6 Ways to Feel Less Busy

Many of my clients feel much too busy. They are overworked, overwhelmed and over feeling this way. Some things are out of their hands, but there is usually quite a lot that is possible to change. Once we pinpoint what those things are and create an action plan, I can see their shoulders begin to relax and their brows unfurrow. These are some of the things I discuss with my clients who want to feel less busy:

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1. Stop using the word busy. What we say to ourselves and to others has a significant impact on our perception of things. “Busy” unfortunately has become the new “fine” in conversations (e.g. “How are you?” “Busy!”). When I was pregnant with our first child, I knew I wanted our lives to slow down. I became committed to ridding “busy” from my casual vocabulary as much as possible. It still slips out from time to time, and I cringe when it happens. For the most part, we are as busy as we choose to be. Not only that, we are not even usually as busy as we claim to be! No doubt children, careers, homes, etc all create an exceptional amount of work. But all of those things are also such blessings. We can choose to see them as aggravations that take up our days, or we can realize that these are our choices and how we perceive them has a tremendous impact on our mental and emotional health.

2. Avoid multi-tasking. I do violate this sometimes, and whenever I do, I always find I’m left with an icky feeling. Neither thing is done well, and it takes me longer to go back and correct my mistakes. Single-tasking is becoming more popular for good reason.

3. Set aside the iphone/ipad/laptop/TV. If we actually clocked our time wasted on these devices, it probably adds up to a whole lot more than we care to admit. Think of how much more happily (and peacefully) we could spend that time—reading, relaxing, visiting with a friend, going on a walk, taking a long bath, etc. My trick for putting down my phone: I ask myself “will I be glad how I spent this moment of free time?” Of course the answer is always “no,” and I usually find a better alternative pretty quickly.

4. Choose to do less. There are some things in life we have to do. Everything else is a choice. Figure out what you can stop doing, and then stop. Maybe not forever, but at least for now. Buy a Halloween costume instead of sewing it yourself. Quit being the family videographer and let someone else take a turn. Drop out of the playgroup that isn’t meaningful. Pass on the big project at work and go home earlier to the family. Forget yoga, sleep in and take a walk with your kids instead. Pick up takeout instead of cooking for that dinner party. Cancel the trip to visit those relatives who are just the pits. And for pity’s sake, give up the scrap-booking if it doesn’t bring you joy!

5. Incorporate quiet, mindful activities when you can. From small moments in the car to larger chunks of time spent meditating, walking, swimming, painting, kayaking or whatever activity puts you in state of flow. It is important to bring quiet to our days, especially when young ones are about. These peaceful periods re-energize us in extremely valuable ways.

6. Get help if you can. If you are able to, consider hiring help—with the lawn, the house, childcare, or whatever it might be for you. If we are losing our minds trying to do it all ourselves, what is the point? Sometimes our time is far more valuable than money. Consider it an investment in your mental health.

A Softer Alternative for Those Messy Hands

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Watching your child learn to feed herself is a wonderfully messy stage. Nothing seems cuter than a child covered in food … until the clean up starts. Although I do sometimes use paper towels to clean up, I find these cloths do the job more quickly and effectively. I first started using them when I tried (and failed) to go paperless a few years ago. They are softer than paper towels, very thin (in a good way) and the clean up is over much sooner, so children are happier. I only use these for hands and faces and wash them out right away so that stains don’t set.

I bought my set of cloths in natural (just like the ones pictured above) at the local arts market a few years ago, and the same dealer now has an etsy store. You could easily sew these yourself, but that’s a project I will never get to ha. I think I am about due for another set.

Simple Activity: Homemade Organic Play Dough

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Play dough is so much fun, but the commercial kind has a few ingredients that are not my favorite. There are tons of recipes available to make your own, and here is mine (I adapted it from this recipe). If you are intimidated, don’t be. It takes just a few minutes, and children love watching the process. You probably already have everything you need. Perfect for a rainy day activity.

