How to Be Productive as a Mom (Hint: It’s Not About “Working Faster”)

Other than the ability to press a temporary mute button on your children, the number one thing most moms wish for is more time in the day. We need more time to get that last load of laundry folded and the dishwasher unloaded, we need more time to answer work email while the kiddos are napping, and goodness knows what we’d give for a couple more hours of sleep each night.

What’s the Problem?

However, no matter how many antique lamps I rub, there are only 24 hours in the day.

This inconvenient fact is the one common ground for all moms. (Well, I guess all people, but who really cares about those pampered a-holes who get to go to the bathroom by themselves, determine their own work schedules, and sleep without getting awoken at 3am by a horror-movie-looking demonchild staring at you while you sleep and “affectionately” opening your eyelids with their tiny, evil fingers. Yeah, the non-moms can deal with their own productivity problems. Slackers.)

Moms are all united by the fact that, no matter how much we have on or to do list, we have the same 24 hours each day to try to get it done.

Why This Sucks

Moms have more demands on our time than any other segment of the population. Yes, world leaders have to deal with nuclear crises, wars, and other important crap, but at least they get to do so without being asked to peel a bowl of grapes every five minutes, so I’m going to call it a tie.

We have the solemn, 24/7 duty to make sure the tiny creatures we love more than life itself are fed, safe, educated, entertained, and not setting stuff on fire. However, this doesn’t delete our other work. We still have jobs. We still have houses to clean, dogs to bathe, organizations to run, and *gasp* occasionally we might need a few seconds to shower, clip our fingernails, or do a pushup or two.

It’s not the sheer magnitude of a mom’s tasks that is so overwhelming (well, it definitely is…it’s just not that alone), it’s the huge number of different categories we are responsible for overseeing. Usually the CEO of a company isn’t also in charge of handling the accounting, hand-printing marketing materials, and sweeping up the lobby floor, but this is the way it is for most moms. We are tutors, chauffeurs, psychologists, bouncers, mentors, chefs, and teachers…all for our kids and all in addition to all of our other “adult human” jobs.

Yeah, moms are masters of carrying the world on our shoulders and pretending it’s not a crazy, Herculean feat to do so.

How to Handle It

Now that we’ve noted that it would probably be less stressful to run a small country than be a mom, let’s get back to the idea of productivity and (more importantly) how you can be more productive as a mom.

We’ve already acknowledged that (unfortunately) it’s not possible to get more hours in the day. This means that, instead of hoping for more hours, we have to become better at maximizing and optimizing the hours we have.

This fact is incredibly depressing at first, but if you look at it from a different angle it can actually be immensely freeing: productivity (aka the act of making the most of your time) is a skill that can be taught, built, and mastered, just like any other skill.

Productivity as a Skill

Productivity is not like hair color, where you have a certain characteristic (blonde, brunette, productive, lazy, etc.). It’s not an innate trait. It’s more like learning to play the piano or remembering to sit up straight.

At first, you will try to be productive and fail just as hard as your five-year-old attempting their first rendition of Chopsticks. Is this because you’re an unproductive dimwit who is destined for a life of frazzle-haired overcommitment and unchecked to do lists? Nope. It means you suck at it because you’re learning a new skill (or at least a new level of difficulty with an old skill). Every time anyone starts a new skill they are going to suck at it.

Like gravity, sucking at things the first time you try them is universal law. The problem is that many people take their first failure at productivity to mean that they’re just a garbage person who has either bitten off more than she can chew or is otherwise incapable of handling so much stuff. They see it as a condemnation of themselves or their situation, rather than a skill that can be built.

Side Note: If this is sounding familiar, you may have read Mindset by Carol Dweck. It’s one of my favorite books in the world and, in my opinion, should be required reading for every human on the planet.

How (Not) To Get Better at Productivity

So now that you know productivity is a skill (not a trait) you probably are asking how you build this skill.

You’re probably anticipating the answer you might give your kids when they want to learn a new skill (i.e. “practice, practice, practice”), but the answer is actually strategy and testing.

Why won’t practicing productivity make you better at it?

Because the way people usually “practice” productivity is by trying to do their stuff reallyreallyfast. They try to get up a little earlier, squeeze in an extra thing that they don’t really have time to do, maybe work while the baby naps instead of getting a few blissful seconds of shut-eye for yourself…basically the maternal equivalent of “push real hard”.

Working faster is not productivity.

It is a great way to get a migraine, ulcer, or repetitive stress injury. (Believe me, I’ve had all three.) Pushing yourself to get more done by working really fast is like trying to pack more clothes into a suitcase by sitting on it. You may squeeze a few more pairs of socks in, but you’re more likely to make everything crazy wrinkly and increase your odds of busting a zipper.

So now that I’ve told you everything you naturally do to try to be more productive is wrong (gee, thanks), let’s go over the right way to build the skill of productivity. By learning a few simple strategies and systems for trial-and-error testing you can actually create a schedule for your day that feels less stressful even while you’re getting more done.

