When I first heard Julie Morgenstern speak on a podcast, I listened to the episode three times consecutively. Not because I wasn't listening attentively the first (or second) time, but because what she said was so incredibly game-changing that I simply had to hear it again ... And again.
While Julie is known as an organisational expert – helping individuals to get organised so they can achieve their goals – her areas of expertise go far beyond a well-labelled toy basket. In fact, Julie has released a book – Time To Parent – which I’m happy to claim will hold the #1 spot on my bookshelf for years and years to come. I’m certainly not alone. Julie has been featured in the New York Times, the Washington Post and Harvard Business Review, to name but a few. With years of research and experience under her belt, Julie dove head-first into her most recent endeavour – where she set out to find out exactly how much time we need to be spending with our children, and in what capacity. In other words, the question that has plagued parents for decades, if not longer. What she found was ground-breaking, staggering and will undoubtedly change the way you parent your children. Before you start running away, worried about the lack of time you have available – prepare yourself to feel liberated, empowered and ready to approach parenting and time with an entirely new perspective. Julie’s work is one-of-a-kind and will prove to be invaluable for parents across the globe. So, grab a cup of tea and get ready to be moved.
Can you tell us about what prompted your career in personal organisation, and how your baby played a role in that shift?
I grew up as a very right-brain creative person. I was in the theatre, and I kind of lived my life in a lot of chaos. I spent half my day looking for things. I lost everything in the world you can imagine – from keys and wallets and watches to my passport on the way to the airport, to a giant car that I had borrowed … Yes, I lost a car in the Chicago O’Hare Airport! And as much as I craved order, I always pulled things off at the last minute. But then when my daughter was born, I just realised very quickly, within the first three weeks of her life, that if I did not get my act together, this child was never going to see the light of day. I couldn’t get it together to just take her for a walk. It took me two and a half hours to pack up, get ready and find everything. And I just thought, she’s going to miss every opportunity because I don’t have my act together. I couldn’t impose that level of chaos. Even though I could tolerate it, I couldn’t do that to another human being. So, I was very motivated to get organised so I could be a better mother and get my daughter out the door and into life.
What do you think are some of those things that new mothers struggle with the most when it comes to organisation and having that new person in the house? Obviously, this getting out of the house can be a struggle. But is there anything else you have found is a real sore point?
First of all, when you have a new baby and it’s the first baby, you’re really out of sorts because you don’t have any kind of system set up and your time is completely interrupted and unpredictable with a baby. Sometimes you can’t get enough sleep, the baby’s schedule is driving you, and you don’t have big windows of time to do anything. So I think that the nappy bag is one of the first things to organise. That was the first thing I ever organised. I just felt like, “Now all I have to do is to just grab the baby, grab the bag, and go.” Whether it was out for a walk, if someone wanted to get together and do something, if I was getting antsy… That was the first thing. The other things, I think, have to do with feeding the baby, changing the baby, and dressing the baby. If you set up really simple and organised systems that everybody in the house understands and follows, then you can be spontaneous, which you have to be with babies. Because you never know when they’re going to fall asleep, when they’re going to wake up, and you have to be able to move really fast. I also think you that as a new parent, you need your own relaxation space set up so that you can really relax. Because it’s important to catch up on rest and to be able to be still – to make a little snack for yourself in the 20 minutes that you have, or to sit and relax with something that really decompresses you. Remember, this is not necessarily your cell phone! That’s the cheap way out and it doesn’t actually always relax us. We don’t get rested. So, is there a quiet space that you like to sit and read or listen to music? Do you need music to unwind? Maybe you do have your device with your podcasts and your music loaded up on it. But set yourself up to serve the baby when the baby’s awake and then somewhere for you to recover and rest in the down time. I think that’s the starting place. If your closet is a mess, big deal. You probably don’t have to look too good right away, anyway!
What about the other end of the spectrum? Mothers who are used to being very organised and very in control. What impact do children have on these mothers?
