Are You Spending Your Parenting Time and Energy Wisely?

Are You Spending Your Parenting Time and Energy Wisely?

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As you manage work and home, with your time always squeezed, how can you ensure that you are spending your parenting time and energy in the right ways, especially as your children age, change, and need different things? Spending more time on activities where you have high contribution (what your children value the most from you) and passion (what gives you the most motivation and inspiration) will help you make the best use of your limited time and energy. Once you’ve identified activities that are high in contribution and passion, use your calendar to carve out time for them and protect them. As time passes, it is important to stay in active conversation with your kids to keep them involved and adapt to changes in what they value from you. Adopting this approach can increase your fulfillment at work and help maintain meaningful relationships with your kids as they grow up.

Carole entered our coaching meeting looking especially frustrated. As an IT leader at her company, she was under constant time pressure, and her week had gotten off to a stressful start. “I move mountains to wrap up work early on Tuesdays to get to my teen daughter’s soccer practice, only to feel like she doesn’t even care I’m there! I don’t know what to do. Sometimes, if I don’t go, I feel guilty. When I do make the time, I feel underappreciated. It’s a no-win situation.” This mounting frustration, she shared, had left her distracted and less engaged over the following two days, both at home and at work.

I hear scenarios like this frequently from clients who are working parents. And I have faced them myself. Both at work and as parents, we place high expectations on ourselves to be effective, successful, and to make the best use of our limited time. Misusing that time, in either realm, can feel like a double failure.

Despite the exhaustion of the early years, things are simpler the younger our children are. Newborns’ needs can be summed up in a short list beginning with food, care, and love — and we do it all. As they start school and advance through their teen years, our ability to find our highest and best use as parents becomes more complex. As we juggle work and home, with our time always squeezed, how can we ensure that we are spending our parenting time and energy in the right ways, especially as our children age and change? It begins with two questions.

Define Your Contributions and Passions as a Parent

Instead of ending up feeling underappreciated or guilty about the time you do or don’t spend with your kids, you can proactively triage your parenting time and energy. I recommended that Carole try an approach I use with leaders at work: prioritizing according to contribution and passion. To do this, think of one of your children and answer the following questions.

  1. Contribution: Which of the activities I do, tasks I perform, or types of support I provide does my child value the most right now? (Answer for each child you have individually.)
  2. Passion: Which activities, tasks, or types of support give me the most motivation, inspiration, or energy as a parent?

You can take the two criteria above and create a corresponding 2×2 set of quadrants to help guide decisions around parenting time.

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Quadrant 1: High contribution/High passion

This is the sweet spot of parenting time, as these activities add value for your child and give you an energy boost. As Carole looked at her answers to the questions, she realized her best times with her daughter included activities where she both contributed and from which she derived passion, including their mutual interest in technology, going for runs together, or researching things her daughter was interested in. These are the activities where parents and children truly bond. She agreed to start prioritizing her parenting time for things that fell in quadrant 1.

Quadrant 2: High contribution/Low passion

Activities in quadrant 2 can be tricky as our kids will have needs that may drain our energy. The answer isn’t to stop doing them but to minimize their energy impact or identify resources that can provide help. For example, Carole realized that she was tired after filling out school forms, but that this was something that her husband didn’t mind doing. They compared their contributions and passions and looked for places where her quadrant 2 matched his quadrant 1 and vice versa. Working parents who have a caregiver can optimize their resources further.

Quadrant 3: Low contribution/High passion

Our kids’ interests and needs are always changing. Quadrant 3 is a real danger zone for parents because often we find ourselves engaging with our kids around activities or interests we love but our kids don’t actually value. Even worse, we risk putting inadvertent pressure on our children to engage in an activity because they know we care about it as the parent.

Therefore, it is critical to set up regular checkpoints with our kids to understand how they regard our contributions as they age. As a working parent myself, I use a ritual each year where I sit down with my son at the start of each school year and ask him the top three things I do as a mom that he values the most. When he was younger, I made a list of all the things we did together and had him put a star next to his favorite three items. Now, that he is older, it’s a much more open-ended conversation. Then, to find the sweet spot, I line up his top three contributions against my top three passions.

