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How to create habits for overwhelmed working moms

blog post: how to create habits and systems for overwhelmed working moms. A photo of a journal and agenda with a cup of coffee

Do your daily habits set you up for success both in your motherhood and career? Do your daily habits leave you feeling balanced, calm, and happy?

I hear moms say:

“the laundry is always piled up waiting to be washed or folded.”

“I am always late for work.”

“We are constantly forgetting to make the kids lunches until right when we are supposed to be leaving.” 

“I don’t eat lunch, I don’t have time.”

“Going to work, making food, cleaning up, putting kids to bed, finishing housework and job work, then crashing into bed has become a constant cycle. Like a hamster wheel I can’t get off of.” 

“I yell at my children far too often, to hurry up and clean their room.”

“The mundane tasks of motherhood drain me!” 

“I come home from work so stressed out and overwhelmed only to find more stress at home.”

“It’s too much. I am just so done. I feel like a failure at work. And a crappy mom. I’m so burnt out.”

If any of these mom quotes resonate with you, then maybe you need to create new systems and habits in your life too

Let me walk you through a couple of really important things that I learned from James Clear, author of Atomic Habits. And how they apply to motherhood.

Habits Versus Goals

Ok, so the first thing that we need to get clear on is what is the difference between a goal, habit, and system and which one am I supposed to be implementing or aiming towards? 

A goal is a desired outcome you wish to achieve. James Clear defines habits as the small decisions you make and actions you perform every day. And your system is the collection of daily habits that will get you there. 

In Atomic Habits James Clear said, “I realize that my results had very little to do with the goals I set and nearly everything to do with the systems I followed.” 

What the heck does that mean?

Well, let’s look at a couple of examples and see how it may fit into motherhood. 

brown back ground white words. Learn how to create habits for overwhelmed moms. What is the difference between a goal and a habit?

Example #1 – 10 women attend a job interview. All 10 women have the goal of getting that job. Therefore, it isn’t their goal that affects whether or not they get the job. Instead, it is the woman who has established systems and habits to help her succeed and understand the company she is applying for that will help get her the job.

Example #2 – Every team in my women’s soccer league has the goal to win. But, the only way to actually win is to get better each day. To set up a good system for learning new plays and practicing. 

Example #3 – Every working mom wants to feel good about their motherhood, to not be stressed out all the time and to parent with kindness and respect. Unfortunately, the goal alone will not get them there. Working moms need to set up habits and systems that create a lifestyle in order to experience these wonderful things. 

Here are James Clear’s 4 problems with goals versus habits and systems:

1. Winners and losers have the same goal

As you saw from example #3, above, all working moms have these beautiful desires for their motherhood such as quality time, guilt free, calm, balanced etc. However it is only moms who have strong habits and systems in place who are going to experience the freedom and happiness these things can bring. 

2. Achieving a goal is only momentary change

When you achieve your goal, then what? Goals are short-term. If you are trying to create a motherhood that is enjoyable, balanced, and freeing than you need to think bigger than just your goals. 

Let’s say that your goal is to spend more quality time with your child. So you chose to set aside 1 hour each week for 30 days to spend with each of your children. Some good ol’ one-on-one time. What happens when those 30 days are up? Will you be able to continue that pattern or will you fall back into your old habits?

3. Goals restrict your happiness

We are taught to believe that happiness is on the other side of achieving our goals.

Shawn Achor also talks about this in the Happiness Advantage.

I don’t know about you but I don’t want to have to wait until I achieve my goal to experience happiness.

Especially because we don’t always achieve our goals. And once we achieve it we move the target and set a new goal.

When do I get to be happy? 

I am going to let you in on a little secret here… motherhood is forever! You can ask my mom who is helping to care for her 33 year old daughter’s kids and helping her 25 year old daughter buy and furnish her first home.

Or you can even ask my 89 year old grandma who helped journey with her 60 year old daughter through knee surgery. Motherhood is forever. This means we cannot wait to achieve a goal or experience success to be happy. We need to be able to find happiness in the process – on the journey of motherhood.   

“When you fall in love with the process rather than the product, you don’t have to wait to give yourself permission to be happy. You can be satisfied anytime your system is running.” (James Clear

4. Goals are at odds with the long-term process

In his book, James Clear talks about how the purpose of a goal is to win the game, however the purpose of habits and systems is to keep playing the game long term. I sure want to play this game of motherhood long-term!

Now I do want to be clear that this doesn’t mean goals are bad. They serve a very specific purpose and can help to provide direction and focus. They can even help with motivation and movement in the short-term. However, as we learned from James, eventually we are going to need a well-designed and implemented system to help us win the long-term game.

