Prioritizing: Having It All, Just Not All At Once

As mothers, there are a bazillion “good” ways to spend our precious time and energy.  Here’s a sampling of just a few rather typical ways a mother might spend her time, talent and energy on any given day: volunteering at school, home organizing and decorating, exercising, working on a home business, blogging or scrapbooking, reading, bargain shopping, preparing healthy and delicious food . . . the list of possibilities is endless.

If that isn’t enough, there is a labyrinth of resources to help mothers do all these “good” things. Consider this: at the time I write this, there are 4,329 recipes for chicken alone on, 8,856 books available on for home decorating, and 561,000,000 (you read that right) results on Google for home organizing!  Even the simplest of choices can be made complicated and zap our time and energy as we consider the myriad of options that face us.  The endless nature of “possibility” becomes a burden as as well as a blessing.

In light of this, we must carefully weigh our priorities and thoughtfully decide how to use our precious natural resources: time, talent and energy.  As mothers, we have an additional obligation: properly prioritizing our responsibilities associated with the multi-faceted care of our children.  As we do so, it will put into better perspective the price we are willing to pay for fulfillment of our goals and ambitions – or even our whims and personal hobbies!

Each of us has the same twenty-four hours, and our energy is far from endless, so in all our striving, it is probably most important to strive for balance: that “sweet spot” between getting things done and letting things go, between striving for excellence and saying “good enough”.

I like to think about differentiating between what we want to do, what is best to do, and what we cando.  It’s easy to list off a hundred ways we want to spend our time if we had a day to ourselves, but this must always be balanced with what is bestto do in light of our responsibilities as mothers. But there is one more reality check: what we can do.  Some of us have physical or mental challenges that prevent us from functioning as we’d like.  Some of us have to work outside the home when we really want to be with our children full time.  Some of us have children who demand more of us than we could have ever imagined.  Understanding our personal limitations and challenges as well as our opportunities and strengths will help us as we seek this balance.

Prioritizing the use of our time and energy to reach our goals as well as fulfill our responsibilities is a very individual process.  Just when we think we have it figured out, our life circumstances change and we find ourselves readjusting yet again.  Because of this, there is no “one” way to prioritize as mothers.  But with a little introspection and planning, each mother can navigate her own “right” way.

I’d like to suggest four guidelines that might help in the decision making process:

1. Identify your current stage of motherhood.

2. Check your motives.

3. Categorize your priorities

4. Practice putting “first things first”.

First, identify your current stage of motherhood.

This is perhaps the most important thing to consider when choosing how to spend your time, talent and energy as a mother.  A mother with an infant in arms is going to make very different choices than a mother whose children are all in school full time.  And a mother with four young children in school will make very different choices than a mother with a senior and other adult children that have children of their own.  Make no mistake about it, no matter how long the days may seem when you have a colicky baby, each mother will get through every one of the following stages of motherhood:

INFANT AND TODDLER YEARS: These are the years when a mother rarely has a moment to herself with one or more small and dependent children always by her side.

IN BETWEEN YEARS: In this stage, a mother may have nursing infants or napping toddlers to work into rigid school and practice schedules.

SCHOOL AGE YEARS: While before and after school hours may be brutally busy, mothers with all school age children have a little more freedom throughout their day to choose how to spend their time, talent and energy.

TRANSITION YEARS: This stage finds mothers dividing their time between their growing children still at home as well as the children who have already left the nest.

EMPTY NEST/GRANDMOTHERING YEARS: Depending on the number of grandchildren and their proximity, these years could be just as busy as earlier years, but with half the energy!

How much time a mother spends in each of these stages obviously depends on the number of children she has and how far apart they are, but it is worth the small effort to do a bit of math and “guesstimate” the amount of time you will spend in each stage.  The result of this exercise is hopefully a realization of two things:  1) each stage of mothering is quite busy, and 2) unlike the popular phrase, life is actually very long. What this means is that we will always need to make deliberate choices about how to spend our natural resources, but with planning and prioritizing, we can have it all – sequentially – at different stages in our life.

In an address titled, “A Message To My Granddaughters”, James E. Faust had this to say about “having it all”:

“Doing things sequentially—filling roles one at a time at different times—is not  always possible, as we know, but it gives a woman the opportunity to do each  thing well in its time and to fill a variety of roles in her life. A woman does not  necessarily have to track a career like a man does. She may fit more than one  career into the various seasons of life. She need not try to sing all of the verses  of her song at the same time.”

