How do you conquer the to-do-list stress when you feel like your never-ending list prevents you from having time to even think about having time? If you feel trapped by a relentless schedule or like you’re a hamster running on a wheel to nowhere, this is the post for you.
Understanding Where Faith Meets Chores
In my post “Why Resting Helps Your Faith & Makes You a Better Mom”, I wrote:
From the beginning of our world, Satan has opposed God’s work. We know that people are tempted in different ways, and we know the purpose of this temptation is to pull people away from God. This includes keeping us stressed, exhausted, and chasing our own tails in the name of…nothing.
And part of keeping us stressed, exhausted, and chasing our own tails means giving us the illusion that we’re too busy to rest, too busy to worship, and too busy to experience joy in our lives. In fact, Solomon wrote on exactly this in Ecclesiastes:
2 “Absolute futility,” says the Teacher. “Absolute futility. Everything is futile.”
3 What does a man gain for all his efforts that he labors at under the sun?
Ecclesiastes 1:2-3 (HCSB)
Later, Solomon amends his outbreak of despair with a truth that we would all do well to hide in our hearts:
24 There is nothing better for man than to eat, drink, and enjoy his work. I have seen that even this is from God’s hand, 25 because who can eat and who can enjoy life apart from Him?
Ecclesiastes 2:24-25 (HCSB)
God has not called us to a life of stress. He has called us to a life of freedom from stress. But how do we conquer our to-do list stress? We get smart about it.
Strategies to Get Away from the ‘To-Do’ List
Strategy #1 – Shift Your Mind to a Heavenly Perspective
No matter how many dishes you wash, there will always be more. No matter how much laundry you fold, there will be another mountain by the end of the week. I’ve experimented quite a bit with this concept, and the strange phenomenon of chores is that you can never stay caught up. You can run as fast as you can on that hamster wheel, but the moment the moment you stop is the very same moment that you are suddenly behind.
“Lauren – there are some things that have to be done. You can’t tell us to stop doing chores.” Of course. I understand that. I’m even going to provide you with the tools to help. I’ve even written one blog post on strategies that real busy Moms use to keep a clean home, which you can read by clicking here.
What I don’t understand is getting stressed and hung up on the chores. Do them as you have time, but those things are never something that should cause us to get irritated and frustrated with our family. When God examines our lives, He’s not going to say, “You went to bed 18,975 nights with dirty dishes in your sink.”
Take a moment and examine your weekly list of responsibilities. What among it actually matters from a heavenly perspective? What doesn’t?
This strategy is more about preparing for whatever else is to come then it about finding freedom. It’s a strategy to help you both minimize and prioritize your life.
Strategy #2 – Eliminate the Stressors
The Hubby and I married during the sophomore year of college. We each worked two jobs and were full-time students. Life was busy. At the start of it all, I tried to copy the pattern of housework that was normal to me from my own childhood. I tried to do all of the inside chores while keeping up with work and schoolwork.
It didn’t end very well. I remember the evening I broke down and told him, “I can’t do it all. Can you help me?”
Of course, from his perspective, nobody had said that I needed to do all the work. So we examined our separate lists of responsibilities. Together, we redistributed the chores until it was more manageable for all of us.
When I became a SAHM, we reexamined things in light of our new responsibilities. I now do most of the housework and cooking. Guess what, though? Our laundry is almost never folded and put away. Why? Because it lives in our bedroom which is normally closed off if somebody comes over. The unfolded laundry is not a stressor. The process of consistently folding clothes would be a stressor, though, as it would be one more thing that I would have to get done while she was asleep.
Go back to your list of responsibilities. Look over it. Is there something that’s stressing you? Or is all of it together just too much for you to manage? Look for the things that can be eliminated. Maybe you need to reduce your outside obligations. Maybe you need to pass on a task to somebody else in the family. Whatever it is – God has not called us to live a life of stress.
Strategy #3 – Limit Daily Priorities
I only use traditional to-do lists when I have a lot of micro-tasks on my mind. Beyond that, I find it ridiculously stressful to keep up with. This is especially true on the bad days when nothing else matters.
That’s why I usually assign myself three tasks or priorities that I need to do in a day. These can range between ‘Write Thursday’s blog post’ to ‘fold the laundry’ to ‘set the phone to the side when your husband gets home’. These are manageable tasks that I can accomplish even on the worst days with Baby H (you know, like this whole past weekend where she only took one 1-hour nap every single day).
And that’s the key. You don’t want to feel like you have to sacrifice sleep to get everything done.
And if you’re still struggling with your to-do list after implementing this strategy, then you need to go back and work through your list again.
