Those tiny outstretched arms and then fingers clasp and pull his little torso tight up against my neck. His squishy, warm cheeks push my own up making my right eye into a slit and for a moment we just sway and I hum softly while he babbles behind his star covered paci. In this moment I am able to just be and I find myself wishing I could pause the clock.

I want more of these just being moments. All too often it goes something more like this:

The speedy, rhythmic clicking of the keys matched my quick paced breaths and tapping toe as I desperately tried to finish writing the proposal. Tiny hands peer over the arm of my chair and sporadically peck at my keyboard. I let out an exasperated sigh and conspire about how I might be able to distract him so I can just get this done. No sooner does this thought enter my mind, another one is hot on its tail–parent guilt.

No matter what your guilt voices sound like or if you experience any at all, I think one of the steps towards thriving, as a parent, rather than just surviving, is about intentionality. In Smart Parents: Parenting for Powerful Learning intentionality is listed as one of the key qualities of smart parents. Smart parents are “intentional about creating powerful learning experiences”. Smart parents don’t wait for some other version of their lives, responsibilities, and circumstances to come about. They vision and plan and then take the steps necessary towards decisions that align to their priorities for powerful learning and living.

When I step back and think about my work and my family and all the other responsibilities I carry, I know I want to intentionally choose to do work that matters and raise a curious, joyful, caring son in a home that offers opportunities for learning, love, and grace. I don’t want to be so busy trying to change education that I lose sight of the moment by moment education of the child I am most responsible for–my son. It’s not about having it all or some perfection of the mythical work-life balance. It is all life and I want to spend more time doing what is important to me–a pursuit that will continue to grow and change and I am pretty sure that never will be entirely achieved.

So how can we work towards lives that are comprised of more powerful moments of learning and living? With intentionality in mind and a fresh new year to experiment with, here are five ways smart parents can plan and implement intentional time and margin:

1. Stop confusing productivity/success with busyness

We often believe the toxic lie that we must do more to be more. We are bombarded by incessant news of the tasks and accomplishments of others and our constant state of connection blurs the lines between time working, relaxing, and communicating with others, not to mention the line of reality at times.

Being busy, jumping from one thing to the next without time to decompress, go deep into a topic or a conversation or a relationship or a project, will not result in much more than burnout and frustration. Dr. Richard A. Swenson in the book, Margin: Restoring Emotional, Physical, Financial and Time Reserves to Overloaded Lives, says of our busy state that it, “takes away the pleasure of anticipation and the delight of reminiscence.” As parents, let’s debunk the myth of more activities for our children being better and figure out what success means for us.

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Now what? Develop a family vision of what success looks like. What big picture goals do you have as a family? If there was no one beyond your family to “impress” (no college admissions directors, hypercompetitive friends/parents, your own parents) what would be important to you?

Also–let’s all try to stop wearing busy as if it is a badge of honor. Success should be measured by outcomes, not hours spent achieving outcomes.

2. Set specific goals about how we want to spend our time

Swenson writes, “Modernity has increased our expectations but has not always permitted a commensurate ability to meet them.” So, if we are clear on the difference between productivity and busyness, we need to make goals that align to our vision of success and clearly hold all activities to that standard if we are to avoid the busy trap.

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Now what? The beginning of the year is a perfect time to analyze your family calendar. Think about this past year (or past month). Did your family experience activity overload? What made you feel busy? Is (insert activity) truly productive? In other words, does it contribute to the life you want your family to live? Does it contribute to your family vision of success?

Once you’ve analyzed how you spend your time and recognize what things do not align with your goals you can get rid of them. Easier said than done I know. Going forward you can say no on the front end with a statement like, “We are unable to give (insert activity) the time and attention it deserves based on our current capacity and the goals we have set as a family.”

In practice. This month I am giving the Lara Casey Power Sheets a go in preparation for a focused 2016. One of the thought experiments included in the collection prompted me to consider specific things I would say no to in alignment with some visioning and goal setting activities previously completed.

The epiphany came for me as I looked back over my 2015 calendar and specifically several of the travel/speaking engagements I said yes to. I realized I said yes more out of either a feeling of pride (honored to be asked) and/or FOMO (fear of missing out) than a true alignment to my family vision of success and/or my hedgehog concept (which drives my work focus).

For the year ahead I will curb my knee jerk reaction of yes and remember one of my favorite Steve Jobs quotes, “People think focus means saying yes to the thing you’ve got to focus on. But that’s not what it means at all. It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are.”

Smart parents can confidently say no.

3. Evaluate and redesign processes that aren’t working

As parents, there are routines and processes in our daily lives that can either contribute to our vision of success or impede it. Broken processes can easily exasperate us and our families and make it really challenging to be “intentional about creating powerful learning experiences”. Smart parents recognize the value of putting time and thought into processes that have a compound effect either for the positive or negative.

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Now what? Take a process or area of daily life that isn’t working or is causing potentially unnecessary stress. Break the process down to the smallest, most detailed step you can think of. The basic structure of the Gamestorming activity Atomize works nicely for this in my experience. Analyze the steps in the process to see if you can pinpoint what may not be working or what might make the process better (in alignment with your family vision of success). Is there part of the process that could be delegated to someone else or automated entirely? Is there something that may take time now but would save time later?

4. Build in margin

There is a reason why the stewardess advises adults to put on their oxygen mask first before assisting their children during the safety presentation at the beginning of a flight. You, parent, can’t help those around you if you so devoid of energy yourself. You can’t plan meaningful learning opportunities for your children when you are just trying to survive the week–every week.

Margin is defined by Swenson as, “the space that once existed between ourselves and our limits.” Margin is countercultural. Culture wants parents to overload and do as much as possible–so our schedules are back to back, if not overlapping, and we squeeze it all in, carrying our load, often in silence, with a gritted smile. Life without margin may work out ok, until something goes awry and the domino effect sends each event into crisis status. Life with margin planned for time in between events in case there is a llama on the loose (true story) or a parent/teacher meeting runs over.

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Now What? Let’s promote a culture where rest and margin are not enemies of, but advocates for progress.

Say no to overload. Build and protect margin. Be wary of saying things like, when (insert event, project, milestone) is over I will have time to (visit my grandkids, travel, do that hobby I love). Build in margin now and let those things that matter be a part of now, not someday life.

5. Capture memories, but not at the price of missing the moment

This photo by John Blanding of the Boston Globe became an internet sensation and speaks to what so many of us feel emotionally and even know intellectually, but still have trouble living out: sometimes it is better to savor the moment instead of just capturing it.

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Now What? As parents, of course we will get out our cameras/phones and document our children’s lives. Other times we need to put down the screen and engage in the moment with all of our selves and let the memory be in our minds. Carve out time when the phones stay on their charger instead of in hand and focus on being instead of doing for a moment.

As you prepare for the year ahead, what stands in your way on the path towards increased intentionality in your days? What if the new normal of parenting was a slower, deeper, more intentional way of being with more margin for moments of learning and being? What if busyness was called out for the false indicator of success that it is? Think about what helps you thrive as a parent and human. Then take the steps to do more of whatever that might be. Smart parents know the impact of their intentionality will go beyond their own walls.

 

This blog was selected for publication as part of our Smart Parents blog series and book, Smart Parents: Parenting for Powerful Learning in partnership with The Nellie Mae Education Foundation. For more information, please see our Smart Parents: Parenting for Powerful Learning page and other blogs in the series:

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