How I Keep Sane: My Recipe For A Satisfying Day


Exhaustion. Never ending to-do lists. Neglected kids and spouse. No strength to move forward. No strength to say no. No time to recover.

Juggling the demands of family life is no easy task. I’ve been searching for years for the perfect system and have written extensive explanations about the complicated systems I’ve used.

There is a time and a place for systems complex enough to cover nearly every aspect of life, but today I want to share the basics that keep me sane.

When the most important things seem to be slipping through the cracks what we need is something simple we can start today that let’s us know we’re on the right track.

We need something that gives us hope that our most important projects and relationships are moving forward – something that lets us fall into our pillow at night with satisfaction and peace that we did well today and will do well again tomorrow.

All my life I’ve worked hard, but many times I’d ask myself at the end of the day, “I’ve been working all day and have nothing to show for it!”

I used to believe that the little breaks I took, or the few indulgences I succumbed to were the reason I didn’t get everything done. If I just worked harder and more steadily, I’d be able to accomplish it all.

Over the span of 20 years I struggled to work harder and grow in self-discipline – to focus on what really matters and never indulge in time-wasting, unhelpful activities.

I came close enough to success to realize that even if I eliminated the small fraction of times I wasn’t productive, I would still never get to everything on my to-do list.

So forget trying to do it all, and forget beating yourself up for not getting it all done! It’s not possible – and this is very good news!

I’m still far from getting to everything I care about, but I have much more peace at the end of the day, much more joy during the day, and a great deal more hope for the future.

(Important note: my kids mostly let me sleep at night and that is the biggest difference. If you still have little ones keeping you from quality sleep – be extra gracious with yourself – you have permission to cut your to do list by half at least!)

If you’re already organized and at peace – congratulations! Don’t learn from one who is still has much to learn – and do add your tips in the comments!

If you’re struggling, I hope this sketch helps you. Let me know where I should elaborate for next time. I want you to have the same peace and confidence I’m finally experiencing in my life!

My Recipe For A Satisfying Day

  • Rest
  • Quality time with my kids
  • Time to work
  • Time to plan

There are many things that should be on the list: exercise, quality time with my husband, healthy meals . . . the list goes on and on.

I find that many of these things can slip a little and life goes on. I survive when my husband is on a business trip; I survive a day without exercise. I don’t want to get in the habit of neglecting these things, but the basic four elements I listed above have immediate and serious consequences if I neglect them for even one day.


This is the most obvious, the most neglected, and the hardest to be self-disciplined about.

Everyone knows how important rest is, but nobody admires the person who stops work or play to go to bed. It doesn’t seem heroic, productive, or sexy, but it’s the most essential prerequisite for being any of those.

Quality time with my kids

Kids don’t need much to feel special. Just us fully present. Listening. Being there.

Why is it so hard? Because we’re “doing nothing” and there is so much to be done! Organization is a way to silence the voice that says “get back to work or you’ll regret it” when we’re hanging out with our kids.

When we are organized enough to know with certainty that everything can wait 15 minutes, we can infuse our children with love and care with relatively little effort. When our kids feel loved and a part of our day then they are much more able to take care of themselves for longer stretches and survive even the busiest of days.

It can even be a way to get in some rest!

Time to work

Each day is only one day. Each week is only one week.

“We tend to overestimate what we can do in the short term, and underestimate what we can do in the long term” – Gretchen Rubin

Understanding this is key. If each day is only a day then don’t put a week’s worth of tasks on the schedule.

I discipline myself to work on my top-priority to-do list (which only has one to three things on it) when I am least likely to be interrupted. For me this is the morning before the kids are up, but it could be after they’re asleep or when someone else is watching the kids.

This is hard. This is heroic. This is where the magic happens.

How often do you procrastinate? You’re too exhausted, too intimidated, and have every excuse to take a break. But imagine you actually sit down, focus, and DO the task that will have the biggest impact.