Ingredients
2 cups organic all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons organic expeller-pressed safflower oil (available at Whole Foods)
1/2 cup salt
2 cups boiling water

Directions
Boil the water in a small pot. With a wood spoon, mix the flour, safflower oil and salt in a large glass mixing bowl until combined (it will still be very flour-y). Slowly pour the boiling water into the dry ingredients—about a third of the water at a time. Stir very thoroughly and then add more water. Once you’ve added what you think is enough water (you’ll know, don’t worry), knead the dough with your hands. Knead for a minute or so. If it feels too sticky, add a tablespoon of flour at a time until you get it to the right play-doughy consistency. Knead another minute or so. Takes less than 10 minutes to make. Makes about 3 cups of play dough—plenty for two small children. Store in a glass jar. Stays fresh for six months if tightly sealed.

Why no color? I like to avoid dyes, and this off-white version is just less of a hassle. You’ll never run out of a color, the colors can’t be combined into an odd brown mess, and there is no fighting over who gets what. This keeps it simple. Just the way I like it.

My Jam Jar Theory and Pursuing a Simpler Life

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Have you ever burst into tears trying to open a jam jar? I have.

My Jam Jar Theory applies when you experience something seemingly insignificant and mundane, and it pushes you completely and totally over the edge. Like failing to open a jam jar. It usually occurs when you are precariously balancing life—just eking it out—so when presented with the question “should I freak out about this tiny little thing that doesn’t even matter?” your only possible answer is “don’t mind if I do!”

This nutty theory of mine applies all too well to motherhood. It isn’t usually the piles of daily challenges and aggravations that throw a mother into a tailspin. After all, we are moms, which is a just another word for tap-dancing warriors. We can handle most anything. Except maybe a stuck jam jar. Or a spilt bottle of pumped milk. Or a full garbage bag that ripped open on the way out to the trash.

It was during these moments I knew I was trying to do too much. And something had to change.

For me, and my family, that change was pursuing a simpler life. It felt very different at first. And sort of hard to figure out how to even do. But in the long run, it has been incredible. Even with two children, our life somehow seems simpler than it was a few years ago. If you are thinking of doing something similar in your life and curious, here are some of the changes we made:

Less stuff in general. I’ve always been extremely organized, but we still had a lot of stuff. A lot. Even with two additional people living in our 1,500 square foot house, we now have less stuff than we did four years ago. Crazy, right? And I cannot describe how good it feels. There is less visual clutter, less to clean, less to keep up with, just less to think about. Purging stuff becomes addicting.

Fewer clothes. I eliminated a majority of my wardrobe about four years ago. I still have more than a true minimalist, but far less than the average person. Just thinking about what is in my closet inspires me to get rid of more. With fewer clothes, there are fewer decisions, less laundry, less to keep up with, and I actually like what I own a whole lot more.

Simpler food. Most nights our dinners consist of grilled vegetables and a grain or some sort of salad. We are not fancy eaters. Clean, simple food is not only healthy, but it is faster to shop for, easier to make and less to clean up.

Fewer commitments. We say no a lot. That’s the honest truth. Spending time with family and friends is our top priority, and because of that, we really started putting it first. This can feel difficult, especially in the beginning (and especially if you have always said yes!), but the rewards are sweet in the long run.

Less media. We ditched cable about five years ago. We have Netflix and Amazon Prime (but we didn’t in the beginning!), so we still watch things, but it isn’t regular TV. No commercials and only the shows we care about. Did I mention no commercials? We are completely out of the loop on so many things, and it couldn’t feel better. Part of less media is the news, to which I gladly say “nope, no thank you!” Might make us ostriches, but that’s fine by me. We get our (limited) news online if we really need it, and even that is very minimal. News is usually only the worst or the absolute worst things happening in the world (Joanna described toddlers’ emotions like this once, which I also can relate to :)).

Whenever I face a Jam Jar experience, I know it is time to reassess and take things easier. We all handle these things so differently—what have you found to be helpful?

Back to Reality: 5 Ways to Ease the Return from Traveling

After eight hours of car travel with two small children, there is no better feeling than walking into a tidy, fresh home. It was a lot of work right before we left, but totally worth it. Here is what we did to make our return easier:

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1. Leave your house tidy. So obvious but so hard. Trash out, dishes done, new sheets on the beds. My mom did this growing up and at the time, I thought she was nuts. It makes getting out of the house more challenging, but ultimately it provides a significantly more peaceful return—totally worth it every time.