How about instead of achieving a goal that is short sighted we focus instead on creating habits that serve us and our family?

You might be thinking, “So how long does it take to build this new habit?” Well, the answer is forever. If we truly want lifestyle change. 

If we want to be a better working mom, we are going to have to start a process of building, creating, and maintaining these good habits that last a lifetime. You know the moment you stop working on the habit you are going to go back to your old ways or the more desirable outcome. 

Let’s say I decide that in order to achieve my goal of being healthy I am going to drink only water for 21 days. 

After those 21 days are up and I achieved my goal, do you think I will keep only drinking water or do you think I will slowly add juice, pop, and alcohol back into the mix?

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And, does drinking only water truly make me a ‘healthy person’? We are talking lifestyle changes. (Ps. we are also talking about moderation and realistic habits. It’s ok to drink a glass of wine or can of pop every once and a while) 

Did you know that you create habits all the time?

We are wired to create habits so that our body and mind can save energy and time. It’s a survival mechanism. One of the habits that is just wired into my brain is always unplugging the toaster or hair straightener when I’m done with it. Or maybe your habit is to always lock the door after going in your home. Our brain likes when things run on auto-pilot so it can save energy. The problem is when the things running on auto-pilot aren’t serving us. 

A new lens on habits

James Clear talks about creating identity based habits instead of outcome based habits. Identity based habits focus on the person you want to become. When you focus on being the type of person who achieves the goal you want to achieve or the person you want to become. 

Because we are creating systems and habits that take a lifetime to “achieve” we can also eliminate the judgment, guilt, and shame thoughts. Knowing that we will sometimes slip up and knowing that it isn’t about the end goal but instead about the process – the journey.

Interestingly, In The Gifts of Imperfection, Brene Brown talks about something similar when she talks about ‘becoming a wholehearted person as the North star’. 

This vision we have of becoming a wholehearted mom is like a North Star pointing us in the right direction. We know we aren’t going to actually reach the North star, it is merely a guidepost.     

Your identity can truly hold you back or build you up. Who do you want to be? Who do you think you are now?

If you say to yourself: 

  • “I am a hot-mess mom” 
  • “I am always late” 
  • “I am a yeller”

You are just going to hold yourself back. We know from our mindset work that our thoughts often dictate our feelings and behaviours. But, if you think.. 

  • I am the type of mom who takes care of herself 
  • I am a mom who follows a solid morning routine
  • I am a mom who parents with kindness & respect 

You are going to set yourself up for success and happiness.

This means that we need to build habits that reinforce our desired identity. Did you know that the quality of your life depends on the habits and systems you have in place?

Consistency over intensity… make habits last

Oh man, consistency is HUGE. Not only is it huge in our systems for our own life but it is also super important in our parenting. Children need consistency. We moms need consistency.

Most people when they first commit to a habit or goal they go all in for about a week or two and then crash. If we apply the consistency over intensity rule it means that we not only be consistent but we break things down into small chunks and celebrate small wins.

James talks about how we often have more success if we commit to small changes over a long period of time. “Daily change doesn’t seem significant however done for 5 years makes big change”. 

In my own life...

a photo of a computer with a workout video on the screen and a pair of weights sitting beside it. How to create habits for overwhelmed moms

I had been struggling with my mental health. After learning about Atomic habits and all that James has to teach on systems, I decided I was going to be a ‘healthy/well’ person. 

This means when I am faced with choices or actions I say to myself, “what would a healthy/well person do? One of the biggest struggles for me has been to exercise consistently. I know that exercise is the best way to destress, to improve sleep, and to help my weak back.

So, I decided I was going to be a person who works out every day. Now remember we are going for consistency over intensity so some days my workout looks like 20 sit ups. And that’s ok!

When my expectation is that I only have to do 20 sit ups it seems manageable. Also as I quoted James above, daily change doesn’t seem significant, however done for 5 years makes a big difference.

Doing 20 sit ups daily seems silly even but can you imagine the strength in my back I would have if every single day for 5 years I did 20 sit ups! Consistency over intensity is key to long-term success!

I think this quote sums this example up well – You should be far more concerned with your current trajectory than with your current results.” (James Clear)

Mama, where are you headed if you keep living like this? Are you going to be the mom, wife, or boss you desire to be? 

Getting clear about systems

As we mentioned before, systems are just a collection of your daily habits

Now, I want you to stop and reflect on this… your current habits are perfectly designed to deliver your current results. There is one really big problem with this truth. YOU DON’T WANT YOUR CURRENT RESULTS! 

One of James’s most famous quotes is this, “You don’t rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems”. 

This means you need strong systems in place. 

