7 Days, 7 Ways to Streamline Your Family's Schedule

From the morning rush to weekends packed with soccer games, birthday parties and endless piles of laundry, some days can feel like a frantic mad rush from breakfast 'til bed. The good news: It doesn't have to be that way. Now's the time to slow down, take a good, hard look at your family's schedule and re-prioritize your time. We asked time management experts for their tips to help make your family's daily routine run more smoothly and peacefully.

Tip 1: Practice saying, "I'm sorry, I can't help with that. (Pause.)" Time is money, and you don't have an unlimited budget. So make the most of yours by thinking hard before you say 'yes' to running the PTA bake sale, volunteering in your kid's classroom, or even agreeing to handle an extra carpool shift. The trick: Just say, "I'm sorry, I'm not able to do that," and then pause, says Karen Henke, a professional organizer and owner of Come2Order. Resist the urge to fill the uncomfortable silence that will follow with an explanation. Chances are, whoever is calling will let you off the hook. If not, just repeat yourself.

Tip 2. Only think about 'What's for Dinner?' once a week. We're not suggesting that you only feed your family once -- or that you order take-out six nights a week (although it's tempting, right?). Instead, take the time to plan and shop for a week's worth of meals at once, and be done with it. Amy McCready, Positive Parenting Solutions founder and author of If I Have to Tell You One More Time… likes meal-planning systems like The Six O’Clock Scramble, a subscription-based site that offers menus, quick meals and shopping lists. (A free menu-planning alternative: Once a Month Mom.) Sure, it can be a pain to plan six days ahead, but you won't spend precious time and mental energy each night trying to answer that "what's for dinner?" question -- you'll know already.

Tip 3. Clean up your clean-up routine. Rather than face a fantastically messy house that takes all day to clean (and there goes your Saturday), start a clean-up schedule that makes mountainous tasks manageable: Throw a load of laundry in the washer before you go to bed each night, and dry it in the morning. Or change the sheets every Monday morning. "By doing light maintenance throughout the week, I can clean our whole house in less than two hours, because it never really gets dirty," Henke says. Kids can help, too: Have them load and unload the dishwasher each day, or bring their dirty clothes to the laundry room. "Our kids are busy with school, homework and sports," McCready says, "but they still need to learn that a contribution to the family is important." Plus, when you schedule a specific day or chunk of time for high priority tasks -- grocery shopping, laundry, bathroom scrubbing -- and then bang them out, it prevents the dread of a long weekend to-do list, which “can sap all the enjoyment out of your down time,” says Laura Vanderkam, author of What the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast.

Tip 4. Embrace the "O." No, we're not talking about that O. We're talking about ordering online. If you aren't already ordering your groceries online, via a service like Peapod, you should be. (Even First Lady Michelle Obama is a fan!) Schedule a regular time -- maybe Sunday night after the kids are in bed and, ahem, your meal planning is done -- and place your order. You can even keep track of your frequent purchases and reorder your same list of basic staples, saving even more time. And those four birthday parties you have coming up in the next month? Hit Amazon and order the gifts all at once. (Make it even easier on yourself and buy the same gift for each kid!)

Tip 5. Get digital. If you have an app-loaded iPhone, but still keep a paper calendar (and find yourself forgetting your kid's dentist appointment because you wrote it down on the back of a receipt scrounged from the bottom of your purse), it's time to embrace the world of digital organizers. One that we like: Cozi, a free online organizer and mobile app that has everything from a shared, color-coded family calendar to shopping lists and a meal planner.

Tip 6. Tame the birthday party madness. You know what we're talking about -- your kid's new class likely means a new round of "everyone’s invited" birthday parties. So that's 20-plus events to add to the weekend calendar, not to mention the parties of the friends your kid already has. We give you permission to politely decline some of these, without guilt. Your child doesn't need to attend every one (heck, she probably doesn't want to attend every one), so reclaim some of that time by just saying no. (See tip number one, above.) And for those that you do RSVP 'yes' to: Follow Henke's advice and get your hubby involved: There's no rule that says Mom has to be the one shuttling kids back and forth from Chuck E. Cheese each weekend.

Tip 7. Map out your schedule. Everyone fritters away time, but both Henke and Vanderkam agree on how you can stop: Map out your schedule, and keep a time log. Think about how you spend all of your time, and write it down. What are your non-negotiable tasks -- and when do you have to do them? By mapping it all down, you'll probably find that you have more down time than you think, especially if you move certain tasks around, and/or combine running errands or doing chores into one block of time. (And what do you do with that reclaimed 30 minutes on Tuesday? Can you say, "me time"?!)

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