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Of Checklists, Snack-boxes & Running a Home

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I learnt to run a project before I began to manage my home. And these were ISO-9001 certified projects, which meant I knew about processes, procedures, and checklists.

So, when my mother-in-law went abroad to visit her other son, I had to cook, pack snack boxes, pack lunch bags, make sure the school uniform was ready – all the things that she’d taken care of for many years. And of course, do the things that I used to do before – work, supervise homework, etc, etc. When you have a super-active seven year old, it takes a lot of energy to keep up.

My kitchen cabinet doors became my project management folder.I had checklists for every day of the week. And, of course, they were colour-coded, so I could tell Monday from Tuesday with a casual glance. I had checklists for breakfast and dinner. Checklists for lunch bags and for snack boxes. Which of course, led to shopping lists.

On Fridays, I would carry the shopping list to work, so I could finish my shopping on the way back from work. The marathon began on Friday nights, post dinner. My task list included, creating, what else but colour-coded lists for the next week, and taking down the old ones and putting up new ones. I ran through a lot of sticky tape!

Saturdays – my son’s school had Thursdays and Sundays off – were spent cooking like a maniac for the week and stacking the freezer, so that on weekdays, all I had to do, was to pull out the right boxes in the morning, leave them to thaw and of course, tick it off on the checklist. All the coloured pens sat in a coffee mug on the kitchen counter. 

It may sound obsessive-compulsive and it probably was. But, it saved my career. (and very likely, my sanity).

Planning, organising and executing the routine weekday tasks freed me up to focus on my career for the better part of the week. It gave me the mind-space to learn and complete several professional certifications. 

And I knew that by-and-large, I had not missed key events or commitments. Of course, there were times when there was an emergency, and plans would change. My son’s school would go to an 8 AM to 11 AM schedule for a week every two months for unit tests. And as a young mother, I would be all worried about how well prepared he was for his tests and tell my boss, “hey, you know, next week is unit tests – can I work from home?” Because he knew he could depend on me, he would agree. I’d go home armed with two bags of print-outs that I would work on and drop off with another colleague every evening for distribution to my team. 

You probably wonder, if you have the time and energy for planning of this kind.

The benefits far outweigh the tedium of planning. I can’t emphasise enough how planning your week is life-changing.

Enjoying the twin responsibilities of a career and family, here’s what I’ve found helps me, and I hope will help young mothers who are navigating their way back into their jobs post a break: 

  1. Any activity can be broken down into tasks. And tasks can often be delegated without a lot of explanation or training – if you save five minutes, that is worth it. For instance, in the good old, pre-pandemic days, I would get clothes ironed by an ‘istriwala’, and then spend a few minutes every morning, ironing out the folds (it’s a personal bugbear – I don’t like the fold creases). Since I had my car when picking up the ironed clothes, I asked the ironing guy to put them on hangers – that saved me the hassle each morning. Once I started planning, I kept coming up with new hacks. Over time, it has added up to greater efficiency and fewer irritants.
  2. Outsource anything that is not a “must-do” – making beds, cooking. cleaning, etc. doesn’t make us better mothers or wives – it just makes us tired. In India, we still have the luxury of affordable household help – let us use it to add value where it makes a difference. In the process, we will also ease the life of a woman whose skill set is suited to these tasks.
  3. Ask for help – your boss is not a mind reader, and…, you don’t want her to be! If you have earned credibility as a performer, she’ll be happy to support you when you need to work from home, or take time off. But of course, you need to reciprocate that trust by performing beyond expectations.

Over the years, many of my peers, who to say the least, found my planning amusing, found the tasks of juggling family and work exhausting and dropped out of the workforce. Recently, one of them told me that she wished she’d adopted some of my ‘hilarious’ practices.

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This post was first published on LinkedIn

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