Articles | Books | Columns | Background | Contact | Home SATURDAY, OCTOBER 18, 2003


Time of our lives

Families find creative ways to increase enjoyable hours together

By Harriet Schechter

Americans work nine weeks more each year than their colleagues in Western Europe. Put another way, on Oct. 24, if the average U.S. worker and the average Western European worker had put in the same number of days to that point, the European would have the rest of the year off.

Tom and Deborah Kopkowski have made changes in their lives to find more time for enjoying life as a family. Here they play in the front yard of their Clairemont home with daughter Jillian, 6, and son Peter, 7.  Photo Sandy Huffaker

Did you know:

 We're putting in longer hours on the job now than we did in the 1950s, despite promises of a coming age of leisure before the year 2000.

 Overwork threatens our health, marriages, families and friendships as we find less time for each other, less time to care for our children and elders, less time to just "be."

If you're ready to take back your time, you can find details about Friday's scheduled activities at the Take Back Your Time Day Web site – – and consider the following tips.

From the Kopkowski family in San Diego:

 Overlapping shifts is an option worth exploring.

"It's underrated, but I highly recommend it," Tom Kopkowski says. "It took us a while to get used to getting up that early, but it's really worked out marvelously."

 Establishing a good routine is essential.

It's never too early to start training children to follow a routine, says Deborah Kopkowski. "We started our scheduled program from the time of birth. The 'On Becoming Babywise' books were very helpful for this process."

Flexibility is important, too: "You have to have a good schedule, but be human about it," she adds.

 Use a big calendar in the kitchen to keep track of the family schedule.

A highly visible, centrally located calendar is a family friend. "We have a humongous one on the door of our microwave," Deborah Kopkowski reports. "Everything must go on that."

And here are some suggestions from the experts:

 Turn off the TV, or at least limit viewing time.

Lisa Kanarek, home-office organization expert (, author of "Home Office Life: Making a Space to Work at Home," and mother of two young boys, wouldn't have it any other way:

"Something that I am adamant about is television. After reading a book called 'The Other Parent,' I'm even more strict about how much television my sons watch. (The boys are 6 and 8.) They are allowed two 30-minute shows a day. Many families don't realize how much time television devours each day."

 Have regular family meetings.

That's the word from Sunny Schlenger (, organizing expert, author of "How to be Organized in Spite of Yourself," and mother of two teenagers:

"Good communication is essential. Regular family meetings, with honesty encouraged, can really help. One of the biggest problems engendered by constant time pressure is unexpressed resentment. Listen to each other."

 If a system isn't working for you, switch to something simpler.

Simple advice from Susan Silver, time-management expert (, author of "Organized to be Your Best! Simplify and Improve How You Work" (fourth edition), and mother of a 12-year-old son:

"I used to use a notebook organizer; I've found a simple 'At-a-Glance' monthly planner works fine for me and my family. My planner has monthly calendar pages; two annual, long-range calendars; and blank memo pages for my master list."

 Be realistic.

Silver says her biggest time traps are perfectionism and short-term fixes – "doing it all myself instead of teaching others how to do it 'well enough.' I have to remember that, if I don't rely on others to do what they can, I'll never have the time I want or need to do things that only I can do."

And most every parent can relate to Kanarek's favorite "take back your time tip": the word


"After spending more than six years volunteering to chair carnivals, create a school library, plan school events and serve as the president of the Parents' Association, among other volunteer responsibilities, I knew it was time to take a break," says Kanarek. "I still volunteer two days a month in the school cafeteria and the school library, and help when I can in the classroom, but now, instead of spending any spare time I had typing memos, making phone calls and sending e-mails to parents, I spend time with my family."

Harriet Schecter


"The bottom line is most people today are just too busy and overbooked – and so are their kids," says time-management expert Susan Silver.

So, next Friday in this country – dubbed "Take Back Your Time Day" – Americans will join in hundreds of activities designed to start a national conversation about how we can all live more fulfilling, happier lives.

What would you do if you had more time to spend with your family?

For Tom and Deborah Kopkowski of San Diego, the answer is simple: Have fun.

Simple isn't the same as easy, however. Like many families these days, the Kopkowskis – who have two children, 6-year-old Jillian and 7-year-old Peter – juggle full-time jobs. Tom works as a press operator for a lithograph company, and Deborah is a medical billing insurance supervisor. Though their family is as busy as you might expect, they've figured out how to spend more time together than the typical time-starved San Diego family. And they are having fun.

"In retrospect, I had thought having kids would be 75 percent work and 25 percent play," says Tom, whose typical day begins at 4:30 a.m. "But now I think it's the reverse: 25 percent work and 75 percent fun."

