Bare Minimum Mode

October 25, 2011 | 43 comments

While we’re on the subject of being overwhelmed, I thought I’d re-post something I mentioned in passing in a Quick Takes post a few years ago.

When our fourth baby was about four months old, I decided to switch into what my husband and I call “Bare Minimum Mode.” This is a temporary paring down of our lifestyle where we cut out all non-essential activities so that we can stay sane. We try not to stay in this mode more than six months at a time, since it’s a mode of surviving more than thriving, but it sure is a lifesaver during those periods. I haven’t needed it as much this time around since my oldest kids are old enough to help, but it’s comforting to know that I can always pull the lever and declare us to be in Bare Minimum Mode if I need to!

Since I often see people searching the site to find that old Quick Takes post where I mentioned it, here is a recap of what Bare Minimum Mode looks like for me:

  • We stretch our budget to get more babysitting help than we could normally afford. Sometimes we’ve taken a pre-determined amount of money out of savings as our “survival babysitting fund.”
  • I cook only about six different dinners. Each of these meals has the following characteristics: it’s easy, healthy, can be made ahead of time, and can be made from memory.
  • I don’t worry about how much TV the kids watch.
  • I don’t socialize more than twice a month.
  • All home improvement projects like scrapbooking, closet cleanouts, garage organization, etc. are put on hold.
  • I turn down all requests for freelance work.
  • I make the kids’ nap time sacred space on the calendar: nothing short of a true emergency interferes with them (and me!) getting that down time.

These sorts of things used to happen anyway during times that I was overwhelmed, so I found it helpful to articulate those activities that were just too much for me right now, cut them out, and embrace that as a proactive strategy, rather than walking around feeling stressed about what wasn’t getting done.

Also, I think it’s important to note that this isn’t one-size-fits all advice; Bare Minimum Mode is going to vary by temperament. For example, I’m an introvert who finds cooking difficult but loves to read, so I cut out as much socializing and cooking as possible, but kept time in my schedule for reading; whereas an extrovert chef who is not a bookworm might cut out reading time to give her more calendar space for socializing and cooking.

Have you ever done Bare Minimum Mode in your own life? If so, what did it look like for you? (Give us an idea of your temperament so that others with similar personalities can get ideas!)


  1. Roselady

    Oh my gosh, I totally live this mode right now. We don’t have a new baby, we just have too many little ones to make too many outside activities do-able. So, the only thing that makes up my survival mode right now is limited outside activities. We have speech class (for my less verbals) and CCD. Nothing else. Talk about bare minimum. But, when you’ve got five busy kids, I think we thrive in the calm of home. Not that it’s really calm, but it’s calmer than wrestling tiny kids in and out of car seats. And, I’m right now I need a break from trying to keep toddlers quiet during big kids activities outside the home. It can totally wear you out!

  2. Julie Lawson

    My ‘Bare Minimum Mode’ is usually only for a day or two (although I LOVE the idea of a six-month-long one!). With my four children under 6, I’ve had many times when I’ve been sick or on the way, so I have what I call ‘Light Duties’. I only do the bare necessary child-care tasks for the day, use one of my pre-frozen meals for dinner, have rest time (if I can’t manage it with a baby, I breastfeed in bed or lie down beside the baby while she plays)and I try and do just one thing that’s a treat – I might read a novel for a bit or treat my nails to a trim and some polish! Just these few simple little things refresh my body as well as my mind. It’s awesome. I find that I’m usually good to go after a couple of days on light duties!

  3. Kimberlie

    I feel like I have been in “Bare Minimum Mode” since we brought our fourth child home from China. I have been quite overwhelmed with life in part because he’s older than we ever adopted before (almost 7 yrs), partly because I experienced the loss of several close relatives/friends, and partly because I am an introvert with four kids who are busy and I feel as though I don’t get very much “down time.” It’s getting better, but I feel like all I really accomplish each day is to get kids to/from school, try to keep up with the laundry and kitchen. I’d been feeling a bit guilty about it until I read this post. Now I’m just going to tell myself I’m in “Bare Minimum Mode.” Thanks!