Recently, I was talking to a friend whose mother is 68 years old.  This mother of six has over 40 flute students and is also a very involved grandmother.  What does this mean for me?  With four children and a ten year spread, I will only be 54 when my last child leaves home, and I could easily be a grandmother by then. That’s fourteen years younger than this very busy and active woman. That’s a lot of years to do a lot of stuff! I had my first child at 26.  Let’s say I live to be 86.  Of that 60 years, I will only spend 17 with very young, pre-school age children at home with me.  It really does put into perspective what a small sacrifice it is to prioritize our children’s needs – especially during the young, formative years.

So take heart, you mothers in the infant/toddler stage of motherhood. There will be much more to your life than diapers and temper tantrums! Young mothers can find it all too easy in the face of sleepless nights and one too many games of Candyland to fall into either depression (I give up! – the selfless, martyr syndrome) or aggression (I’m going back to work – I want my brain and my body back!), but keep in mind the classic wisdom found in Ecclesiastes, “To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven.”

#2: Check Your Motives

Much like gaining perspective by recognizing your stage of motherhood, this self-monitoring tool is a “quick fix” if you are wondering whether or not your time and energy are being well spent.  Simply ask yourself: “Why am I doing this?”  You may be surprised at the answer if you can be brutally honest with yourself.  Here are just a few possibilities:

Default mode:That’s what my mom did.

Pride and vanity: I want to impress, or “one-up”, the other mothers

Undefined expectations: That’s just what a “good mother” does.

Avoidance: This is way more fun than making dinner, doing laundry, cleaning the toilet . . .

Some examples: just because your mom made homemade Barbie clothes, regularly washed her walls, and canned fruit doesn’t mean that is the wisest use of yourtime as a mother today.  Spending the majority of a full and busy afternoon making thirty elaborate cupcakes (and a mess to go with them) for the sake of hearing the other mothers “ooh” and “aah” might also be a misuse of your energy. Likewise, while some “good mothers” run PTA committees, not all mothers do, and your talents just might be best utilized elsewhere. (There are as many ways to be a good mom as there are moms!)  And avoiding the sometimes unpleasant but necessary responsibilities at home that make life more functional and comfortable so you can pursue your passion will leave everyone frustrated.

Identifying your stage of motherhood with it’s inherent limits and freedoms and checking your motives with some brutal honesty will make it much easier to figure out what your priorities really are, and if they are out of whack.  Let’s get down to the nitty-gritty of defining and categorizing our priorities.


#3: Categorize your priorities

Priorities are not created equal, and it is vital for mothers to differentiate between the ones that should require top attention and those that can be given less attention depending on her personal life circumstance. For example, I could literally spend all day cooking, cleaning, doing laundry, and caring for my younger children. That is the stage of motherhood I am in with several young children at home, one not yet in school.  If I don’t prioritize my personal care, I can easily end up crabby and resentful by the end of the day, sending everyone in my family on a guilt trip.  For me, having a perfectly clean house and elaborate meals is appealing and brings satisfaction, but not at the expense of my personal care – things such as exercise, personal meditation, and time alone with my husband.

There are various ways to categorize your priorities, and I’m pretty sure I’ve tried them all.  Categorizing by dimensions (physical, spiritual, social/emotional, intellectual), by roles and relationships (wife, mother, employee, volunteer, etc.), and by responsibilities (formal employment, housework, volunteer commitments, paperwork and bills) all work to a certain degree, but my favorite method incorporates everything under three incrementally important categories. In other words, each category isn’t valued equally.  Balance isn’t found in dividing time equally among all categories, but rather in deciding which things are most important, doing those things first, and possibly leaving other things undone.  Lin Yutang spoke true words when he said, “Besides the noble art of getting things done, there is the noble art of leaving things undone. The wisdom of life consists in the elimination of non-essentials.”

Keeping this in mind, consider categorizing your priorities according to essentials, necessaries, and nice-to-dos. Using the previous example of feeling angry and tired after a day of cooking and cleaning because I neglected my personal care, the priority of personal care then becomes essential, whereas a clean house and delicious meals are merely necessary. An even lower level of priorities would be the nice-to-dos. Those are things such as personal hobbies, recreational reading or shopping, watching TV, blogging and Facebook – nonessential things that often clutter our days and steal our time.