2. Pack bags by room to make unpacking easier. We brought all of the bags into the house and immediately dispersed them to their proper room. It made unloading much more efficient and not quite as daunting (some rooms could wait, like the bedrooms, while we tackled the more important ones like the kitchen).

3. Pack laundry separately. We kept up with most of the laundry while gone, but there was still plenty to do when we got home. We packed everything dirty all in one bag before leaving and then took it directly to the laundry room.

4. Get help if you can. We have a few angels in our lives and they really helped us out while we were gone. My saintly mother dropped off groceries before we came home (she returned one day before us), so all of the necessities were waiting for us. Milk and fresh fruit never looked so incredible.

5. The most amazing, accidental tip of all: go swimming when you get back in town. When we were about an hour from home, I felt like someone was going to crack (maybe me). We were all needing some major leg stretching and outdoor time, but I knew it would be blazing hot outside once we got home. So instead of driving to our house, I suggested we go straight to the pool. Pure joy ensued. Floating in that water was the best feeling ever and much earned by all. We showered the kids there, and threw on their pjs (see tip #3). They conked out when we got home, and nothing makes for a more peaceful house than sleeping children.

Dorothy had it right: there’s no place like home.

For more posts about traveling and children, click here and here.

Tips for Renting a Family Vacation House

For our recent trip to the mountains, we wanted a comfortable, kid-friendly house that was big enough for the four of us as well as friends and family who came to visit for a few days. We were a little late to the game, and so much of Asheville was booked by the time we got around to finding a place (summer is a peak time for the area). If you are considering a vacation rental and new to the experience, here are some things we have learned along the way.

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Check multiple sites. We have used airbnb many times in the past with great success, and this time we found the house on homeaway. Another option is vrbo. Kid & Coe is a newer site geared specifically toward families, but it is only in select cities. There is some overlap among the sites, but sometimes not, so be sure to check a few before deciding. It also helps you figure out the going rates—some houses are way overpriced, and some houses are a bargain (but possibly for good reason), which brings me to …

Read reviews meticulously. It is a lot easier to make do when it is adults only. We wanted to be sure the house had what we needed, was extremely clean and as advertised. We have always found reviews on these sites to be really helpful and spot on, so do take them seriously.

Make space and set up a top priority. With young children, having ample kid-friendly space to play indoors (for rainy days) was so important—and it did rain the first few days we were there. Also, we didn’t want to be on top of each other, so we had enough bedrooms for all of the guests (most of the time). A washer and dryer were non-negotiable (we did a lot of laundry!), and because we were there to experience the cool outdoors, we also made sure the house had an outdoor living area (total bonus: it is much easier clean up when you can sweep the crumbs off of a deck!).

Child-specific considerations. If bringing children with you, be sure to consider beds/cribs, high chairs, stairs (do you need a baby gate?), a bathtub, outdoor play area, and other necessities. Also, the general safety of the house will be important to consider. This definitely limited our options, but it was worth it for everyone’s comfort and enjoyment.

Location, location, location. Children can only be so patient in the car. Almost everywhere we went was a car ride 15 minutes or less. There were a few places we would have liked to visit, but an hour drive there and back just wasn’t realistic with two young ones. We were so thankful we mapped out the attractions before we made our final selection. We chose a house that was close to most everything, which did add to the cost, but it was worth it because we got to do so much more.

Know your deal breakers. I really regretted choosing a place with carpeting. Carpets are huge source of toxins (most padding contains flame retardants among other chemicals), pesticides (for when people wear shoes inside—not that we did) and general dust and allergens. I was on edge quite a bit watching our children roll around on the carpeting in the living room (which they happened to love ha!). I know that makes me sound crazy, but I should have just known my limit and found a place with hardwood or tile everywhere (part of the problem was lack of selection, so next year we will start planning earlier). Another deal breaker for us was wifi—my husband knew he would need to do a bit of work while we were away, so the house had to have this.

