Reader Marilyn asks:

“I am struggling to set some kind of schedule for my family. I’m new to the SAHM thing (I went back to work after my son was five months) and have a five-month-old and a three-year-old who is now at home with me. I’ve been kind of going with the flow, but that is losing its effectiveness, and I have to take a bit more of a proactive approach. I’d love any tips on balancing the bedtimes, eating, naps and various activities of two different-aged kids.”

I had a five-month-old and a three-year-old at this time a year ago, but no matter the ages, I think it’s always a struggle to juggle multiple kids throughout the day.

The key with little kids at home is to just plan something.

Kids thrive on a routine—it’s comforting for them to know what’s next in their day, even those things they don’t like.

I’m not talking about planning every single minute of your day, and I’m not talking about weekends. We all know that moms work 24 hours a day, but I’m talking about allocating tasks to total a roughly 40-hour work week. This helps channel your energy appropriately throughout the day.

Photo by Lindsey T

There’s nothing magical about any one particular routine; it’ll probably change in a month anyway, as routines often do with little ones. But simply having some sort of written-out plan helps me know what’s next, how to stay focused, and not feel like I’m running in a pointless hamster wheel.

Here’s a few observations from my routine.

1. Write a schedule, but keep it loose.

The planner in me likes creating a weekly schedule of my work, and if you were to see my color-coded spreadsheet, you would think I was a schedule nazi. Nope—I’d prefer things with specific times in mind, but rarely does it work exactly. I say we do story time around 4:00, but really, I mean “late afternoon.” Dinner is really the only thing to which we try to stick a hard-and-fast time. Everything else is subject to change.

2. Re-visit it weekly.

Just because your schedule worked well last week, it doesn’t mean it will this week. You may have a play date when you’d normally pay the bills, or your son has a dentist appointment right during your younger one’s nap time. There’s no rule that there has to be a “master schedule.” Just make a new one each week.

3. Touch base with your spouse.

Sit down with your spouse on the weekend to discuss the upcoming week. It helps me so much when Kyle and I touch base with each other about our upcoming work weeks. I ask him if there’s anything I can do for him, and he’ll find out if I need anything from him.

4. Do what you can to have your little ones help you.

Marilyn, you specifically asked me about handling little ones. Most preschoolers think chores are great fun, so have them help. He or she can put away silverware, fold towels, pick up toys, and even wash dishes (just put a bit of watery soap in the sink with some safe dishes and a sponge).

Photo by Rolands Lakis

5. Teach them the value of waiting.

It’s okay for kids to learn that Mom has a job, and she can’t play all the time. The world doesn’t revolve around them, and this is a good truth to learn as early as possible.

6. Clean as you go.

Completely clean from each mealtime before moving on to the next task. Loosely straighten up a room before heading to another. Set a timer for three minutes, and have a pick-up blitz with your child. It may sound stressful to clean so often during your day, but I’ve found it to be much less stressful than tackling the entire house at one set time of day. It’s usually more chaotic if I wait, and it feels overwhelming before I begin.

7. Find your three most important tasks.

Focus your energy on only getting three things done per day. Don’t try to get your to-do list completely scratched off, because it’ll very rarely happen. Accept the fact that in this stage of life with littles at home, the to-do list doesn’t end.

But you can probably accomplish three things each day. Pick the three things that, if finished, would make you feel like you had a decent day. Work on those when your energy is at your highest, and if you accomplish anything else—well, those are gravy.

Photo by Nadia Badaoui

8. Write things down.

Have a brain dump at least once during the day (transfer everything swimming around in your head on to paper). I usually do this during breakfast, and I immediately feel so much better. Don’t bother doing this neatly; just jot it all down as it comes to you, and then you can organize your ideas.

9. Be happy with partial solutions.

Partial solutions are when it’s not exactly how you’d have things if life were perfect, but it’ll work for now. So you wanted to scrub the bathroom, but you only got around to tidying it up. Or you planned to roast a chicken for dinner, but you didn’t get a chance to thaw it, so now it’s taco night. That’s okay. Don’t aim for perfection.

10. Identify daily chores, weekly chores, monthly chores.

You probably have a general rhythm of doing repeated things each day, week, and month, even if you don’t notice it. Jot down those things you find necessary to do every day, and when you create your week’s routine, make sure you’ve allocated daily time for those tasks. (p.s. I have a bonus lesson on this very thing—called a timeventory—in Like Your Life.)

11. Create a calendar-type system.

Fnd a good system for maintaining your schedule, whether it’s using something manual, like a Bullet Journal, or something like Google Calendar (I happen to use both). There’s no right or wrong way to do this. It just needs to work for you.

12. Don’t try to do everything.

No one can do everything. There are probably lots of things you’re good at, and with other things you’re not so good. Welcome to membership in the human race. We still need to do certain essential tasks, even if we don’t feel up to par, but play up your strengths, and don’t sweat over your weaknesses.

13. Don’t watch much TV.

I’m still amazed at how much more I got done once I stopped watching most TV. Cut back to only those few shows you really love. You won’t miss the rest.

Photo by Lauren Ventriello

14. Make naps and quiet times essential.

Little kids need lots of sleep, slightly older kids need to learn the value of alone time, and mama needs a break to do grown-up work.

15. Have everyone eat, sleep, and play at the same time.

This isn’t always seamless, depending on your kids’ ages, but you can tweak ideal situations a little to have everyone down at the same time, eating at the same time, and playing together as often as possible. If your baby needs his nap at 1:00, and your daughter really needs some rest time in the afternoon, make it happen during the baby’s nap.

16. Accept the messes.

Okay, I’m telling myself this as much as you, because it really is hard to accept the fact that my kids don’t care about the messes as much as me. They need to learn the value of work, and we need to model that hard work by keeping our home neat.

But that doesn’t mean our homes are never messy. I have a friend who has this quote hung on her fridge: “Cleaning house while kids are growing is like shoveling snow while it’s still snowing.” I love this.

17. Know your energy levels.

Are you a morning, afternoon, or evening person? When do you hit your slump? I’m a morning person, so I make every effort to rise before my kids and get my much-needed quiet time in then. I hit a wall at around 3 p.m., so I know I’ll be spinning my wheels trying to get anything significant done then. In the morning, I focus on tasks that require full brain engagement. In the afternoon, I fold laundry and play with the kids on the floor. Make the most of your energy.

18. Think of your job as a job.

Don’t apologize for keeping a thorough work routine. Don’t feel guilty for turning down a friend for coffee because you have work to do. Even if your work at home doesn’t earn a paycheck, you need to create boundaries with your job .

Photo by Chris Scott

19. Have intentional down time.

Schedule in down time, and make it really good down time. Don’t answer phone calls while you’re taking a walk with your family. Only check your email during certain times of the day, and certainly don’t use down time for your inbox. Treat relaxation as a vital part of your schedule, just as you would cleaning or cooking.

20. Get enough sleep, water, and exercise.

Don’t forget to take care of yourself. How silly that we all often forget to take care of ourselves while we take care of others under our roof. Get rest. Stay hydrated. Make your health a priority.