Each mother’s list will be different, but I would like to suggest you create three categories in which to place all the priorities in your life.  Title them as you like – ABC, 123, Good/Better/Best, Essential/Necessary/Nice-to-do.  Get creative and come up with categories that speak to you.  The important thing is that you categorize your priorities, placing some in a category essential to your happiness and well-being, some in a category necessary to keep life running smoothly, and others in a “nice” category – fluff that adds variety to life.

Once you’ve got your categories filled in, you’re ready for the last step: aligning your priorities with your natural resources of time, talent, and energy.

#4: Practice putting “first things first”

There is a wonderful little object lesson I first remember seeing as a teenager. In a class about priorities, my teacher brought out a large empty mason jar and three smaller containers of rocks, pebbles and sand. She proceeded to put the sand in first, then the pebbles, and finally the rocks. It was obvious early on that there was no way it would all fit in the jar. She dumped everything out and started over again, putting the rocks in first, then the pebbles, and lastly, the sand. Of course you know the result: a perfect fit.  The rocks, pebbles and sand represent our priorities, and if we want to fit as many of our priorities into our life as possible, we need to start with the “biggest” or most important priorities first.

That’s all great in theory, but what does that look like in everyday life?  This is where your three categories come in – but we’re not going to try and fit them in a mason jar, we’re going to plug them into a time map. Priority management and time management get a bit blurred here, but it’s almost impossible to separate the two, so here we go:

Get out your fancy planner or a blank piece of paper – it doesn’t matter.  All you need is a time map of some sort, and it’s helpful if you have one for daily, weekly and monthly priorities.  For your daily map, all you need are the hours in the day listed vertically down the page.  For your weekly map, the same thing but with the days of the week across the top.  A monthly time map is just a basic monthly calendar page.

Start with your “essential” category – “A”, “Best”, or whatever you decided to call it.  If nurturing your relationship with your husband is somewhere on that list, start mapping out how and when that is going to happen. Maybe you’ll want to schedule a half hour of “pillow talk” every night on your daily time map to catch up on each other’s day and re-connect.  Maybe you’ll block off every Friday night on your weekly time map as “date night”. You might even want to schedule in two short get-aways a year on your monthly calendar map to really nurture your marriage. If this really is a top priority for you, and you weren’t putting in that time before, you just may realize that you have to give up something less important for what you are declaring is most important.  And that’s a good thing.

Another example: self care.  This should be high on most mother’s list of priorities.  For me, this means personal study, meditation and exercise gets blocked out on my daily time map.  Weekly, I try to squeeze in some time over the weekend when my husband is home for reading, writing, working on my blog and photobooks.  Monthly? Maybe a hair appointment and time shopping alone so I can feel good about my physical appearance and get some errands done without losing my mind. These are just my examples. No matter what your personal priorities are, they must get plugged somewhere into your time map or things of less importance will inevitably fill in the gaps and your lofty list of priorities will be just that – a list on a piece of paper.

One last example: strengthening family relationships.  Certainly this is on every mother’s “A” list.  For our family, that means a few things on our daily time map.  Every day we plan to eat and pray as a family, and I also like to spend some time together reading and talking.  With homework, practice schedules and mid-week church activities, that kind of time requires a dedicated spot on the time map.  (It’s really tough to “fit those things in” after everything else, like trying to shove the stones into the already packed mason jar.) Weekly, we plan a family night where we play games and/or discuss things that need discussing in our family.  Monthly, in a perfect world, we have one on one time with our kids and also schedule family vacation time bi-annually.  We would never consider letting something come between us and our family’s long scheduled vacation, but what about family dinner or family game night?  Those things can easily get squeezed out if we aren’t careful to actually practice putting “first things first”.

While creating this “priority time map”, it’s important to plug in every single activity that is taking up a considerable amount of time. (If it’s taking your time, it is by nature a priority.)  Everything from “A” list priorities such as family dinner, alone time with your spouse, and writing in your journal, to “B” list priorities such as housework, meal preparation and bill paying, to “C” list priorities like your favorite TV program, blogging, or going to lunch with your girlfriends.  (Keep in mind that many priorities overlap.  Date night with my husband counts for both nurturing our relationship as well as self-care in my book.)

When you schedule every activity that takes a considerable amount of time (more than 15 minutes), priority time mapping has the additional benefit of eliminating excuses.  If you frequently complain that you don’t have time to read brain stimulating material from the field you graduated in, but you always manage to tune in for your favorite TV program, you will see on your time map in black and white that you’ve just lost your excuse.  (Maybe you just need to admit that brainless downtime enjoying your favorite TV program is more of a priority to you at this stage in your life than keeping up on those journals!  Either way, a time map helps with accountability.)

