Important But Not Urgent: How I Manage Daily Incremental Routines
Before I had kids, I had a fairly regular morning routine. I would wake early, perhaps around 7:00 a.m., and spend the next 40 minutes doing a mix of yoga, stretching, and body weight training. I had modules I swapped out day by day: core work, arm strength, etc. Then, I would read or check my email while having a mug of tea at my desk, and breakfast. It wasn't a complicated routine, but it worked well.
Now, with three kids four years and under, making time and space for a regular routine is more difficult. Mornings don't proceed the same way twice. And yet I still do have routines.
How did I fit in my current routines?
The first time I wanted to start an exercise routine every morning, it was pre-kids. My schedule was flexible enough, and under enough of my own control, that it wasn't that hard to shift my morning around. I decided it was important, and so I got up and did a session every morning, without fail.
After kids, I knew the challenge wouldn't be whether I had the will to stick to a routine, but how I'd manage to squeeze a routine in—and whether I could manage to do any yoga at all without being a constant jungle gym for small children.
When I was in grad school, one of my professors told me about a time management system that approximates the Eisenhower Matrix. In short, you make a 2x2 matrix. The boxes in the left column are label Urgent; on the right column, Not Urgent. The rows are labeled Important, and Not Important. You end up with four boxes into which you group ifferent kinds of tasks: the urgent important things, the urgent but not important things, the important and not urgent things, and the not important and not urgent things. Then, you make sure to work in all of the boxes. That way, nothing gets left behind.
I don't use that system, but it inspired me to think, in particular, about what tasks I think are important but not urgent (many long-term projects or projects without deadlines fall in this category), and to find ways to ensure I make time for those.
My plan, I decided, needed to be flexible. I had to be able to use whatever time was available, whenever it was available. I had to be able to work incrementally.
A list of Daily Tasks
I implemented a spreadsheet. Each column was a task I wanted to accomplish daily. In the rows below, I'd check off whether I'd actually accomplished the task each day. I kept the list of daily tasks small, because there are actually relatively few important things that I thought I must do every day.
For example, I wanted to write every day. I wanted to read every day. I should try to walk, and do a yoga/stretching routine, every day or close to it. I didn't add cleaning to the list, or any other things that are part of family routines, because this list was just for me: things I thought were important, but not urgent, that I wanted to remind myself to do.
Then it was a matter of actually doing the activities every day. Reading and writing were easy to fit in. As I wrote about earlier, I switched from scrolling social media to reading ebooks on my phone, and have managed to read 22 books in the past six months. I wrote while the kids were playing, or before they got up in the morning—and have clocked over 50k words.
Walking worked best at naptime. I'd pop the older kids in the stroller, wear the baby in a wrap, and meander around the neighborhood for an hour listening to podcasts or audiobooks. The problem was that everyone's naptimes didn't always line up. Or, if we were at a park in the morning, someone might nap in the car on the way home. That was okay: even if I skipped some days, I was still walking more consistently.
Squeezing yoga, stretching, and other exercise is more of a challenge, and the timing varies day by day: sometimes it's before the older kids wake up, if the baby wakes early; sometimes it's while the older kids are playing (and climbing on me); sometimes it's after they're asleep. I don't fit it in every day, but I do fit it in more consistently than before.
For a month, I also tried out Morning Pages as an additional daily exercise, which worked for that month, but took up too much time relative to the benefit to continue on a daily basis.
I like spreadsheets. In addition to my own daily tasks, I made a list of activities I wanted to do with the kids at least once a week. The activities included music, reading on different topics (e.g., history stories, poetry), arts and crafts, baking, practice with letters and numbers, yard work (like raking leaves or helping in the garden), home improvement projects (like helping my husband fix something or hang up a new picture), and board games (like Uno or Hoot Owl Hoot).
This list isn't hard and fast—after all, some weeks lend themselves better to a plethora of craft projects, and others to a flurry of baking. There's far more yard work to do in the late spring, summer, and early fall than in the dead of winter. And so on. The list is a set of guidelines that I use to remind me to encourage a variety of activities, and to ensure I don't let something I know the kids enjoy (e.g., music activities) or something I think is important (e.g., reading poetry) slide for too long.
What daily and weekly routines do you have? How do you remind yourself to do what's important, even if it doesn't feel urgent today?