    • Josephene Kealey

      I’ll say a prayer for you Kimberlie. Thanks for sharing.

      • Kimberlie

        Thank you Josephene! Prayers are greatly appreciated.

  4. LuAnne

    Oh dear, I have absolutely lived in this mode when needed!

    When my kiddos were small, it occurred whenever a new baby made an appearance.

    Now that they’re older, it happens right about now – during the Marching Band season (which basically means that all three kids are working for 30 or more hours a week, and that entire weekends are taken up with travelling to performances!) Oh, and there are the sports – daily practices and weekly (sometimes twice-a-week) meets/games. Fall is crazy around here, but a good kind of crazy!

    Bare Minimum Mode for us looks like this: meals are SIMPLE – either things I’ve cooked and frozen during the late summer, or very basic things that can be put on the table in 20 minutes or less. And there is nothing wrong with cereal for breakfast now-and-then, in my opinion!

    Cleaning? Yes, well…as long as surfaces get dusted once a week, floors get vacuumed once a week, and the bathrooms get cleaned every three days – I’m fine with that. No one is coming to visit anyway – we don’t have the time…

    We have to make adjustments to our homeschooling routine as well – basics get done (math, grammar, vocabulary, latin, science, history, literature, logic/rhetoric), but we only do art and music (theory), as well as any “extras” if we have the time. We’ll make it up later – that’s my theory – and it usually works.

    Entertaining? Nope, not a bit of it. We’re never home!

    Stress-relief? (Because you know – you DO get stressed, no matter how much you try to avoid it!) Take-out Chinese food, and a funny/silly movie – for the rare night we’re home and have nothing that absolutely-positively-has-to-be-done. And don’t tell anyone, but my boys STILL get a kick out of the Veggie-Tales movies….despite the fact that two of them are teens, and one is soon to be one!

  5. Jenna@CallHerHappy

    I wish I would have had this 3 months ago when my daughter was born. I am proud to say that I am back in the game of life, but I only have one, so it didn’t take terribly long. I like to make sure I get out of the house everyday for just a bit. Whether it is grocery shopping or just walking around the block, it helps keep me sane!


  6. Erin

    I was just thinking of this (particularly the 6 meals) the other day!

    I have been in minimum mode for two years due to my job, and Bare Minimum mode for the last 3 months due to purchasing a duplex and moving while still in that job. I am a home body who for some reason took a job requiring out of state travel (like 90%+). We decided to (a) tell friends/family that even obligations may be missed (like a kids birthday) and (b) never commit beforehand so we could have a handle on how our marriage was doing, my stress level, etc and (c) clean only when necessary. It is just the two of us so far and since we don’t entertain, are hardly home and have a tolerance for really cleaning once a month, that is whet we do. Except the kitchen. That is cleaned as often as it gets dirty, since a dirty kitchen is more stressful than cleaning the kitchen. Spot cleaning is encouraged.

    For Bare Minimum mode, I finally found peace with it when I made peace with feeding me and my husband frozen pizza every day. I love cooking and hardly ever get a chance, but when I finally acknowledged that there wasn’t enough time right now and both of us could eat pizza every day I was home without getting too sick of it, I freed up a lot of energy. Mostly by not beating myself up each time I threw a pizza in when we realized it was 7:30 and hadn’t eaten yet. I am only home on weekends, and we still have tons of boxes and projects and maintainence requests, so this is what we do. Keep ourselves feed and on good terms with everyone.

    I have decided I will make a lovely homemaker, once I am home to do the making.

  7. Martha

    Apparently I’m *always* in bare minimum mode. ;D

    • Catherine

      That’s exactly what I was going to say!

  8. robbie

    I just had a two-month time of “bare-minimum”. After Baby was born, she and I were having lots of problems with nursing. I desperately wanted to make things work out, so she and I moved into the guest bedroom, down in the basement away from everyone and everything. It was quiet and isolated. We spent an enormous amount of time in that room, she nursing, and me crying or reading, depending on the circumstance of the moment. My husband and older kids took up the slack with meals and chores. I did very little. I, too, am easily overwhelmed, and so I just let everything else go. In fact, I’m not sure I stepped out in my yard even once this summer–and I’ve got the garden weeds to prove it! And while a two-month reading vacation sounds nice, I really felt very lonely and removed from life. BUT…mission accomplished. Baby and I eventually got our issues worked out. I’m thankful for a totally supportive husband!!!