Actually walking the talk of putting “first things first” is hard work and requires a high degree of self-discipline and motivation, easily influenced by health, hormones, spouse support, and a kajillion other life circumstances.  There is a world of difference between creating the perfect time map with all your priorities in place and actually following it. For example, our family moved this summer and my perfect little priority time map was replaced by one priority for several months: survive!  But even when life is “normal”, it’s difficult to follow.  My priority of self care? The best time for me to study, meditate and exercise is early in the morning, before my children wake up. That means I have to get in bed early.  As much as I say it’s a priority, I frequently find myself doing things of less importance late into the night, knocking my early morning personal care priority off the schedule.

If you find it hard to actually practice what you preach, don’t be too hard on yourself. Barbara B. Smith once said, “Ideals are stars to steer by, not sticks to beat ourselves with.”  The object of putting all your priorities on a time map is not to create a packed, unrealistically rigid schedule that must be strictly adhered to, but to help you simplify your life and see more clearly what you don’t have time for so that you can say “no” to yourself and others when necessary.  Once you’ve plugged in what you say are your top priorities, it may just become painfully obvious that you need to cut back on your children’s extracurricular activities, spend less time exercising, eliminate the “frills” of your volunteer service, shelf the personal project until all your kids are in school, simplify your meal preparation, and minimize the social commitments that take you away from your family too often. (For a great story on this, read here – link to Tiffany’s spatula story)

The other advantage of having a priority time map is knowing where and when you can give and take. I have been following my map for so long now I hardly need to look at it, and I know exactly when I am compromising something of greater importance for something of less importance.  I also know when I can fudge or shift priorities depending on the situation and the needs of my children.  (Note: mothers of young children should be sure to expect a couple of hours each day devoted to the unplanned “priorities” of your little cherubs.) Additionally, when you simplify your life by putting “first things first”, it actually gives you more time and energy for those top priorities, and there will most likely be time to enjoy some of those things in the “Nice to do/C/Good” category. (Bonus: you can enjoy them without feeling guilt or anxiety because you will know you’ve already put the “rocks” of your life into place!)  You may even decide to trade in some of the sand for another rock or two.

For example, after carefully considering my current stage of motherhood, checking my motives, scrutinizing my personal priorities, and talking it over with my husband, this past year I accepted an opportunity to prepare and teach a series of classes right around the time our family would be moving.  It seemed crazy to many, but I really felt it was an opportunity I didn’t want to pass up. I decided early on that I would not sacrifice my commitments to home and family (my #1 priority) to take on this personal pursuit, so for an entire year I gave up personal pleasure reading and TV. I could see on my time map that I frequently had two hours a day of “discretionary” time and even more on the weekends, so I decided I would use that time in pursuit of my personal goal. Essentially, I traded in some of my sand for another rock.  It was a challenging year, but well worth it now that I look back.  Now that those classes and the move are behind me, I’m looking forward to creating a whole new time map for this school year, hopefully with a little more “sand”.

So instead of wondering if it’s the right time to tackle that personal goal, or feeling frazzled by all the commitments that distract you from what matters most, sit down and make a time map of your personal priorities. Family life is never easy, and it rarely goes according to plans, but if our day to day life as mothers is in sync with what matters most to us, we can have peace as well as power to tackle the challenges that will surely come our way.


QUESTIONS: What is your criteria for deciding if something is worth your time, talent and energy? How do you decide which goals are worth pursuing and when? How do you use your discretionary time? Is some of it consistently applied to your highest priorities? What are some examples of times when you’ve known you’re doing the right thing at the right time?  Or vice versa?

CHALLENGE: Make that time map!!



  1. Anna Jenkins says

    Allyson, this was a great article! I actually had to add it to the new site and of course needed to read it in order to do all the magic to it for the transfer. I love the Time Map idea. Even as a partial empty nester, I have found that my time still needs to be organized, with a part time job, serving on our board, spending time with my grandson, church assignments, etc. I hope that when I grow up I can write as well as you do!

  2. Amy says

    This sounds like a fantastic idea! I am so crazily disorganized right now, however, that the idea of creating a time map is incredibly overwhelming…. I truly have no idea where to start or how to format it. Ideas? Suggestions? Please?? Thank you!!

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