This time of the year, our family always feels incredibly overbooked.
Our three children are each in a couple of activities all throughout the year that are really easy to manage. Musical practice once a week paired with martial arts practice twice a week in the evenings isn’t a problem. I participate in a couple of community groups, as does Sarah. This is all easy to manage along with the normal routines of our life.
In the springtime, however, things get crazy. Our oldest two children are both fanatic about soccer and participate in two different spring soccer leagues. Our youngest child enjoys baseball and thus participates in a spring league for that as well. These leagues each involve multiple practices a week and at least one game a week per child.
(It’s worth noting here that neither Sarah nor I encourage these activities much at all. We let our children’s interests dictate the activities, keep the count relatively small, and, if anything, try to talk them out of stuff. These things are generated by their own interests.)
On top of that, Sarah is in the final crunch of the school year as a teacher. On top of that, our children usually have a number of “special days” at school during the spring, with things like vocal concerts and open house days to show off school projects. On top of that, I’m usually crunched myself as I’m usually preparing writing in advance of summer plans so that I can actually spend a week or two with my family without constant writing deadlines.
“Overbooking” is perhaps an understatement.
Because of this, we often find ourselves with overlapping time commitments and serious time crunches in the evenings. It is really tempting to rely on services and take-out foods and other conveniences that, on the surface, seem to save us time during the busiest moments.
What they really do, however, is allow us to fix poor planning at a cost. If we plan poorly, sure, we can fall back on some easy but expensive solutions, but those solutions cost us money and aren’t really perfect, either.
Instead, over the years, we’ve developed quite a few strategies to make all of this work without simply throwing money at the problem.
Here’s how we handle it.
Strategy #1 – Save “important but not urgent” tasks for the weekend, even if it feels awkward.
Our house gets messy during the week. Real messy. We’ll skip vacuuming for a few days. We’ll not pick up very well in the living room. We’ll let a few dishes pile up. We’ll fill up two or three laundry baskets of clothes without doing a load.
Sure, we could do those things now, but they’re not urgent tasks. They’re important, but they’re not particularly urgent.
When you’re in a time crunch, prioritizing the tasks that are both important and urgent becomes even more vital than before. Things like making sure a meal is on the table at a particular time or that you’re picking someone up at a certain time or that you have necessary equipment ready to go when people need them are “important and urgent” tasks. Vacuuming the living room carpet is important, but it’s not nearly as urgent as those things.
In other words, a big part of dealing with a time crunch is properly prioritizing things. I personally handle this by thinking about priorities when I’m actually running errands. While I’m running an errand, I’ll think about what actually needs to be done tonight in order to make things run smoothly tomorrow. When I have 15 minutes to spare, the task that comes first is making sure everyone is prepped for whatever happens in 15 minutes.
Sometimes that means that someone leaves an article of dirty clothing on the bedroom floor or that a plate sits in the sink for a while. That’s okay. Those things really can wait until you’re under less of a time crunch.
Strategy #2 – Prepare a lot of meals with the help of a slow cooker (or other prepare-ahead-of-time strategies).
Our single most useful tool for time-crunched periods is our slow cooker. It singlehandedly keeps us from spending a lot of money on take-out when things are in a crunch.
I’ll use this past Thursday evening as an example. One child had a piano practice from 4:30 to 5:00, then soccer practice from 5:30 to 6:30, then martial arts practice from 6:30 to 7:30 (this is far and away this child’s busiest day of the week – many evenings involve no activities). Another child had baseball practice from 5:00 to 5:30, then taekwondo practice from 6:30 to 7:30. A third child has soccer practice from 6:00 to 7:30. These various practices are spread across three different towns.
As you can see in that example, there’s basically no window for a full family dinner. When you add in the fact that one parent doesn’t get home until shortly after 5:00, there’s also really not much of a window to cook a dinner on the spot.
Our solution? Make a soup in the slow cooker with sandwiches for dinner. When a parent has time to eat with one or two of the children, everyone just grabs a bowl of soup out of the slow cooker and makes a very simple sandwich, which all takes about two minutes, and then they eat together. The soup can just remain on “warm” until everyone eats and an adult has time to store the leftovers. It’s a dinner that costs perhaps $1 per person. Compare that to the cost of getting takeout food.
