We are nearly done with this series on building habits to keep our homes humming and harmonious. Previously, we’ve already worked on
- Assemble: Start Your Brain Dump List
- Act: Process That List
- Arrange: Organize Your Stuff & Your Plans
- Assess: How to Evaluate for Forward Momentum
Now, this is where the cycle loops. As you go along the way, you’ll probably end up adding more stuff to your collected items, changing around your container/list-management set-up, and then that means more organizing to get through. But you’ll start to get pretty good at it, the more you do it. Not needing to do it is not the sign that you’re getting someplace. You will have to go through this process again and again, whenever you feel that ambiguous mental stress.
As you spill everything out of your head onto paper and sort through it, you need to have an idea of where you are going to know how to process all those pent up ideas, ideals, and obligations.
Aim for the habits and the actions, not the outcome.
We are often encouraged to set SMART goals: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, Time-bound. It sounds great, and those goals do have a place. But when much of our lives is about developing people (ourselves and our children), we can’t put ourselves or others into such neat little boxes. We must treat people as people instead of as projects. So for many of our hopes for the future, we’d do better to focus on our processes – what we do today and tomorrow and the next day – rather than on reaching a particular outcome.
Instead of setting SMART goals, look at your responsibilities and decide on one key change you could make in the way you work it that would make a huge difference. You do not control other people, circumstances, or the future. You do control your responses to people and to disappointments, your actions in a day, and your attitude along the way. So focus on what you do control, not what you don’t. This doesn’t mean the results won’t happen, because they probably will, it means you’re allowing the space for them to happen – happen bigger, happen different, happen better, happen longer – who knows? This is working and living with an open hand. This is living and working with faithful trust in a good God.
Focus on habit-building rather than goal-reaching, and your abilities to reach goals will be dramatically increased as a side benefit. The truth is that we quickly run out of discipline and will-power. We can’t sustain it constantly long-term. What we need instead is system and habit. System means making decisions about how you do things up front so that you don’t have to consider all your options and make a decision every single time. A habit is an action that no longer takes mental energy to perform; it is an action that has reached automaticity. So, what we need to do as we go along is to slowly establish systems for areas of our life that are draining us, then work at them until the system is a habit. It could be anything from making your bed after brushing your teeth to hugging your children as they get their breakfast to always putting bills to be paid into your inbox. A system does not have to be impersonal and cold and rigid, it is simply “the way we do things here.” You bring the life to them. Your wisdom can bend and change them. But having them reduces the mental effort required to sustain a busy, active household.
When you feel overwhelmed with all the details of life, see what decisions you can make upfront and then follow-through on them until it is habit. Work on one habit at a time for a sustained period of time, then add another one. Gradual, steady growth will pay off more than bursts that lead to busts.
Aim for the big picture.
In order to decide what you should cut or add to your plans, routines, and schedules, you need to know what end you’re striving for. There are many opportunities for us that are true, good, and beautiful, that are excellent, pure, praiseworthy, and lovely. But we cannot do it all. So we have to filter what our own big picture must contain.
Now, I don’t actually think every person needs to be committed to a single, written mission statement. However, we would still benefit from having those sorts of conversations, from knowing what is important to us, from understanding what gifts we have and how best to invest them. Thinking about your hoped-for end before you decide what to do is traditional, proverbial wisdom. One such maxim I found is from the Greek philosopher Epictetus:
First say to yourself what you would be; and then do what you have to do.
So, a written mission statement is fine and dandy, but I’m not going to push that. Still, do think about where you want to be, about who you want to be, and then make choices holistically based on that end rather than on immediate expediency. To live holistically, one does need a unifying principle. And for the Christian, that unifying principle will be some variation of “Glorify God, grow in wisdom and holiness, and use my gifts and talents to further His kingdom.”
No one person or family can do all the legitimately good things there are to be done, so praise God there are lots of people in the world!
Aim for the short-term.
Then, somehow, we have to take that big picture guiding principle for our lives and translate it into what to do today. I’ve been doing this by making an action plan for every 6 weeks to correspond to our year-round school schedule. I call this 6-week chunking an Interval Plan.
Breaking up your year into intervals is a simple way to sharpen your focus and stay engaged with projects and the things that need to be done to keep life at home rolling along. Instead of looking ahead over an entire year and making goals, try looking only at the next six weeks. What has to happen in the next six weeks? That’s a lot more clear usually.
The truth is, you don’t know what your life will be like in another 12 months, or even 6. Especially if you are still in the phase where your family is young and growing, you might not know if you’ll be pregnant, what the toddler’s nap routine will be like, and a million other variables. Instead of trying to control the details and plan out your life for an entire year (or more!), look at the next 6 weeks and determine what is most important in the phase that you are actually in right now rather than where you hope to be in the future. Faithfulness happens in the now, not the future, and God works with us where we are, not where we should be or want to be.
So embrace the now and work with it. Live it. And know that you’ll be able to handle the unpredictability of life by applying faithfulness and obedience as you go along.
This short-term focus also allows for bursts of energy and for slower periods of recovery. Setting aside time for rest and recuperation and a slower pace is a key practice for avoiding burnout, for maintaining your engagement with the present, and for sustaining an intentional approach to life. We weren’t made to just keep going and going and going at a frantic, perpetual clip. We were made in God’s image, and God set the pattern for us in working and resting. The rest is just as important a time as the work itself.
This series is very similar to my new free email course, called Declutter Your Head.
If you want actionable steps and encouragement delivered right to your inbox so you can master these organization habits, sign up and start today!