Ask questions! Avoiding pesticides is really important to our family. We called the homeowner about six weeks out and asked if he could avoid spraying any pesticides before we came. He was very kind and accommodating and did exactly that. Also, we found out the pots and pans contained non-stick coating, so we brought our own so we could cook with peace of mind. We also brought a few other non-toxic cooking and cleaning necessities—and we wound up needing all of it. It all fit in a single tote bag, so it wasn’t a big deal.

Major oversight on my part: walkability. I did not think to ask if it was possible to go on walks directly from the house. At home, we walk at least a few times a day. While this house was on a beautiful winding road in the mountains, there was no safe space for runners or strollers. That meant any time we wanted to go on a walk, we had to load everyone into the car and drive to a nearby park. If your children dislike car seats as much as mine, you know this was a major bummer. I won’t make this mistake again!

It usually feels a bit risky renting an unknown place, but it has always worked out for us. Also, when traveling with children, to us a rental house is so much more relaxing than a hotel … not to mention affordable. What is your experience with renting vacation houses? Any tips for us?

How Traveling Can Help Declutter

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We just returned from our first family trip as a foursome. We rented a simple house in the mountains—it was beautiful and so refreshing to escape the intense heat of Florida. The house was simply furnished and had basic necessities, but we still brought a lot with us, especially because we were gone for so long (or at least it felt that way!).

While packing for the trip, our dining room became the command center. I lined up our bags and packed us over four days. It was a lot of work (probably because it was also my first time packing for so many people—hopefully I will be more efficient in the future). What amazed me the most? How much stuff was still left in our house after our bags were packed. If we could go without so many of our things for nearly two weeks, how important was all of it?

As crazy as it sounds, right before we left, I made a trip to Goodwill. Three bags full of toys, kitchen stuff, games, beach towels, shoes and lots of clothes … things I knew we didn’t need on the trip and no one was excited to see upon return. Out it went.

Many people have shared the strategy of pretending to pack for a trip in order to help minimize possessions. Having now seen it first hand, I can tell you it works. It also helps on the back end—there were things we (unknowingly) didn’t want or need that we took with us, and they were immediately put in the donation bags as I unpacked.

I learned a lot preparing for, experiencing and returning from this vacation, and I will be sharing many ideas in the coming days. What tips do you have for traveling with children?

4 Easy Tips for Feeling More Put Together While Home with Children

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I recently helped a client clean out her wardrobe. She called me because she felt like a mess and didn’t have anything to wear while home with her two children all day. Not only is this woman adorable, but so are her clothes. So what’s the problem?

She wasn’t honoring herself or her season of life.

Just because we are with children all day—who are totally messy, I get it—doesn’t mean we should ignore our own appearance. Part of feeling good is looking good. We need to treat ourselves and our lives with enough respect to say “this day matters, too.” We would never dress like schleps for another job, so why this one?

If you find yourself in a similar place (and I think we all have at one time or another) and would like to make a change, here are some ideas:

1. Put on real clothes. Shockingly easy, but why is this so hard? Most of my clients live in Florida, and yes, it is very outdoorsy, health-oriented and hot here. We love our workout clothes—me included. But there is something about wearing “real” clothes that just feels better. Choose simple, washable pieces with crisp, clean lines. Nothing clingy or that needs to be ironed. Tunics and shorts or white jeans are my summer go-to. Yes, the clothes will get sweaty if you go on a stroll. Yes, they might stain if the baby spits up again. But who cares? What are we saving them for? Honor yourself and put on something you feel good in. It was a radical mental shift when I started doing this with my first baby. Did my client have “real clothes” to wear? Yes, plenty of them—all cute, comfortable and just the right thing. She just needed to give herself permission to wear them.

2. Consider new workout clothes. Exercising or just hanging around the house isn’t an excuse to wear stretched out or old clothes. Ultimately, we don’t feel good dressing like this, and perhaps our partners don’t love it either. So if you really are more of the yoga-pants-type (rather than real clothes), invest in some new pieces that fit and look great. A few black leggings and non-clingy gray tops will go a long way.

