I am woefully unskilled at prioritizing. I am more likely to tackle little insignificances just for the sake of quickly crossing them off my list and affording myself the impression of accomplishment than I am to sit back and recognize the one big, meaty thing that should be addressed now, all else be damned. I wrote about this in a post on recognizing that pressure is a choice that so many of you (to this day) write to me about. In it, I reflected on the Eisenhower urgent/important grid and bemoaned the fact that I frequently find myself living in the land of distractions and interruptions versus making material progress against the crises and goals/planning sections. I suppose I’m the type to find herself admiring the bark on the trees without giving a thought to the forest.
Though my life and its attendant “crises,” “distractions,” and “interruptions” bear notably lower stakes than they once did now that I am self-employed and splitting my time between stay-at-home-motherhood, writing, the admin aspects of running this blog, and some philanthropic work I am leading (and I deeply recognize the privilege and freedom of this arrangement), I still find myself grappling with structuring my days effectively and ending them with a sense of attainment. Recently, and this could be in part because of the imminence of my son’s birth and the attendant flurry of activity I’ve been navigating, I feel as if I am shutting down at the end of the day mid-stream, mid-thought — petering out instead of closing up shop with purpose.
A few days ago, I told my mother I was exhausted.
“Well, what did you do today?”
I recounted what felt like a pedestrian day balancing motherhood, writing, running our household, and various “extra-curriculars.”
“Jennifer, you’re eight months pregnant. One big thing per day.”
A few days later, Mr. Magpie and I got off a call for a committee that we both serve on in the area of domestic violence. I was excited about a project I’d presented. He nodded encouragingly, but then paused and said, gently, “It sounds great. But it also sounds like a lot of work. I think you need to be realistic about balancing this with everything else — remember that you are running a business and expecting our son, who is two months away.”
His observation caught me off guard. I’d not given a fleeting thought to the calculus of fitting such a commitment into my schedule. His caution reminded me of my mother’s “just one big thing” exhortation.
The next morning, I tried something new: as I scanned my to-dos for the coming week, I highlighted the one thing I felt I had to accomplish each day of the week. (My method for organization is to use a daily agenda similar to this one so that I can organize to-do lists against a calendar. This way, I find I never “drop the ball” on following up on an email, checking the status of a refund, mailing our rent, sending a birthday card, etc. — they’re all neatly lined up as to-dos on the appropriate day of the month.) Then I zoomed out and wrote across the top of each week my principal goal for this week and the next, and even added a reminder to run through the same drill in two week’s time. The exercise was enlightening. I realized how bogged down and distracted I can become focusing on little things that will not help me make any headway on higher priority items. I began deferring and even flat-out crossing off agenda items that I knew would deter me, or that simply did not matter in relation to my priorities.
And so, my outlook at the moment centers around the “one thing per day” principle. If nothing else gets done, what one thing matters? On my days with mini, I am trying to clear my plate so that I can focus squarely on her and a shared activity together. But just one. She doesn’t need a playdate, and a class, and a lunch out, and a trip to the playground, and twenty-three errands. One thing. (Where possible.) On my writing days, I outline the one post I really want to make headway on. And then I cordon off days where I can stack the “other things” — phone calls, doctor’s appointments for mini and myself, errands, and so forth — and force myself to realize that I will not be able to accomplish much that is meaty in the categories of writing or motherhood on those days.
As I designed my days, I found myself thinking back on running a technology business with my husband and, before that, running two non-profits, and realized that isolating “one thing” would have been aggressively challenging for me in those times, in part because I know I would have felt that I never had the luxury of attending to “just one thing.” Leading a start-up in the tech sector with so many people to “report to” — investors, customers, employees, a co-founder — felt like a daily roller coaster ride: every morning, I could feel myself ticking up towards the crest of a hill, and then I’d briefly get a view of the theme park before WHOOSH, the day disappeared underneath me, and all I could do was hang on and go-go-go. I’d end the day exhilarated and terrified and exhausted.
Nowadays, as I mentioned earlier, the stakes are lower. No one is going to die if I don’t get that post done, or decide not to take mini to the zoo, or reschedule a phone call, and the ripples of my decision-making affect a far smaller pool of people anyway. I know this on a conceptual level, but I still find that I hold myself to the same standards of rigor, and I feel commensurate guilt if I’m not able to complete everything I set out to do. I feel I owe my readers consistency and quality, and I owe my daughter rich educational experiences and undivided attention, and I owe my family organization, stability, and cleanliness. Achieving these outcomes are just as important to me on an emotional level as any of my goals were when I was in the working world.
And so I realize that I could have prioritized just one thing back then, too. Of course, unnecessary or unimportant phone calls and emails and fire drills could not have been avoided at all times, especially given that I was balancing the wants and needs of a broader range of daily participants. (Sometimes, you need to drop everything and have a heart-to-heart with an adrift employee or a frustrated benefactor/investor or a disgruntled customer.) But if I had more effectively taken the time to reflect on the one thing that would make a difference if achieved on any given day, I am convinced I would have felt more strongly aligned with my goals and more accomplished at the close of each day.