With a recent poll showing that at least four out of five Americans wish they had more time to spend with family, the Kopkowskis have found a way to fight the so-called "time famine" trend.

Living the life
Their day starts early. Perhaps "early" is an understatement: Deborah is up at 4 a.m. – "an ungodly hour," she says with a laugh – so she can try to squeeze in a workout before getting breakfast ready for the family. Tom rolls out of bed about half an hour later and is at work by 6. Deborah drops the children at school at 7:30 and gets to her job by 8. After Tom leaves work at 2, he picks up the kids, does errands or grocery shopping, then prepares dinner so when Deborah comes home at 5:30, the family can eat together. Everyone's usually asleep by 9, although Deborah tends to stay up a bit later to have some quiet time to herself. It doesn't always go perfectly, but the Clairemont family's routine works most of the time.

But what if spending more time with your family on a daily basis just isn't within your reach yet? Perhaps it's more realistic to focus on making the most out of your limited time together.

Mary Peshel's typical day lasts 48 hours – or so it appears. Peshel, the mother of 2-year-old twins and stepmom to a 16-year-old son, is a full-time partner in a downtown law firm. You'd think her weeks would be a blur of diapers and documents as she dashes from legal briefs to lullabies. Yet she and her husband, Thomas Thale – who also works downtown as a department manager with a local bank – have managed to figure out ways of keeping chaos to a minimum so their family can enjoy the precious time they spend together.

"Having great baby sitters really adds to your sanity," Peshel says. "We found ours by running an ad on the Point Loma Nazarene College Web site." She and Thale utilize them several times a week for assisting the family during dinner time. "It makes the evening routine much more fun and relaxed for all of us," says Peshel, "and it ensures that Diana and Michael (the twins) get a lot of attention."

Although mornings don't always run like clockwork, Thale and Peshel agree that making the choice to live close to where they both work has been a big help – it's only about a five-minute drive from home to their respective offices. "We do wish we had more time with the kids," Peshel admits. "But we know that when we're not with them, they are at a great school or with a loving sitter."

Making choices
Until two years ago, Deborah Kopkowski worked an earlier shift, and things felt a lot more rushed. Then she requested a slightly later shift, and life changed for the better.

"Starting work just one hour later made all the difference because, now, our shifts overlap," she explains. Household chores are more equally distributed between the two of them, and that makes things go smoothly.

"A great part of it is because of Tom," Deborah admits. "He's the one who does the grocery shopping and dinner, so I feel like I'm pampered."

But not completely – she does the dishes, the laundry and general clean up.

Their well-organized schedule helps foster a sense of underlying calm that makes it easier to find fun in the ordinary. The family enjoys simple pleasures like singing together on the way to and from school, playing impromptu games and just taking long walks around the neighborhood. The overlapping work shifts and well-balanced household routine also have made it possible for the Kopkowskis to devote their weekends to having fun together as a family on picnics, trolley rides and outings to community events and favorite places throughout San Diego County.

The Kopkowskis – who met in 1987 while playing in a band – get to make music together every third Sunday, singing and playing keyboard and guitar when leading worship at their church.

"It's important to always remember to take care of yourself, so that you can take care of others," says organizing expert Sunny Schlenger, mother of two teenagers. "That means giving yourself, as the parent, breaks and restorative activities that will help you to maintain your energy."

Recently, Mary Peshel and Thomas Thale celebrated their fifth wedding anniversary by spending the weekend at a hotel spa in La Jolla.

"It was great to have quiet, unstructured time to rest, read and go to the spa," recalls Peshel. "But we were anxious to get home and see the kids by Sunday!"

"Sometimes (couple time) may feel selfish," Schlenger says, "but you're teaching your kids an important lesson when you show them how to value their own time."

Tom Kopkowski wanted his children, and his wife, to know he values them. Until last year, he had a weekend gardening business to help pay the bills. Then, in November, he decided to give it up so he could spend more time with his family. To make up for the lost income, the Kopkowskis rent out a room in their modest three-bedroom house to a Japanese exchange student. The trade-off has worked out well.

"We're doing more than just coping," Deborah says. "We're living the life."

Says Lisa Kanarek, home-office organization expert and mother of two young children: "I think it's all about looking out for your family and being very protective of your time. After all, when it's gone, you can't get it back."

©2003 Harriet Schechter

Harriet Schechter is the author of three books, including "Let Go of Clutter" (McGraw-Hill, 2001). She founded The Miracle Worker Organizing Service in San Diego. Now, living in Santa Barbara, her online advice column can be found at

Copyright 2003 Union-Tribune Publishing Co.

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