Can’t Seem to Put Yourself First? Try This Instead.

There seems to an unending number of articles written that tell moms to “put themselves first.” The reason that these articles keep getting written is because so many moms feel overwhelmed and stressed out. But the advice doesn’t seem to match the problem — if you are overwhelmed trying to meet everyone else’s needs, an article that tells you to put yourself first, even if it explains why you need to, doesn’t seem helpful. The frame is wrong — it’s not about who’s first or last. This is not an area of life that benefits from stack ranking. Your kids, your husband, your work and your sanity are all important and you can make time for all of them.

I’ve found that the most satisfying way for me to allocate my time is to take a more holistic approach. That starts with recognizing that not everyone is going to get absolutely everything they want all the time (including me!). But that by being intentional about how I apportion time everyone can get what they need (including me!). (Cue Mick Jagger, please.)

I do this by reviewing my priorities. In my review I don’t assume the priorities need to be pitted against each out in a zero sum game. Instead, I assume that each priority can have some time allocated to it.

I begin by asking myself three questions:

What’s important to me, right now? At this moment it’s important to me to build Path Forward and make it successful; to support my children’s growth and development with engaging conversations and activities; to enjoy a fabulous spring break with my family; and to throw an amazing shower and bachelorette weekend for my sister.

What needs to get done, right now? I have a long list of tasks in my role as executive director of Path Forward that, at the moment, are focused on running our spring program and overseeing our fundraising campaign for the year. I’ve spent part of our last several weekends and a few evenings gearing up for our vacation. I find that planning weekends keeps them fun for the kids AND for me, so that’s something I make time for each week (and it actually saves time because we don’t waste all of Saturday morning saying “I don’t know, what do YOU want to do?”). And planning a shower includes a long list of to-dos, but fortunately I have help from my mom and my sister’s friends.

What do I need, right now, to feel healthy, whole and happy? I need my work to feel like I’m making a difference in the world. I need to have fun with my kids so I don’t start to regard parenting as all drudgery. And I need healthy meals, regular workouts and enough sleep to be productive and not (too) cranky.

Okay, so now I’m not putting anyone first or last — I’ve got a bunch of things that I need and want to do and I’ve got 168 hours in any given week to do them in. I need to find the slots to put them in. I will need to make trade-offs, everyone does, but this framework that allows me to allocate my time in a way that doesn’t make me feel guilty (because I’m only putting myself first) or resentful (because I’m putting myself last). It also gives me a framework to say “no” to because it’s not a priority right now.

I make asking myself these questions a cyclical practice. Here’s my habit for reviewing the three questions:

I ask myself the question “what’s important to me, right now?” every 3-4 months. Something like “building Path Forward” will stay on the list quarter after quarter, though I may have some specific aspect of that where I’m focused for a period of time (fundraising, for example). An event like my sister’s shower will come off the list and be replaced by something else (in this case, her wedding!).

The second question “What needs to get done, right now? is something I review monthly and weekly with the help of my Bullet Journal. This question also drives my daily to-do list.

The third question “What do I need, right now, to feel healthy, whole and happy? is more perennial, though I use it as the backdrop to my quarterly, monthly and weekly reviews to be sure I’m making time for my health and sanity. If I’m feeling tired, cranky or stressed I’ll look over my calendar to see what can come off the list to make room for any self-care that has taken a backseat.

If you are a mom (or dad! Or human!) who finds it hard to “put yourself first” and is also feeling stressed and out of whack, try this strategy. And, if you do, let me know how it goes.

Tami Forman is the founding executive director of Path Forward and a frequent speaker on issues related to caregiving and workforce participation.

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