Working moms, I’m looking at specifically at you. Work is automatically one of your priorities. Don’t stretch yourself too thin by trying to do a bunch of other things on top of work.
I’ve actually created a worksheet to help you with this process (with a bonus checklist version of this post!). You can sign up for that right now, if you want.
When you are trying to set a routine (that’s our next strategy), that is going to be one of your priorities for a couple of weeks. And on the days when I have micro-tasks, I tend to pile those all together as one priority. I’ll write, “Answer messages/make calls.” I do this because the time it takes to do them is roughly equivalent to the time I would have spent on any other priority.
Underneath my priorities, I list other things that would be great if I got done. These are normally tasks that need to be done – like organizing files or cleaning out the friends – but don’t need to be done that very day. I never feel obligated to finish these (although it’s a great feeling when I do). Some days, I simply allow myself to rest in place of these other tasks.
Busy Moms, I’m telling this to you straight. There are two reasons I manage to keep up with writing, blogging, childcare, and housework. The first is because God lends me strength during the moments I don’t know how I’ll finish everything. The second is because I minimize my life and then prioritize like this.
Strategy #4 – Program Your Body to Autopilot
When I interviewed Busy Moms to find out their housecleaning strategies, I found out that routine was big. I can testify since then that routine really is crucial for the annoying daily chores that need to be done but nobody enjoys. I don’t assign certain things like vacuuming and cleaning up to my to-do list anymore.
It’s a routine. A non-negotiable part of my life. And as long as I keep the routine going, I don’t even notice the chores. This week, vacuuming felt like a chore suddenly because the child wouldn’t settle into her regular routine. On an ordinary week, it just gets done.
In the evenings while I cook, the Hubby usually goes through and picks up the toys. Baby H has recently joined in. Last week, she picked up almost all the toys by herself. Why? Because it’s the routine. It’s normal. And if I could convince myself to settle into a dishwashing routine, suddenly that would be done a lot easier, too.
Routines set up a natural rhythm for our lives. Once established, you always have the freedom of deviating from the routine for a day or two. However, it is when we do not have a routine in place at all that we have to fight our own mind and body to get things done.
We keep both a daily and a weekly routine. Sometimes the weekly routine is interrupted by the daily, but I normally honor it as much as possible.
Baby H and I have two different patterns depending on if she takes one or two naps. Rather than bore you with two lists that are too specific for you to lose, I’ll just give you the basics of our routine:
- Get up segment – breakfast, brush teeth, get dressed
- Activity – Independent play while I do morning chores, interactive play
- Snacks – She gets a morning and afternoon snack, each followed by:
- Activity – Independent play and interactive play alternate based on her needs
- Nap time segment – Story and cuddles before being laid down. While she sleeps, I do the things I can’t do while she’s awake, which usually involves blogging and writing work.
- Pre-Dinner segment – Daddy comes home normally after she finishes her afternoon snack. Therefore, he normally takes over interactive play so I can get things around for supper.
- Meals – Lunch varies depending on which routine we’re on, but it’s normally 12:30 pm. Supper is always at 5:30 pm.
- Bedtime segment – It’s usually one big family playtime until she gets laid down between 7:00pm – 7:30pm. Right before she gets changed into pajamas, we usually do a family Bible reading time.
- Sundays – Church day
- Mondays – Vacuum living room
- Tuesdays – Clean kitchen, sweep
- Wednesdays – Vacuum living room
- Thursdays – Shopping day
- Friday – Full house clean with chemicals, all floors, etc.
- Saturday – Family day, no chores
I know what you’re probably thinking, “You vacuum three times a week?” Yep. You know how much food would be all over our living room floor if I didn’t? That’s what I have to do to stop food from getting ground into the carpet. The extra perk? It’s not such a big deal if I miss one vacuuming day. You need to figure out a routine that works for you, though.
As another note, when I say clean kitchen, I don’t mean to imply that I don’t wipe my counters clean on the other days. That’s just the day I scrub everything down really well and sweep.
Strategy #5 – Bite the Bullet
Of course, sometimes that pile of laundry I mentioned earlier does become a stressor. Sometimes – especially with our hybrid winter-summer weather patterns that I wrote about in this post – we end up with so many clean clothes that we begin to struggle to find the clothes that we need. There’s nothing worse than moving fifteen pounds of clothes around to find a matching pair of socks!
During the rough weeks, I get behind on all of the chores. The dishes pile up until it’s a miracle that we have anything clean and everything gets strung out across every room in the tiny apartment. Or maybe you’ve noticed some deep spring cleaning that really needs to happen. When that happens, there’s only one way to get ahead of the to-do list: bite the bullet and do it.
