My goal for this year has been to get back to a state of mental equilibrium. Somewhere, in the 13 years of bearing and raising six children, I’ve lost my attention span and become like a chicken running around with her head cut off as I go to and fro and try to remember 9 million things to do and think about every day. I feel like the urgency of life has really skyrocketed during this time and left me feeling constantly overwhelmed and frazzled and paralyzed. I can’t keep up. I’m not good enough. Too many fires to put out. Too much left undone at the end of the day.
Suffice it to say, all this leads to a very unhealthy and unbalanced spirituality, so I’ve committed myself to battling this head on. I don’t expect life to suddenly become simple and sweet where I’m spending hours watching butterflies in the meadow; we are a busy family and the particular lifestyle we are living is one that requires a lot of organization, time and energy. That’s a fact that no yoga class will be able to fix. So instead of trying to fight this (which I have done for years) I have had to learn to not just accept this but to flourish in this beautiful, messy, busy life.
So the issue isn’t so much with my lifestyle as it is with my coping mechanisms. That is to say… I didn’t have any. So I’d live reactively rather than proactively and be so frenzied that by the end of (every) day, I’d be ready to hide in my closet with my noise cancelling headphones come 5 pm.
So how am I combatting this now? I’m still on the baby steps here but even with imperfect, inconsistent practice on some of these steps, I can feel myself able to process information again and not feel so overstimulated by the end of the day. Sure you can meditate and pay for expensive massages, but that’s not really my speed. So I wanted to share some simple but highly effective ways to reduce the pressure from an active, busy life that have helped me to manage and surrender much better.
- Eliminate choice
Our world is one that celebrates the wide variety of choices available in every category, every day to us. This is a relatively new phenomenon. Early Americans didn’t have much to choose from by way of restaurants, toys, clothing, schools or leisure activities. Do I long for pioneer days? I’m not that naive… but I think there is a tremendous value in having limits to what we have to think about. I read somewhere that President Obama wears a certain color suit and shirt every day just so he doesn’t have to think about it. His brain is freed up for more important things. I know some women have successfully limited themselves in what they wear every day so that it becomes sort of like a uniform and they’re not left staring at their closet trying to figure out an outfit for the day. I’ve tried to model this myself with some success. I don’t give myself a breakfast choice during the week anymore. I eat two eggs and a piece of toast every. single. weekday. And the effect has been tremendous. Instead of wondering if I “feel” like oatmeal or eggs or whatever, I just operate under robotic routine and start frying eggs. My brain is free to think about other things. Every time we make a choice, we reduce our capacity for willpower. It’s true! There’s a science to this and I read about it in the riveting, must-read book: The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It. If we are constantly having to make choices all day long, we end the day depleted of energy and are much more likely to indulge in three helpings of ice cream for example, because we’ve compromised our capacity to choose healthfully by making a myriad of choices. Setting up a menu plan is one obvious way to reduce choice. Make that pot roast without considering your “feelings”. Schedule errands for a particular time slot on a particular day so that you don’t have to wonder about whether or not you should do it. If you find yourself exhausted from having to say yes or no to your children’s incessant whining, implement consequences for even asking! My kids know certain things are off limits at certain times, I don’t even allow them to ask for exceptions without having a consequence. The choice is not there. I’m not harassed with having to make a decision. My mind is free to focus on other things.
2) Schedule leisure.
Our culture seems to think of free time that is something left over when all the important things are done. If that was the case, most mothers would never, ever have free time! There’s always something to do, something or someone who needs our attention. Leisure is not the same thing as idleness and it’s a critical part of living our full humanity out. Not only am I a big believer in truly resting and relaxing on Sundays… but I think it’s important to schedule in a little Sabbath time to every day. Walk away from the messy countertops for a bit and attend to your soul. Important things should never be neglected at the altar of urgent things. I know what it’s like to juggle urgencies all day long. But in the same way that I HAVE to make time for laundry and grocery shopping and doctor’s appointments, I have to put “read for 30 minutes” on my to-do list also. I don’t believe that we should feel guilty for sitting down and falling into a great work of fiction, nor should it be something that is seen as a sort of ‘reward’ for getting the other urgencies of the day done. In order to help unclutter the mind and live a balanced life, leisure needs to be put into every day, whether it’s reading a good book, sharing a cup of tea with a friend, laying on the couch listening to good music or drawing in a notebook. Leisure makes us human. Make it happen.
3) Stop browsing.
I’m not particularly interested in deciding whether or not people should or shouldn’t be on social media. Facebook, in and of itself, can be great tool for networking or connecting with family. It’s a moral neutral when it’s used as a tool. The problem is when we find ourselves so distracted that we fritter away our time reading our newsfeed and chasing hyperlinks. If we become more deliberate in our internet usage, our brains will thank us. If you are a social media user, fine! Use it. But don’t let it use you. Make a specific time in your day the time to answer emails and then surf the web. Be done at the end of your time. I have tried to make a habit now of not even opening my emails until I am prepared to answer them. This has helped me so much in not feeling overloaded with internet “to-dos” and flagged messages and trying to triage all the things I need to remember online. I get on when I’m ready to spend 20 minutes taking care of business. And then I allow myself time to browse or research in a limited amount. This has helped so much. I also do this with our snail mail. I don’t go through it or open it until I have time to properly sort it and file it or respond (this has been my most inconsistent habit… must get better).
4) Make a Tangent List
In order for step number 3 to be a success, I needed to find a way to field all the distractions that I remember all day long: “Oh, I wanted to check the price on this item here” or “I need to email so-and-so about this” or “I wonder what the best restaurant in Portland is…” or “I need to find a tutorial on making my own _______” All these things used to send me constantly to my computer to find what I was looking for (which inevitably leads to other rabbit trails of interest. Now, I try to keep a little sticky note on the desk or I write on my white board all the little tangent items I want to do online and wait until my allotted computer time in order to deal with them in one fell swoop. This has been amazingly helpful to reduce the glow-time that disorients my highly distractible brain and has allowed me to feel like I control my own time and life… and am not just a slave to distractions.
5) Eliminate labels.
This seems silly but when you are a literate adult, you are forced to read things you don’t necessarily want to read. It’s unescapable. You can’t ignore a flashing billboard and you can’t see a newspaper without reading the headline. Sorting a mail stack, food labels at the grocery store… words, graphics, noise. All these brain computations requires cognitive processing that we can’t turn off. And at the end of a busy mother’s day, the pan is fried with sensory overload. One way that can really help eliminate what only seems to be harmless brainwork is to do what you can to remove labels in your home. Take pasta and grains out of the box and put them in airtight containers with a hand-written label. Same with spices. Put your dish soap in a reusable container rather than having a bottle of Dawn on your counter. This does take a little bit of organization up front—I still haven’t mastered it— but the efforts are worth it. There are tons of grocery items that can be removed from their packaging and stored in a more “quiet” way. Visual noise is still noise. And it all adds up. This is largely why I don’t buy clothing with lots of words or graphics on them either (hand me downs my children have received provide for 95% of our “noisy clothes”). It’s an aesthetic choice but also a calculated move in self-preservation. And doing everything we can to minimize the noise in our life will provide for more efficient and rested brain activity.
And there it is. Moving into Advent very soon, I’m going to be starting my own personal “liturgical year” over again with a renewed and concerted effort to fight overstimulation. The clamor and clang of life don’t have to be a given. I want to Be Still. And that’s not something that just happens. We have to become master artisans in carving out frenzy from our lives and building up pockets of serenity.