Space

I have been given a bit of a reprieve this week, with the older three in a camp for much of the day. I have had the chance, with more breathing room, to give some quality time to Tim, who has pretty much been dragged this summer from pillar to post in our quest for absorbing fun for everyone, while his preference is a much slower pace. I always struggle to give any of my four children quality time the way I’d like to, but now that summer is winding down, so am I. That early summer energy has evaporated, and slowing down is my deepest craving. With this week’s unexpected opportunity to follow a more relaxed rhythm, I developed the theory that it would actually be possible to “schedule” “space” for me and Tim. Yes, the dishes and laundry and other housework would all get done, hundreds of meals would all be prepared, but nestled into that activity would be a breathable pause each day this week, for Tim and me to just be. So I set aside the hour from 10 to 11, intending that that time be completely open and slow and Tim-driven.

We began on the first day by cutting paper. Tim is getting a kick these days out of painstakingly cutting hundreds of tiny slits in a piece of paper — toward no particular end. I keep him company and talk to him and stay next to him, but he’s really doing his own thing in a very focused way.

When even the deliberate Tim started losing interest in this, I asked if he wanted to go outside to swing. Normally, 99 times out of 100, if Tim asks me to push him on the swing, I am unavailable for one reason or another. His face lit up at hearing ME offer, for once.

Like Jane, the oldest, Tim is an epic swinger. He can swing for an hour straight. It is so nice and green and peaceful in our backyard, so this was a golden opportunity for some quiet time together. We listened to the sounds around us, and he became eager to know more about cicadas, since we rarely actually see one. In the process of explaining what I knew about them, we learned a bit about trees, too. We swang in silence for while longer, and then Tim said, “I’m tired.” Rarely do we have the chance to listen to our real body rhythms, we two. We are too busy running. It felt so good to let him follow his own lead on what his body needed.

So we came in, got a drink, watched a couple You Tube videos about cicadas, read a book, and off he went to sleep. No nap in the car, squeezed between errands. No curtailed nap squeezed between drop-offs and pick-ups. Just a long, slow, lazy summer nap.

I got to enjoy the peaceful feeling lingering on as he slept, and pondered the discovery I’d made: that space CAN be scheduled, and slow rhythms are possible within the madness. That is not a lesson I want to forget.

Half Hours and Setting Limits

In my ongoing quest to combat perfectionism and chronic late-night attempts to do it all, I have developed this new idea about time that is making a big difference: allotting half-hour chunks for the big stuff. The things that torture me are the more global, strategic, long-term plans I have for my family, each of my children, myself, my marriage, and so on, and it is awfully hard to say, “There! I am finished working on that.” Not only that, but knowing that these brain-fillers are never going to go away and will always be changing and growing and throwing curve balls, “done-ness” is not even a reasonable goal. So I have to find a way to put in time on them, but also be ready to walk away and do all the recharging necessary to get up and do it all again. Clearly, I won’t survive otherwise. This way, matters are getting addressed but I still get to check a box that says “done” at the end of the day. Here is a list of 5 things just off the top of my head that are ongoing projects I want to put time into researching, and there are dozens more.

  1. Books for the kids (at appropriate reading level, challenging, address interests of the moment, acceptable moral content….)
  2. Family activities that take advantage of our area and ages and interests and don’t cost very much.
  3. Music or creative activities for the kids that don’t cost very much but expose them to new and enriching ideas.
  4. The best ways to maintain flow of inventory efficiently and keep costs down.
  5. Meals to try or other food-related strategies to satisfy picky eaters but make them less picky!

I am still working on what exactly gets those half hours and what falls into what category. But it’s a start.

DTUs

I am going to introduce my family to a concept that I have finally shaped in my mind called “Discrete Time Units,” or DTUs. So often I am asked to find out about a possible activity or set up an activity or assist with some project that will require a CHUNK OF TIME, or DTU. To truly understand how a scooter is to be put together, I will need to be given time and space to study the directions (many times) and mess around with the device without interruption. Some things just warrant that kind of dedicated attention. We got an ice cream maker for a birthday present for the twins, and everyone is desperate to make ice cream. Well, I need some time to wash all the parts, plan re the ingredients, and read the directions. If you want to know if you can have some violin lessons, then I will need some time to do some research on that. Do you see? In the ever-swirling chaos that is summer vacation, nothing is going to get done — including the dishes and the laundry, let alone the bills and the shopping and the cooking — without some DTUs for Mommy.