  9. Claire

    I never defined it as such, but when I had new babies, my Bare Minimum Mode always involved going to the gym. I didn’t work out super hard, or for very long – maybe 30 minutes, depending on how the baby and/or other kids were handling being in the nursery. But I needed to get out of the house regularly, I needed the exercise (more for my mental state than my physical – my body is averse to weight loss while nursing), and it added an element of routine amidst the crazy newborn non-schedule months. I like routine, even a loose routine. And the physical exercise was very important to keeping me calm and feeling in control. I did some of the other things you described as well (simple cooking, too much TV for the kids, LOL).

  10. LJ

    Oh, thank you! This is such a great idea… good to have in mind. Thanks for the very detailed suggestions.

  11. Ashley Duran

    I wish that I felt comfortable with a bare minimum mode. I don’t have babies to care for so I feel that I don’t have an excuse. I have been in grad school for a little over a year and I have felt torn between saving my sanity and feeling resentful that I have lost part of my life. I am also torn between depriving my husband of all social activities while I finish this…so I haven’t said no and I have been overwhelmed. hmmm…am I entitled to a bare minimum mode when it deprives other too?

    • Jennifer Fulwiler

      I would definitely say yes! Honestly, I think I needed Bare Minimum Mode at certain points before I had kids even more than I did now. I’d made certain career commitments that I couldn’t get out of in the short term, which meant that I had to buck up and get through. I wish I’d pared everything down then to save my sanity! 🙂

    • Jessica

      Yes, grad school (neuroscience) has really sucked up all my time, too. No more than two social events a month? Easy.

      My husband is very easy-going though, and has a lot of “guy time” fishing, playing baseball or flag football with buddies. I try to get in lots of (non-school) reading, so I don’t feel as resentful of the time lost in grad school.

  12. Michelle

    Yes, we’ve done bare minimum mode…but it seems it can only last about 6 weeks (coinciding with newborn baby’s first 6 weeks of earthly life).

    I like your tips, though, and I ought to consider bare minimum mode more often!

  13. Ashley

    I’m single, though I’ve been a live-in caregiver for a relative over the past 5 or 6 years. I try keeping things easy to manage on a daily basis just so even on stressful, busy days, we can easily keep up with the house.

    “Bare Minimum” days mean reverting to old (bad) habits of take away meals and disposable everything. But at the same time, they are days of blessings when I realize how much of my daily activities could be skipped and make my life less stressful in the process. If I have a favorite show (like… Doctor Who) I’ll set the DVR to record it and I’ll watch them when things have calmed down. Laundry skips the basket and goes strait into the washer (I wear all dark clothes anyhow, to cut down on sorting, and the washer is ran as soon as it’s full). Everything not necessary for day-to-day activities is postponed for two weeks. After two weeks I’ll look at them again. If I have to have it done (like repairs, trip to town for supplies, etc) I’ll set a day to do them. If they can be postponed for another two weeks, they get postponed. It’s not a long term thing, but for months like May when we cram 6 weeks worth of work and appointments into 4 weeks, it’s a necessary thing.

  14. Carrie

    This post made me breathe a sigh of relief that there was someone else like me in the world. 🙂 I too am an introvert who makes time for reading. I have four kids, the youngest of whom is almost 6 months, and before she was even born, I was preparing to make those adjustments that are just necessary to us. We eat a lot of takeout food, I am finally having a mommy’s helper come in once a week to hold the baby so I can get things accomplished, I have days (like today) where the kids did a LOT of TV/computer games and I just rested – because I just needed it. Also, we have not been having ANY company for the past while because it was just too stressful for me. This too shall pass and life will not always be so tiring and we will be eating healthier and I will have energy to be more creative with the kids.

