By Natalie Wilson
Attorneys’ lives are busy. Military families’ lives are busy, especially when the service member is pulling long duty hours or is absent. Put the two together and the stress and busy-ness seem to increase exponentially. (Johanna Thibault recently wrote about embracing busy-ness and you can read her post here.)
Between our family, my career, and my husband’s military career, I feel like I’m constantly facing curveballs. I’m not naturally spontaneous; change and uncertainty actually make me quite anxious. For me, organization has been the key to reducing this stress.
Now, if you told someone who knows me really well that I’m writing a blog post about organization, they might have some doubts about the validity of any advice I might have to offer. I’m pretty sure my sister is still laughing about it. Let’s be clear about what this is not: it’s not about being tidy or having your pantry ready for a Pinterest feature. It’s not about whittling down your closet to a capsule wardrobe so that you can PCS effortlessly at the drop of a hat. What it is about is managing the busy-ness in your life by having your various activities and responsibilities organized.
I have three small, feral children (bless their little hearts) and a fourth on the way. I have a husband who works in a high OPS TEMPO field and has spent virtually our entire relationship working in 24/7 operational environments. I work in commercial bankruptcy, where it seems like every motion is set on an expedited or emergency basis. It’s a lot to manage. But manage it I do. I once had a conversation with my husband about everyone’s schedule for a two-week period in my sleep. In my sleep, y’all. That is some next-level organization, if I do say so myself. I unlocked “achievement level: superstar organizer” by taking cues from HBO’s Band of Brothers miniseries. I love Band of Brothers and notice something new every time, but one thing that has always amazed me is the preparation for the D-Day invasion. Everyone was so prepared. I’m sure they could have recited the entire battle plan in their sleep. That preparation meant that even though basically nobody was dropped in the correct landing zone and despite the massive casualties incurred before the paratroopers even hit the ground, they were still successful.
My tips for “Operation: Organize Yo’self” are below. Fair warning – this method of organization requires that you are comfortable being the person in your family who always knows all the things. It can sometimes be exhausting and frustrating. But if you are going to accept the role of Supreme Household Dictator, using these organizational skills will help you make it look easy. Take what works for you, discard the rest, and share your best tips in the comments!
- Know The Objective
Knowing your objective gives you the foundation from which you can adjust and be flexible. This is really about prioritizing. Sit down periodically (at least annually) and decide what your family’s priorities are. Does one of you need to focus on promotion? Does one of your children need extra care or attention? Is your focus going to be on spending more downtime as a family? When you face a curveball, you can figure out how to deal with it based on your identified priorities.
- Make A Battle Plan
We all know that failing to plan means planning to fail. Making your battle plan is all about figuring out what needs to be done in order to achieve the objective(s) you set out in Step 1, including when it needs to be done and who will do it so that you’re not surprised by little things or constantly negotiating who is going to do what.
The basics of your battle plan are the tasks that need to be done pretty much every day. What is your plan for school drop off/pick up? Who is going to cook dinner? Who will walk the dog?
The next layer on top of that is things that need to be done weekly. Who goes to the dry cleaner and the grocery store? How are you going to handle cleaning the house?
Finally, there are the one-off events, like dinner parties or doctor appointments. These may or may not require a change to your usual battle plan.
Your battle plan can reside in one or more places, depending on what works for you and your family. Personally, my battle plan resides on my Outlook calendar and in my journal.
I’ve cultivated a habit of journaling/list making that I’ve found really effective. (I believe this technique may have been adapted from The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity by Julia Cameron; I first heard about it at a CLE presentation.) Every morning, I do one page of stream-of-consciousness journaling and on the facing page I make my to-do lists. That’s right, lists. Not one, not two, but three to-do lists (at least). More about that later.
Back to the journaling. This can be a hard habit to get into, so don’t be discouraged by false starts. But I’ve found it to be incredibly important. It helps you unload some thoughts that might otherwise distract you, but more significantly, I’ve found it helps me identify where my actions aren’t lining up with my priorities (see Step 1, above). You can write about anything. If you have trouble, you can find journaling prompts online. Here are a few that I like to keep in my back pocket for the rare occasion when I find I’m at a loss for words:
- Yes, I’m still upset about that time four years ago when someone didn’t write me a thank you note for her baby shower gift!
- How awful was it when the art teacher made my left-handed child use right-handed scissors?
- Are there remedial grocery bagging classes that the baggers at my grocery store could attend? Do I have time to perhaps offer such a class to them? On a scale of Attila the Hun to Hitler, how much of a scourge on humanity are these baggers?
- When I win the jackpot next week, how will I spend my money?
Most of these topics fall under the general category of “things my husband and friends refuse to listen to me rant about.” You’re more than welcome to borrow them for inspiration and if you’re interested in any of them, I’d like to be your new best friend. But in all seriousness, what you write about is not nearly as important as the fact that you write something. Just one page. I promise you will start to love it. Eventually.
