homemaking

Building better habits at home

I remember sharing a dorm room with a friend in college and simply being astounded that every day, first thing, she made her bed. My home-keeping habits were not so regular.

It was no mean feat, either, as she was on the top bunk. Every day. It was and is simply pulling teeth for me to make my bed. But I suspect it would have been just as difficult for my friend to not make her bed as it was for me to make my bed.

In both cases, it would seem to us that something was not right.

In my case, because a jumble of blankets was normal, and a made bed was unfamiliarly neat-looking. For my friend, it was the opposite. An unmade bed was just not right; things were off.

What made this difference in us? Years and years of unbroken habit: hers built by making her bed every day and mine in not.

Kids’ habits at home start with mom’s habits

NB: These stories, examples, and musings were originally written in 2012 when my oldest was not yet 9.

I desperately want my children to have the second nature to put a book back on the shelf when they’re done, to put their coat in the coat closet (I even just have a bin to toss them in!), to pick up their pencils when they fall on the floor, etc.

I want them to be established in good habits, because in things like that, it is all about what you are accustomed to do.

I want my children to have years of unbroken habit in keeping things the way they should be kept rather than in making and leaving messes. I want it to take no conscious thought or effort to put something away rather than just put it down wherever, just to do it that way because that’s what was natural to them.

But, there is no way they are going to have those sorts of habits built unless I have them as well, and unless I build them myself first.

After all, I won’t think to remind them to put things away if it’s not normal to me.

If I’m inconsistent, sometimes having them put things away and sometimes not; then they just learn (if they’re lucky) how to play their mother rather than learning any lasting habits.

Order and neatness cannot become natural to them unless I give them an environment where order and neatness is the norm. If the house is normally in decent order and we have set times to tidy up so things never get too far out of hand then they can see how pencils on the floor are out of order rather than barely noticeable and how leaving books spread all over the house is not right.

Then there is, of course, the hypocrisy angle. If the kitchen always has dirty dishes from three days ago and flour that’s been on the counter for days, how can I harp on Legos left out? If my bedroom has clothes on the floor, why do I care if their room has clothes on the floor?

If I expect of them what I don’t expect of myself, I will lose my credibility and their respect.

But what I need to remember in all this is that my desire is to give to them, not get from them.

I want good things for them; my intention is to bestow good habits, not to take from them, not even to demand of them, ultimately. That attitude needs to be evident in my words and actions, or once again I will not be giving them a love of order and neatness.

If it is not natural to me, and if things aren’t kept up regularly, then I get frustrated and become a harpy, carping on them for messes left hither and yon. And then cleaning up becomes a hateful, unpleasant thing for us all.

Instead, I want picking up to just be part of the normal rhythm of life.

Good home habits give peace of mind

“The way you keep your house, the way you organize your time, the care you take in your personal appearance, the things you spend your money on all speak loudly about what you believe. “The beauty of Thy peace,” shines forth in an ordered life. A disordered life speaks loudly of disorder in the soul”

Elisabeth Elliot

The more I do work on establishing order, the more I realize what a peace-giving thing it is.

My old ways are still evident in my bedroom (though it’s not so bad as my childhood bedroom): it feels awkward and bizarre when I walk into my room and it’s clean. It isn’t natural to me, and I feel out of place, like I’m trying to be something I am not.

A clean kitchen also used to feel that way to me, but I’ve had enough times of consistency that a messy, cluttered kitchen now feels wrong rather than normal.

A floor that needs to be swept actually bothers me, even if a bedroom that needs to be vacuumed doesn’t.

So, I want to continue this trend.

However, there are two problems with my desire.

The first is the obvious one that I still have a lot of areas and bad habits to conquer.

The second is that the more I grow accustomed to neatness, the more and more that disorderliness stresses me out.

But, if I grow in habits like putting things away instead of putting it down, the messes don’t grow so quickly and as exponentially as they once did. So I want to become better at the moment-by-moment and daily maintenance habits rather than focusing on big weekly (or monthly) cleans.

I like organizing closets, but when the closet is in disarray two days after a big organizing binge, it all seems futile. Hello, boom and bust cycle.

And, since I’m the only one getting into the closet, I can’t even blame anyone else. Really, what’s the point of all this organizing if I don’t put things away where they belong when I’m done with them?

What’s the point of having a place for everything, if I don’t put things back in their place?

I want my lovely organization systems and methods to work, but they don’t work if I don’t. And the more I work them the more smoothly they work and the more stress they relieve.

