For most parents, “free time” is sort of like a pet unicorn — it’s a fun idea, but it doesn’t actually exist in real life.
So if you’re a busy parent trying to lose weight, you might be wondering how exactly you’re supposed to find time to work out or cook healthy meals when you barely have a minute to brush your teeth in the morning.
Kids are awesome, but they also seem to have the magical ability to make entire hours of the day disappear. But how can you set aside some time each day to crush your own goals? (Because, no matter what your mommy guilt says, you are allowed to have your own goals — really.)
Here are a few tips from time-saving experts so you can waste less and accomplish more.
How to Carve Out More Time in Your Calendar
1. Say “no” more often
If your kid loves karate, of course you’re going to find time to shuttle them back and forth to classes. But there are plenty of times we find ourselves committed to stuff that no one in the family actually seems excited about.
When that happens, it’s okay to set boundaries. “Learning to say ‘no’ to requests that don’t help you or your family reach your goals is a good step to gaining control of your time,” says Nancy Haworth, a professional organizer and owner of On Task Organizing, LLC.
2. Streamline the morning rush
When mornings are chaotic, you may feel exhausted before your day’s even started — and that makes it hard to get anything done efficiently. Take some of the stress out of the morning rush by prepping as much as you can the night before.
Pro tip: Instead of trying to do it all in the morning while everyone’s only half-awake, prep at a time when the rest of the family can actually help out. Haworth offers these tips for simplifying your mornings:
Check the weather forecast before bed and lay out the next day’s clothes so you’re not searching for clean pants or matching socks in the morning.
Set the table for breakfast.
Pack snacks, make lunches, and refill water bottles.
Place any purses, briefcases, backpacks, shoes, and jackets by the door.
Skip checking social media and email when you wake up until everything else is ready.
3. Put free time on the schedule
Forget spontaneity. If you need an hour to yourself — to do a workout, try a new recipe, or just veg on the couch with a good book — you’re going to have to put it on the calendar in between all the school projects, soccer practices, art classes, and bounce-house birthday parties.
“Just like we make the time to go to the grocery store, we also need to make the time to take care of ourselves,” says Amy Cooper Hakim, Ph.D., an industrial-organizational psychology practitioner and time-management expert.
How to Find (and Eliminate) Time-Sucks
4. Track how you spend your time
“If you’re in the process of improving your time-management skills, I recommend keeping detailed track of your time for a couple of weeks to figure out where your time is going,” Haworth says.
Use a bullet journal, passion planner, or productivity app, and make sure you include everything — how much time you spend working, how much time you spend driving, how much time you spend taking online quizzes to see what kind of burrito you are, etc.
If you find yourself asking “how is it bedtime already?!” on a near-daily basis, this will help you figure out where all the hours are really going — and identifying time-sucks will be the first step in getting rid of them.
5. Batch those “rabbit hole” tasks
Certain tasks — like checking email, reading the news, or running to Target for “just one thing” — tend to take waaaaay more time than you planned, so try to tackle those tasks in batches to limit the amount of time wasted.
“When we chunk our time, we’re more productive and efficient,” Hakim says. Here are a few ways to do that:
Instead of checking your email every time you get a notification, pick a few times each day to read and respond to new messages in your inbox all at once.
Schedule as many errands as possible for the same day. Keep a shopping list on your phone so you’re not constantly running back out for forgotten items.
Set a timer before you start reading the news, scrolling through Instagram, or looking up avocado toast recipes. “It’s very easy to get sucked in,” Haworth says. “Before you start one of those activities, decide when you’re going to stop, and set a timer to help raise your awareness of the time that’s gone by.”
6. Put yourself first
“Place those things that you do to take care of yourself on your calendar, and take care of them before you run errands or check your email,” Hakim says.
Case in point: I used to promise myself I’d work out “as soon as I finish what I need to do today.” Surprise, surprise, I rarely got around to it, because… really, does any parent ever feel like they’re all caught up?
I started scheduling workouts early in the morning and realized it’s way easier to bang them out before the “I’m-never-going-to-get-everything-done” panic sets in.
How to Get Your Family On Board
7. Have kids help with meal prep
Cooking healthy meals can take a big chunk out of your day, but it’s worth the investment: Research has found that more time in the kitchen is associated with a healthier diet.
Here are a few tips Hakim suggests to help save time in the kitchen and get the whole family involved in meal prep:
Spend one afternoon each weekend prepping dinners for the upcoming week. That way, when you’re juggling homework and after-school activities, you can get dinner together without hassle.
Include your children in the process. Kids love to be in the kitchen, so it can be a fun way to spend time together and actually get something accomplished.
Stick with simple recipes to make your life easier — no need to whip up beef bourguignon from scratch when you’re already feeling overextended. Slow-cooker meals are also a big win for those with busy schedules.
If you have older kids, enlist them with the task of finding healthy recipes online, and go to the grocery store together to buy the ingredients.
Created by Isabelle Daikeler — who also happens to be the co-creator of Shakeology and wife of Beachbody CEO Carl Daikeler — this shake is full of fruits and veggies, healthy fats, and protein to keep the kids satisfied between meals.
8. Delegate some household duties
If you’re on nonstop chore patrol around the house, delegate some of the responsibilities to your tiny roommates to help you finish up faster.If your kids are still young, bigger tasks may still need parental guidance — my kids basically need their own hype team when it’s time to clean the playroom — but you can hand out smaller tasks, like loading the dishwasher or carrying dirty clothes to the hamper.
“Create a chore chart and share it on a dry-erase board where all family members can see it,” Haworth says. “Provide incentives to complete chores, such as a family trip to the playground once all chores are done.”
9. Lean on your village
Resist the pressure to “do it all.” Your fellow parent-friends are probably just as stressed out and overscheduled as you are — so own up to it, and lean on each other for backup.
For example, Haworth suggests carpooling with neighbors or friends to activities. You drive this week; your friend drives next week — and ta-da, now you each have a free hour to yourself.
10. Make your family time more active
Instead of trying to balance kids’ activities, quality time with the family, and your own workouts, get all three accomplished at once by planning active outings for the whole crew.
“On the weekends, incorporate exercise into your family’s routine — take a nature walk, go to the local roller skating rink, or visit a community park,” Hakim says. “Remember that you’re teaching your children through your actions — you should show them the best way to maintain a healthy body and mind.”
Yes, the parenting struggle is real, but with a few smart, commonsensical shortcuts, you can spend more time with your family and less time pulling your hair out.