  15. Givinya de Elba

    Yes! I call them Minimum Standards Days. The guideline is:

    “The day can be called a success if you haven’t seen BLOOD or FLAMES.”

    • Jennifer Fulwiler

      ROFL! I LOVE that. I need to put that up in my living room.

      • Juliana B

        Me too! I have two little boys and a clutzy hubby, and that should be our family motto!

  16. Katarina@ myunorderedthoughts

    I have been in bare minimum mode since 2007 when i had my first child . I have three now . Here is how i survive it :-

    1. Breakfast and showers as a rule for everyone happens before 8am . ( hey i cant function without one – its the tropics here )
    2. Laundry only gets done twice a week and cleaning the house as well
    3. Lots of reading , doodling and story time
    4. At least once a week visit to grandmas
    5. I do the saturday vigil mass instead of sunday as i have more time to prepare
    6. Twice a day naps for everyone and 7:30 bedtime

  17. Karen

    We’re just coming out of a Bare Minimum mode kind of time now. After 3 months of HG my zofran pump is being returned and my home health nurse hasn’t been here in weeks. My dh has also been traveling a lot, in and out of the country, these last few weeks.
    Bare Minimum here means:

    no more activities or committments than usual (no play dates, no dentist or doctor check-ups, no date nights)

    no projects of any sort

    minimal school for the little kids

    dinner is something I can direct the kids to cook while I lay on the couch or something that is reheated. HEB pizza was dinner a ridiculous number of nights. It also can’t be anything too smelly or cook too long and stink up the house ie crockpot food.

    housekeeping is keeping one notch above gross.

    My, bare minimum, including driving kids to and from activities, pretty much daily, doesn’t look like minimum to many but for us it is. It would take everything I had to get the kids to where they *had* to be but they got there. Professors for dual credit classes really don’t care if your mom is pregnant with her 10th child, for example.

  18. Gaby

    I call it “Survival Mode”. Since I have teens who can babysit the younger ones, the extra funds are put towards take-out food — seeing as how simply, quick, easy and oft-repeated meals have pretty much become part of our standard routine. Hotdogs are declared a “meal”. I bribe or rely on emotional blackmail to get the kids to clean the most important parts of the house (BATHROOMS! living rm, family rm) so we don’t feel like swine wallowing in our own muck. And I not only don’t worry about how much TV they’re watching, it’s open season for video games, as well.

  19. carrie

    I have lived for years in bare minimum mode. I am pregnant with our seventh child and the other 6 are all under 12 years. I am a stay home mom with a husband at work full-time and back in college full-time thanks to our bad economy in Michigan. It isn’t an easy place to be, but I have figured out something priceless.

    A lot of what we do as mothers we do because we are expected to. There is a lot of social pressure to have the “perfect” house, “Perfect” kids, “perfect” finances, and on and on. I learned a long time ago that if my marriage is strong, my kids are healthy, reasonably clean and educated, and we are making time for God and each other, everything else can be cut. And surprisingly, when it’s cut, it’s often a relief rather than a hardship.

    “For everything there is a season and a time and place under heaven”.
    It might not be my “season” for a social life, a blooming savings account or even five minutes peace, but there is joy in the chaos, too.

  20. Juliana B

    We are in Bare Minimum Mode right now, as our youngest child is less than 2 months old and the older two are under four. I was doing okay until the birth, and now I’m pretty much overwhelmed all the time. (Did I mention that my 17 month old middle child JUST started walking? As in, like 2 weeks ago. And weighs 27 pounds? And we live in a city where we don’t drive much? Oy).

    But. To answer the question about what it looks like for us. I’ve been cooking a week at a time usually on Saturdays, and freezing stuff that I just heat up during the day. I tend to use my meal rotation schedule (see for more information on our plan) to make my monthly plan and go from there. I just rotated out the “turkey night” and subbed in “egg night” as my oldest just passed an egg allergy food challenge. I craft as my business, so I don’t put that aside, but I’m careful about how much extra work I take on. A woman contacted me recently for 100 custom birthday party invitations, but I told her they would be digitally designed instead of pieced by hand (she still gave me the business!). I do more computer work since I can do a lot of that while nursing my very fussy, reflux-y baby for the 6 hours that she wants to be on the breast from dinner time to midnight. We limit social engagements, and are not traveling for the holidays this year. I still go out, because otherwise I might lose my mind, but not often. We are using our regular babysitter more often than we had planned. Laundry is getting done is fits and starts (dark load one day, white load the next), and I’m ordering our groceries from a delivery service.

