Ten ways to find time for your family — no matter how busy you are

I'm excited to share a guest post by Leo Babauta, father of six and author of the inspiring productivity blog, Zen Habits. His simple-yet-powerful tips always remind me that slowing down — not cramming more in — is a busy parent's best shot at balance. Leo doesn't "do" productivity so he can crow about how much more he gets done in a day than everyone else. He does it so he can spend time on the important things in his life. Bravo. — Asha

  "Your children need your presence more than your presents." - Jesse Jackson

On my blog, Zen Habits, readers often ask me how I can make time 6 kids and still do the things I do — publish a Top 50 blog (along with a new one for writers), write prolifically for other blogs, write a book (to be published later this year), exercise, and until recently, hold down a day job. The short answer: Of all the things I do, spending time with my wife and kids comes first.

I can't really put it more simply than that. We make sure to spend time together in the evenings. Weekends are for family only, and more specifically, we spend every Sunday together as a family (it's our "Family Day") and don't allow other plans to infringe on that time. My time with my kids is the most important time in my life. We enjoy reading together, watching movies, playing sports, watching sunsets. I make time for soccer practice and games all day Saturday. We go to church on Sundays. Then at various times there's also school meetings, choir practice, dance classes, and family gatherings.

So how do I manage to make time for all of that on top of the piles of work I do? The answer boils down to two interrelated words: priorities and simplicity. I make priorities in my life, and simplify everything by eliminating all that isn't a priority. I keep my life simple so that I may have time for the important things: my writing, my wife, and my kids. Here's how I do it.

  1. Make the kids your priority. I have a habit I've developed in my years of simplifying: I define the 4-5 things in my life that I love to do the most. I call this the Short List. For me, that's spending time with family, writing, reading, and running. That's the whole list. My wife and kids (family) are at the top of the list. Everything that's not on that list — sorry, can't do it. If you make your kids your top priority, and make sure your schedule and actions reflect that, there's no reason not to have time for them. The key is to also be able to do the other things you love.

  3. Edit your commitments. When things begin to get complicated, I make a list of all my commitments — soccer coach, freelance writer, blogger, dad, husband, any civic groups, online groups, etc. Then I identify which ones are my priority, and I eliminate the rest. That allows me to free up time for the priorities.

  5. Do less. This goes along with the commitments, but it takes it to a rubber-meets-the-road level as well — during my day, I've learned to do fewer tasks, and take on fewer projects, than ever before. I stick to three important projects at a time, and try to accomplish three important tasks at a time.

  7. Focus on the biggest impact. If I'm doing less, doesn't that mean I accomplish less? Not in my book. By focusing on things with the most long-term impact (as opposed to those with the most urgency), I can ensure that my time is well spent. I do less but get big things done. It's how I've been able to build a successful blog — I ignore the little things that can take up all my time, and focus just on the ones that will have the most impact on my blog readership. Just great content, no SEO, for example.

  9. Cut out distractions. All the little distractions in life keep us from achieving our dreams, or keep us from spending time with our families. Turn off email except for certain predetermined times of the day. Same thing with instant messaging. Same thing with phones. Same thing with coworkers and meetings. These things interrupt us from doing the important things, and as a result, get us stressed without allowing us to accomplish things.

  11. Work early in the morning. I love early mornings. I've slowly begun waking earlier until now I wake at 4:00 a.m. This allows me to do some writing while the kids are sleeping or exercise without sacrificing time with the family. And it's quiet, me-only time. It's how I was able to blog, have a full-time job (which I recently quit) and still have time for the kids.

  13. Get the important stuff done first. As I said, I focus on three important tasks each day — and I do those before anything else. I don't allow the little stuff to push the big stuff back. Get at least one of your important tasks done before checking email.

  15. Batch the smaller stuff. There will always be small stuff you have to do, as a matter of routine. But instead of spreading those throughout the day, and letting them push back the big stuff, I put them at the end of the day and do them all at once. I do all my calls at once, do my email twice a day, do smaller administrative stuff at once.

  17. Schedule kids-only time first. For me, my schedule starts with blocks of time just for family. Work-free zones, if you will. That's evening time (anytime after 5 p.m.) and weekends. I don't work at all during those times (except email). Also any time I need to be there for the kids, whether for school or sickness or whatever. Once you've got those zones blocked off, use the rest for getting your important work done — block it off so that you get what you need done in the time available.

