It’s a reality of military life: we have limited time at any given duty station, whether that’s a short ten months for a course or an extended four-year stint at a base. No matter how long you’re there, the time can go quickly. Sometimes it feels like you just watched the movers drive away with a truck full of empty boxes, and before you know it, you’re picking up sandwiches and sodas for your next moving crew to pack you back up.
As a professional organizer, I help my clients get organized in more aspects of their lives than just closets and pantries. Time is truly the most precious of commodities, so it’s one of my favorite things to help my clients tame. While the duty station time crunch can be one of the frustrating parts of military life, it can also be one of the biggest blessings. Having a limited amount of time at each location can light a fire under you to get out and experience your new home city/state/country!
Signature stays: From military landmarks to bucket-list vacation adventures
One of my first pieces of advice to new military spouses is this: get your bucket list organized. It may not seem like the most obvious guidance, as most people expect me to point them toward PCS binders and color-coded moving labels (and to be fair, that’s usually the next thing I talk to them about)! I find that families without a clear and concrete bucket list are far more likely to do the stressful last-minute pre-PCS scramble to try to see the sights, go to the restaurants, and take the day trips they meant to when they first arrived.
Here are my top tips to get your bucket list out of your head and into an organized, tangible, and visual checklist:
- Grab a map of your new location and a marker, circle places you want to go and color them in when you’ve experienced it. Etsy is an excellent resource for scratch maps or pin maps of states, countries, and National Parks.
- Use a simple whiteboard or chalkboard. This method makes adding, removing, and checking things off your list easy.
- A felt letter board can be a stylish way to have your bucket list out in plain sight. I did this for our short 11-month stint in Virginia, and it was a perfect size – and cute as well!
- If digital is more your cup of tea, try a shared Google Maps list, an iPhone note, or a Google spreadsheet checklist (or a combination of all of these).
- Get the kids involved! Giving them an entry or two on the bucket list can be a great way to get them excited about their new home. Encourage older kids to write their own bucket list and display it in their room.
- If seeing every bucket list item at once is overwhelming, try organizing your list by season. This is especially important for shorter assignments, so you don’t miss fall foliage or spring flowers because you weren’t tracking what free weekends would be best to catch those amazing colors!
- Rather than having an open-ended list, I encourage you to take the time to schedule your outings and trips. It’s far too easy to never get to something if you don’t put a date to it.
- Finally, I urge my clients to have a weekly family meeting. Discussing your bucket list at your family meeting is a great way to keep it top of mind. For our year in Virginia, we picked one bucket list item a month to tackle, put it on our calendars during our family meeting, and assigned one person to be in charge of planning that outing.
After all that planning and dreaming, it’s time to make your bucket list happen! We are currently stationed in Vicenza, Italy – a dream of a duty station. We only have two years here, so we feel pretty rushed to see as much of Europe as we can in this short time. The only way to make this happen with busy work, school and social schedules is to plan, plan, and plan some more.
Here’s how I organize my busy little family’s European travels:
- I framed scratch maps in our tiny entryway as inspiration. I am a checklist fanatic, so I love that I can scratch off the country flags when we’ve been there as a family. They’re also a fun conversation starter when people come over! To make it less overwhelming, I used whiteout tape over the countries we don’t plan on visiting while stationed here.
- Our entryway garage door is magnetic, so I use a set of dry erase magnets to plan our trips for the next six months and beyond. My husband and I started with our top priority locations and assigned each place a magnet. We then created a calendar with four-day weekends and potential time to take leave. This has evolved over the time we’ve been here, with trips getting scrapped because of travel restrictions and schedule changes. That’s been the beauty of the dry erase magnet board – it’s incredibly flexible when the calendar and priorities change!
- Once we’ve decided on a trip and dates, I plan the trip using a notebook I created. Many people like to do things like this in a digital format, but I prefer writing it all out by hand. Each trip gets a cover page with a to-do list, including hotels to book, restaurants to reserve, and tickets to purchase. Then each day gets an hour-by-hour itinerary, so we know where to be and when. A note: this does NOT mean I plan each and every hour. In fact, I leave a LOT of flexible space because we are traveling with a toddler…and I think it’s far more fun to save some room for the unexpected.
- My husband and I share Google Maps lists for each trip that we can each add to as we’re researching our trip ahead of time. Then we make sure to download an offline version of the map before the trip in case we lose service. It works like a charm to help visualize the day and route we want to take when exploring.
- I create an email folder for each trip to contain hotel confirmation, dinner reservations, museum tickets and tour booking emails. This makes it super easy to pull information up while we’re on the go.
- After each trip, I gather all of our paper keepsakes from the trip – tickets, museum brochures, maps, and our daily itinerary pages – and put them in a binder sleeve for memorabilia. I also gather all of our receipts from the trip and go through my iPhone photos and use those to journal what we did each day. It’s become a precious ritual I do after each trip. I will be excited to pass it down to our son so he can read about all the adventures we had when he was too young to remember. And it’s honestly surprising how often I share these journal entries with friends who are planning to visit the same places!
Lauren Weldon May is an Army spouse, Certified Professional Organizer and owner of Manifesto Home + Office.