Looking Back, Looking Forward

As I write this, it’s the end of November. Already. And that means that the new year (yes, 2022) is just around the corner.

This makes it the ideal time to start thinking about the year theme for the year to come.

What is a year theme? I explore the topic more in this blog, but as a refresher, a year theme is an idea or direction for the year ahead. It can be a word or a phrase. It is something that indicates where you want your year to go.

For 2021, my theme was ‘the year of order’. I wanted to put systems in place for my life and my business and to feel calmer and more peaceful by the end of the year. I wanted, if it was at all possible, to feel a little more under control.

That’s been a really good direction for this year. I’ve experimented with various ways of organising things and put a few new things into practice. And yes, I think that I feel just a little more under control now than I did in January. 

Now you may be wondering why I’m bringing this up now, rather than in the new year when everyone is making resolutions. 

The thing is, I think that a year theme requires a little thought. A little mulling over.

I mean, it’s something you are aiming to hang on to and work towards for a whole year (mostly – sometimes more, sometimes less). You don’t want to make that decision on January 1, when you’re exhausted from the party and fireworks the night before. You want to have a theme that actually relates to your life and the direction you’re going.

So today I thought I’d give you a couple of tools to help you look over the year that’s been, and think about what direction you’d like for the year ahead.

One tool is something I’ve pulled from Daniel Sih’s book Space Maker and the same idea got sent to me by a friend. It’s an activity I did while I was recently away on my retreat and it involves post-it notes.

Post it notes, coloured pens and highlighters
Photo by Frans Van Heerden from Pexels

To start with, you take your post-its and you brainstorm, writing down the significant people, places and events in your life from the past few years (or even over your whole life). You write one idea on each sticky note. These are things that have happened to you, or things you have done. Good things and bad things. Things that have shaped you. I wrote down events like the publication of my books, jobs gained and lost, my thyroid illness, moving house. Just write anything that you see as significant.

You then arrange these sticky notes in a logical sequence – a chronological sequence, or maybe in life stages, or any order or set of segments that seems right to you. I arranged mine in clumps according to approximately when they happened.

You can use a different colour of sticky note for the painful or bad things that have happened so that the good happenings stand out a bit from the bad ones.

When you look at this sequence, you can start to see patterns. You can see how your life has been tracking. You can see how God has been transforming you, and how he has used different situations in your life to bring you to who you are now.

From there, you can dream about the future more effectively. Sih recommends that you write your dreams and ideas for the future on more sticky notes. Once again, just brainstorm. There are no wrong answers here. 

This will give you direction, and from that direction you can put together some goals, and maybe even a year theme for next year.

Another activity you can do with these sticky notes is to write a story – your story. You don’t have to worry about getting the chronology correct in this story, or even to have all the details in there. But you can write about the significant times in your life. You can think of yourself as the main character and write how these times changed your direction, or helped you to grow. How you made key decisions or gained key insights. 

Again, this gives you some idea of where you’ve been and where you are going. It helps you to see the next step on your journey.

Alternatively you can review or reflect on specific areas of life. The areas I’ve noted below were shared with me by a friend who does this mapping exercise once a year. She says that it helps her to discern what’s next in the Lord’s plan for her future. And I think these are excellent questions to ask ourselves. I’ll be spending some time with them in the next month too.

Broadly we want to review:

Relationships. Are there specific relationships that are life-giving right now? Are there relationships that are draining? Is there something you can do to change or help with those relationships? (For example, visiting a particularly draining person with a friend.)

Serving opportunities. What serving positions is it time to let go of? What positions would you like to take up? Is it time to take up a position on a committee or a board? Is it time to stop helping out on a particular roster or being part of a particular group?

Significant projects. How many projects are too many? Are there projects you’ve been hanging on to that really need to be dropped in the coming year? Is there something you’ve been thinking about that you’d like to take up?

Self-care. Now is the time to book in holidays for the coming year. To book in intentional time with God, with family, with yourself, or with a significant other. This doesn’t have to be expensive. You can have a retreat at home or negotiate to use a friend’s place. And remember those Sabbath days once a week too.

And finally, is there something  new you want to take up. Is this year the year to branch out to a new idea or hobby or ministry?

