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Working Parents, Plan for the Week with This Simple Exercise

Source : Harvard Business Review - Avni Patel Thompson

It’s been nearly four years since we first met Amir and Ria as they were navigating the early months of Covid with two jobs and two young children at home.

Now, with both kids in school and sports, and with hybrid work setups and increased work travel, Amir and Ria have been trying to establish a routine that works. Despite their efforts, they’ve been feeling like they’re running into each week bracing themselves for dealing with the inevitable moment something breaks or that they miss a key reminder, pickup, or plan.

They’re not alone. Amir and Ria are a composite of the thousand-plus families I’ve worked with over the past five years as I’ve been building Milo, an AI-powered tool to help them manage the invisible “logistics load” — the behind-the-scenes work of running a family. That logistics load has been growing heavier for working families: Kids today have a high number of scheduled events — between school, extracurriculars and social plans — while parents are juggling hybrid schedules and work travel. Information and reminders feel like a firehose (Crazy sock day! Early dismissal! Swim registration!) in the age of instant emails and messaging. At the same time, because more parents are working, families have fewer safety nets when things go awry — a sick parent, a meeting running late, a surprise homework assignment.

After working with families across the country, I’ve identified three main culprits that drive the majority of the logistical challenges each week:

The firehose of information, particularly from schools, plus the sheer number of scheduled commitments for each family member increases the likelihood of unexpected conflicts or forgotten things each week.

Decision fatigue. Families leave many small but important decisions to the spur of the moment — what’s for dinner, who’s doing pick-up — leading to cognitive fatigue and suboptimal decisions.

Surprises. Inevitably each week something doesn’t go according to plan and there has to be a scramble to fix it: childcare falls through or someone gets sick. Often there is a “default” parent who steps in, driving frustration and tension when that choice is frequent and assumed.

Over the years, we’ve tested many approaches to solving these three challenges and the one that has unfailingly been the most successful, (and the simplest!), is what I call a “Weekly Preview”: 20 minutes at the start of each week, reviewing what’s ahead in the next seven days (for our users in North America we call it the “Sunday Scan,” though the day you choose to conduct your preview may differ). By dedicating even just this short amount of time to planning, you can avoid surprises, make decisions more effectively by batching them, and prepare agreed-upon backup plans.

Prepare for your preview

Here’s how to set up your own weekly preview:

Commit to 20 minutes before the start of each week. Make a commitment to do this with the other core decision maker(s) for your child, if any (your partner or co-parent, for example). To make sure you stay consistent, link this to something that you do each week, and ideally make it something fun. Perhaps you and your partner do it after the kids are in bed and have your weekly Netflix date after. Or you do it before your Sunday workout. The key is consistency. If it’s easier, begin by committing to just four weeks and see how it goes.

Choose your documentation approach. Here’s the template we use with Milo families, but a simple email, a shared Apple Note, or a text overview can work just as well. Whatever you choose, it should be in a format that can be easily updated with inevitable mid-week changes.

Gather all of the information. To make this process really work, it’s critical make everything explicit and visible in one central place — especially events.

I strongly recommend a dedicated family calendar (ideally a digital one like a Google Calendar). In the long run, it works better than sending each other one-off invites from separate calendars, or, even worse, having one person just hold all the events in their head. A dedicated calendar tends to mean that more events and reminders will make it on, which makes it easier to spot and plan around conflicts.

In the week leading up to your preview, both partners should add all family-related commitments onto this calendar, whether it’s weekly soccer, a dentist appointment, a work dinner or weekly “bring library books” reminder. Include work meetings that might run over and impact evening plans. Enter any changes in availability from caregivers.

Preview the week together

The night before your week begins, meet with your partner or other key decision-maker and go over the coming days in the following steps.

1. What’s happening?

While ideally you’ll have entered all of the week’s events in your calendar already, in reality, we’ve seen that that is rarely the case. So spend the first few minutes of your preview making sure that everything important has made it from your personal calendars onto the shared one. You can track events, reminders, and information as it pops up by taking a picture or screenshot to include in your preview document.

Then go over those events together as follows.

Big rocks and top to-dos. Begin by identifying the family’s “big rocks” for the week — the things that matter most, such as a family dinner, a workout together, a library run, or this weekly preview. If it looks like there isn’t time to make them happen, make adjustments to the time you’re spending on the “pebbles” and “sand.” Use this process to also prioritize the most important 3–5 to-dos for the week. List both on your preview document.

One-offs. Then identify the one-offs for the week. Regular, recurring commitments such as school, sports, cleaners, and childcare are more firmly embedded in our brains and need less attention. But what’s different tends to have a blast radius far beyond the actual time it takes up on the calendar and often impacts those regular events. List these one-offs in a separate section of your review or just circle them in red to spotlight them (in our template they go in the Heads Up section).

Key reminders. Finally, write in any weekly reminders: Return library books, bring an instrument, take extra diapers to daycare, and so on. Get those in so you can run out the door confidently each morning. (These go in the Heads Up section too.)

2. What’s the plan?

Once you know what’s happening, make plans together for key logistical decisions such as childcare, pickup and dropoff, and meals.

I used to resist doing meal planning because it felt like extra effort. But it turns out having to decide what you’re eating each day at 5 p.m. leads to worse outcomes: more takeout (which means less healthy, more expensive food), more food waste, and an overall feeling of pressure and daily decision fatigue. This applies to other top logistical decisions as well.

To avoid this, identify your top 2–3 key logistical decision-making areas for the week. Then decide what the plan is and who is on for each. Even if it seems obvious — if the after-school sitter is preparing a meal, or you already have groceries, or a regular weekly pick-up plan — I strongly recommend you still cover these because it’s when things are assumed that issues crop up: “Oh, I thought you knew we had soccer and were going to pick up dinner on the way home.”

Finally, finish up by looking at the top 3–5 to-dos that you identified and decide who the owner will be for each and a quick plan and timeslot to get it done.

3. What’s the back-up plan?

“No plan survives first contact with the enemy,” as the saying goes. But without a safety net, every change in the plan feels like a fire. Worse, it often falls to one “default parent” to change their plans to be on hand for the kids.

To avoid this, identify the trickiest moments in your week and set a back-up plan. Decide who will be called in when. For example, say, “I have a board meeting Wednesday, so I can be back-up Thursday and Friday if you can take Monday through Wednesday.” Or, “Wednesday looks really tricky. You’re away and I think I can handle it but if I get an afternoon meeting added to my calendar I’m going to need to call my dad in to help. Let’s let him know now.”

That’s it! Once you’ve completed your preview each week, share your preview document with all key collaborators — all the people who will be involved in helping to make this week go to plan. This includes local grandparents, neighbors, step-parents and nannies. Whether you print it out, email it, or share the digital doc, the key is to share the plan with anyone else in the mix.

The goal of this weekly preview is not to create an unnecessary additional burden, but rather to create structure that in fact lightens the weight of modern working parenthood. By approaching the week’s challenges proactively, you’ll address them in a way that’s more practical, collaborative, and fair.

Invest in these twenty minutes at the start of every week and you’ll feel the benefits all week long.


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