Although the slow cooker is our most useful strategy, any strategy that involves doing most of the meal prep work before the crazy hours of the evening is a valuable one. We’ll pull a prepared meals out of the freezer (one we made the weekend before) and cook it in the oven for two hours, with the meal ready to eat at the time needed by the most people and the other members eating “leftovers” from the fridge, for example.
Strategies like this keep our food costs in check during the busiest times.
Strategy #3 – Make a thorough plan for the week and keep it in a central place where everyone can always see it.
At the start of the week – usually on Sunday afternoon – we take down the family whiteboard and write up a full plan for the week with as much detail as possible.
What events are on each day? What time are each of those events? WHERE are those events? Who needs to go and who needs to provide transportation?
I usually will write something like “5:30-6:30 – [Child] soccer practice @ [town] [field], cleats + w. bottle + shinguards, D: Trent, [child] also goes” as a single line under Thursday, for example. This tells me that there’s a soccer practice starting at 5:30 at a particular field, that I’m driving, that another child needs to go along, and that the child going to the practice needs cleats and shin guards and a water bottle. (I’ll also include meals on this plan, of course, and note the time it needs to be done and the preparer along with “SC” if it’s a slow cooker meal.)
The reason for doing this is to move as much of the active thinking required for the week to a time when there’s less stress involved, less urgency, and less of a problem created by remembering something at the last minute.
I usually move any events that directly involve me to my own personal calendar on my phone and add a notification so that I’m alerted well in advance of that event. That way, again, I’m not caught by surprise. I’m ready to go. My phone will beep at 4:30 telling me that I need to take a child to soccer practice in an hour and that I should probably leave at about 5:15, and then usually it’ll beep again at 5:00.
This takes some time, but it greatly increases the chances of busy evenings flowing smoothly, and it’s when things don’t go smoothly that we end up in difficult situations and throw money at a quick-fix solution.
Strategy #4 – Consider all supplies needed for the week on Sunday and get them all ready to go then.
This goes hand-in-hand with the scheduling above. Once that schedule is in place, we’ll go through and make sure that we have all of the supplies we need to pull it off.
Does everyone have their soccer socks? Cleats? Shin guards? Baseball gloves? Gear bags for martial arts?
Do we have all of the food items we need for those meals? This is basically the point at which we turn a meal plan into a grocery list and then go grocery shopping. What about other household supplies?
Does everyone have adequate clean clothes and outfits for the week? This ensures that there doesn’t have to be any laundry done until the weekend and there’s no last minute clothing emergencies.
We’ll even try to organize this to a small extent by making sure everything is in the right place. I often make stacks of outfits for myself for the week so when I get up on Tuesday morning, for example, I can just immediately grab the clothes I need right off of a stack of outfits already folded up and ready to go.
The benefit of this is that it reduces the chance of an unplanned bump in the road during a busy evening, because a bump in the road almost always leads to unexpected stress and unexpected costs.
Strategy #5 – Move as much effort as you can into time periods where you’re under less of a crunch.
If there’s something I can do earlier in the day when I’m on a work break that will save time later in the day, I tend to do it during my work break. I’ll do a load of dishes early in the day, for example, and let it run then. I’ll do the same with laundry. I’ll spend 20 minutes laying out everything that will be needed for everyone to go to their events later in the day, or have the kids do it right when they get home from school. I’ll fill up the slow cooker early in the day or put something in the oven to cook slowly in the mid-to-late afternoon.
The fewer “last minute” tasks that we’re facing during overbooked periods, the more likely those events are going to go smoothly. The smoother everything flows in the evening, the less likely it is that we’re going to run into some unexpected event that we have to throw money at to solve.
If you find yourself unable to do this in the morning, my suggestion is to just get up a little earlier and do a lot of these tasks before leaving for work. Start a load of dishes or a load of laundry. Put a meal in the slow cooker. Put out everyone’s gear for this evening, or make sure everyone has their gear ready to go.
Strategy #6 – Look at your social network for any opportunities for social cooperation.