Another podcast on this kind of thing used these six categories. (I wish I could tell you which podcast, but at the time of listening, I just noted the categories on a sticky note and kept moving.)

The categories are:

  • Work/vocation
  • Health and wellness
  • Relationships
  • Community 
  • Money 
  • Home

Some of these categories overlap with those above, which makes sense. Our lives are made up of these things. I’m not really coming up with some stunning new way to look at life. I’m just suggesting that we be a bit intentional about actually doing it. Whatever the categories you use, I suggest that you brainstorm what you have in each category now, and then really look at those things and see if they fit into what you want your life to be in the future.

As we look into the future, it can be helpful to look beyond just the next year. I guess this is why all interviewers ask you to tell them your five-year plan. Michael Lindsay in his book Hinge Moments quotes Dave Evans, the EA of Design Thinking at Stanford. He says that you should have not one, but three five-year plans.

The first is a plan for where you’ll be in five years if you keep following the path you’re on now.

The second, is a plan for if you take a sharp right turn – a job that’s related to what you’re doing now, but in a different direction.

And the third, is for if you do something wild. If time and money were no object and you knew you wouldn’t fail. What would your five year plan be then?

Having these three in your mind will help you to make decisions as opportunities present themselves. They’ll help you see opportunities that you didn’t know were there before.

So you can see that there’s lots to think about and mull over. I hope that you can make time to stay intentional about your life, even as the Christmas rush starts. And if you can’t even think about things like this right now, I hope that this blog will give you a head start on your January thinking. I hope and pray that it is helpful to you. And if you think it will be helpful for someone else, feel free to share this blog (or, if they prefer listening, let them know about the podcast).

Routine or Rhythm?

Ursula Le Guin's writing schedule:
5.30 am–Wake up and lie there and think.
6.15 am–get up and eat breakfast (lots).
7.15 am–get to work writing, writing writing.
noon–lunch.
1 pm–reading, music.
3 pm–correspondence, maybe house cleaning.
5 pm–make dinner and eat it.
after 8pm–I tend to be very stupid and we won't talk about this.

At one stage this year, I would once or twice a week go to the same excellent café near my house, and buy myself a nice coffee to start the day. The lady who ran the shop noticed that I was turning up regularly, and she also must have noticed that I didn’t look ‘dressed for work’. She asked if I worked from home and I said I did. She then talked to me of the importance of having a routine when you work from home. I couldn’t agree more, but I decided to tell her the truth – the reason I was there regularly was that our washing machine was broken, and I needed to bribe myself with nice flat white as I did the unwelcome task of taking our clothes to the laundromat.

I do agree with her though, routine is very important. I think it’s important whether you work from home or not.

But, you say, routine sounds so boring!

Yes. Yes it does. And maybe we should change the word we’re using. I prefer the word ‘rhythm’.

We’re made for rhythm. Our bodies have their own circadian rhythms, times when we feel more energetic, times when the best thing we can do for productivity is to have a nap. 

Our years have a rhythm – summer, when the days are long and we feel energetic and full of life. And the dark winter, when hibernation feels more the thing.

It is a strange time for me to be writing this, because this week Moz is on holidays. And everything changes when Moz is on holidays. Our lives become more loose, we are out of routine.

But in a way, that’s the point. Moz is a school teacher and the rhythm of his year revolves around term time and holidays. So while the weekly routine might be a bit mixed up, this is part of our annual routine. Part of the rhythm of our year.

If we’re not intentional about our routine, deciding what we want to do and when, then we will unintentionally fall into a routine that may be less helpful to us. We might have a routine of playing on our phone for a couple of hours when we should be getting ready for bed. We might have a routine that squeezes too much into the day so that we never get to relax or to do some exercise. But we will generally find ourselves doing the same thing at the same time each day, unless we plan otherwise. It’s how we’re made.

Here are some suggestions for being intentional about the rhythm of your life:

Annual rhythm – It’s helpful to book holidays at the beginning of the year. I am also making sure I’m aware of when the busy times are and when I can take a breather afterwards, just knowing helps with the work it takes to get through the busy times. Even the church seasons are helpful – Lent, Easter, Advent, Christmas – these ‘holy-days’ bring rhythm into the year.