It can be really, really discombobulating if you were always an organised person and then kids come into your life. Even beyond babies. Babies are one thing, but then you have toddlers and school-age kids and tweens and teens. And it’s really hard to maintain control over your environment. So, I actually think there are a couple of things adjustments they may have to make. First of all, you have to recognise that in a multi-user household, which is what a family is, all systems have to be designed for everybody to understand and be able to use. And that means it has to be really simple, and nothing complex or fancy. If you’re just organising for yourself, you may like it just so. But when you have kids you have to create these super simple, automated systems that anybody can do. It can’t be complicated. It’s a different kind of organising when you’re doing it for a family. So think of simple, simple, simple systems that five-year-olds can follow, eight-year-olds can follow, distracted 14-year-olds can follow, your spouse can follow, a babysitter can follow. Everybody can do these basic functions. It’s like in a classroom, right? They’re not complicated. And it needs to be well labelled. Secondly, you have to develop a certain tolerance for some chaos. Because if you don’t, what happens is that you can never relax and be present with your kids or your family or yourself if the house is a mess. And when you have kids … it’s always going to be a mess. Even if things have a home, while they’re being used, the place looks crazy. But just know that you’ll have a system where everything can get put away really quickly. But you don’t want to be the kind of parent who cannot be present unless everything is in order. So, you have to learn to look past the chaos and connect with people and to say, you know what? The dishes can wait. I know the living room is a mess and I’m going to have to direct everybody to clean it up, but right now I’m going to sit and be peaceful, to recharge my batteries.
When we are organised and when we have those systems in place that everybody can follow, what difference does that make to our own sanity as well as the lives of our children?
I think of organisational systems as a foundation. It’s the infrastructure for living our lives, being in the world and achieving all our goals. The organising system is the lifeblood; it’s the oil in the machine of life. Then you’re not spending all this time looking for things or procrastinating doing things that you want to do because you can’t find what you’re looking for. Or spending time stressing out because things are so disorganised. Organisation frees us. It frees us to live our lives, to focus on each other, to focus on experiences, and to focus on doing the things we want, whether that is for our work, our schoolwork, our social lives, or our family lives. It supports our ability to do things. Having an organisational system is either going to enable the achievement of our goals – or, the absence of one will inhibit the achievement of our goals.
Getting into real specifics, if there was one organisational tip that you could share with mothers, what would it be?
I would think of the kindergarten classroom as a model for organising everything. A kindergarten classroom is divided into activity zones. There’s a music zone, a snack zone, a dress-up zone, a reading corner, a building blocks area. Those zones are very visible and everything is stored at its point of use. You don’t have arts and crafts supplies on one side of the room but the arts and crafts zone on the other. It’s inefficient. Everything has a home and everything is in a cool container that’s well labelled. So nobody has to remember where things go; they can see it and it makes sense. Do that for every room in the house. What are the three to five activities that take place in this room? And then, what are the objects we need in order to do those activities? Then you create the zone with enough storage to hold the objects that allow you to do the activities. It’s a really simple, incredibly reliable model. It works for everything. But remember – don’t think that as the mother, you should be organising everybody. Have group meetings. Anybody who’s old enough to talk should be at the meeting. Discuss it and do it together. Then everybody owns the system because it is a family system, it’s not an individual system.
Moving into a different topic – we are so fascinated in the work you've done on how we split our time, and particularly the four areas of focus that are required for parents to raise a child. Can you talk to use about the research you've done and what those four areas of life are?
I wanted to write a book originally on how to create the space for quality time with our kids, as well as quality time for ourselves. Because I think all parents want that time, and sometimes even when we set aside that time, it’s really hard to be mentally present. When it came down to it, I thought, I can’t just write a book about that! I had to focus on all the things a parent has to divide their time between. And so, what are they? There are really four activities that parents have to juggle their time between to raise happy, healthy, self-confident children. They spell an acronym – PART. The first thing we have to spend time on to raise happy, healthy kids is to provide for our kids, right? That requires working, making money and managing money to pay for things. That’s an activity that takes a lot of time. We also have to spend some time arranging the logistics of our family’s lives. That’s the kind of stuff we’ve just been talking about. Where are my kids going to go to school and how do they get there? What are they having for lunch? What are we having for dinner? What are we doing on the weekend? All those mechanics of life which can consume you. They take up so much more time than any of us ever realise. The R stands for relate. We have to relate to our kids. We have to spend that quality time getting to know each of our kids for the unique individual they are. That’s the elusive “quality time” that it’s hard to find space for but we have to do, because that’s what makes our kids feel loved and secure. And then we have to also spend some time teaching our kids. We have to teach our kids values and life skills in order for them to be happy and succeed in the world. So P-A-R-T. Provide, Arrange, Relate, Teach. Just think about that and let that sink in for a minute. Those are four very different types of activities that we have to split our time between. And if we leave any one of those out things start to fall apart. Somebody’s got to work to make money to pay for stuff. And work is demanding so if we neglect our work in order to just be there for our kids, things can fall apart. The logistics. If we don’t spend any time on our logistics, we’re operating in chaos, we’re always late and there’s so much stress that we can’t have fun. Relate is so critical to do but it’s very different to teaching. Parents very often blend those two, but they’re very, very different. The way I kind of think about it is that when we are teaching, we’re bringing our kids into the adult world, and they’re the student of us. We’re in charge of what we want to teach and they have to listen to us and they are the student of us. But when you relate to your kids, you enter your child’s world and you become the student of the child. Who is this stranger in my house? How do they think? What’s important to them? What are their talents? What are their skills? What are their interests? You become a student of your child. And knowing the difference between relate and teach can be very enlightening for parents and opens up the possibility for true connection with your kids. It takes a lot of pressure off of parents, too. Because parents do a lot of teaching as they think that’s what they’re supposed to do. It’s also a lot of pressure for parents and kids to always be in teaching mode.
