What do I want to do on my summer vacation? A lot of little things.
Summer's framework is pretty much in place: a couple of kids' stints at camp, my daughter's time-devouring summer-theater commitment, a week at Ocean City, Md. In between, it's the same stuff that fills the rest of the year -- work, clean the bathrooms, process the laundry -- peppered with the usual seasonal projects involving the yard, the pool and the exteriors of the house and cars. Weekends fill themselves with the kind of fun that takes a bit of planning: barbecues with friends, kayaks on the lake, hitting the outdoor flea markets.
But all that's not quite enough for me. It won't seem like we've had any summer at all unless we manage to squeeze in some of the season's small, potent pleasures, the simple, spontaneous activities whose memories stick with you for life.
I've pretty much given up hope of re-creating the long and lollygagging summers of my youth, when 10 short weeks felt like 21/2 whole months. But I'll feel shortchanged if, come September, I've haven't stalked fireflies in the moonlight with my family, raced to finish an ice-cream cone before it melts down the back of my hand or pulled the kids onto the hammock with me to savor a summertime book.
Given our chockablock schedule, though, I worry that even these modest ambitions might elude me.
My fear is well-founded, says time management expert Julie Morgenstern. But, she promises, with (of course) a bit of planning, those spontaneous moments can be mine after all.
"To open space for the spontaneous moments, you have to plan big pockets of time when they can happen," said Morgenstern, author of "Time Management From the Inside Out" (Henry Holt and Company, 2000). "There's no such thing as free time."
Morgenstern advocates a kind of macro to-do-list approach that she calls "time mapping," which involves "pre-budgeting time into big activity zones."
Time mapping is a big-picture notion that begins with anal retentiveness. For starters, Morgenstern recommends compiling a detailed master list of everything you and your family members need or just want to do. The big list should include everything: don't forget work and camp commitments, household chores, vacation (and pre-vacation preparation), those summer reading lists, shrub-pruning and grass-mowing plus going to the pool, slurping Slurpees and making the world's longest daisy chain.
According to Morgenstern's scheme, then you can carve out your time blocks. But this isn't pre-planning every minute. "Think school," she advises. "At school, there's science time, arts and crafts time, reading time," Morgenstern explains. Creating a similar template of time blocks at home, she said, provides a basic structure; what precisely you do within a given block will vary from day to day.
So your 8 a.m. to 9 a.m. household chore time might be filled with scrubbing floors one day and washing windows the next. While you're doing your chores, the kids can be cleaning their rooms or otherwise pitching in.
When it comes to the block devoted to fun, select from the things that made it onto that master list. That ensures that the kid who wanted a Slurpee ends up getting a Slurpee, and that the daisy chain gets made.
Because I work at home, my schedule is both more flexible and trickier to control than those of parents who commute. I'll have to plan a daily chunk of time for my own work (which might coincide with theater camp for one kid, solitary play or project time for the other), one with enough cushion built in to accommodate the unexpected.
After my day's work is done, I might move on to a block devoted to doing fun stuff with the kids; just what that fun turns out to be will vary according to opportunity, weather and mood. Later might come the cooking-and-eating block, followed by before-bed, hanging-around-together time. (Watch out, fireflies!)
Crafting the schedule with the rest of the family means that everyone's free at the same time, Morgenstern says, and that everyone can look forward to the fun times even while they're slogging through their chores. "It also creates a sense of contribution and teamwork" and teaches a lifelong time-management skill.
After all your list-making, time-gauging and block-making is done, Morgenstern promises, you'll have a structure that will relieve you of the burden of daily decision-making.
"Then you can just be in the moment. And that's ultimately the goal."
I'm not quite sure I'm disciplined enough to benefit from Morgenstern's approach -- it's hard to imagine how it will work in my own haphazard life, but we'll see.