in terms of accomplishments, not activities. If you organize your time wisely and keep a laser beam focus on achieving results, you should be able to record and report what you’ve done at the end of each day. Make it a habit to document what you’ve done for colleagues and supervisors. This creates a trail of accomplishment, and it also helps you feel accomplished.

Cut workday clutter. Sometimes people get stuck bringing work home at night on the weekends, not because the company expects them to, but because they piddled away their productive hours at work with bad habits like procrastination or perfectionism. Avoid the massive time suck of Facebook, other forms of social media, and personal emails. Just like our goal is undivided attention with our kids, when you’re at work, really be there—focused, fresh, and ready to put in the time.

Anticipate derailments. I also call this tip “stage manage” your life.” Stage managers prepare for any disaster by playing the “what if?” game before each show. What if, during a live performance, the curtain doesn’t open, or the phone doesn’t ring on cue? When you’re a working parent, learn to think like a stage manager. Spend a few minutes at the end of every day looking ahead down two highways: work life and family life, both of which can be highly unpredictable. Think about what might derail you in the next few days, and how you might manage any potential surprises. By anticipating what might be headed your way, you can take preventive measures, and even if a crisis occurs—at work or at home—you will spend less time digging out of the mess because you’ve thought about how to solve it in advance. Be prepared.

To contain “arrange,” here are three tips: Don’t do it all alone. Involve each and every member of the family in the design and maintenance of family systems—cooking, cleaning, laundry, pickup. Sharing housework is a way of taking care of each other.

Because it’s easy to underestimate the amount of time it takes, families rarely talk openly about the responsibilities. Very often, one person becomes the “default” arranger and absorbs the entire job. Or, individual family members silently gravitate toward certain tasks, based on what they notice or care about, but since no one talks about it, they either don’t feel recognized for the work they put in, or they feel criticized for what they don’t do. Family life is dynamic, and discussing what is required, and how it will get done, is fair game at every transition point. It’s never too late to re-assign the labor and hit reset.

Automate the predictable and shrink each system to its smallest footprint. Don’t make any system more complicated than it needs to be. Cooking, cleaning, errands, shopping—the goal of organizing is to free up your time, energy, and focus for connection, not to consume you. In other words, your kids and family would much rather spend quality time with you relaxing than on perfection-level housekeeping that gets destroyed in three seconds of play. Remember, if a system meets these two criteria: easy for everyone to follow, runs with minimal effort, it’s good enough.

Focus on hotspots. It takes time and skill to build organizing systems. For that reason, don’t attempt to organize everything at once. First, focus only on the things that will deliver the most relief, calm, and time won back. Make a list of all the functions involved in running your household, pick two or three that cause you the most stress, then invest energy and brainpower in fixing those. Remember, the goal is “organized enough.”

The Epoch Times: Have you witnessed families who have fully relieved their lives of overload? What has made them successful?

Ms. Morgenstern: Yes. I have one client who went from crazy overscheduled to a simplified schedule. They decided to limit each of her three kids to only two extracurriculars per semester, and insisted that she and her husband also use some of the time the kids were doing their extracurriculars to focus on their own hobbies. They worked as a family to synchronize and choose activities that were well coordinated. They organized carpools with other families to take the strain out of transportation wherever they could. That freed up enough time for the family to hang out doing nothing as a family at least once per day and for Sunday afternoons. As she put it, a family who plays together, stays together.

Barbara Danza
Barbara Danza
Barbara Danza is a mom of two, an MBA, a beach lover, and a kid at heart. Here, diving into the challenges and opportunities of parenting in the modern age. Particularly interested in the many educational options available to families today, the renewed appreciation of simplicity in kids’ lives, the benefits of family travel, and the importance of family life in today’s society.