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I open the refrigerator -- again -- and stare inside. Disappointment sweeps over me since, in the two minutes since I last opened it, a pan of lasagna has not materialized. Nor has a pot of beef stew. The trouble is not my lack of casseroles or that my kids are chanting they're starving or that my husband just walked in the door without a pizza box in his hands, though all this is true. The trouble is, I've fallen prey -- again -- to the most consistent time suck of my day: figuring out what to make for dinner.
The 10 minutes I typically waste every night gazing at kitchen appliances may not seem like much. But add in the three minutes it took to hunt for my daughter's boots this morning. And the five minutes I spent rearranging the piles of mail on the kitchen counter. And the 38 minutes it took to drive to the store for the milk I forgot to get yesterday. And, worst of all, the untold minutes that vanished during the 27 times -- yes, 27! -- I logged on to Facebook while I was at my desk, um, working. Minute by precious minute, my days disappear into a black hole. But I'm determined to turn this sorry situation around. I e-mail friends for time-saving tips. I poll experts and test-drive just about every idea I hear. And guess what?
I do it! I save an hour a day! Actually, I save more than an hour a day: I save my sanity. And you can do it, too.
Shopping for Groceries
Time Suck: I used to shop three times a week (often towing two kids), with a mental list I swore I'd remember. Then I'd spend 45 minutes more than I should because I'd backtrack to the dairy section six times.
Time Saver: Rule One: Leave the kids at home, even if you have to shop at night, after they're in bed. Dealing constantly with their demands for gum and Lucky Charms wastes time and money and creates unnecessary stress. Rule Two: A shopping list is critical. Some friends maintain theirs on phone apps like Grocery Gadgets (grocerygadgets.com). In our family an old-fashioned pencil-and-paper version works best. Before you leave, organize the list so it's department-specific: dairy, bakery, produce. Once you're in the store, stick to the list. I'm now in and out in half the time and save money because I resist impromptu "bargains," like the buy-one-get-one-free five-pound bag of shredded cheddar. At checkout, I group items according to where I'll put them at home and bag them the same way. And finally, shop once a week. Period. If you're out of something, deal with it.
Bonus Tip: For the rare (if you follow the rules above) times when you're caught short, stock these emergency nonperishables: Parmalat milk, frozen Egg Beaters, and Folgers Coffee Singles.
Time Suck: Typically, I wouldn't think about a menu until I walked in at 5:30 p.m. to find I had no plan (somehow this always managed to surprise me). Hence the frequency of my Pasta and Jarred-Sauce Delight.
Time Saver: On Friday night I now thumb through a folder of recipes I've torn from magazines and write out menus for the next seven days on a notecard that I clip, with the recipes, to the hood of the stove. (For easy dinner ideas, go to LHJ.com.) It helps to think strategically: My friend Carla makes at least two meals a week -- marinated chicken on the grill and chicken tacos, say -- that involve the same main ingredient. She cooks all the chicken the first night, saving a second stint at the stove. Another pal deliberately makes extra every night in order to have a couple of nights of "Mom's Second-Chance Buffet."
Bonus Tip: If you have the freezer space, double the amount you're cooking and freeze half for another meal. (One of my friends triples her recipes, but our freezer just isn't big enough to do this.)
Time Suck: Every morning I'd stand in front of my closet, wrapped in my bath towel, waiting for a sign from the Outfit Gods. I'd put something on, look in the mirror, hate it, toss the clothes on the floor and start over. I'd do this anywhere from three to seven times.
Time Saver: Heed my mother's advice (I wish I had): Never purchase a top unless you have a bottom that goes with it, and vice versa. That way you'll never waste time hunting for a match for an orphan separate. (Dresses are one piece, so they rule your world.) One working mom I know writes down successful outfits -- from shoes to earrings -- in a notebook. At night she turns the page and, voila, she's set for the next day. If an item is in the laundry, all she has to do is flip the page. (Extra credit: Add photos.) For those willing to spend time to save time, check out the app Pocket Closet (pocketcloset.deepwell-software.com). Sure, you have to shoot photos of all your clothes, but you can then create outfits -- or let the app create them for you. The best part? It keeps track of what you wore when, so you won't show up at a client meeting in the same burgundy jacket you wore for the last one.
Bonus Tip: Decide on your outfit the night before. Keep a spray bottle filled with water in your bathroom. If something's wrinkled, spritz it and let it hang in the shower. Not only will it be dry in the morning, but it will also be wrinkle-free (or free enough).
Time Suck: Mornings at my house used to be chaotic, to put it mildly. I'd sprint from the shower to the kids' bedrooms, to my closet, to the kitchen to make breakfast and lunches, to the car to retrieve lunch boxes.
Time Saver: Personal productivity expert Peggy Duncan advises clients to do as much as they can the night before. "No matter how tired you are, there's more time then than in the morning." Pick your outfit, get the kids to pick theirs, set the coffeemaker, empty the dishwasher, make lunches, check the calendar to be sure everything you need (including keys) is packed and in a spot you call the "place I put stuff." Many experts suggest bathing at night, too, but my morning shower doubles as a shot of Red Bull.
