Working parents need a solid family calendar system to reduce stress and diminish avoidable bad surprises. There’s no one right way to keep track of your family’s schedule, but there are some basic principles that can guide you in setting up a system that works effectively and helps you all to feel like you’re on the same team. Decide on a central location, agree on how events are added, and touch base daily. When you’re all up to speed on these basics, try more experiments such as pre-blocking activities that often slip through the cracks.
No, I’m still working. I thought you were serving the kids dinner at 6?!
Mom, I need a ride to school an hour early tomorrow morning for play rehearsal.
Why didn’t I know until Sunday night that the babysitter couldn’t come on Monday???
Keeping track of your own commitments is challenging enough. But when you add on coordinating kids’ schedules on top of what you already need to do for work and life, a solid family calendar system is essential to reduce stress and diminish avoidable bad surprises.
In my experience as a time management coach for many working parents, I’ve seen that there isn’t one right way to keep track of your family’s schedule. But there are some basic principles that can guide you in setting up a system that works effectively and helps you all to feel like you’re on the same team.
Decide on a Central Location
As a family, you need to decide on a set place where you put commitments as they come up and where you check for those commitments on a daily basis. Many families use electronic calendar and task systems like Google Calendar or apps like Cozi, OurHome, or Any.do. With these tools, you can have a different color for each family member’s calendar, share calendars, set up recurring events, and schedule reminders. But in addition to these tech options, you can also write down commitments on a whiteboard or large wall calendar posted in a central location. If you have young children, the visual on the wall can be effective as a way for them to see anything that specifically applies to them. And if you have kids (or a spouse) who tend to think of things as out of sight, out of mind, the bold visual reminder of what’s happening for the week can be exceptionally helpful.
Agree on How Events Are Added
If all adults and kids in the household are old enough and on board with adding events to a shared calendar, that’s the easiest solution for keeping the family schedule up to date. Have each adult in the home, as well as the children, be responsible for adding their own items when they become aware of them. And then have the adults in the house be responsible for adding events that apply to the whole family.
However, as a time management coach, I know that “ideal systems” doesn’t always work so it’s good to have some backup options. If one spouse or partner is willing and able to put things on the calendar and the other isn’t, set up an agreement that every day any new scheduling information is passed on to the person who is willing to enter it. The same holds true for kids. If one or more children aren’t old enough or strong enough on follow-through to consistently add commitments, ask them to immediately give papers or forward information to the adult who is willing to get them onto the schedule. That way, on a daily basis, the calendars should be up-to-date. Also, all adults, including nannies or babysitters, should have access to the kids’ calendars to add or modify events as needed.
Have a Weekly Huddle
Each week, have a conversation with your spouse, partner, or co-parent on what’s happening in the upcoming week that you both need to coordinate on the schedule. That could mean talking through drop-off and pickup for sports and activities, any special school event, prep that needs to be done ahead of a deadline, or any travel. If you have a babysitter or other childcare providers who need to be aware of the schedule, designate one of you to communicate with them about expectations.
This weekly conversation is the opportunity to work through any challenges before they become emergencies. Often, these meetings work best on Sunday afternoons, but you can adjust the timing to suit your needs. I recommend reserving at least 30 minutes to review the weekly schedule as a recurring event on your calendar. Even if this meeting can’t happen at the exact same time each week, don’t let it drop off your agenda. Talking through the next seven days will save you from having to reschedule meetings at the last minute to make it to a school event or frantically calling your kids’ friends’ parents to see if they can bring your child home after practice.
If you choose to do a paper wall calendar or white-board calendar, update it with the main events for the week right after the meeting. If you use both, this will help your virtual calendars and physical calendars to stay in sync.
Touch Base Daily
Every day, make sure you and your spouse or partner are touching base about the next day’s schedule. A time that usually works well to do this is right after the kids go to bed so that you’re talking things through before you’re falling asleep yourself. But if your children are older and don’t need your help with their bedtime routine, you can also do this after dinner. Confirm that both of you are on the same page about when you’re going to and from work, who is doing kid drop-off and pickup, and any special events like sports or after-hours work commitments. If your kids are older and have more complex schedules, make sure that you’ve also talked through the calendar with them before they go to sleep (or you go to sleep). Make sure you all know what they have going on tomorrow and if there is anything that will need your help. It’s better to be aware the night before that they need you to drive them to school to bring in a large board for their school project instead of finding out during breakfast.
Go Beyond the Basics
Once you’ve mastered the essentials of making sure that fixed commitments are on the calendar, then you can add other activities that could help life run more smoothly. For example, you may designate a certain time for meal planning and grocery shopping each week or a time to do laundry so you’re not always wondering how to squeeze those activities in. Or you may set aside certain times to exercise or spend quality time with your kids. Adding these types of activities to your calendar can help you to remember how you want to spend your time instead of simply letting the time slip away.
Even with a great calendar system, there still will be unexpected items that come up. Kids are experts at keeping life interesting. But by deciding on — and sticking to — a calendar system that works for you and your family, you can dramatically reduce stress around managing the day-to-day.
This article first appeared in the HBR Working Parents Series book Getting It All Done.