It’s been amazing for me to see how this sweet spot of time for us has evolved through the years. When he was younger, even when we had a nanny, he most valued and I most enjoyed doing a certain number of drop-offs or pickups from school during the week, attending a karate practice, and tucking him in at bedtime. As a teen now, he doesn’t value and in fact doesn’t want me to be seen at school drop-off or pickup! Instead, he values my time at key volleyball tournaments on the weekends, especially the ones out of town.

By staying in tune with who he is now, versus being grounded in the past, I am better able to ensure staying in quadrant 1 versus quadrant 3.

Quadrant 4: Low contribution/Low passion

When things are busy or when you try to do everything, you can end up engaged on auto-pilot in activities that neither add value nor bring you passion. It is easy for parents to fall into habits and assumptions and continue doing what they have always done without reconsideration. This can lead to frustrating moments like the one Carole experienced at her daughter’s soccer practice. She was used to going to her daughter’s practice on Tuesdays, even though it turned out that this didn’t bring value or energy for either of them anymore.

If you find yourself in quadrant 4, it’s best to stop doing those activities that are no longer relevant for you or your child and gain back precious time.

Operationalize into Your Calendar

Learning the quadrants is only the first step. If you don’t have a plan for putting your insights into action, your good intentions to spend time with your kids in the best ways will get swept up in your long list of to-dos. Use your calendar to carve out and protect time for quadrant 1 activities.

Use pre-blocks

Pre-block your calendar with major school events like performances or teacher conferences as soon as that information is available. It’s not perfect, and there will be plenty of weeks where work travel or deliverables get in the way, but proactively planning will enable you to have an honest discussion ahead of time when you can’t be there.


Color-coding your calendar can help you take a longer view of how you spend your time. Carole highlighted any quadrant 1 time she spent with her daughter in orange. It helped her to see the trend line over a longer arc of time versus expecting herself to be perfectly balanced in any given week. Color-coding is not intended to make you feel guilty (as working parents often do), but rather to serve as a cue to adapt as needed.

Stay in Active Dialogue

Even with the best of triaging or planning time with your kids, it is important to stay in active conversation with them to keep them involved and adapt to changes.

Use look-aheads

Throughout the year, bring your family together to see what is upcoming on the calendar. For families with older children, you can designate a day and time such as Sunday morning at breakfast to have everyone pull up laptops and calendars, and scan for the upcoming week. Especially with multiple kids, where sibling rivalry over parents’ time and attention can exist, the family look-ahead can help to ensure that parenting time is distributed fairly.

For younger children, use visuals such as wall calendars or large white boards with pictures denoting when you have work or other obligations. Often, the uncertainty and inconsistency of when you will or won’t be home are what kids struggle with the most.

Talk about it

Talking to our kids regularly about where and how we spend our time gives us a chance to model good communication and time management practices. If the amount time you are (or aren’t) spending with children is a road bump in your family’s progress, have a conversation rather than avoiding it or letting things fester. Ask your kids to be active problem solvers with you in finding more satisfying ways to spend time together. Let them see you ask for help from other family members, neighbors, or your spouse when you get into a time bind.

Ultimately, Carole felt much more in control and effective as she became intentional around her parenting time decisions. Carole and her daughter collaboratively agreed that Carole should stop leaving work early for soccer practices. Instead, her daughter encouraged her to use that time she was at practice to focus on work and then come to pick her up afterwards. Her daughter shared that, as a teen, what she valued now was the car time after practice, when they could talk and catch up one-on-one on each other’s day with few distractions.


My hope for myself and all working parents like Carole is that the practices outlined in this article will help us find new confidence in the ways we spend our time and alleviate guilt about letting go of some things we simply don’t have enough time to do. These changes can increase our fulfillment at work and help maintain meaningful relationships with our kids as they grow up.

Adapted from the HBR Working Parents Series book Getting It All Done.

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