Timers- the road closer to presence and productivity

The best discovery I made when I was a stay at home mom (SAHM) was a timer. Sounds silly to say but it changed my life. Before I discovered the timer, to say I enjoyed my children is an understatement. I waited 10 years to adopt them so I was acutely aware of my blessings. However, even with as much as I loved being with them, there were days that felt never ending. Hours loomed ahead with my mind filled with unfinished to-do lists. On these days, the thought of playing with Little People or Barbies one more time was often more than I could take. Finding the balance between presence with my children, efficiency with my to-do list, and maybe a few moments for myself felt impossible.

One of the benefits of being a SAHM mom was that I was in charge of my day. I knew that children do better with structure and I do better with structure. Yet, it felt overwhelming to fill up those days that stretched for hours and hours. I made multiple attempts at time management but still ended up feeling like the days went on forever. I accomplished little and didn’t feel like I was ever present enough for my children. My to-do lists did little to reduce my feelings of chaos and imbalance. In fact, they were a consistent reminder of how I was falling short daily…Each day, I promised myself I would complete some of the household necessities but quickly felt the mom guilt take over as my toddlers (and older) needed attention. The back and forth between playing and getting work done only made me feel stretched in all directions and as if I wasn’t doing anything well. 

Continually on the hunt for better time management, I began creating blocks of time each day. I blocked out times to play with the kids, complete household tasks, and get a few minutes to myself. I was closer to being on the right track with this system but it was a continual work in progress since I rarely planned for the right amount of time. I scheduled household jobs and play sessions of 45-60 minutes which I soon realized were often way too long. It was too long for my toddlers to entertain themselves and, in all honesty, I could only sing the “itsy bitsy spider” for so long before becoming detached and tempted by my to-do list. I found myself watching the clock all of the time.  I felt like the clock watching was stealing my ability to be present in anything. 

When I discovered the timer, it was truly life changing for me – and still is today. This simple device enabled me to show up as a mother in the way I wanted to. I was able to organize my days into short blocks of time (no more than 30 minutes with toddlers – very often, 20 min) and be present and focused on whatever block I was in..

 Of course, life remained unpredictable and I was constantly adjusting and readjusting the system but, wow, I felt better! The timer removed the clock watching and even removed the desire to rush through whatever block I was in. I was able to create a rhythm in my day and I enjoyed everything more. I was present for my children, knowing I didn’t have to watch a clock. I was often surprised when the timer went off because I had been so engaged in what I was doing. My children thrived in the consistency and I am sure the fact that I was more peaceful helped. They were more willing to engage in activities on their own and “help” with household activities as they received more consistent time with me. They could feel, as I could, that I was present and enjoying them. Additionally,I felt the rewards of increased productivity.as I focused  more during short bursts on tasks.

I must admit that this was still an imperfect and messy system, as all things with our favorite humans are. With toddlers, I could not be rigid. There was often the unforeseen need or distraction that inevitably comes with the lives of little people (actually, even my college aged ones today!). I learned to plan time towards the end of each day which I called “make up time”. This increased my ability to relax when things went awry. Ultimately, I was in control. I could change up the blocks as needed and make adjustments based on the day. 

I also was reminded of several things I already knew about toddlers. They pretty much wanted to be near me all the time (as toddlers should) so I could include them in many household tasks which made things easier. We sang songs and played as we did laundry and changed sheets. I got mini brooms and wash rags for them to “clean” along with me and realized as they got older that hide-and seek was awesome because they patiently hid for a long enough time for me to fold a load of laundry or get a task done. I walked from room to room putting laundry away, yelling “Here I come” which bought me a few more minutes. Some days were more rushed and my patience was wearing thin. On those days, I scheduled more solitary cleaning blocks. However, on many days, I enjoyed those shared cleaning times and those moments became some of my best memories. 

Another thing I learned with this system was that I felt way less guilt about them having a 30 minute block of Sesame Street or Elmo (no tempting apps then – thank goodness!). With my block timer system, I knew they had already had outside time to explore and exercise, quality time playing and singing with me, book time, chores time shared with me, and alone time to discover and explore.

As I write, it sounds idyllic. In many ways, it was. I was amazed how 15 minutes here and 20 minutes there completely changed how I saw myself as a mother. However, I must admit, there was no way to avoid those days that went on forever when I was ready to toss them at my husband as he entered the door. I have learned that those days come with the territory of being human. There were also days when I tossed the plan and stayed in jammies all day going with whatever came. Those days became more enjoyable when they were no longer typical. Despite its imperfections, this timer system enabled me to feel in control, to stay on track, and to rest easy on my pillow at night knowing I had connected with my children that day. 

My children are now 19 and 20 and I still use timers today. Not for them – I wish! if only I still had that control! Today, I use timers  to hold me accountable. Timers help me intentionally live a life that I create, not a life that is created by whatever comes at me. Professionally, I use timers in speech therapy and family consultations so that I can truly be present with the children and families. When I use the timers, I am able to be fully immersed in what I am doing and where I am and never feel the need to watch a clock.

As moms, we put immense pressure on ourselves to be everything to everyone and to be as productive as possible at all times and sometimes we need a break! Pick a day when the hours ahead loom unending and the demands feel unrelenting. Try a timer and add some extra guilt free blocks of time in there for yourself! It’s life-changing!

TIPS for a successful timer system:

  1. Make a list of the things that matter to you in your daily life (i.e., outside time for your child, book reading, etc) and plan your blocks based on how you want your days to look 
  2. Remember, you are in charge and can make your days reflect what matters to you most…keep the blocks short – 15-20 minutes. You will be surprised at how much you can get done when focused and how much you can enjoy when fully engaged.
  3. Set yourself up for success – if you want them to be playing alone and exploring, use barriers and gates and set up the environment so they are safe and can enjoy their time alone. Plan ahead.
  4. Remember to keep them close by you at all times if they are toddlers. You can talk with them as you work and model lots of language or give them a little job or activity alongside you

Some of the blocks of time I created were multiple blocks of:

  • Outside time with you (walk, picnic in yard, exploring the yard, ball, etc) 
  • Reading books with you
  • Cleaning together – what jobs can they “help” with (basically not destroy)
  • Exploration time on their own – set up environment for safety and get out activities they love and only get during this time alone
  • All of your daily routines – meals, snacks, nap, bath, etc
  • Playtime with me – follow their lead in what they want you to play
  • Video time
  • Cleaning time on your own or a few moments to yourself can be every other block if you want some days – keep them short and you will get a lot done while they are less needy knowing more play is to come
  • Enjoy it as much as you can!