Another great strategy is to look around your social calendar for people who have overlap with you and take advantage of that overlap. Can you alternate rides with someone else who has a child on a team? Can you synergize the trips by taking all of the stuff and people needed for several stops all at once? Can you squeeze in errands in the middle of a sequence of other things (if I have an item to get at the hardware store, for example, I often do it in the middle of busy Thursdays)?
For example, we alternate driving kids to martial arts practice with another parent, which means we have one activity per week that we don’t really have to worry about – our kids basically just walk out the door and go. In previous seasons, we found synergies that enabled us to share rides to and from a twice-weekly soccer practice. We switched to a music teacher recently that’s within walking distance of our house, so one of our children can just walk to a musical lesson.
Finding ways to minimize the amount that you’re driving in order to get everything done saves on gas, saves on wear and tear on your car, and saves on stress as well.
Strategy #7 – Eat healthy foods rather than junk.
Why is this important? The reason is that busy evenings utterly fall apart if someone gets sick. If one of the members of our family comes down with some kind of illness, it can utterly destroy the smoothness of our plans, and the best way to keep illnesses at bay is to eat healthy foods.
We make a conscious effort to include lots of vegetables and grains in every meal. I eat a vegetarian diet (due to advice from my doctor) and everyone else in our family eats a diet that’s led by fruits and vegetables. We chow down on carrots and apples and rice and beans and nuts and spinach and lettuce and kale and sweet potatoes and quinoa and tomatoes.
It’s actually quite easy to prepare meals with that in mind. I’ll often just prepare a quick salad on the side of whatever we’re having – I’ll take out some greens and toss them around with a bit of dressing and just serve it with whatever we’re eating, or I’ll include lots of vegetables in whatever’s cooking in the slow cooker, or we’ll eat a bag of steamed vegetables that were originally flash frozen. We’ll have bananas or an apple along with the meal, too. This adds almost no time to meal prep and moves some of our calorie intake away from unhealthy things and into healthier things.
In general, we try to avoid prepackaged foods unless we’ve really studied the labels and ingredients in them. I’d far rather hit the produce section or the DIY grain section or the refrigerator section of the grocery store than anything you might find in the middle.
The whole goal here is to put good stuff into our bodies so we’re less likely to get sick and have to deal with all of the challenges created by that – the expense of last minute changes in plans, the expense of doctor’s visits, the expense of cold remedies, and so on. The cost of not eating healthy blows away any extra cost that might come from eating healthy.
Strategy #8 – Prioritize sleep, even if it feels like things would be “easier” if you did stuff instead of sleeping.
If I have a choice between taking care of an “important but not urgent” task like vacuuming or sweeping the floor or doing a load of dishes versus going to sleep at a reasonable time, sleep is always the choice. The same thing is true if I’m choosing between watching a television show in a half-awake stupor or going to sleep. I choose sleep.
Why? An adequate night of sleep helps in countless ways in terms of making financially responsible moves.
For starters, if I have adequate sleep, I’m going to be well rested and simply make better decisions. I won’t be as prone to decision fatigue. I won’t feel the effects of stress as much as I might otherwise feel them. I will respond to difficult situations with a level head much more often. I’ll just handle a tight schedule more effectively and make better choices while doing it.
Another factor is that adequate sleep helps your immune system. You’re less likely to get colds, which make you a lot less productive and efficient and eat at your wallet in the form of cold remedies that get you through the day when you’re miserable.
A final factor: I simply feel better when I’m getting adequate sleep. I have stronger natural energy reserves and feel much more okay with tackling anything that comes my way. I’m far from alone in feeling that way.
If you find that your life is overbooked, don’t steal time away from sleep to “make up for it.” Treat adequate sleep as the vitally important thing that it is and put other less important and less urgent things aside. Don’t skip sleep to watch Netflix or to do a household chore that can easily be done on the weekends.
If you follow these strategies, you’ll find that periods of “overbooking” in your life fly by with far fewer expenses. You’ll spend less on gas (and car depreciation and maintenance). You’ll spend way less on food. You’ll spend less on cold remedies and treatments. You’ll be less prone to decision fatigue, so you’ll spend less on unnecessary purchases. You’ll also simply feel better along the way.