Specifically with relation to Relate, you've also helped to take some pressure off parents because of the research you've done that's revealed how much quality time we should be spending with our kids. Can you tell us what you've found there about the time that we need to dedicate?
Yes. That was the subject of my research. I spent eight years studying the science of human development to answer the question on every parent’s mind, including mine, which is: How much time and attention do kids need to feel loved and secure? That’s what we all want to know. And if we know the answer to that, then we can start to find time for everything else, because that’s the big mystery. So here’s what I found. It’s very liberating, actually, and it’s kind of moving.
“ What children thrive on is short bursts of truly undivided attention delivered consistently. Not big glops of time delivered occasionally. Short bursts. And when I say short bursts, I'm talking about five to 15 minutes, maybe 20 minutes, tops, at a time. ”
It just makes so much sense. When you really think about it, kids have short attention spans.
And many experts say that we should calculate about a minute of attention span for each age of life. So a one-year-old has a one-minute attention span before their eyes shift to the next shiny object. And a five-year-old has five minutes. If you’re going to have a really straight-up, heart-to-heart, one-on-one with a five-year-old, you’ll have five minutes before they’re like, “Okay, now are we doing?” It’s really liberating. I know that as I was a working parent, I felt so guilty working and not being there when my daughter got home from school. I would get home, it would be dinner time, and I felt so guilty that I felt obliged to be 100% on, providing her with undivided attention, to make up for being away all day. From the time I walked in the door until she was asleep at night. And the same thing on the weekends, which left no time for self-care. Then I would be up all night after she was asleep, catching up on a little bit of me time, whether it was on the computer or my cell phone. Which of course leads to sleep deprivation. And it’s unnecessary. It’s not even healthy for kids. They don’t need that. They need the short bursts at each reconnection point in your kid’s day. Think about when they first wake up in the morning, when you send them off to school, when you get home at the end of the day, dinner, and bedtime. Those are the five anchors in the day. And if you spend the first five to 15 minutes of each reconnection point with your kids, focused on them, then the “together but apart time” is fabulous. It’s healthy, it’s good for kids, it’s good for adults. We can be in the same space, working on one thing while they work on another. If they have a question, of course you have to be interrupt-able. You can’t be so focused that you can’t take the interruption. And it’s just so freeing. Even in this age of cell phones where everyone is so addicted … This is a reasonable ask. For a maximum of twenty minutes, you can put your phone away and be fully present with your child. It’s also about building these short bursts it into the everyday moments you’re already spending with your children. It’s not about adding time. It’s about changing the nature of the time you’re already spending with your child and making sure that you start each pivotal point with that undivided attention. Once you have that baseline, that’s what makes kids feel loved and secure. They can count on it. They know, “When my mum sees me, she’s really happy to see me at the end of the day. Not thinking, why is this house a mess? Did you do your homework? Who left dishes in the sink? But instead, how was your day?” Once you have that then, you can take those occasional big blocks of time to make big memories. But it’s not all that pressure for the parents or the child.
It's a little more obvious when our children are at school, when we're thinking about what activities to do in those short bursts of time. But when our kids are really little, what are some of those activities that we can be doing in those five minutes?
There are really four relate activities that constitute an opportunity to enter your child’s world and connect with them. We can talk to our kids. We can read to our kids. We can play with our kids. And we can share adventures with our kids, which is just something new. You can do that starting with infants. There’s a lot of research about what’s called ‘serve and respond communication’. That’s how kids learn to talk and relate. You’d look to where their eyes are focused and you would name the things that are capturing their attention. “Oh, that’s a tree. And trees have branches and trees have bark and trees have leaves and they have different shapes,” and so on. In terms of playing, you can play anything that they look interested in. Don’t go in to teach them how to play. Let them do it and then say, “Oh, are you trying to figure that out? Well, what do you think? What if you did this?” Play and notice what interests them, what engages them, what delights them, and what makes them laugh. Then of course, just read books. Studies say that all the way through to the teenage years, children love to be read to. In fact, most studies say that when people think back on their childhoods, the moments that are the most tender and the greatest memories are when their parents were reading to them.