Right Brain/Left Brain

I have been developing a theory — again, as part of my “no holds barred” look at things in 2012 — that I am actually not an organized person. More accurately, I am a person for whom being organized does not come easily or naturally, but because I have an over-the-top work ethic, I have compensated for it until recently, when the sheer volume of work has made victory impossible. It is my current theory that I have been operating much like someone who has had a stroke — learning to use a different part of my brain to do what another part had previously done. Based on any test I have ever taken or any book on brain halves I have ever read, I am a radically right-brained person, and the right side of the brain should not be running the show when it comes to organizing a household. However, I am thinking that I have channeled a combination of creativity and holistic thinking, coupled with manic levels of perseverance, into a semblance of productivity. That worked for me before I had four children (or, really, just before the one first came on the scene), because I compensated for lack of efficiency with time. Now I see why I had to stay up till 3 and 4 in the morning as a teacher — because that’s how long it takes to get stuff done when you have no left brain! I am exaggerating, of course, and this is ultimately only a hypothesis, but it sure does explain why someone else can walk into a room and see what it takes to get it tidy and I can’t for the life of me see the steps involved. I see chaos and unmanageable amounts of things out of place and that is where I stop. The only way I can attack such a room is to take of my dysfunctional approaches, like working spatially, which kind of moves the mess toward one end of the room, or by putting like things with like things, but there is no overall plan, and there needs to be. The solution? Right-brainers always think there are solutions! I am going to read a book on right-brained organizing that my younger, prescient self bought at some point and leverage my weakness into strength. I’m going to win this thing!!

Time is Not My Friend

It is dawning on me that there are many different ways to think of time. This topic has been much on my mind of late as I seek the elusive goal of “getting organized.” The number one thing I must organize, it seems to me, is time, and I have an adversarial relationship at best with the clock. My traditional approach has been to print out the first page of my multi-page to-do list, hopefully with the highest priorities right there, and then to try to pick my way through the tasks around an increasingly whiny and needy toddler in the morning, and then around him plus three exhausted and emotionally drained girls in the afternoon. How’s that been working for me? I’d rather not talk about it. But if I had to pin down what is most hopeless, I’d have to say it’s the amorphousness of the list, the gelatinous and ever-changing nature of what there is “to do” in real life, and a total lack of clarity on what constitutes a “priority.”

I have mentioned before that I see a lot of value in GTD (Getting Things Done by David Allen), and that system has certainly helped me find better ways to capture the whispy threads of what is out there “to do” and weave them into a semi-coherent strand. But mothers, and probably most other people (as Allen acknowledges), are in a constant state of fluidity, so plodding through a list (if you ever even pin it down) is not an option. So here are some other ways to think of time that have worked for me:

1. Think in ten-minute chunks. For example, I tell myself: “This is my 10-minute decluttering chunk of time.” During those 10 minutes, I can surely find a way to stave off the toddler for the greater good of accomplishing something and feeling so very much better. The word “accomplishing,” though, is redefined as “working toward a goal for 10 minutes” (time-based) instead of “cleaning the living room” (task-based). This same approach works for larger chunks of time, too.

2. Think small. I frequently tell myself the next three concrete tasks I have to
do, and force myself to think only of those until they are complete. This again
gives a quick sense of accomplishment because I make sure the tasks are not too
time-consuming. For example, the list could be: empty dishwasher, get mail,
take out trash. Ten minutes at most to feel that gratifying sense of completion. I then make a new three-item list till it’s not feasible anymore.

3. Think big. What can also help, paradoxically, is thinking of time in week-long
chunks. Knowing only too well that no day will go as planned (or even close), it helps to think about what just “needs to have happened” by Friday. Then I can use my other methods to chip away at the bigger picture when it makes the most sense. The one flaw here is that that picture of the week is so much in flux that frequent checking-in with the bigger plan is required.

I am still working on developing more methods, since my house still resembles a landfill, but at least I have a few strategies at my disposal to keep me going. Sorta.