3. Take time to groom. I totally, totally understand feeling like you don’t have time to pee much less do your hair or anything else. So squeeze it in where you can. Let the baby cry a minute longer while you shave your legs. I file my nails while my children play in the bath. Dry shampoo is a lifesaver when you don’t have time to wash your hair. Develop a one minute makeup and hair routine (it is possible!). The tiniest bit of effort goes such a long way—in how we look and feel. And it shows our children that we matter, too. They can learn to wait a few minutes longer so we can take care of ourselves.

4. Update your underthings. I’ve seen a lot of undie drawers, and you guys, everyone needs some new underwear! It doesn’t have to be super sexy and amazing, but it does need to be its original color, not stretched out and hole free. Same with bras. A bra that feels good will completely change your day. If you are still breastfeeding and don’t want to invest, that’s totally understandable, so find something affordable for the meantime. I’ve worked with too many well-dressed, beautiful women who are wearing bras that are ten years old. We are better than this, friends!

If we don’t expect this time, our families certainly won’t provide it. No one is going to knock on our door and say “Hey beautiful lady underneath! Let me hold the baby while you go wash your hair.” We have to do this for ourselves. Children can learn to wait.

It won’t happen every day, but we can try, right? And we will feel so much better for it.

24 Hours With … Photographer Jenn Hopkins

Many of you have probably already heard of Jenn Hopkins—she is a very in-demand wedding and baby photographer in Florida. I feel lucky to also call her a friend and fellow Chi Omega! When she isn’t capturing her handsome boy Sawyer, Jenn is making babies and brides all over the Southeast shine on the other side of the lens. As a mother and small business owner, Jenn juggles a lot every day and does it beautifully. Here is her 24 Hours:

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Do you work inside or outside of the home? If outside of the home, what are your hours? Inside and outside. As a professional photographer I spend about 8+ hours a day editing, answering emails, coordinating photo sessions, marketing, advertising, promoting sessions, networking and other admin duties. I also work outside when I’m shooting. Every Saturday I photograph weddings all day, away from the house, and my sweet son 10-12 hours at a time. My hours are all over the place. I worked hard to find a good routine for my baby, and I use his nap times to work as quickly as possible! Then into the wee hours at night if I have a lot of deadlines.

What is your childcare/schooling situation? I have an amazing, angelic, perfect, sweet, kind, loving sitter. Shes Sawyer’s 2nd Grandmom. He hangs out at her house which is just down the street 2-3 days per week so that I can get in a full days work uninterrupted or so that I can go on photo shoots. I wouldn’t be able to run my business without her. They sing and learn songs, they’ve even done some arts and crafts as gifts for me. I cannot get over how lucky I am to have her.

What is breakfast, lunch and dinner like in your family? I am a single Mama so I hate to admit it but my nutrition usually comes 2nd to my son. I am constantly picking up things like bananas and avocados for him and forgetting to get myself some grown up food! Meal planning is something I try very hard to do, but after my baby, and running my business its hard to squeeze it in. I tend to eat out too much!

Do you meal plan or wing it? Do you like that? I am working more on meal planning, but winging it lately has been the theme in our house.

What is the most challenging part of your day? Day times. It is so hard to try to balance being a single mom, spending amazing quality time with my son, AND run a business. Before I had my baby I used to work about 10-14 hours per day. No way that’s happening now, so I am trying to keep up with my clients’ needs as well as my son’s.

What is the easiest part of your day? Night time! I love my bed time ritual with my son. It calms and centers me just as it does him.

In terms of running a house with a family, what do you feel like you have figured out? I feel that I have our “schedules” figured out. My son’s routine is pretty predictable right now, so I know that at certain times of day we play together and spend time just us. Because his routine is pretty set I know that Ill be able to get to all those pressing phone calls and emails and deadlines in just a few hours or minutes, and it allows me to really focus on our time together. I don’t feel as pressured knowing that at say, 12pm when he goes down for a nap I should have at least an hour to get back to my clients, and that I don’t have to do those things when my son and I are having “our time.”