Now, the to-do lists. This is the crux of the battle plan. I make three every day: work, home, and work-adjacent. Making the separate lists makes it seem less overwhelming to me and helps me organize my time. For example, I try to look only at my “work” list while I’m at work. If I start thinking about something on my “home” list, I’m able to cut off that train of thought by saying to myself “Yes, that’s on the list. It will get done tonight.” Or, if I think of something that needs to get done in the evening, I can put it on the “home” list and not worry about it for the rest of the work day. Seeing your various to-do lists can also help you make sure your activities are aligned with your objectives (see Step 1). The “work-adjacent” list is where I put things like bar association meetings and marketing/client development activities that need to get done but aren’t directly related to any particular client or matter. When necessary, I might make additional to-do lists, for example, if I have things to do for MSJDN or in my role as Key Spouse.
Another crucial part of the battle plan is the calendar. Choose whatever works for you. We don’t keep any shared calendar right now, but I think that probably works well when you have multiple kids in activities or one kid in multiple activities. (Bonus: an opportunity for extreme color-coding, a topic near and dear to my heart.) For now, we only have one child old enough for extracurriculars and he plays one sport per season, so there’s really no need to calendar practices, etc. because it’s the same every week. I also choose not to share my Outlook calendar with my husband because it’s too much extraneous information. Unless something on my calendar is going to change our regular battle plan, it’s not really something he needs to be tracking. Similarly, if he has a 10 o’clock meeting, it’s not something that needs to clutter my calendar and confuse me by making me think that during a fugue state I committed to briefing the Wing Commander.
Making the calendar doesn’t help if you don’t use it, and I will confess that I consult my calendar rather obsessively. I look at it in every view. I look at the monthly view just to get a general sense of how busy I am. I color code my various activities and deadlines, so the monthly view gives me a quick way to see if I’m going to be particularly busy at work or at home that month. I look at the weekly view to track hearings and meetings and so on. And I look at the daily view for the actual details. Every Friday afternoon, my assistant and I have a brief meeting to go over the details of the next week – what needs to be filed, when I’ll be out of the office, etc. A lot of the calendar gets incorporated into my to-do lists, but there are some to-do’s that don’t warrant a calendar entry, especially if they don’t need to be done on a particular day or at a particular time during the day. So, if I have multiple assignments that need to be worked on in the same day, I don’t necessarily block off specific time on my calendar for each one like I would for a meeting, hearing, or deposition. Similarly, flexible errands like picking up shoes from the repair place go on the to-do list, but not the calendar since it doesn’t matter what day it gets done.
Finally, creating the battle plan includes surveying your resources and figuring out how to utilize them most effectively. That’s just a fancy way of staying outsourcing. You may want to outsource yard maintenance, grocery shopping, housecleaning, etc. My general advice is if you find a task unpleasant and you can afford to pay someone else to do it, you should!
- Study The Battle Plan
As Easy Company is preparing for the invasion of Normandy, Lt. Nixon, the Intelligence Officer, tells the men to learn every detail of the battle plan. They’re not responsible for knowing only their part of the mission, but the plan of every element of the invasion. On the night of June 6, when they finally parachuted into Normandy, everything went crazy and basically no one landed in the drop zone they were intended to. But, the invasion was still successful because once people figured out where they were they were able to execute the correct mission for that area.
Hopefully, your daily life is not as complicated as the allied invasion of Normandy. All the players don’t necessarily need to know the entire battle plan, but you need to make sure that key players know what’s relevant to them or what could be relevant to them. That’s you, your partner, your childcare providers, your co-workers (both yours and your partner’s), and anyone you outsource to. You might be thinking, my partner cannot say that (s)he has to leave at 5 every day to pick up kids. If that’s really true, you need to revisit one of the previous steps because either your battle plan is unrealistic (i.e., your partner is working a swing shift and literally cannot leave in the middle of his/her work day) or it’s not aligned with your priorities (i.e., your spouse’s career takes priority right now). There’s no point in making a battle plan if you can’t or won’t stick to it.
Making sure that people know the relevant moving parts makes curveballs much easier to handle. For example, a few weeks ago my youngest child spiked a fever while at daycare. The daycare center knows to call my husband first because he works closer and to call me only if they can’t reach him. My husband got the sick kid call, but knew that I had an out-of-town meeting that night and that I was taking a deposition the next day. Before he even texted me to let me know what was going on, he had already made arrangements to be off the next day. The key players knew the battle plan (overall and for the week) so we were able to adapt quickly and seamlessly when the baby landed in the wrong drop zone.
Once everyone knows the battle plan, it’s time to execute. Get stuff done, cross it off your to-do list! Hooray! If you’ve done steps 1-3 well, step 4 is surprisingly easy. And really, that’s the whole point.
Your debrief doesn’t have to be anything formal, but you should periodically revisit whether your battle plan is working for your family and where it can be tweaked to make things run even more smoothly. Of course, any major changes like a new job, an extended TDY/deployment, a long trial or studying for a bar exam will require substantial revision to the battle plan. But once you get into the habit of making a plan that aligns with your family’s goals and priorities, making those adjustments doesn’t seem so dramatic.