Then as now, this is true.
Give it a try — what one big thing is on your list today? Tomorrow? Does this didacticism help?
Post-Script: The Diaper Bag Reboot and Essentials.
One afternoon earlier this week, my “one thing” was reorganizing and re-stocking my diaper bag and the various other “children’s bags” I have stowed around the apartment as a part of my mission to order myself and my world in anticipation of micro’s entry into it.
I started by re-visiting my diaper bag post from June 2017 and found that not much has changed in two years; I updated many of the links to point to the right products/updated versions in case you care to check it out, but found that I’ll still be toting around more or less the same items this go around. The additions I’ve made thanks to my efforts earlier this week:
+A separate wet/dry bag for micro, which I ordered and had monogrammed with his initials (!!!). I plan to carry around a wet/dry bag for each child with a back-up pair of clothes — especially now that toileting with mini is a consideration and accidents are bound to happen. (I’ve already selected a Kissy Kissy footie backup for micro in his wet/dry bag. Can you tell I’m chomping at the bit? Side note: Neiman’s is currently offering 25% off most full-price items on their site, so this precious salty dog print Kissy Kissy footie had to be micro’s!)
+A new kind of pacifier (<<read the reviews! mini only took a pacifier for a few weeks, which is not necessarily a bad thing, but we’ll see how things go with micro) and one of these adorable beaded pacifier clips.
+A new nursing cover. Debating between this style and this one at the moment — I added both to my list of “things to buy in my big baby purchase next month” but need to figure out which is a better fit for me. (Please weigh in!)
+A spare pair of socks and booties. I feel like socks are always going missing — you turn around and one has somehow disappeared somewhere between 63rd and 70th on Columbus Ave. And booties, for peace of mind. I remember a nurse telling us that new parents tend to overdress their newborns — that they don’t actually need to be so bundled all the time. So I peeled off a layer. Then I got home and my mother said, urgently, “Do you think she’s dressed warmly enough?” Ha! I tend towards my mother’s end of the spectrum and prefer to have an extra layer on hand, booties included.
+Munchkin Diaper Trash Bags. I think I’ll probably carry these around for the rest of my life. They have saved me in countless circumstances.
+Weleda Diaper Rash Cream. This is my absolute favorite, and I tried at least half a dozen. This works.
+Herban Essentials Towelettes. I love that these come individually wrapped. I use them heavily when traveling (tray tables and arm rests are filthy!) but have also on occasion found them handy while in restaurants, cabs, and even in the rare occasions when I put mini in a shopping cart (those opportunities essentially don’t exist in New York).
+Solly Baby Wrap. I am so, so excited to give this a try after so many mothers raved about it. Also convenient: it’s super compact and therefore realistic to tote around on the go.
+The toddler-appropriate must-haves I outlined in this post.
+Faux Goyard Pouch. I bought one of these to stow my miscellaneous belongings — my Kindle, a snack or two, my sunglasses case, etc. My bag is the fabric equivalent of a Russian nesting doll. Open it up and find 4309848 mini bags inside. But this approach keeps me so organized and means I can always find what I need within nanoseconds.
I am still using my Goyard St. Louis as my diaper bag most of the time — but, thanks to my trillion and ten pouches, can easily migrate the diaper bag into my beloved MZ Wallace Backpack when I need to go hands-free. I would also strongly advocate for an MZ Wallace Metro tote if you’re looking for great option for a diaper-bag-that-doesn’t-look-like-a-diaper-bag.
Separately, I have two of the extra-large size of the Land’s End boat bags — one monogrammed with mini’s initials and one with micro’s. These are so handy for so many reasons, and I especially love them for road trips since everything is easy to access without any zippers or clasps, but right now, I’m using micro’s to stow the gear that is his and his alone (carriers, a limited number of toys and stuffies, pacifiers, etc) before we need it strewn about the apartment. I also have a medium-sized L.L. Bean bag with mini’s initials on it that the nanny uses when she takes her out — it’s stocked with things like a change of clothes, a second OXO wipes dispenser, sanitizer, snacks. I am contemplating buying the same thing for micro, but am currently distracted by this Parker Thatch tote as an alternative. How cool would it look with his name emblazoned on the side?! Then again, it doesn’t stand up on its own…decisions, decisions.
P.S. A chic wastebasket ($20 — looks like something Serena & Lily would carry!), a sexy but elegant lace dress under $140 that I think I need for summer, and the newest addition to my collection of impractical but fun sandals (also on super sale).
P.P.S. I found myself going down a rabbit hole re-reading my posts before and just after mini’s birth and lingering with special tenderness over the beautiful and helpful comments from so many readers. I love all the words of encouragement here and here.