Does anything still stump you? Every day I juggle my business and my baby. It is hard for me to sit down and work when he’s just a room away napping. I feel like I should be doing laundry, or sterilizing something! I try to save all the daily home tasks for the evening.

How do you take care of yourself and recharge? That is a good question— I am still learning to do this. I do take some evenings for myself once he goes to bed for the night. I snuggle up with all the terrible reality television that’s been stacking up on my DVR or I take time to chat with my girlfriends or bury myself in my kindle. I try to do this a few nights a week. I turn off my computer so that it doesn’t call to me, which is a struggle when your office is in your home. I instantly feel like I’ve taken a part of my life back. I feel recharged and ready to tackle anything new that pops up the next day.

If you had an extra hour in your day, how would you spend it?
A bubble bath!!!!! That sweet indulgence has gone by the wayside now that my boy is here. Who has time to fill up the bath tub!?

Any other organizing tips you’d like to share?
My to-do list is essential. Every night I rewrite my to do list while I’m sitting in bed decompressing. On pretty little paper with my favorite pen.  Pressing matters go on top, and non pressing matters on the bottom. I start the items that MUST get done the next day, all other items can happen as I have time. That way, when my son goes down for a nap I can work through each item. Crossing them off. It also makes me feel accomplished to write a new to do list each night. I start fresh the next day, not with a list covered in scratches and check marks. It keeps me efficient as I only get little bursts of time each day to really work.

What does a usual 24 hours look like in your house? Because of the nature of my job I never seem to have a day like any other day. I work weekends out of the house mostly, so on those days I wake up with the baby, get him fed and happy then leave him with my wonderful, kind, selfless mother who watches him while I go off to photograph families and weddings. On weekdays usually, my son wakes around 8am, we spend about 2 hours playing and off to nap time he goes for an hour or two while I check things off my to do list. Usually answering client emails and phone calls. When he wakes up its time to eat again, more play time, although this is the part of the day that if we have errands we run them! Back down for a nap, and I edit and work on client images. After this nap he is usually up for the day, so we get dinner ready, do household chores together, etc. After dinner comes bath time then bedtime! For my son, not for me. I usually work for another 2 or 3 hours before I go to bed as well :-) Then we start it all over again!

Simple Summer Skin Care

Three out of four people in my family have very fair skin, so we take skin care and sun protection pretty seriously. This is our pool/beach routine and because we do it every time, it happens like clockwork.

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We use sunscreen year round, but in summer months, all of us slather it on before we leave the house no matter what. On days we know we are swimming we use Badger or Honest. If we are only going to the park, then we use my daily SPF moisturizer from Devita (I talk about it more here), which isn’t water resistant. Each of these get a top rating from EWG, go on easy and are unscented. And don’t forget the lip balm—I have this in every drawer and bag in my house.

We are also a hat and rash guard family—parents, too (nerd alert!). Thankfully the kids are used to it, so they haven’t put up too much of a fight yet. And rash guards make pool time so much easier—less sunscreen to reapply. We like Hanna Anderson, Coolibar and Lands’ End for these. Hats just make sense—I wish I had been doing it my entire life. The adults wear sunglasses, but the kids prefer goggles when swimming.

Honest makes my favorite new swim diapers. They are so much easier to get on and off and so much less waste because they are reusable. We use the swim diaper like a bikini bottom for my daughter and just throw on the rash guard as the top. For women, you really need to wear a bathing suit under the rash guard top—it feels a bit too loose/revealing without it.

These things are kind of like bike helmets. If it is just a family rule, then there isn’t much arguing and it becomes the norm. Thankfully it doesn’t seem like we stand out too much … many families at the pool are doing the same thing.

As a side note, a friend asked me if I was worried about chlorine in the pool (because she knows I am super cognizant of toxins). No, absolutely not. Untreated pool water poses so many more hazards. Just use well-ventilated pools (rather than indoor pools) and be sure to shower off afterward—we always do. The chlorine does dry out my skin, so I apply organic baby oil all over at night.

p.s. More from EWG on sunscreen safety and toxicity, and also why spray-on sunscreens should be avoided.