This is applicable to all parents, isn't it? It's not just for working parents. It's not just for stay-at-home parents. This is something that can be applied by any parent regardless of their circumstances.
You bet. This could be a working parent who’s working two jobs. Because these are short bursts at each reconnection point. It also really applies to stay-at-home parents. I can’t tell you how many stay-at-home parents I’ve spoken to who feel so much pressure to be all on all the time because they are at home. But they find this so liberating, too. Together but apart time is great, too. Everybody can benefit from this. This is just about what humans need. What the little humans need and what the big humans need to thrive.
How do we know if we're doing a good job?
You know what I have heard over and over again once parents start implementing this? Discipline problems and power struggles between you and your kids start to really diminish. A lot of the power struggles and the attention issues come from when we over-teach and our kids are thinking, “You don’t understand me. You don’t get it…” So it can reduce that tension and enhance your sense of connection with your kids. The flow is a lot easier. You feel more balanced and whole as a parent. There’s just much more peace in the house.
I know that you feel strongly about making time for yourself; whether it’s self-care or the hobbies that make you you, outside of being a parent. Can you talk a little bit about that and also how on earth we make time for it?!
We are responsible for our children’s well-being but we’re also responsible for our own. And one thing no one ever talks about is the fact that the years we are raising our kids happen to be the prime of our own adult development. While you’re raising your kids you’re establishing and growing a career. You are developing and cultivating new adult relationships. If you’re married, with your spouse and with a circle of friends as grownups in a community. And you’re also truly just beginning to discover who you are as a human, because you don’t know who you are when you’re 18, or even 21. So many of these conflicts we feel are because of this battle of timing. It’s not that you’re being selfish that you’re worried about your career or feeling torn between taking opportunities – this is your time! So I think when you recognise that, you start to look at time a little differently and be a little easier on yourself. You also have to recognise that to be a good parent, to do those four things – provide, arrange, relate, and teach, which is a lot – you really need to fuel yourself. You can’t do that when you’re sleep deprived. You have no patience, no creativity; your brain doesn’t even work well. So, there are four activities that I think we also have to divide our time between to be a happy, healthy human. That also spells an acronym: SELF. We have to invest time on sleep; on exercise, love; and fun. That helps you re-energise so you can really be there for your kids. You don’t just pick one. You must fit in all four. So, how do you do it? First of all, you have to get over the guilt. It is not healthy to sacrifice those things for your kids. Your kids pay for it if you let any of those go. Your kids are going to pay for it in time; you’ll be distracted, you won’t have the energy to deal with them and you won’t have mental capacity for them. You also need to focus on modelling for your kids what it means to be a happy, healthy grownup, right? Studies show that when parents don’t exercise, kids don’t exercise. Similarly, if you want your child to have a healthy social life, model it. Don’t act like you have no friends and your kids are all that matter. Kids love to see their parents have friendships. And hobbies, too. Kids don’t want their parents to have nothing that’s their own. They feel it. So get over the guilt! Then you have to change your approach to self-care. Instead of trying to do it in the big blocks of time we used to do it in before we had kids, it’s now time for short bursts again. It’s unsustainable to do a 90 minute gym session three times a week, so many of us do nothing at all. So, change the entire texture of your routine and do it in 20-minute doses or less. Exercise can be as simple as a seven-minute high-intensity workout from YouTube every morning before you leave the house. Science says that can be as beneficial or even better for your heart, your muscles, and your body. Why not just do that? The same goes for hobbies. What used to be all day Saturday or Sunday, find a 20-minute or less version of that.
This should be prescribed reading for all new parents. But if you had to share just one piece of advice for new parents, what would it be?
I think it comes down to recognising that the most important and irreplaceable thing that you can do as a parent, is to nurture your kids in these shorts bursts and nurture yourself in these short bursts, too. That’s it. Understand that you have to change the texture of the way you deliver things. And once you change the texture to short-burst love, for your kids and for yourself, the world opens up and everything is manageable. The other thing I’d say is that it’s never too late. People say the first few years are the most important in a child’s life, but science has disproven this. Early years do matter, but so do the latter years. Our brains are plastic. I’ve watched people change. What we want as children – whether we’re 4 or 44 – is time and attention from our parents. So if we give it to our children pre-emptively, everything else dissipates.