    I’m trying not to worry about the work I’m *not* getting done (I have an ongoing project that I should keep plugging away at, but am having trouble getting to it, as it is a handwork project and not digital, and I don’t have free hands right now).

  21. Kris, in New England

    We don’t have children however we do have extremely busy lives, in general. Between mutual work responsibilities, social activities, other cultural commitments and now, as new Catholics, church-centered activities – our calendar has blown up even moreso than usual.

    We usually take the month of January “off”; we call it Hibernating. We accept no social invitations, keep our church commitments to the bare minimum 🙂 and just enjoy the peace and quiet of the post-holiday craziness.

    We have tried our hibernation technique at other times of the year; it always is an epic fail.

  22. Briana

    I didn’t realize I’d been doing bare minimum for years. It has become a way of life here. Probably I should get out of the habit but just keeping up with schoolwork, clean laundry and some sort of sustenance for 6 people rules out anything extra already.

  23. Devon

    I so needed this post today! I’m about 2 months pregnant with our fourth child, and morning sickness has me completely out of it. I’m struggling big time with how to keep up with my house, the schooling of my other children, and just life in general. I’ve felt very guilty for not putting in more time for outside social activities for the kids. I need to just accept that for the next month or so, this is life!

  24. Mary

    I am from Canada and am blessed with excellent maternity leave, so for me, bare minimum mode will really kick into gear when I have to go back to work.
    However right now, for me, an extrovert chef (actually), bare minimum means:
    1 – 3 “easy” meals per week, including at least 1 meal that hubby can cook. 5 of those meals have to include leftovers for lunches
    2 – My mum takes our (very high needs behaviourally-challenged) dog so that I can focus on baby
    3 – I leave the house at least 3 times a week. If I don’t leave the house, my depression issues sky-rocket – I need to be social to survive!
    4 – Park the car when the baby falls asleep while driving and take a nap
    5 – No guests over at the house

  25. Liz S.

    I usually plan to be in bare minimum mode leading up to having a baby. I try to stock the house with easy to prepare food and lots of snacks, I finish up any household projects that are outstanding, and try to meet up will all my friends before the baby comes. I know that last one sounds weird, but I find socializing with a newborn really stressful. I sort of like to hang out in my pj’s all day, not be running the vacuum! I guess I am a super-introvert too. Your plan is a good one. When you look back over the year, I always see that I got more done overall by taking the time off, then if I had tried to power through such a stressful period.

  26. Trisha Niermeyer Potter @ Prints of Grace

    I did a version of bare minimum mode at times starting in high school, when my school life and home life were causing me more stress than I could handle. Actually, truth be told, my body would often force me into bare minimum mode when I’d try to do too much for too long without taking enough time to relax and sleepy. I’d come down with some virus, strep throat, or something that would inevitably force me to slow down and tend to my needs, not stress over what I couldn’t do or didn’t feel up to at the time.

    My bare minimum mode was also something that kicked in during major family crises. I’d concentrate on my husband, work, and manage the crisis and not make promises to anyone else. We ended up eating out quite often and came to accept that was one of the ways we got through things.

    Bare minimum mode when it comes to nannying was letting the kids play while supervised rather than spending as much time reading to them, talking and interacting with them as I usually would. I was much gentler with myself on those days that I was taking care of my little guys after being up most of the night with my husband after he’d had surgery.

    Lord, thank You for giving us ALL that we need to do Your will-no more and no less-each day. Please help us to glorify You, love those You’ve entrusted to us, and take care of ourselves, so that we are ready to serve in whatever ways You lead us to. Amen.