  19. Learn to say no. This is one of the most important tips on this list. You can have all the plans to spend time with your kids in the world … but if something pressing comes up, or someone asks you to do something, and you say yes … those plans just went down the drain. You have to learn to set those boundaries, to tell people, "Sorry, can't, that's my family time." That might mean passing up some opportunities. That might mean you aren't as popular at work as you'd like. But for me, that's a small price to pay for the joy of being with my wife and kids.

Related: Getting organized: Multitasking rarely helps


  1. Kristi says

    I suspect part of the reason this makes no sense to me is because my child is still a toddler. 4-6pm is prepping dinner, 6-6:30 is eating dinner, 6:30-7:00 is quiet play, and 7-8pm is the bedtime routine. At 8:00 it’s time to clean up the kitchen and collapse for the day. It hardly feels like quality family time.

    I also think Zen Habits Guy has a lot more energy than my husband and I do. His pre-“eliminate all the rest” list is already longer than my “what can I eliminate from this list” list; I get tired just reading it. Although maybe that’s because I’m at the tail end of two demanding weeks. :) TGIF!!

  2. flynn says

    Kristi, I agree that the daily gind seldom feels like quality time and I also don’t see a lot of nonessential tasks I could eliminate (hm, no more laundry?). But aren’t you being a little hard on yourself? If you’re spending two hours on dinner then you’re probably having a nice home-cooked meal. Maybe the one who is not cooking has time to play with the child, or let them “help” with whatever else needs doing. Then you eat together. And after that, a half hour of quiet play is about all a toddler can take. Sounds like quality time to me; don’t let some parenting magazine fool you into thinking it has to be fancy.

    As for adding additional tasks to your already-busy schedule, have you considered typing blog entries with your toes while bathing your child? Very efficient use of time. ;)

  3. Nicole says

    Joyous: His family and work are more important to him than being a socialite. Besides, he goes to his kids’ sporting practices/events, church, choir, family gatherings, etc. I would assume there is enough socializing there for him.

    Kristi: Would you consider freezer cooking?

    Also, every now and then I cook pot roast in a slow cooker. If you have time in the morning, after breakfast and before cleaning up, you can quickly cut up the veggies and throw it all in. You won’t have to do anything until it’s done. Usually by dinner.

    It may help so you won’t have to spend 2 hours every night cooking. Just a suggestion.

    Flynn: if you think 30 minutes of quiet play is all a toddler can handle, you haven’t met my daughters. They are all play, all day!

  4. Stephanie says

    I agree with Kristi — sometimes I’m too pooped after working all day to even know what I’m doing! I know that pre-children I had interests and goals of my own, but by the time bedtime rolls around I have forgotten what those were. This blog is helpful because I feel like I can sit down and re-visit my passions by making a list of what I enjoy … and then edit, edit, edit them to the point where daily life is more manageable.

  5. San says

    I doubt my husband is gonna prioritise the family over his other passions during his free time. Lucky is the man where is passion is parenting. The tips sound simplistic and logical.. but life is hardly that way. Waking up at 4 am for example, means you are deprived of sleep and this will affect the way you work and relate to those you love. Doing less and saying ‘No’ is not always an option, esp. if you are working for someone… Often it is a “Get it Done or Get Fired” situation.

    Kristi: I do most of the ‘mundane’ stuff around the house and I find it to be a great time to bond during those chores. My boy is 3 and we love sorting the laundry and putting it in the washer together. I also get him to help me scrub the toilets and we both get wet and have loads of fun with the bubble and foam. We use plastic plates and bowls, so when I’m done washing, he helps me to dry them and sort them into the cupboards. This is usually a great time for chitchats. But of course they aren’t usually very dry… but I have learned to close 1 eye and not sweat the small stuff. :)

  6. Amanda Alexander says

    I admire Leo and Zen Habits, and his ten tips sound like utopia to me! However, These tips work well for a man who works from home. For a working mom whose husband works away from home during the week for example, or for a single mom, it’s not so easy to have that one on one family time. You get home in the evenings and you are cooking, clearing up etc. There are few working moms who feel this is “quality time” with the kids. It’s more often than not a time of drudgery and sheer exhaustion. I’d like to add an 11th tip – Be kind to yourself, give yourself credit every day and allow yourself and your life to be imperfect.