Strategic Productivity

There are four key aspects of how to approach productivity from a strategic lens: prioritization, project scoping, and scheduling.

We’ll go over each of these areas individually, but first let me show you the basics of what each one means and how they relate to each other:

  • Pinpointing tasks is the ability to clearly enunciate (aka make a list of) what needs to be done.
  • Prioritization is the awareness of which tasks are more or less important.
  • Project scoping is the art of knowing how long any particular task is going to take you.
  • Scheduling is arranging your tasks throughout the course of your day.

Without any one of these elements, you won’t be able to be as productive. Scheduling is impossible unless you know how long your tasks are going to take (scoping). It doesn’t matter if you know exactly how long it’s going to take you to get two things done if you can’t prioritize which needs to be done first. And you can’t do any of it unless you know what tasks are vying for your attention in the first place!

Put together, these four different skills will build your productivity strategy. More importantly, knowing the components of productivity can help you troubleshoot what’s going wrong if you don’t feel like you’re getting enough done. We’ll go into that more at the end but for now let’s look at what each of these skills entails.

Pinpointing Tasks

Moms are bombarded by a ridiculous number of tasks, starting the second our first child flicks us awake in the morning to the minute we fall asleep on top of our computer keyboard trying to get work done in bed after the last child falls begrudgingly asleep.

We have laundry to fold, lunches to make, homework to check, dance classes to schedule, floors to vacuum….and all of that doesn’t begin to include our actual work work.

To say it’s a lot would be like saying a toddler with a huge bar of chocolate is slightly energetic.

While it seems counterintuitive to write your to do list down, it is a habit you absolutely need to cultivate. The act of brainstorming your daily tasks and activities makes you think logically about your actions rather than being reactive to your environment (aka the tiny humans constantly screaming at you to braid their dolls’ hair and make them a sandwich).

My favorite Warren Buffet quote shows you just why this is so important:

You’ve gotta keep control of your time, and you can’t unless you say no. You can’t let people set your agenda in life.

– Warren Buffett

If you don’t write down ahead of time what things need to be done, you’re going to get swept away in the current of daily activity. You’ll be so busy cleaning the counter that’s right in front of you, vacuuming the cheerios off the rug you just stepped on, or answering the emails that just ping-ed your phone that you forget about the things you know really need to get done.

ACTION ITEM: Create a brainstorming space where you get ready in the morning. It can be a whiteboard, an open document on your computer, or a giant piece of blank paper. Brainstorm a giant stockpile of all the things that need doing in your life. Every morning while you’re preparing for your day you can add new things, check off completed items, and get a reminder of what’s on your priority list to accomplish.

If it helps, you can separate this giant brainstorm into different categories liike “work”, “household tasks”, “kids”, etc. so it doesn’t feel overwhelming, but it really is supposed to be just one big heap of to do item stew at this point.


A similar problem many moms face is that they are bombarded with so many tasks that they could go all day without stopping working but never really formulating a plan of attack.

Brutal truth: you have so many tasks to do that you will never actually finish all of them.

Seriously, if I could press pause on the rest of the world and have as much time as I wanted to catch up on work, cleaning, officework, home management tasks, and all the other crap I have to do, it would be literally months before I would consider myself “caught up”. Seriously, I could work for 30 days straight without stopping to eat or sleep and still probably have things left on my to do list, and I know for a fact I’m not the only mom who feels this way.

Again, this is horribly depressing. However, if you can admit that you’re never going to get everything done, you are free to only choose the most important tasks to tackle each day, because if some things are going to get the shaft you are free to choose which tasks get postponed.

This is where a lot of people’s productivity falls short. It is very tempting to pick the quick tasks, the easy tasks, or the tasks that are the most visible to the outside world. However, if you can teach yourself to habitually tackle first the things that will make the big, gritty difference in your life, you’re going to notice a big difference in how ahead or behind you feel on the day to day.

I’m not saying you need to take half an hour every morning to write in your diary or make a mood board for the day, but you are more likely to get the important things done if you know exactly what they are.

ACTION ITEM: At the beginning of each day, look at your giant to do list. (The one you made in the last section.) Organize them into groups of tasks that absolutely have to be done that day (things where you aren’t allowed to go to bed until they’re done or things that are “due” at a specific time), tasks that you should probably get done that day, and things that it would really be nice to accomplish.

Project Scoping

Okay, you have a giant list of tasks that need doing. Now you’ve even figured out which items are the most important ones and which are just “wishlist” items that you want to do but don’t necessarily have to complete ASAP. Now you have to actually fit things into your already-busy day.

There are two important parts of project scoping:

  • What time do you have during to complete tasks (when is it and how long do you have)?
  • How long will each of your tasks take?