Four Tips For Creating New Habits (from James Clear)

1. Make it obvious / Make it Invisible

Make your new habit super obvious and known. And make your current habit or temptations invisible. 

Your new habits need to be namedThey need to be clear and spoken out loud.

Set alarms or put post-it notes on the bathroom mirror and fridge.

We need accountability so tell your partner, family member, or friend.

I also encourage you to design your space and time to fit your new habit. (Time Management Workbook) This means that maybe you have a space always ready to workout. Or maybe you have a designated place for all phone upon entering the home. 

Maybe your bedroom is styled so it is calm and relaxing and has a no work policy.

Making it invisible means putting away any temptations. A great example of making it invisible is hiding the social apps on your phone (aka take them off the homepage).

2. Make it attractive

James Clear encourages us to use a technique called Temptation Bundling where you combine a habit you want to practice with a habit you love doing. Formula: habit need + habit want = the perfect system

For me, this means listening to my fav podcast while I make lunches or fold laundry. This also means jamming to Britney Spears 90s playlist while I work out.

3. Make it easy

Small baby wins. We talked about this above when we talked about consistency over intensity. Instead of “I will read a book a month” we set our expectation to, “I will read one page each night before bed”.

This doesn’t mean you are only ever going to read one page but it does mean that on nights when you just don’t feel like it, you can find relief knowing you just committed to one page.  

Instead of saying, “I will go a month without yelling at my child” we set our expectation to, “I will not yell at my child today” 

“Never miss twice. If you miss one day try to get back on track as quickly as possible.” (encouragement from James Clear)

4. Make it satisfying

Reward yourself, celebrate your wins!

In my Dear Angry Mom program I actually encourage moms to create a sticker chart for themselves during their 30-day challenge. This is a great concrete way of seeing progress and celebrating the wins.

How are you going to treat yourself? Who is going to celebrate those wins with you?

I know that I like to treat myself to a Starbucks drink after a #momwin.

Taking Action: How to get started on creating new habits?

  1. Ask yourself, what type of person/mom  do I want to become?
  2. Why do I care about this habit? What is the purpose or North star? Our why is what gives us motivation when things get tough. If you’ve ever done my coaching program, you could ask yourself, does this habit align with my parenting manifesto or intentions? 
  3. What system of habits do I need to create? 
  4. Then when you are faced with a choice you are going to ask yourself, “what would a _______________ mom do in this situation? (For example, what would a healthy person do? What would a mom who parents with respect say?”)
  1. Identify what systems need to be created. Maybe you need to create a system around a new morning routine or intentional parenting. Another example may be around time management and time blocking.  
  2. Know the purpose of the system – using your WHY as motivation. 
  3. Decide on the essentials – now that you have reflected on what needs to be systemized and why you are going to systemize it, you can move on to the how. What are the essential steps and what doesn’t need to be a part of your routine. Make sure your expectations are realistic.  
  4. Identify your needs – what do you need to make this system work? Maybe you need an alarm clock, workout mat, water bottle, day planner, online course or coaching program etc. 
  5. Track your progress – how are you going to track your progress. Because remember we are going to be celebrating those small wins. 
  6. Ensure the system is teachable – as moms we want to be great examples for our family. What a great way to get your children and partner involved in creating healthy habits too. And when the whole family gets involved the level of accountability goes up too! 
  7. Set a review date – 30 days from now time block 30 mins in your calendar to reflect on, review and refine your system. This step is super important in making change last and keeping yourself motivated.

Free Printable

worksheet: learn how to create new habits

Final Thoughts & Reflections

My absolute favourite quote by James Clear is “Every action we take is a vote towards the person we become”

When I heard this quote I had a huge AH-HA moment. Every decision I make, every action I take is a vote either towards the person I want to become or towards the current person I am trying to change. 

This concept aligns well with my CBT (cognitive behavior therapy) training. When we are using CBT strategies to make change we are looking for evidence either for or against the story we are telling ourselves. The more you build up evidence for that story the more you start to really believe it and it becomes who you are.    

{Read this with an announcer voice in mind} The ballots are tallied and the results are in {dramatic pause}. The winner is…. 

Who is it? What votes are you casting?

Is it the stressed out and overwhelmed person you are or is it the person you want to become? The mom you want to become? 

Audio learner?

If you would like to further your learning or you are an auditory learner than I strongly encourage you to listen to Brene Brown’s podcast episode with James Clear. Her podcast is free on Spotify which has a free version. Check out Brene with James Clear on Atomic Habits part 1 and 2.  

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every action you take is a vote towards the person you wish to become. Quote by James Clear
Atomic Habits by James Clear - make system and habits work for overwhelmed moms