Be persistent.

It is worth the time and effort to build better home habits, but it is a process and a journey. Today, I share mine.

Better home habits start today.

The more I can conquer around the house and the more good habits I can instill in myself and my children now, the more benefits we will reap as life picks up its pace.

I have always viewed getting a working system in place and working on good habits a priority in this early stage of the homeschooling family game.

Now we’ve begun to pick up the pace in that game and it’s all a lot less theoretical, and either my motivation is going to kick into high gear or I’m going to throw up my hands, let it all go, try to “just do the next thing, whatever that is” (which becomes dealing with one emergency after another), and being exhausted and cranky and frustrated all the time.

I don’t want to be exhausted and cranky all the time.

I do want a home of peace. I do want to manage my home. And I think it’s possible.

It will be a lot of work up front, but it’ll get easier the longer I am consistent.

Now might not be the easiest time to put up the effort, but I just don’t see that putting it off for 4-5 months will really make life easier or help my attitude at all.

There just is no “good” — i.e. easy — time to start when you’re in the life stage of pregnancies, little people, and beginning school. But putting it off until all that calms down hardly seems workable, either.

The dynamics will change, but will they calm down, especially if we persist in bad habits and bad attitudes?

After all, homeschooling is only going to be more demanding as my children progress and as more begin. What if there’s another pregnancy and baby?

Sure, I’d really like to start a garden, but how can I even think of adding more to my plate when I’m not on top of what I’ve got?

So, now might not be easy, but it’s just not looking like there’s going to be an easy time anytime soon. And, tackling it now holds out the promise of life not being so hard as it might be if I don’t.

The emotional benefits of habits & routines

When tasks become routine, they require much less physical and emotional energy. A normal day is easier to get through without having to make numerous draining decisions […] You can have the emotional resources you need to be pleasant with the children since your day is not in upheaval. — Terri Maxwell, Managers of Their Homes

Establishing a routine bestows more emotional energy.

It takes time & effort to implement a routine, but once established, the routine decreases the amount of time and effort needed to maintain it.

A household run on routine and good habits is beautiful, and worth the effort. A household that runs on routine takes less thought & effort than the household that does not. Routines give us the rhythms that remind us to keep up our good habits.

I watch my daughter play new songs and I know: learning new songs is often challenging, even frustrating. But once the piece is mastered? She plays nearly effortlessly. Too, composing a new refrain of behaviors, a chorus of rituals, is deliberate, slow, trying work. But once the behaviors become habits, rhythmic rituals, we catch ourselves singing without thinking.

Ann VoskampComposing New Habits

Schedules are the routines one wants to be run by, written down so they can be referred to until they are established.

Schedules are written down to eliminate decision-making. Just do it.

So, I’m returning to my schedule until it becomes routine so that I train myself in the habits I want to establish.

Repetition is the only way to build habits at home

Let these things become as a natural law to the household.

Habits are only formed after they are repeated without interruption for a long time. So, it might take years for these habits to be formed, but we’re going to work on it anyway.

Supposing that the doing of a certain action a score or two of times in unbroken sequence forms a habit which it is as easy to follow as not; that, persist still further in the habit without lapses, and it becomes second nature, quite difficult to shake off; continue it further, through a course of years, and the habit has strength of ten natures, you cannot break through it without doing real violence to yourself.

— Charlotte Mason

I have years of bad habits I am having to break in order to establish my new habits.

So it is ok that it has been so difficult for me. I do have to stretch to the point of really breaking myself to undo the habits of bad action in order to form the habit of right action.

Last time I was doing well in this area, we had a clean bedroom, and after taking my shoes off, I put them on the shoe rack.

It felt completely unnatural, and it literally felt like I was fighting with myself internally to do it.

“Look!” I grinned at Matt, “I’m putting my shoes away — where they belong!” “Yay!” he chuckled at me.

“Look at this! I’m putting my socks in the dirty hamper! I’m not even putting them on the floor to put in the dirty hamper tomorrow! I’m doing it right now!”

Now, in these quotes I actually see not so much me and my children, but me and myself.

I do well for a time, then ease up, and then suddenly there is chaos again. I am not talking about interruptions and emergencies and bad days, I am talking about normal days that I say, “Oh, well, I’m just not going to do it today.”

THAT has been what has thrown off my progress more times than real disruption in life. And THAT is what I want to work to avoid most this time around.

I know disruptions are coming. But what I am not going to do this time is cut myself slack on undisrupted, completely typical days. “I don’t feel like it today” is not ok.

Our phonics program says sight reading is a habit formed after a child has sounded out the word about 100 times. He practices decoding until he reaches mastery of the word.

Several months ago I applied this principle to our math, stopped forging ahead in the book, and just gave him drill sheets. I am not having him memorize the math facts by rote; I am having him work the problems over and over and over again until he doesn’t need to think it through any more. And it’s working.

So, now, I see I can apply this same “mastery” principle to my housework. I need to work through my schedule, my lists, my written-down routine, my habits I want to establish, over and over and over again until I master them.

I let myself off the hook too easily and too soon. After 3 weeks or so of doing a good job, I think I don’t really need to follow my list. But then after a few more weeks, we’re back to square one again and I decide what I really need is a new list.

What I need is to not stop working the system until I’ve mastered it, internalized it. 100 times, perhaps.

Turns out that’s only about 3-4 months if I stick to it. And then, when things do get off track, say Christmas week or when the baby is born, I need to jump right back into it ASAP. Everyday on the schedule is a day toward the goal.

Every day off the schedule is not a day off, but a day — or maybe even too — backwards, away from the goal.

We’ve had the same basic routine for years: Up, dressed, breakfast, chores, play, school, play, lunch, quiet time, play, dinner, bedtime. I am not messing with any of that. It is entrenched.

All I want is to add in picking up times, really, and get them as firmly entrenched in our household culture as quiet time in the afternoon is.

There are days it doesn’t happen, sometimes because of chaos and sometimes because of a special play date, but most days it’s the natural part of the day.

The times when it hasn’t been have been awful, and it always builds up gradually to awful. I want to establish our picking up times in the same vein.

It might not be as essential as breakfast, lunch, and dinner, but it one of those pieces that makes the day feel complete and right.

Six things I did to build better home habits

I have recently made a few key habit and home routine changes:

  • Finish one load of laundry every day (the times to start, move, fold, and put away are set)
  • Everyone, myself included, has 3 before-school morning jobs
  • Add after-dinner jobs for everyone.

Here is what I have been doing to help keep myself on-task:

  1. I simplified my daily checklist. The one I had worked great while I was all-myself (i.e. not pregnant) and before I had a one-year-old (12-24 months is the training intensive year at our house). I needed to simplify it for this stage of the game.
  2. I made a every-half-hour schedule. Set times work for me. It doesn’t stress me out, and it helps keep me motivated to stay on target. It helps me work at getting the tasks done quickly if I’m behind (which I almost always am, but that doesn’t stress me out; when I’m on schedule or ahead of schedule, then it’s like an extra cup of coffee to my mood). However, as encouraged by Terri Maxwell in Managers of Their Homes, I only have about 15 minutes worth of tasks in each scheduled 30 minute chore time, and I added in an extra half-hour buffer for school time. That helps the keeping-caught-up feeling, and it means there’s time reserved for the stinky diaper, the discipline issue, etc. etc.
  3. I have been trying to progress through the task list sequentially as I have it arranged on the checklist. This is where I struggle the most. I see the list, and I want to pick and choose and be in control, but what I think will be most beneficial is to make these actions rote habits, a rhythmic pattern I just go through without thinking or checking any list. Set the children doing their chores, soak the breakfast dishes, clear the counters, wash the table, make my bed, inspect children’s chores. It will be most effective, I think, to do those things in that order every time, every day, and then I won’t have to even think about it, it will be second nature to go from one to the next without thinking, “Ok, now what?” and without getting sidetracked by other little tasks that catch my eye — or my email.
  4. I also posted a simplified version of the children’s schedule where Hans can easily access it. He likes schedules and lists, too, so when he knows what should come next, he gives me that extra boost of accountability. Plus, when he sees how much play time is in there, but that pick-up time is reserved at the end of the day, too, he’s been much more cheerful when I call out, “Ok, 5-o’clock! Pick-up time!”
  5. I printed out my series on housekeeping and my establishing habits series and put them in a notebook. During my morning devotion time I read a portion (usually one post or one page, whichever is shorter) from each to help keep me focused and to remind myself what I’m trying to do and why. It’s been very helpful — when I’ve done it. It helps to have the ideas and quotes that have shaped and inspired me in the front of my mind as I go about my business.
  6. I have tried to keep a cheerful “Where does it belong?” on the tip of my tongue — or, on the forefront of my mind to tell myself. “Is that where that belongs?” helps us all remember we should just take the extra step or two to actually put things away instead of putting them down. Also, putting away one thing before moving on to the next is a very basic, but very challenging thing to keep on top of, but I’m trying. If we just focused for the next couple years on those two concepts, though, I think we’d be doing pretty well.