Scoping is actually a term from corporate project management. It refers to the practice of figuring out how many billable hours it will take a team of employees to complete a client project so the company knows how much to charge the client for said project. The more accurately a team can scope a project, the less likely they are to get into hot water either for charging way too much for their services or for not finishing projects within the timeline they initially promised the client. (Both are, in the vernacular, “no bueno”.)

For you as a mom, scoping is important because you have a very limited amount of time to devote to non-kid-related pursuits. I know for me personally, I have one 45-minute nap time in the morning, one 30-minute nap time in the afternoon, and whatever time I am able to stay up after the kids go to bed. These are my “work windows”.

Work windows are different for everyone, but the first step to true productivity is quantifying exactly how much time you have available.

After you figure out how much time you have to spend, you can look at your to do list (generated in the last section’s action item) and give each task a reasonable and accurate time duration.

Now, listen up, missy. This is not the time to get ambitious. This is not the time for “if I really hurry I could bang that out in X minutes”. No, no, no. Think about an honest estimate for how long it would take you to complete the task well and properly. You’re not trying to cram here. Remember, working fast is NOT productivity. Whatever you do, you want to do it well, so give yourself an honest, reasonable estimate for how long it will take in the real world.

If you don’t scope accurately, if you’re too ambitious with your completion times, it’s not going to make you faster or more productive. It will just make you more frustrated.

ACTION ITEM: Go over your to do list (generated in the last section) and give each task a reasonable estimate for how long it’s going to take.

Also, look at your day and figure out what your “work windows” are going to be and how long they are. (Do NOT try to put the tasks into the windows yet. That’s the next step, overachiever. For now just focus on honest and accurate scoping.)


The last step is trying to put the puzzle pieces together.

You know how long your tasks are going to take. You know which ones absolutely have to be accomplished that day and which ones won’t kill you if they get pushed to tomorrow. You also know when you can reasonably expect to have available work time.

Here is how you should order your tasks:

  1. Look over your schedule and put the critically urgent tasks first. These are the ones that are going to screw you over if they don’t get done today.
  2. Next, schedule at least one task that is related to or will contribute to what’s most important to your long-term success. These may not be due the soonest, but they are the ones that are going to make the biggest difference in your life 10 or 20 years down the road. You won’t have time for a lot of these tasks (unless you get incredibly lucky or have the ability to cryogenically freeze your kids while you work), but you should have at least one small task most days that helps your long-term goals.
  3. Schedule the rest of your tasks in broad order of most important to least important.
  4. Make exceptions for tasks that need to be done with a clear mind (and therefore need to occur before you start getting tired…at 10:01am) or tasks that have to be done at a specific time (e.g. scheduled calls, driving so-and-so to soccer practice, etc.).
  5. When you run out of time in your “work windows”, STOP SCHEDULING. If you book yourself past what you can reasonably accomplish you will not only fail but you will feel like a failure, which will sap your motivation going into the next day.

What If I Don’t Get Enough Done?

Good question. Usually you won’t.

This isn’t a doomsday prediction or a defamation of your character, it’s just a fact of life. Every busy, intelligent, ambitious mom I know has more on her to do list than she can possibly accomplish in one 24-hour period. Can you think of what a mind-numbingly boring, ambition-less bimbo you would have to be to actually get everything you wanted to do done each day? To reach 5pm and think, well, geez I’m actually kind of bored? Especially as a mom? No way.

There will always be more stuff.

You are a smart, driven, creative, and fairly masochistic mom. You wouldn’t be on this site, reading an article on productivity for moms if you weren’t. Wear your busy schedule and unfinished to do list as a badges of honor. It doesn’t mean you’re a failure, it means you’re single-handedly attempting to build an empire while being the sole reason your offspring doesn’t wander off a cliff in a screen-time-induced, Dorrrito-fueled haze.

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Skimmer’s Guide

Productivity is NOT the same thing as working faster.

In order to be more productive you need to work on identifying tasks, scoping how long they’re going to take, finding open “work windows” in your schedule, prioritizing which tasks are most urgent and important (which are not the same thing), and placing tasks into your schedule in a logical order.

If you think you struggle with productivity, try to troubleshoot which of these tasks you have a hard time with and work specifically on that aspect of productivity.

Above all, remember: productivity is a skill to be learned, not an innate characteristic you either have or don’t have. Productivity isn’t working really really fast, but if you utilize strategy and logical testing, you can drastically increase how much you get done and ensure important things never slip through the cracks.

Liz Bayardelle
Liz Bayardelle of

Liz Bayardelle, PhD

Liz is the mom of three human(ish) kids, three furkids,  three businesses, and eight blogs. She also has a PhD in Business Psychology, several published books on parenting psychology, and a serious Chick-fil-a addiction. Hobbies include color coding anything that will hold still, reading textbooks for fun, swearing at her herd of dustbunnies, and nodding off mid-sentence at the dinner table.

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