It’s done! Now celebrate and DON’T think you have to go back to your to-do list for more. You slayed the procrastination dragon – enjoy the rest of your day! Today is just one day and you rocked it.

Tomorrow you will do another high-impact hard tasks, so relax.

“Right,” I hear you say, “and what happens to the other million things that I have to do to keep the house running?”

Think back to the last time you finally did something you’d been avoiding. How invigorating did it feel to have it over with? Remember the energy you had? Imagine having that energy every day!

When the most important forward-moving tasks is complete, all the other work we have to do looks easy.

I also use the two-minute rule to knock over a lot of tasks before they even hit my to-do list. I do whatever comes my way if I think it roughly important and it will take less than two minutes: wipe a sink, snuggle a kid, or answer one email.

I’ve stopped planning housework. Sorry, FlyLady, I just couldn’t keep up when we moved to a larger house, and really, the toilets will survive if not cleaned every day.

Instead, I hang out where my kids are and keep my eyes out for housework I can do nearby – fold laundry, swish and swipe the bathroom, wipe blood off the wall . . .

I’d like to do better, but the cleanliness of my house is not something of eternal value. If I happen to vacuum every 10 days instead of every week nobody will care – maybe not even myself.

Time to Plan

In order to use my working time well I need to plan well so that nothing important slips through the cracks. Next week I’ll write more about how to plan, but here’s the key:

Only organize and plan the most important things in your life. Let the rest organize themselves.

See you next week!

See the other posts in this series: daily planning, weekly planning, and E-mail.

4 thoughts on “How I Keep Sane: My Recipe For A Satisfying Day”

  1. “We need something that gives us hope that our most important projects and relationships are moving forward – something that lets us fall into our pillow at night with satisfaction and peace that we did well today and will do well again tomorrow.”

    Yes, yes, yes! This is profound, and I’d go so far as to guess that it’s the secret to at least the first on your list: rest.

    “Only organize and plan the most important things in your life. Let the rest organize themselves.”

    I can’t wait for the follow-up to this. I know it is a major problem for me: when I organize, I want to organize everything. To put “brush teeth” on my to-do list — as if I wouldn’t do it otherwise! — because otherwise the list would be incomplete. It’s a problem I’ve had since childhood: Told to clean my room, instead of taking five minutes to clear the clutter, which is all my mother asked, I’d begin by reorganizing my bookshelves….

    Still learning….

    1. I’m glad you pointed out brushing your teeth. We do an uncountable number of tasks everyday without thinking. The more we can make into habit the better. Planning and checking off takes a lot of time so it’s only effective for those things which are not automatic or repeated. Hence things like exercise and talking with my husband didn’t make my short list because hopefully those things are habitual.

  2. Janet, thank you for your wise comments. I have been struggling with the same things. Sharing our struggles and successes helps!

    REST, definitely. When I started caregiving full time for relatives with dementia, I didn’t have time to rest. Then (when I was burned out) another nurse told me firmly, “You need to schedule an uninterrupted 8 hour stretch every week in which you do nothing for any other person.” I cried because it seemed both impossible and wonderful! It took me several weeks to work up to it, but now I rarely miss my day off . Rather than harming my work, regular time off gives me the strength to do it better. And, as you point out, daily rest is essential too. I used to work sunup to sundown, but now I stop at dinner to rest in the evening.

    PLAN THE BIG STUFF–Just recently I discovered that, too! Instead of my huge, unwieldy To Do list, I made a weekly “Bigs” list. Having just a few must-do’s is the key to actually doing them. I plan 3 or 4 weeks at a time that way, which helps me avoid putting everything on one week! Then each week I assign those tasks to individual days. So far it is working far better than my previous lists.

    “If each day is only a day then don’t put a week’s worth of tasks on the schedule.” I used to do that every Monday! What a discouraging way to start a work week. I look forward to reading more of your ideas.

    1. Thanks! I love your points. Often these are things we know in our heads but are still hard to make a reality. I look forward to hearing more of your experience with planning the big stuff!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *