Hodge Podge: Life, Work, and Getting Your Point Across

In the mix this week: some thoughts on how we work (not just in jobs), form habits, and communicate.

Deep Work – In this fantastic book, Cal Newport describes how our culture is shifting toward shallow thinking, and the opportunities this opens for people who cultivate the ability to do deep work–that is, who know how to work with innovation, depth, and concentration. Newport discusses how to work deeply and develop focus and also exposes fallacies about what does and does not foster this ability. For example, he describes the idea that kids using iPads in school to prepare them for the high-tech economy is like giving them matchbox cars so they can learn to service a Porsche. Of particular strength are insightful sections on how to reframe the way we think about tasks and how we could approach tools and platforms with a craftsman approach (“Does this help me meet my core priorities?”) versus an any-benefit approach (“Shiny! New! I’ll take it!”). I took six dense pages of notes and was challenged in my thinking on many points, putting several of my take-aways into practice, such as the Roosevelt Dash. “A deep life is a good life.” Read this book. You will not regret it.

When Breath Becomes Air – This startling book is an end-of-life memoir written by a neurosurgeon struck in his mid-30s with terminal cancer. It sounds grim, but instead is hopeful and incredibly thought-provoking. One thing that stuck with me in particular was how Kalanithi’s pre-med background in literature and the humanities made him a better surgeon and more able to deal with the complexities and tragedies of own his life and those of his patients. Highly, highly recommended (both the book and the study of humanities!).

Reclaiming Conversation – This high impact book discusses how modern life is eroding our ability to communicate and relate to others, and offers suggestions for how to repair the walls. I’ve made a note to require my kids to read this book in high school, and would highly recommend it to anyone. Many things in our current culture are stacked against community and relationships, and it behooves us to pay attention and make stronger decisions about connection, empathy, attention, and imagination. This is not an anti-technology book, but rather a framework for how to prevent it from narrowing your world. An excellent read.

The Sweet Spot – In the habits and happiness genre, this book stands out for concrete, workable, high impact suggestions written in a personable, inspiring tone. I put a lot of things from this book into practice, including this year’s motto (Love is the horse) and defining the MDR (minimum daily requirement) for things like exercise to help me break the “well I don’t have two hours so I guess it’s nothing” mindset. Another strength of the book is the emphasis on how to build or repair relationships in small, manageable ways. I really liked this book, and would recommend it.

Smartcuts – The fact is, most of us have to work and get stuff done in life in one or more arenas. So, the author of Smartcuts posits, we should do these things in a smart way. Whether you have a traditional 9-5 or not, many of the tips in this highly readable and entertaining book will help you. Smartcuts demonstrates how the maxims many of us take for granted, like “put in your time” or “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” or “10,000 hours of practice makes you good at something” just aren’t true, and replaces those ideas with research-based alternatives.

Average is Over – There are a couple of fascinating points made in Average is Over, although I think they would have been made stronger in an article rather than a book. To sum up, the author argues that in recent decades a lot of people have been “overemployed relative to their skills” (that is, the cost of providing insurance and benefits is more than the value they provide) and that in the near future loads of people are going to fall out of the middle class. Some of the conclusions are fairly obvious but others are interestingly unique, such as the assertion that a key determinant in future success will be self-control. It’s not a bad book, but now you know the gist and you could probably skip it unless you’re just really interested in this sort of forecasting.

What have you been reading this week?

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On starting school, NOT planning, and knowing yourself

starting-school-not-planningWe started school again on August 1, having enjoyed the month of July for vacation. It was a shorter break than many choose, but for us it was just right–a couple of weeks at the lake with my parents, a couple of weeks at home.

A few people panicked on my behalf because how could I have time to plan a whole school year on only one month of summer break!?!?! Well, it’s simple really. We added a couple of new procedures and a few new subjects. I made clipboard checklists for the kids to encourage them to be more independent. I thought about goals and came up with some solutions to persistent problems. Other than that, I didn’t actually do any school planning.

There are three reasons this works for us.

1) I do not make detailed lesson plans. Or any lesson plans, really.

Yes, I said it. I see people online posting these incredible plans that list page assignments for every single day of the year in every single subject for every single child. Clearly some people love that sort of thing, and if it works for you, go for it! But please know–especially if you are just starting out and feeling overwhelmed–that it is not necessary.

That’s not to say that I go into each day loosey-goosey. We have a set number of subjects and a threshold for completion–we pack a lot of learning into each day. The difference is that my plan looks like “Sarah is using Saxon 5/4 for math”and we do math every day, rather than “Sarah will complete Saxon 5/4 Lesson 16 on August 19.”

After several years of being at this, I’ve realized that my teaching goal is mastery. Every day we move the ball down the field in each given area. Sometimes a kid is on fire and does three math lessons in a day. Sometimes something isn’t clicking and we spend five days doing one lesson. It doesn’t matter. It all comes out even in the end. The goal is for the child to learn math, not to complete a textbook in a given amount of time.

My decision has two facets:

  • I don’t want to hold my kids back. If she is ready to move on, we move on. Does the kid have that concept down? Great, I say, let’s not beat it into the ground. Who says you have to spend a year in a text book just because that’s how they would do it in a classroom? I don’t want to kill the child’s love and wonder for something just because my checklist says get through each and every lesson as written–or just because I made an elaborate plan that requires me to only do one lesson per day.
  • On the other hand, I don’t want to breeze over something that requires more time. In a classroom of 20 kids, you have to do that sometimes. In a classroom of a homeschool family, you don’t. If someone doesn’t get something, we camp out. I don’t get stressed because no one is telling me we had to make it to page 87 today. It’s more important that the child really understand the concept than that we track to a plan.

I do think you have to be careful not to fall behind too badly if your goal is to put a child into a traditional school at some point, or to graduate by a certain point, or to follow a certain academic path. So far, for us, following the goal of mastery has played out mostly in the sense of jumping ahead (for example, Sarah is a 2nd grader in a 5th grade math book) but I think even in areas where a child is behind, it makes more sense to work to mastery than to push ahead for the sake of a schedule.

There are probably notable exceptions and I may change my mind in the future, but that’s how it seems to me from here.

 

2) We do the same things every day.

The second reason minimal planning works for us is that I spent time up front thinking through what we do every day. I carefully considered how much each child should do independently. I changed our daily flow of events to see if that helped smooth some rough spots. But when it comes to actual teaching, we do different lessons and amounts of each subject, but we do accomplish those subjects daily (or several times a week, depending on the item). So each child has a checklist of independent work that I just print out weekly with no changes. He or she knows to do the next thing, or whatever specific instruction I gave during individual teaching time. The only thing I change on my record-keeping checklist are specific book titles by category for read-alouds, vocabulary words, and art projects.

For some people, doing different things every day really helps. For my kids, it’s easier to make the school day a given. I don’t want to fight battles over whether or not it’s the day for math or cursive or whatever. Is it a school day? Then you are doing math, writing, cursive, etc. This makes things easier for me, but it also makes the kids feel better because expectations are clear.

3) We stick with what is working.

Yes, I know there are simply gobs of different ways to teach math. I’m sure lots of them are more colorful, more fun, more modern, and more hip than Saxon. But after trying lots of different things, hopping around from book to book hoping to find the magic and mysterious One Perfect Fit, I decided that my goal is to teach math. And Saxon does just fine. I don’t use the books exactly as written, so I can tailor the lessons to each child, but for the most part we just truck through each level.

The point is, I find that most of the time I can make what I have work for what I need. Because I’m not casting about for the latest and greatest grammar, writing, spelling, math, and so on anymore, I don’t have to spend time learning new systems. Other than new subjects I add for my oldest student, I’m not having to reinvent the wheel.

So, for me, school planning is really about evaluating systems and considering goals.

I think through pain points in our school days and try to come up with solutions. I consider where each child needs improvement or more challenge, and whether he or she is developmentally ready for more. I make general checklists and the details fall where they may.

That said, I’m an ENTJ (side note for MBTI nerds: I once thought I was an ENTP in spite of always testing ENTJ, but then I realized that I’m actually not spontaneous, I just have an extremely low tolerance for inefficiency so I change things up as I go–now I’m wondering if I’m really an E or if I’ve become an I in my 30s? Is that possible?) so big picture planning appeals to me. Maybe the detail planners are different personality types? As with many things in life, it’s important to know yourself. 

If you like personality typing, you might enjoy the homeschool personality post at Simply Convivial. I found it helpful, and even freeing, to realize that I do things a certain way because it works for me.

Maybe you plan (or not) in a totally different way, and that’s great! As always, this is just the way we do things around here. I think it’s nice to get a window on how other people do life.

How are you tackling the new school year?

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May Hodge-Podge

the-best-yes-bookIn The Best Yes, Lysa Terkeurst writes about how we can be better decision makers. Breaking past the usual “don’t let the good be the enemy of the best” one-liners, Terkeurst explores the relationships between wisdom, discernment, and prudence and how we can apply them in our own modern lives.

While I wouldn’t say that there was a lot of brand new information in the book, it was certainly a refreshingly different way of framing the topics of time management, prioritization, and purpose. I’d recommend it as food for thought.

a walk in the woodsA Walk in the Woods made me want to go hiking. At least during the day.  Bryson’s descriptions of all day hikes sounded wonderful, but sleeping in freezing, wet, rodent-infested lean-tos…not my cup of tea.

In any case, the book is Bryson’s memoir of sort-of-kind-of-not-really hiking the Appalachian Trail. He and his friend put in a lot of time, then gave up, did some random stabs at day hikes, and another semi-serious hike at the end, during which they also gave up.  This being Bill Bryson there were some funny parts, some super interesting parts, and some annoyingly whingey parts. Overall I don’t regret reading it, but might not recommend it unless you just love hiking memoirs.

edge of lostThe Edge of Lost was fine, as predictable novels go. You have an Irish kid (with a…wait for it…alcoholic uncle!), an Italian family (with a son who…wait for it…gets tangled up with the Mafia!), and it all wraps up seamlessly at the end.  The author all but skated past the really interesting facet of her premise–the civilian families who lived on Alcatraz–which was too bad.  If you don’t mind plot points you can see a mile away and too-easy solutions, you might enjoy this novel.  Otherwise, you could really skip it.

 

Have you read any great books lately? Or any we should skip? 

 

Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links.

Snapshot: February 2016

I recently noticed a comment on last fall’s snapshot post, which reminded me that I haven’t updated it, in spite of having made some good changes since then that might be helpful for or of interest to others.

Game Changer 1: A Checklist For ME

IMG_4992I don’t know why it took me so long to think of this, but when I saw Misty’s post on her checklist, I shamelessly grabbed the idea and tweaked it to fit our needs. The result? Pure gold. Here is why this works for me:

  • Everything is on one page. This is an entire week of school, for all of the kids, on one page.  It’s a daily to do list and a record keeping tool in one. Because I have it color-coded by child, it’s easy to see at a glance who still needs to get stuff done so I don’t have to scramble to figure out if someone should be playing Legos or actually still needs to finish math.
  • I pre-made decisions. To fit everything on one page, I really thought about what I need to do with each child. In some cases, that meant adding some things, and in others it meant getting real about what I could actually accomplish. I don’t have to reinvent this wheel every week. I just change the dates, change the books we’ll be reading together for history and literature, update dictionary/vocab words, change independent reading, and I’m done. Ten minutes, tops.
  • It keeps me accountable. I love checklists. Seeing something on my clipboard helps me to follow through with intentions. I am doing much better checking people’s independent math work, actually doing Latin every day, and remembering what we do on which day.

Like Misty, I keep my checklist on a clipboard, which also contains our memory work, map work, hymns, and review pieces for the week. I use sticky notes to keep track of where I am. No more hunting for a poem or looking up passages on my phone!  It’s all in one spot, and that really works.

Game Changer 2: Preschool First

IMG_4872I have read over and over again to spend time on the littlest people first, but I never could figure out how to do that. It seemed more important to get the big people through their work. However, when I don’t put a space in for tot school, it falls off the agenda way too often. I’m not talking about crazy academics here, just about the sort of solid reading, Mother Goose, alphabet/numbers, Bible stories, and fairy tale time that I used to pour out for my big kids when they were littles.  Eliza (2 1/2) gets a lot of read-aloud time throughout the day, but that often comes during our school reading, family reading time at night, or from siblings reading picture books to her.  Preschool time is 20-30 minutes of one-on-one with me going through the great children’s literature we’ve collected. We do this right after breakfast and Convocation, while the big kids get ready for Inspection and do their piano practicing.

Game Changer 3: Building in Margin

IMG_4983Homeschooling with a baby requires more margin than you might think, but also less than you might fear. I’m pretty adept at handling a baby while also teaching, but I have been a lamentable failure at margin for a long time. No more. Teaching From Rest put this in great perspective for me, although it is something I should have accepted long ago.  Maybe lessons should take a certain amount of time, but homeschooling (and parenting in general) is not about efficiency, much to my chagrin. I think my reluctance to build in margin is why my schedules never worked before.

IMG_4984This semester, I built in margin every step of the way. Lo, and behold, we actually follow this one. It’s more of a flow than a rigid minute-by-minute thing, but if I don’t at least ball park times for our routine, I’m going to try to put too much in it.  Since I built in some margin, this timed version of our schedule is actually what we normally do, give or take a few minutes.  It looks something like this:

7:30 – Put on classical music (whatever composer we’re studying) to call kids down to breakfast.

7:40 – Convocation while kids eat (mostly Biblestudy, prayer, singing, and memory work).

7:55 – Preschool with Eliza while big kids do jobs, get ready for Inspection, and practice piano if they have time.

IMG_49858:20 – Inspection (What is inspected gets done! Everyone has jobs and checklists for this) and get Eliza dressed.

8:30 – Jack’s Teaching Time (one-on-one subjects with me) – other big kids do independent work and/or read to Eliza.

9:20 – Sarah’s Teaching Time (one-on-one subjects with me) – other big kids do independent work and/or read to Eliza.

10:00 – Table Time (this is a rotating list of things we do together like memory work, geography, dictionary/vocab, art, Latin, etc) – I peg this to morning snack to make sure everyone gets protein and that we actually do Table Time.

10:30 – Hannah’s Teaching Time (one-on-one subjects with me) – other big kids do independent work and/or read to Eliza.

11:20 – The Reading (Subjects we do together using read-alouds, like history, literature, art history, poetry, science, etc) – this takes 1-2 hours but we don’t always finish it all at one time in a given day.  It can spill over to meal times, afternoons, after dinner…lots of families do this sort of thing first, but since this is what we love to do most, it’s the one thing I can reliably do in the evenings and know it will still work.

In all, school takes us about 5-6 hours per day. On paper at least! In reality, independent work isn’t always completed efficiently, and often even with margin the times wiggle significantly. Still, we generally follow this plan now and it seems to work pretty well.

Game Changer 4: The Week View

IMG_4940Another great thing about my checklist is how it helps me to see school as a week-long pursuit, not just one day.  Some days we have appointments, or a babysitter coming over, or homeschool co-op.  Sometimes we just have a rough day.  The checklist helps me to see what we have to accomplish for the week, so I can clearly see where we can do more or less on a given day.  We can have a really long Table Time, someone can double up in spelling, or we can finish up subjects at night after dinner.  School doesn’t have to happen between 8 and 3, and flexibility is part of the beauty of the whole thing.

Game Changer 5: Humility

This year has been all about humility. We’ve had crisis after crisis that I did not see coming. Things I thought I had all sewn up (potty training! getting baby to sleep!) after Kids 1-3 fell to pieces on Kids 4 and 5. I do have some systems in place so that we can stay functional, but more and more I am realizing that what I think I have “under control” is not really under my control at all, and what looks like “together” is actually God’s grace more than my competence.  That is simultaneously terrifying and freeing.  So I’m bringing my basket and doing my best and praying a lot more and continuing to learn as I go.

In light of that, please see posts like this for what they are–a snapshot of what is working, for us, for now.  It will almost certainly change, probably soon, and possibly won’t apply to your situation at all.

Anthropology.  It has to go somewhere!

What is working for your family or school life these days?

 

Breaking Busy

Breaking+Busy+CoverI know being “soooo busy” is ubiquitous in our culture, and that many people equate being busy with being important or needed or significant. That said, I also know that many of us deliberately choose to be counter-cultural in regards to the whole busy phenomenon. We don’t run our kids around to zillions of lessons, we don’t pack our calendars, we don’t overschedule, we know sleep and reltionships and down time are important.

But, do you ever look around and find yourself…still busy? I think some seasons of life just ARE busy. What do you do when, in spite of your best efforts, you find yourself dealing with a parenting crisis, a health crisis, a work crisis, a financial crisis…or several of those all at once?

The fact is, in modern life it behooves us to have some strategies to combat frenzy, because you have to live deliberately if you want to avoid the busy trap.  That’s why I loved Alli Worthington’s book Breaking Busy: How to Find Peace and Purpose in a World of Crazy.

Several aspects of the book were real stand-outs for me:

  • Diagnosing busy. If you’re not the sort who does the super busy thing as a rule, you might still at times fall into a busy life stage.  Alli gives great diagnostic questions to help you figure out if you are too busy. A lot of it has to do with tuning in to how you feel and identifying those feelings as symptoms so you can work out a different story. This is an area of life I am trying to improve: just because I’m feeling a certain way doesn’t necessarily indicate an immutable fact–it might just be a clue to a problem I can solve or a situation I can change.
  • Evaluating the why. I’m a questioner, so I have to know the why for what I’m doing, but I don’t always think of that until it’s too late.  Alli gives helpful advice for figuring out why you are doing something, and whether it’s something God wants YOU to do, or if it’s just something a lot of other people around you do but God isn’t asking from you right now.
  • Being honest about relationships. We all know that some people drain us and others encourage us.  But if you’re like me, maybe you feel an obligation to “be nice” that turns into a major source of negativity in your life and winds up marginalizing your family or other important relationships. Alli’s discussion of this problem helped me so much. Choosing to pour into relationships that are your priorities and that fill your soul is ok, and sometimes it’s ok to pray for people but not let them have a major chunk of your time.
  • How editing your life makes it more fruitful. I hadn’t thought of it in these terms, but as I read I realized that God does often have to break me down to get me to listen. Pruning and rearranging are often necessary to help us see the work God has for us. But it’s not an easy process, and that’s ok to admit. I was so encouraged by Alli’s insight into what that life edit process looks and feels like.

I could easily go on, because I took five single spaced pages of notes from the book, but instead I’ll just recommend that you read this book yourself.  I think you’ll appreciate the insight, encouragement, and practical help the book offers, no matter where you fall on the busy spectrum.

Breaking Busy goes on sale January 26. If you order it in advance, you can get a free Breaking Busy Guide that features a lot of other writers you are probably familiar with.  I haven’t previewed the guide myself, but the lineup of contributors looks solid, so it might be worth a pre-order if you were thinking of getting the book anyway.

Have you ever been hit with busy seasons that weren’t due to deliberate overcommitment? How did you handle it?

 

Disclosure: This post contains Amazon affiliate links. I received a review copy of the book from the publisher, but the opinions expressed in this review are my own.

On Balance, Doing It All, and Tracking Time

“I cannot subscribe to the belief that there is something about modern life that makes us harried and maxed out.   If we are, then it’s time to examine our own choices and the scripts that are running through our heads. You don’t become a better parent or employee by not enjoying your life. There are likely lots of options available to you that would make life more fun. Don’t assume anyone is judging you, or actually cares, if you choose some of them.” –Laura Vanderkam in I Know How She Does It

If there’s one thing that being pregnant with a fifth baby while working, homeschooling three older children, and dealing with intense parenting issues has shown me, it’s that really, truly, and absolutely I cannot do All The Things.  I am a pretty efficient person, and I get a lot done.  For a long time there, I was pushing through pretty handily. But this year’s added challenges made that completely unsustainable and I realized that if something had to give, it needed to be the extras, not my core priorities.

In other words, to Do It All I had to stop doing All The Things.  Yes, those are two different cultural narratives.  Using them interchangeably is what causes problems.

Doing It All is about making time for the things that are truly important to you–that are YOUR priorities, that work for YOUR family, where YOU uniquely contribute value.  It absolutely means different things for different people.  Whereas doing All The Things is external–it’s doing the things that are expected, that are other people’s priorities, that aren’t necessarily of critical core importance to you.  Doing It All is about finding a unique way to do the things you’re really called to do, and keep your soul fed and body rested and healthy at the same time.  Doing All The Things is about feeling guilty for your choices and staying up until 2am doing your kid’s science project for him and distressing store bought pies to make it look homemade (remember that part from I Don’t Know How She Does It?)

Before you jump in with all the reasons you can’t possibly do anything differently in your life, I’d recommend you track your time for a bit.  I have done this every once in a while since I read 168 Hours (still my most highly recommended life management book four years later) and it’s invaluable for several reasons.

Tracking time helps me check my words and attitudes.  How we talk–to ourselves and others–about our life matters.  When I track my time, I see the big picture of how I spend time over the course of a week or month, rather than just how I remember a given day.  We all have a bias to weight the negative more heavily than the positive, but when I track my time I can’t say, “I spend all day picking up after everyone!” because I can see that actually I spend 10-20 minutes on it.  Maybe 10-20 excruciatingly annoying minutes, but not all day.  For me, knowing that reality helps me to turn around a negative attitude and start thinking of better solutions.

I also have to be honest about the “I don’t have time for…” excuse, because when I track my time I see that I spent X hours a week piddling around on Facebook or chopping onions instead of doing the thing I claim is something I want to do.  You don’t even want to know how much time I used to spend chopping onions.  My time logs have helped me get more focused about internet time, and were my impetus to buy those $1 bags of pre-chopped frozen onion.  And sometimes I’ve had to own up to the fact that the thing I keep saying I don’t have time for is really just not a priority right now.

Tracking time helps me check my pain points.  I overreact to some things (like feeling I pick up all day) but often completely miss actual problem areas.  One time my time log showed that I was spending a crazy amount of time making breakfasts.  I didn’t realize how much that was throwing off our day, but it was, and seeing on paper that I was spending over an hour a day prepping ONE meal–and during our prime work/teaching time nonetheless–helped me start to think through solutions.  This time around I’m looking at the time I spend getting ready for the day and getting ready for bed at night.  I’m not convinced those are hours well spent because they aren’t really restorative or rewarding, and they are keeping me from doing the things that ARE restorative and rewarding.

Tracking time helps me check my priorities.  Tracking time is not about trying to max out every minute of your day.  It’s about having an accurate view of how you spend your time now, so you can decide if that’s how you WANT to spend it.  Sometimes I’m pleasantly surprised at how well my time and priorities line up, and other times I’m forced to look at the fact that I’m skipping out on something I say is a top focus area.

I know how she does itI recently read Laura Vanderkam’s new book I Know How She Does It: How Successful Women Make the Most of Their Time.  Although perhaps less universally applicable than her previous book 168 Hours, this one brings fresh perspective to the question of women doing it all in our culture.  The major strength of the book is its reliance on actual time logs tracking 1001 days in the lives of mothers who earn six figures.  Laura is up front about the bias there–plenty of important jobs don’t pay that much, and lots of us define success in different terms than our annual salaries–but the point she was trying to make was that even women in the top tier jobs still have time for personal lives and being involved parents.

As I’ve tracked my time, I’ve often struggled with what counts as work and what does not.  I like Laura’s definition that work is anything that’s contributing to your career trajectory.  So, in my case, a business building meeting or doing the administrative tasks that keep my business going count as work even though I’m not directly paid for them, but an office worker wasting an hour on Facebook during the work day probably shouldn’t count that as work even if she is getting paid a regular salary.  I also apply that to the time I spend on homeschooling–my prep counts for me, but my kids doing independent work without me doesn’t factor into my time log.  It counts for their school record, but doesn’t count against my available schedule space.

When you look at it this way, and especially as you consider the time logs in Laura’s research, you quickly see that the key to balance is actually to determine your OWN definitions of success in your various roles, and fill your time with important things first, rather than trying to add important things on top of whatever you’re actually doing.  In this sense, working (or working more) may not actually harm your family at all.  What’s overwhelming is the plethora of little unimportant things we find ourselves saying yes to, even when they aren’t contributing to our big priorities, goals, and roles.  

“You don’t build the life you want by saving time. You build the life you want, and then time saves itself.” –Laura Vanderkam in I Know How She Does It

When I track my time or build an “ideal week” type schedule, I find this to be invaluable. I know from tracking my time that I spend 20-30 hours a week directly on homeschooling (the kids spend a bit more time doing independent assignments).  I also know that I read aloud to the kids, on average, just under two hours per day.  And I interact with them a lot of other times as well.  Therefore, I do not have to feel any guilt when I set aside afternoons as work time and let them play independently or with a babysitter. I also see that, although I’m not in a stage of life where I can easily fit in a 90 minute workout every day, over the course of a week I do exercise more than the recommended average.  My time logs help me see the big picture on my time, so I can more easily try out shifting things around to free up a block of time for things I want to spend time on.

So can you work a “big job” and also have a life and be a good mom?  Depending on how you define those terms, sure.  I fully believe that you can do the big jobs with kids if you got started at the big job BEFORE you had kids.  Having looked into this pretty extensively, I don’t think you can start entry level in a demanding field and immediately hope for the kind of flexibility people achieve after devoting several years to a career path.  So, ideally, you’d discover your love for the big job prior to starting your family.

What do you do if you already have the family and want to on-ramp into some kind of work?  I transitioned out of a very particular type of government job when I had kids, and gradually figured out ways to translate those skills into the private sector in a way that is very flexible and allows me to also devote considerable time to my other callings, passions, and interests.  I think the transition could have been faster if I had been more deliberate about the advice Laura gives in this book and in her previous work to put the big pieces in first, and then fill in the schedule with other things, rather than trying to shove a new big piece in on top of the minutia.

One criticism I’ve seen of this book is the fact that women who earn at this level can afford to outsource in ways most of us can’t.  There is something to that, especially if these women have only a few children and if they are in dual-income households.  Even on-ramping would be easier if your spouse is already earning enough to off-set start-up costs and childcare and housekeeping.  But, after reading the book, I can’t say that it’s the outsourcing that makes these women able to balance.  The schedules include lots of cleaning, piddling around, and working when kids are sleeping or otherwise occupied.  It can be done.  If you take the main principles into consideration, you might be surprised at the ways you can escape overwhelm and find time to do what’s most important to you.

I Know How She Does It gave me a lot to think about and inspiration for some new solutions I’m integrating into my own balance.  While it would probably be most helpful for moms who do some work outside of the home, the principles do apply to anyone who has a work identity–including homeschooling, homemaking, volunteering, or whatever.  I still think 168 Hours is more universal, but if you’re a person who is interested in work/life balance or who is contemplating trying it out, or who needs some inspiration to stop feeling stuck in your choices, I’d recommend I Know How She Does It

What do you find is your biggest challenge to work/life balance?  Have you ever tracked your time to try to solve it?

 

Disclosure: This post contains some track-backs to my original reviews, but also some affiliate links.  Thanks for clicking through to Amazon from A Spirited Mind!

 

 

How Will You Measure Your Life?

measure-your-life-416x620In an interesting twist on and melding of business and life management genres, Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen’s How Will You Measure Your Life? explores how tried-and-true business theories can illuminate and improve your personal life and overall life trajectory.

Theories, Christensen asserts, often apply to smaller units like families or even to individuals, not just to larger organizations.  In this book, he shows readers how to think differently about the ways you allocate time and resources, develop your family life, and measure your overall life success.

I thought the sections on building strategies, keeping kids motivated, emphasizing processes AND resources (versus, in the family example, giving your kid a lot of lessons in how to do stuff but no real life experience of how to solve problems), and establishing a family culture were excellent.  I was encouraged in some areas, challenged in others, and inspired overall to improve my perspective and change some tactics.

Although many people do New Year’s Resolutions (and I’m one of them) I also find the start of the new school year a good time to evaluate where we are as a family and define some goals for the year.How Will You Measure Your Life? would be a great resource if you want to think through your family’s culture, ways to provide helpful experiences for your kids, and personal or professional goals for yourself.

Do you find yourself re-evaluating when it’s Back to School time?

 

Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links.

 

Bookmarking Balance

overwhelmedAfter I read Overwhelmed, I realized that a lot of the ways I work on balance are derived from lessons I’ve read about and internalized from books.  My experience is not (at all) normative–when it comes to reading about other people’s balance it’s a good idea to remember that we all have different callings, temperaments, and circumstances.  And yet, sometimes it’s helpful to see what other people do, if only to be able to smugly assert that you’d never be caught dead doing such a thing!

Zoom out.

168 hoursReading 168 Hours helped me think of time from a big picture perspective.  Any given day might be really, really rough.  But when I think of my time in terms of weeks, months, school terms, trimesters, or years, I am freed up to see balance.  My work tends to ebb and surge–sometimes I’m up to my eyeballs in deadlines, other times I’m coasting.  Sometimes school is going fabulously, and sometimes I feel like I’m banging my head against a brick wall.  But because I zoom out, when work is nuts I can pull back on other things knowing there is plenty of time to catch up later and when school is not working I can calmly assess issues without throwing in the towel (tempting though that sometimes is).  Zooming out frees me to see things cyclically, which allows me to get more done over time than if I only did things I could commit to daily.

Batch process.

tiger motherI think God gave me five children because He knew that otherwise I’d be a Tiger Mom.  I’ll admit that I take some things really seriously, but I let a lot of modern parenting requirements slide.  I don’t hover over my kids while they play outside or sit next to them while they practice piano.  The only extracurriculars we do are things they can all do at once and that meet a family priority (for a needed skill or long-term value).  So the oldest three take piano lessons at the same place one afternoon a week.  This summer they are all in swimming lessons at the same time.  During the school year we do a homeschool co-op that offers electives so they can try different things but we only have to drive to one spot. This helps us do things we value (reading aloud before bed, having relaxed evenings, doing meaningful work) and avoid things we don’t like (living in the car, eating on the run, overscheduling).

I also set aside chunks of time for work and school.  We have a fabulous babysitter/nanny for 10 hours a week–one afternoon and one morning.  She has a teaching background so on the morning she’s here she supervises the kids’ independent work assignments (math, handwriting, copywork, sometimes grammar or Latin or a composition).  According to the experts, most knowledge workers only put in 4 hours a day of real work.  So when we have the babysitter or it’s naptime, I maximize it and put in a full work day–not always completely successfully, but I try.  With those 10 babysitting hours plus daily quiet time (only the baby naps but everyone else has to read or play quietly) and some Saturday work time, I can carry a full-time workload without keeping a chair warm every day from 9 to 5.

Because I am working one morning a week, we batch a week’s worth of school subjects (other than the previously mentioned independent assignments) into the other four days. We cover the same amount of material, and no one seems to notice that I bumped their work up 25% on the other four days.

Sort the rocks.

eat that frogYou’ve heard the story about how you can get more into a container if you start by putting in the biggest rocks, then fill in with smaller and smaller rocks, then sand, then water.  I think I first read about this in Eat That Frog.  Everyone tells this story because it’s so incredibly helpful to sort your rocks.  I keep a loosely defined hierarchy of tasks for all of my roles so I can do the most high impact items first.  If I have a chunk of work time, I tackle big projects rather than churning around on little stuff like email.  If I find a small window of free time I read, because I keep books strewn everywhere.  This helps me use time more effectively and take advantage of windows of opportunity, however long or short they may be.

Know the why.

BetterThanBeforeJacketHC-e1413545062477-197x300As a questioner (see Better Than Before), I find that I really only follow through with things when I have identified WHY I’m doing them.  Consider housework.  I truly think that people sleep better in clean sheets, but I have found out from personal experience that you do not get kicked out of the human race for not changing sheets on a weekly basis.  Changing sheets on five beds is not a quick job and as previously mentioned I do not retain a domestic staff.  So I change sheets every other week or so, enlist the kids to help, and that works for us.  On the other hand, I get stressed out by visual clutter.  So I make it a point to keep our main living areas picked up and swept every day, even though I don’t mop the floor very often and absolutely never vacuum my ceilings or wash windows.  I keep a clear view of my why for work tasks, for each subject we do in our homeschool, and for every activity I sign up for.  It helps immensely in prioritization, and if I can’t articulate a why, chances are I’m not the person for the job anyway.

Prioritize restoration.

fringeFrom a logistical standpoint, there is a lot going on in a homeschooling family of soon-to-be seven where both parents work, even though we don’t do a ton of sports and lessons.  Any one of my roles (mom, teacher, worker) would be enough to lead to periodic burn-out, and the combination requires some finesse.  That’s why I have to spend my Fringe Hours on something restorative.  For me, that means I try to get regular exercise, I read a lot, and I try to make time to hang out with friends when I can.  I rarely get 15 minutes to myself and think, “Self, we should scrub the shower with a toothbrush.”  I love a clean shower as much as the next person, but it doesn’t feed my mind and soul like a great conversation or a good book.  When I’m restored mentally and physically, I’m better able to find balance.

We all do life differently, but I’d love to hear what works for you!  What books or resources have particularly helped you define the balance you’re shooting for?

The Art of Slow Writing

the-art-of-slow-writing-bookThe Art of Slow Writing: Reflections on Time, Craft, and Creativity thoughtfully combines relevant information on life management with inspiration for creative callings.

This is not a how-to book in the sense of structuring plots and assigning writing exercises, but it is a call to work slowly, meditatively, and deeply to create work of lasting value and higher impact.  It is also not a time management book in the vein of establishing schedules in 15 minute increments and checking things off of a to do list, but it is a reminder of how to shape your life to make space for your priorities, especially if one of your priorities is in a creative field that can’t easily fit into established patterns of productivity.

I found this book encouraging on many levels, both as someone who enjoys writing books and someone who reads a lot in the productivity genre.  DeSalvo’s applications of one to the other were helpful and inspiring, clearly the result of careful thought not just recycling the same old ideas.  If you like either genre, but especially if you like both, I’d recommend you read The Art of Slow Writing for insight and inspiration.

 

Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links.

Overwhelmed

overwhelmedI hadn’t planned on reading Overwhelmed: How to Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time because I felt like I didn’t need an excuse to dwell on the aspects of my life that feel fragmented and times when I feel overwhelmed.  However, I’m glad that I did finally read it because the overall tone was not “golly, we are all screwed” but rather the encouragement that I’m not alone or uniquely unable to get my life together, and the inspiration of plenty of ideas for changing my perspective and reducing the feeling of frenzy.

What was most helpful for me was how the book challenged my usual narrative about the causes for what the author calls “time confetti.”  I have four kids, I homeschool, I am self-employed, and I am pregnant.  I avoid listing everything I have going on because that in itself is overwhelming.  Sometimes I think if I had a regular job, or if my kids were in a traditional school, or if we lived in a walkable city rather than a suburb I would be less overwhelmed.  This book helped me to see that overwhelm is a cultural condition shared by working moms, stay-at-home moms, homeschool moms who don’t work, and women without kids.  Men can be overwhelmed too, but in our culture we have a set of assumptions that does overwhelm women more than men.

I also realized that actually, given my circumstances, I am not as overwhelmed as I could be.  We have made a lot of deliberate choices that minimize stress and avoid being too busy, and I tweak my life a lot to experiment with ways to make time for what is truly meaningful.  So at times my life feels crazy and often my leisure time comes in very short snippets, but overall I think I’m on a good track.  That said, I did get some great ideas for further reducing stress and overwhelm that I plan to try out, especially as I’m looking for even more ways to streamline with a new baby on the way.

Aside from personal take-aways, I loved how Overwhelmed contained a lot of research and data to spur thought on our culture and challenge our mindsets.  So many deeply entrenched roles and ideas are tied up in what makes us overwhelmed, and it helps just to expose our biases.  Schulte looks at the Western idea of the “Ideal Worker” and how many people believe in it like a religion, in spite of vast amounts of data that show how dumb it is in practice.  She also examines the roots of the “Distant Provider Father” and “Self-Sacrificing Mother” roles, and looks at alternatives and ways people are trying to be more involved dads, moms who put their families first but don’t burn out, etc.  Along the way the reader is challenged to think about his or her individual priorities, what he or she really values in life, and how to actually implement those in a daily routine.  Schulte points out that choosing not to live an overwhelmed life is a deliberate and often counter-cultural act, and yet encourages readers to take workable steps toward a different perspective.

As the subtitle suggests, Overwhelmed is loosely organized into how to combat fragmented, frenzied lifestyles in our families, our work, and our leisure.  The writing is excellent and highly readable, thought-provoking and insightful.  I think students of society and culture, men and women who are interested in navigating a meaningful life, and people interested in how policies impact the lives of real people would find this book fascinating and useful.

How do you deal with feeling overwhelmed?  

 

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