  27. Regina

    We also call it Survival Mode. And I live in it much more than I’d like too. But it has a spiritual side to it. Why do we flitter around so? We stack tasks and do’s onto ourselves and make ourselves miserable! We moms love to do this to ourselves! When I’m in survival mode, I focus on “Macro” housework: do the laundry, skip the wall wipe-off. I also have to go into a minimalist mode when it comes to media / tv / book consumption. Don’t you ever feel like you’re ravaging your emotional life with bad news, bad characters, bickering, etc. I put away the novels, tune out the blogs, flick off the news, and memorize a couple questions from the Catechism or read a life of a really hard core saint.

  28. Christine

    My husband’s been on 100% travel for almost the entire year thus far, so I’ve been holding down the fort with three kids during the week. My mom is terminally ill and I have developed some freakshow health problems myself, so Bare Minimum is the best we can do right now. It really, really helps to remind yourself (sometimes CONSTANTLY) that this is all temporary. I’m also an only child introvert, so getting out and actually spending time with people besides those with whom I live helps enormously, too.

  29. Deborah

    What a great list! We have a 6 year old, a 3 year old, and an adorable 3 month old baby. Immediately after our little guy was born, we learned he has Down syndrome and a congenital heart defect. Breastfeeding has been challenging, so I’ve been pumping 6x/day for the past 3 months. My husband and I were just discussing the need to hire a mother’s helper or arrange childcare swaps or something, because I feel like we’re barely keeping afloat. It’s such a good idea to make a list of OK temporary behaviors. Thanks!

  30. Paul H

    This post worries me a bit, because your “bare minimum mode,” which you describe as a temporary state, in some ways goes beyond what my wife and I have been able to do at any time since having our first child almost eight years ago. (We currently have four kids.)

    For example, socializing twice a month? You mean as in, with other adults who you aren’t related to, and without the kids along? We are doing good if we can manage that twice a YEAR. And in our house, things like “scrapbooking, closet cleanouts, garage organization, etc.” often get put on hold much longer than six months. Also, the idea of my wife or I taking on any kind of freelance work is hard to imagine.

    But I don’t mean to complain, because I am very happy with my life. However you have convinced me that either there is something wrong with us, or you and your husband indeed must be Superwoman and Superman. 😉

  31. Erica

    I find bare minimum mode happens during each major transition (and I’ve had them pretty much non-stop for the last 12 years–including 2 colleges in 2 states, at least 7 different jobs, moving internationally 3 times, learning 2 foreign languages, marriage, 2 kids, etc. Most recently, I have moved internationally, learned a new language, and had a kid in my new culture in the space of a year which has equaled no friends and no energy to make friends because I also have a toddler, so this has been an extended time of bare minimum). I always know I’ve transitioned when I a) start taking an interest in personal appearance again (one of the first things to go), b) get things somewhat organized around the house again (does not come naturally, so it’s a real energy-sucker for me) and c) start taking more initiative again in getting to know people/spend time with new people or just plain getting out of the house.

  32. Tania @ Larger Family Life

    Last month we became parents to beautiful twin girls who are our 10th and 11th children. Last week I wrote a post on having eight children, aged eight and under and gave some tips of my own which pretty much fall in line with your bare minimum mode. It’s all about prioritising the “must-do’s” from the “not-a-huge-deal-to-not-do-and-things-won’t-fall-apart-if-we-don’t-do’s” *breath!*. Here is the post:

  33. Reva Jimenez

    This post worries me a bit, because your “bare minimum mode,” which you describe as a temporary state, in some ways goes beyond what my wife and I have been able to do at any time since having our first child almost eight years ago. I have four kids, the youngest of whom is almost 6 months, and before she was even born, I was preparing to make those adjustments that are just necessary to us.

  34. Lorene Guerrero

    My ‘Bare Minimum Mode’ is usually only for a day or two (although I LOVE the idea of a six-month-long one!). It might not be my “season” for a social life, a blooming savings account or even five minutes peace, but there is joy in the chaos, too. If I don’t leave the house, my depression issues sky-rocket – I need to be social to survive!

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