Bonus Tip: Enforce a morning rule: No TV until the kids have gotten dressed, eaten breakfast, and brushed their teeth. Nothing motivates a child to move more quickly than withholding Degrassi.
Time Suck: Every time I stepped into my laundry room there'd be a pile on the floor, a clump of wet clothes in the washer, and a still slightly moist heap in the dryer. Even if I washed, dried, and folded what was there, the next time I walked in -- boom! -- it was all back.
Time Saver: Containing the laundry monster requires ruthless organization. Keep three baskets in the laundry room labeled "whites," "lights," and "darks." Separate the laundry right out of the hamper into the baskets. When a basket is full (and only then), toss it in the washer. Set a buzzer so you know when the cycle is over, then immediately put the wet clothes in the dryer. Once the load is dry, fold directly into another set of baskets, each labeled with a family member's name. When a basket is full of folded clothes, give it to the person. The rule? He or she must put the clothes away, then return the basket.
Bonus Tip: Put clean socks in a separate basket. Have the kids sort them on rainy days.
Time Suck: I'd decide to scrub the bathroom sink. Then I'd clean the whole room. Then mop the floor. Then wipe down the kitchen counters. Before I knew it, a three-minute touch-up had become a three-hour spring-cleaning.
Time Saver: "Housework expands to fill the available time," says Laura Vanderkam, author of 168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think. To vanquish this tendency, she suggests setting a timer at a specific time every week (mine is first thing on Sunday mornings) for one hour -- just one! Clean fast and furiously until it beeps. Then you're done. To minimize the weekly cleanup, set the timer for 15 minutes every evening to pick up what's lying around.
Bonus Tip: Place supplies in a bucket you carry from room to room instead of wasting time hunting for Windex.
Scheduling Our Lives
Time Suck: Every day at 5:10, my husband would call and ask, "So, are you picking up the kids?"
Me: "Aren't you?"
Him: "I got out of work late."
Me: "I can do it, but I still have a call to make for work."
Him: "I can be there in 20 minutes."
Me: "I can be there in 10."
Him: "So, are you picking up the kids?"
Time Saver: On Sunday nights my husband and I convene to look at our calendar and decide, for every day of the coming week, who is picking up the kids, taking them to soccer, getting the dry cleaning, finding a sitter for Friday, cooking/buying/stealing dinner, and so on. We figure out as much as we possibly can so we can just stop talking about it. Then we write it on the calendar. "You should not use your brain for remembering," says Duncan, a very wise woman.
Bonus Tip: Try Google Calendar. Everyone in the family can access it and it syncs to whatever computer or smartphone you use. I'm a Mac and my husband's a PC and we can share the same calendar. This is, like, a miracle.
Using Social Media Sites
Time Suck: In the eight seconds a day I wasn't on Facebook, I'd be on e-mail. It's on my iPhone, too, so I checked it while waiting in line or standing in the kitchen, 20 steps from my computer.
Time Saver: One friend applies the old snail-mail rule to e-mail: Only handle it once. So she opens an e-mail, then reads, answers, and deletes it. I'm not that decisive -- yet -- but I no longer check it during the first hour of my workday. "That way, you set your agenda for the day, rather than letting other people do it," says professional organizer Julie Morgenstern, who literally wrote the book on this topic (Never Check E-Mail in the Morning).
Bonus Tip: Stever Robbins, author of Get-It-Done Guy's 9 Steps to Work Less and Do More, suggests a "Hands-Off Zone" for the iPhone so you're not tempted to check it. I now turn off the volume when the kids are home and awake, and I've moved the charging station to my desk in the basement.
Time Suck: I'd go on Facebook to see if anyone liked the witty status update I'd posted three minutes earlier. Then I'd look up and 45 minutes would have elapsed. I'd reprimand myself. Eight minutes after that I'd check again.
Time Saver: "If you don't rule Facebook, it will rule you," says Regina Leeds, author of One Year to an Organized Life. She advises strictly limiting your time on FB (or other online site) to 10 minutes in the morning and 10 at night. I've upped the ante by completely logging out between visits so that now when I absentmindedly pull up FB on my Bookmarks Bar, the log-in page is a reminder to just say no.
Bonus Tip: If you don't care what someone thought of last night's episode of Glee, click the X to the right of her name to hide all her posts. That way, you don't have to defriend her, but you won't waste time reading her updates.
Time Suck: As soon as my husband and I had gotten the kids into bed, the two of us would collapse onto the living-room couch and tune in to, say, Extreme Makeover: Home Edition (which we love), then stay, zombielike, through Desperate Housewives (which we don't even kind of love) and sometimes even through the local newscast (which is so painful it hurts). And that was just Sunday.
Time Saver: Every person I know said "TiVo!" So now we use DVR and fast-forward through commercials, thereby reducing a 60-minute drama to less than 40. But Vanderkam warns that DVRs have a flip side: "Some people record so many shows that they end up watching more TV, not less." So we set a cap of seven shows a week and no matter what, after watching one of them, we turn off the TV.
Bonus Tip: Look at the TV listings and make an actual schedule of what you want to watch. Then set up the TiVo to record only those shows and nothing else.
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, August 2011.