Keeping habits when energy is gone

In the whole GTD set-up, one of the issues that crops up for me is saying that energy is a criterion for choosing tasks. I have to be careful not to let that become an excuse for slipping into sloth. For me, it is sloth that is a key chaos-generator and system-wrecker. What is sloth, really? Well, the best definitions I could find came from Catholic catechisms — it is, after all, a deadly sin:

Sloth is the desire for ease, even at the expense of doing the known will of God. Whatever we do in life requires effort. Everything we do is to be a means of salvation. The slothful person is unwilling to do what God wants because of the effort it takes to do it. Sloth becomes a sin when it slows down and even brings to a halt the energy we must expend in using the means to salvation.

Now, let’s just substitute “sanctification” for “salvation” in that definition, and that hits us square between the eyes, doesn’t it? Well, it does me, anyway. So, how can we overcome this tendency and “work out our own salvation” — even if it’s just washing the dishes or changing a diaper or correcting a math sheet?

What if we know we have no legitimate excuse for lazing about aimlessly? How can we help ourselves do what we know we should be doing when we can’t get over ourselves well enough to get moving and get it done? After all, we already know in that moment, that getting over ourselves would solve the supposed “energy” problem.

Once sloth is set aside — repented of — and we decide to just do it, suddenly, we realize halfway through that it wasn’t so bad and we aren’t so tired after all. Yet, in that moment that requires the choice to be made, I seem to do my darndest to suppress that knowledge. I have been trying to keep in mind the Charlotte Mason quote:

The effort of decision, we have seen, is the greatest effort of life; not the doing of the thing, but the making up of one’s mind as to which thing to do first. It is commonly this sort of mental indolence, born of indecision, which leads to dawdling habits. […] This inveterate dawdling is a habit to be supplanted only by the contrary habit, and the mother must devote herself for a few weeks to this cure as steadily and untiringly as she would to the nursing of her child through the measles.

That makes me feel comforted: overcoming indolence is legitimately difficult. It encourages me that the more consistently I work at overcoming it, the easier it will be to do so. Also, I think of the poem by Goethe and its introduction by Joseph Morris:

Anything is hard to begin, whether it be taking a cold bath, writing a letter, clearing up a misunderstanding, or falling to on the day’s work. Yet a thing begun is half done. No matter how unpleasant a thing is to do, begin it and immediately it becomes less unpleasant. Form the excellent habit of making a start.

Lose the day loitering, ‘twill be the same story
Tomorrow, and the next one dilatory,
For indecision brings its own delays,
And days are lost lamenting o’er lost days.
Are you in earnest? Seize this very minute!
What you can do, or think you can, begin it!
Only engage, and then the mind grows heated;
Begin it, and the work will be completed.

And, of course, C.S. Lewis has something to add to the discussion, as well:

Very often the only way to get a quality in reality is to start behaving as if you had it already.

So, even if I feel like it’s “not the real me” while making my bed or actually hanging up my clothes at night, I will just go along with pretending I am a different me — the me I want to be. That is the only way to effect the change in reality. I have started to ask myself, “Is quitting halfway through this job just because I can the right thing to do?” No? Well, then, why not finish it?

It takes self-examination, but we need to be able to recognize the difference between legitimate lack of energy (sleepless nights, potty training, intensive training times, lack of quiet time for introverts or lack of interaction for extroverts, etc.). Truly there are times in a mother’s life where tiredness and lack of energy is very real, physical, and no version of “trying harder” will effect a change.

So, for those times when we are legitimately low on energy, Allen has this suggestion:

I recommend that you always keep an inventory of things that need to be done that require very little mental or creative energy horsepower. When you’re in one of those low-energy states, do them.

And one of those things should probably be “take a nap.”

The bottom line is to practice, becoming better and better at evaluating our options, making a good decision, and just doing it — whether it’s wiping down the toilets or taking a nap.

Not sure what your home habits should be?

Start with a brain dump.


Declutter your head.

  • Reduce stress by getting your thoughts onto paper
  • Reduce frustration by assigning homes to stuff, tangible & intangible
  • Reduce anxiety by knowing what you have on your plate

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