Quarterly rhythm – Moz and I have become more intentional about looking three months ahead and booking out adventure weekends, sit-together Sundays, and days to do maintenance on the house. The three months can slip away without important things being taken care of unless we look at our calendars intentionally.

Weekly rhythm – The Sabbath is an important one – the routine of having one day off a week. We can also schedule in times for exercise, family dinners, and regular times to meet with friends.

Daily rhythm – We might plan out a morning routine to start the day right. We can plan to do more intense work in the times of the day when we have more energy according to our circadian rhythms. In the evenings we can practice good sleep hygiene – turning the screen off an hour or so before bed, taking the time to calm down, having a set routine of getting ready for bed so that the brain and body knows it’s time to sleep.

I want to share with you one of my favourite quotes about schedules from Annie Dillard in her book The Writing Life:

“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing. A schedule defends from chaos and whim. It is a net for catching days. It is a scaffolding on which a worker can stand and labor with both hands at sections of time. A schedule is a mock-up of reason and order—willed, faked, and so brought into being; it is a peace and a haven set into the wreck of time; it is a lifeboat on which you find yourself, decades later, still living.”

Here’s some things that need to be a part of our life rhythm:

  • Exercise
  • The time to prepare and eat healthy food
  • Sleep
  • Social connection
  • Time to switch off and relax

If you’ve got those things locked in (most of the time) then you’re going to be in a good place. And then, yes, sometimes you can have a special take-away night or spend a whole day in bed watching movies. It’s part of the rhythm.

Discipline gives boundaries that make you feel safe. And in those safe boundaries, your creativity can flourish. 

Permission to say no

Did you ever have those times in school when you really didn’t want to do the Physical Education activity for the day? Where you knew that it was going to be awful and that you were going to get a ball smashed into your head, or drown in the pool, or something awful like that. And then, just by luck, you got a sore throat and a sniffy nose, and if you screwed your eyes tightly enough you had a headache and you went to your parents and said, ‘I’m sick, can you write me a note?’ And then they wrote that amazing note of wonder:

Please excuse Ruth from today’s activity, she is not well enough to attend.

And then you got to go to the library instead and read? And the whole day was saved?

Or was that just me?

I know I got sick way too much when I was a kid. I think it was the way my introvert self coped when I was starting to feel peopled-out. 

As an adult I have realised that getting sick is a very bad way of coping. There are better ways.

But there have still been times when I’ve caught myself thinking, ‘I wish someone would get me out of this commitment. I wish that my parents could write me a note saying I didn’t have to come.’

Moz was getting ready to go to work the other day. He put his jacket on and then checked all the pockets to make sure he had all the things – watch, phone, wallet, keys, pen – you know, all the things. As he patted his jacket, it made a crinkly noise. 

‘What’s that?’

He reached into his pocket and pulled out a piece of paper. He unfolded it and showed it to me. It was a note that simply said, ‘No.’

A green piece of paper with the word 'No.' written on it.
Moz’s permission slip

Our pastor Pete had given it to him. It was a permission slip. Permission to say, ‘No.’

I love it.

For some commitments we feel like we need to have a Really Good ReasonTM not to do things. That our own reasons are not good enough and that we need some authority to step in and tell us we don’t have to go.

Sometimes, we can feel so overwhelmed that the thought of being hit by a car and having to go to hospital is appealing, because at least then we could sit still for a while.

If this is you, I’d like to write you a permission slip. My permission slip simply says, ‘No.’

You can tell people, ‘no’ and not give a reason.

You can say ‘no’ and not even have a ‘good enough’ reason in your own mind.

Sometimes, ‘no’ is a very reasonable response on its own.

Now, this doesn’t apply to everyone. And the problem I have here is that if you’re thinking, ‘I wish this applied to me, but it clearly doesn’t.’ Then chances are that it does apply to you. And if you’re thinking, ‘Oooo excellent, I’ll take that,’ then maybe you’re the person who needs to stretch yourself just a little bit more.

You’re going to have to be sensible here.

But, seriously, if you’re in the place where sitting in a hospital bed seems more appealing than what you need to do in the next week, I’d suggest that a little bit of saying ‘no’ is in order. 

Give it a go.

Find out that the world will still spin without you.

You have my permission to rest.

If you’ve found this helpful, please feel free to share it with a friend. And if you want to hear me talk more on this subject then my podcast is just the place for you!

If you would like to read more, in My Year of Saying No, I tell the story of my own saying no journey, what I learned about saying no, saying yes, and bringing peace to my life.

Decision Fatigue

A pair of feet stand at five arrows all pointing in different directions
There are so many choices

I don’t know if it’s because I’m officially a ‘highly sensitive person’ (according to the book Quiet by Susan Cain) or that I’m an introvert, or what, but I seem to need a lot less stimulation than other people. I know that if I let it go too far, then I risk depression, but generally I am a happy person when my life is filled with routine and order and when I don’t have to deal with many changes.

One of the places where this shows up is at breakfast time.

You see, I eat the same breakfast nearly every morning. I soak oats in milk overnight, I add some stewed pears and some Greek yogurt and I’m good. It’s delicious, nutritious, and filling. 

Moz, on the other hand, could not bear the thought of eating the same thing every single day. He doesn’t much mind what he eats as long as there’s some variety. Some mornings toast, sometimes an omelet, sometimes cereal, sometimes fruit and yogurt. Variety.

The thing is, I try to limit the decisions in my life as much as possible, because in my line of work I need to make decisions every day. Many decisions. 

If I’m writing a novel, I need to decide what the characters are doing. How they feel. What arguments they have. What the threat is. And so on. And at the moment I am making decisions about a whole world. What does it look like? What’s the currency? What kind of activities are available?

If I’m editing, I need to decide on the right word, the right turn of phrase, the exact place to put a comma. 

And because I work for myself, and my time is my own, I have to decide what to do with it.

I don’t need to be bothered with deciding which breakfast cereal to eat in addition to all the other decisions I make.

I asked google how many decisions the average person makes in a day and the answers ranged from 70 to 35,000. I guess if you look at the very detailed and subconscious choices you make, e.g. whether to start walking with your left foot or your right, the answer could come to 35,000 (one choice every two waking seconds of the day). But in terms of the choices that contribute to decision fatigue, I’m going to go with Sheena lyengar’s research that estimates that we make about 70 decisions daily. 

Our ability to make decisions decreases with the number of decisions we make. And once we run out of oomph we are inclined to make mistakes, like procrastination, or impulse buying. You know this if you’ve ever gone to the grocery store at the end of a long day. 

One way to limit decision fatigue is by limiting decisions. Here’s a few ways you can do that easily in your daily life:

  • You can limit the clothes that you wear. Steve Jobs apparently wore the same clothes every day (not the exact same clothes, we assume, but different sets of the same colour and style of clothing) so that he didn’t have to think what to wear.
  • I’m not as extreme as Steve Jobs, but I try to wear shirts and trousers or jeans that are grey, black or navy and then add a colourful jumper or scarf. And (don’t tell anyone) I often wear the same outfit twice in a row. I have specific outfits for when I’m leading church or giving a talk. I know that they look good, so I don’t mess with them. I don’t try to choose what to wear every time. I just put the suit on, and get the thing done.
  • You already know that I limit choice in what I eat. I haven’t gone all the way to a weekly meal plan yet, but some people swear by them as ways to help with the choices when shopping and when cooking the evening meal. For a while we invested in one of those meal plans where a box of groceries and a couple of recipes get delivered to your house each week. That got us through some tough times and meant we ate a lot less takeaway food. We only had to decide each week between the two delivered recipes (though even that choice was too hard sometimes).
  • One of the stories in Sandra Felton’s The Messies Manual is about a woman who struggled to choose what to eat at a restaurant. She made it easier for herself by deciding to limit her choice each time. One time she would have a fish dish, the next, poultry, the next red meat. That way, she didn’t have to choose from the list of every dish on the menu, but only two or three dishes.
  • You can limit decisions by having a schedule or routine. You might not be able to schedule your whole day like I can, but you can have a morning routine that you just do automatically. And you may be able to schedule things like exercise or grocery shopping.

I’ll show you what I mean by this by explaining how I schedule my gym visits. At the moment I am trying to get to the gym to do 30 minutes of vigorous exercise six days a week. But if I didn’t schedule it, I’m sure I wouldn’t feel ‘in the mood’ most days and I wouldn’t get it done. It would be a decision I would struggle with. 

