6 time-management tips for frazzled working parents

June 28, 2013, 5:10 PM UTC

Dear Annie: I am in my late 20s and a big fan of Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In, and I do have what the book’s subtitle calls “the will to lead,” but I also have two little kids and only 24 hours in the day. Inspiring as she is, Sandberg never quite gets around to filling in the nitty-gritty details about how she managed to do everything on her way up (before she got rich and could hire hot-and-cold-running nannies and other household help).

What I, and probably several million other working parents, could really use is some down-to-earth time-management techniques for balancing everything we’ve got going on. Do you know of any? — Overloaded in Ohio

Dear Overloaded: I’d like to recommend another addition to your bookshelf, if I may. Teresa Taylor — who, at the pinnacle of her career, was chief operating officer of Denver-based telecom Qwest (acquired by CenturyLink (CTL) in 2011) and among the highest paid on Fortune’s Most Powerful Women list — has been in your shoes, and now she’s written a book about it.

The Balance Myth: Rethinking Work-Life Success is packed with the kind of “nitty-gritty details” you’re looking for, starting with the premise that the whole idea of “work-life balance” is an unrealistic goal that just makes people feel as if they’re failing at everything. “Words like ‘multitasking’ and ‘balance’ are code words for the ability to run faster than an officemate or the ability to keep plates spinning in the air like the best Chinese juggler,” Taylor writes. “The problem with these concepts is that eventually one trips, or gravity wins.”

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That prospect seems to be so daunting to women in your age group that only 15% say they would want a top job at a big organization, says a new survey of 1,000 college-educated female millennials (born between 1980 and 1992) by global ad agency Zeno Group. The poll found that more than three-quarters (80%) are “concerned about their ability to achieve a balance between personal and professional goals.” Nine in 10 agree that women “have to make more sacrifices” than their male peers, and about half (49%) say those sacrifices mean that high-powered jobs “aren’t worth it.”

So Taylor’s book seems well-timed to encourage at least some young strivers not to give up too soon. Here’s a brief synopsis of six techniques that worked for Taylor, while she and her husband were raising two sons:

1. Stop multitasking. Instead of trying to do several things at once, plan your day so that you have blocks of time (even if they’re only 10 or 15 minutes long) where you are working exclusively on one thing. “Because I was able to give 100 percent to whatever I was focused on — managing my blocks of time without multitasking — I was more effective at my job than I had ever been before,” Taylor writes.

2. Assign a time limit to everything you do. Taylor applied this rule to both work and home, whether wrapping holiday presents or readying a client presentation. “Once you reach the time limit for a given task, stop,” she says. “Don’t keep modifying it or changing small details.”

This takes some practice and a willingness to let go of perfectionism. “It’s also a learning opportunity,” Taylor notes. Running out of time before all the gifts are wrapped, for example, means “I need to schedule a larger block of time, or find another solution to get the job done — like using gift bags and tissue paper next time.”

At work, she adds, she was known as the Time Warden, “because I am 100% comfortable with cutting someone off” in order to keep a meeting within its time limit: “Halfway through the meeting, I’ll say something like, ‘Everyone, we have thirty minutes left’” — and then 10 minutes, and so on. This tactic has the salutary side-effect of forcing certain longwinded folks to get to the point, which is never a bad thing.

3. Keep one calendar. Early in her career, Taylor kept separate calendars for work and home, which meant “I bifurcated my life, and as a consequence I felt bifurcated. This was not pleasant. Meeting and appointment overlaps occurred, and I dropped the ball and missed a few things.” Noting personal and professional items on the same calendar prevents that.

4. Work on weekends. “Sunday was my secret weapon,” Taylor writes. “Nobody likes to work on Sundays. This meant that I had an empty office, a floor, or possibly the whole building at my disposal.”

So she brought her two kids to the office: “I’d pack games, stickers, and dry-erase markers and they’d set up in the conference room adjacent to my office. In addition, in that wasteland of empty offices, they were able to run freely down the halls without disturbing anyone.” They had a blast, and Taylor was able to get a jump on the week ahead.

5. Have a day-care Plan B (and C, and D). “Day care failure. Three words that panic any working mother,” Taylor writes. She learned this the hard way when obliged to fire a Babysitter From Hell on a day when her husband was out of town and she was late for a big meeting. On that occasion, luckily, her mom rode to the rescue — but from that point on, Taylor always had at least one backup plan, just in case.

6. Learn how to delegate. Many years ago, six months into a new, long-desired job as director of new product development at US West, Taylor writes, “I thought I was going to have to resign, because I did not want the shame of being fired. I couldn’t deliver anything on time or accurately, yet I was working harder than ever.

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“My problem was that I did not know how to delegate the work, lead through others, or say no,” she explains. “Luckily, I had a boss who was willing to mentor me and who taught me that I needed to ask for help.”

As with No. 2 above, delegating sometimes means shushing one’s inner perfectionist: “I had to make peace with the fact that nobody was going to do it my way, but that was okay,” Taylor writes, adding, “When I let go and trusted others, our team became one of the best-performing teams at the company, which eventually led to my next promotion.”

One further suggestion: However busy you get, “make your home life a priority,” Taylor urges. “If your personal life is a mess, you’ll never be your best at work … You can’t take the mother out of the career woman or the career out of the mother, so use both to your advantage … Above all, try not to think of your life as a zero-sum game, or an equation that has to be balanced.” Good luck.

Talkback: What time-management methods have helped you combine your career with an outside life? Leave a comment below.