Sometimes you just need to say, “Enough is enough. This gets done today.” This strategy usually involves dedicating any free-time in a day to getting a task done. You have one priority. If you accomplish it in a timely manner, reward yourself with down-time.
Of course, you need to be smart with this strategy. Use it for big tasks, but don’t assign something too big to it unless you want to feel defeated. For example, if the entire house is a Level 10 Disaster-zone, then you’re better off assigning certain rooms per day: “Today, I will get the nursery and living room straightened up. Tomorrow, I will conquer the bathroom and kitchen.”
Strategy #6 – Block Scheduling
In my mind, block scheduling is a close cousin to building a routine. With block scheduling, you dedicate “blocks” of time to specific tasks. For homeschool families, you’re going to block out certain times as school hours. Sometimes you’ll break these, but on the normal day you’ll be doing the same things at the same time. If you want to be serious about learning God’s word, then you’re going to block out time somewhere in your day for studying the Bible.
For me, I block out Baby H’s afternoon nap for writing related purposes. The only time that I let anything intervene in that is if I just desperately need to rest myself. And that’s only because my mind is too active in the morning to sleep and it’s just “going to bed early” when I have my next chance to rest during the day.
Busy Moms, it’s easy to say that you’ll do something during a certain time. It’s much harder to actually do it. That’s why it’s so hard to escape from the never ending to-do list. So this is what I’ve learned about block scheduling:
It’s only works as long as you can stay focused during that time.
When I first started writing in the afternoons, it was very hard for me to stay focused. I was still in the process of setting routines and catching up on tasks that had fallen by the wayside while the Hubby and I were both working. That’s when I first started to develop and apply these strategies to my own life. I learned that I couldn’t do anything as long as my mind was divided.
So throw out your ‘block schedule’ if your mind is dwelling on another task. Learn to silence the buzzing so that you can make effective use of your time.
I also only block schedule parts of my day. The times when Baby H is awake? It’s pointless to count on that time for anything other than playing with her, because it throws the whole schedule off if I can’t get something done with her awake.
Strategy #7 – Let Yourself Rest
In this post, I wrote about the benefits of resting in regards to our faith and life as a mother. However, resting is just as important to escaping the never ending to-do list as it is to those other things. You see, rest allows the mind to reset and for emotions to level out.
You see, it’s a vicious cycle that we get stuck in. We feel stressed because of the things that we need to do, therefore we exhaust ourselves trying to get it all done. In the meantime, our body and mind become fatigued. This allows even more stress to build up. Which makes us feel like we have to do even more without taking a break.
Let yourself rest. Make a priority every few days if that’s what it takes for you to actually rest. It will do a lot to eliminate that “hamster on a wheel” feeling.
Strategy #8 – Stop Procrastinating
It’s important to make a distinction between ‘rest’ and ‘procrastination.” You see, procrastinations are the small things we do out of weariness (okay, sometimes laziness) when we’re trying to drive up the gumption to go do something. Rest is what we do to recover, to allow us to take joy in our life again.
The biggest difference between procrastination and rest is that the former adds to our stress while the latter alleviates stress.
And when we stop to examine our lives, we all have a lot of procrastination habits. When I’m trying to convince myself to go wash the dishes, I’ll do any of these things:
- Cruise through social media
- Check for manga updates (yeah, I’m one of those people), and often times find an entirely new manga to read when I don’t have any updates on the ones I’m already following.
- Play ‘just one level’ on mobile game. We all know how that It’s much the same as just one game of Solitaire used to be on the computer.
- Check the most recent stats on this blog
- Suddenly remember that one of those tasks should have been a priority
- Get the Hubby to join me in procrastinating by watching an episode of a show on Netflix. (This is especially convenient because we can claim we’re spending time together.)
- Harass the cat
In the meantime, the annoying voice in my mind is steadily getting louder, “Go do the dishes. You need to do the dishes now so it doesn’t take so long later.” The stress builds. I double-down on my procrastination habits. Then suddenly, it’s 10:00 pm and I’m in tears because I don’t want dishes to be the last thing I do before bed.
In the past few months, I’ve worked to eliminate my procrastination by being intentional about resting. There are still points where I need to sternly tell myself, “Get to work.” That’s called being a good steward of your time.
So there you have it. Nearly 3,000 words and eight different strategies to help you gain freedom from the to-do list. If you’ve stuck with me for this long, thank you so much! Why don’t you take just a little bit more time to leave a comment about how you manage your to-do list?