So I go with a routine:

  • On Mondays my exercise is a lunchtime thing. I head to the gym at around 1pm.
  • Tuesdays I go on my way back home from my writing group, Creative Space. I put my gym clothes in the car so I don’t have to go home to get changed. If I did go home I would struggle to get back out the door to go to the gym.
  • Wednesdays I go first thing: breakfast, put on gym clothes, exercise.
  • Thursdays I go and write my novel at a cafe first thing, then gym on the way home, clothes packed as on Tuesdays.
  • On Fridays the gym comes after my coffee visit with my Mum. That visit generally falls at about lunch time so I pack a muesli bar as well so that I can’t talk myself out of going if I’m hungry.
  • Saturdays and Sundays are a bit more fluid, but I will try to go first thing on a Saturday and I go after church on Sundays, especially if I’m leading.

I still don’t make it to the gym every single day, but you can see how I’m making it easy for myself by scheduling, linking the gym with other activities, and packing what I need so that I get rid of excuses. This is a schedule for an ideal week, and no week is ideal. But if I didn’t have this picture of what I’m aiming for then I think I’d be hitting nothing most days and not exercising at all. Without the schedule, each day I would have to decide, ‘do I want to go to the gym?’ And the chances of the answer to that being ‘yes’ are much smaller if I’m deciding afresh every time.

If you’re struggling with decision fatigue, or finding it hard to make the myriad choices that are required to get through the day, then I encourage a little bit of planning. See if you can cut down the choices you have to make by meal planning or just deciding to limit your breakfast to one type of food. And work on a schedule for the activities where you need willpower. 

Why other areas can you see that you can pre-decide? Do you have a special way of dealing with those ‘extra willpower needed’ activities? Do you like a daily schedule or are you a more spontaneous person?

How and why to sleep well

I’m not an ‘early bird’ or a ‘night owl’. I’m more some kind of ‘permanently exhausted pigeon’.

From https://www.gemmacorrell.com/

No, that’s not quite the truth, it’s just a quote from Gemma Correll’s brilliant comic that I like. I’m more of an early bird these days. But I do seem to need more sleep than your average bear.

Sleep is so very important. I’ve been reading the book Rest by Alex Soojung-Kim Pang and I’ve learned a bit about what sleep can do for you:

  • It helps your body to grow
  • It helps your body to fight infection
  • It helps your body to repair wounds and scratches
  • It is a time when myelin is generated (a substance that helps your body to send nerve signals and is damaged in MS)
  • It is a time when your brain washes out toxins
  • It is a time when brain injuries are repaired

Lack of sleep is associated with increased risk of ulcers, heart disease, breast cancer, diabetes, dementia, and cognitive decline.

Sleep is a time when your brain solidifies its memories. Visual, emotional and procedural memories are solidified during rapid eye movement sleep, and verbal memories during slow wave sleep.

And while we sleep, our subconscious mind works on problems from the day, which can lead to moments of insight. We can wake up and find that our problems are solved!

When we are busy or trying to be productive, it can be tempting to cut into our sleep time. To think of sleep as unproductive, wasted time.

‘No sleep is going to be lost time’ says Pang. And when I look at the list of things that sleep helps with, I have to agree.

Sleep occurs in cycles that are 90 – 110 minutes long. If you get woken in the middle of a sleep cycle you feel groggy and horrible. But waking at the end of a cycle makes you feel more refreshed.

You can plan for this by looking at the time you wake up and counting back in 90 minute blocks to find the best time for you to go to bed. For example, if you need to wake up at 6 am then going to bed at 10.30 pm will get you five full cycles (if my maths is correct) and 7.5 hours sleep. 

I need more like 9 hours sleep myself, but my husband Moz is fully loaded at 7.5 hours. A while back, he would do his best to head to bed at 10.30 pm in an attempt to get all his cycles in before the alarm went off in the morning.

There was a problem with this calculation though. The thing was that in order to get all the sleep he needed, he had to drop off to sleep as soon as his head hit the pillow. He came to bed needing to fall asleep straight away. And that kind of stress is not very sleep-inducing.

Now, he’s fixed that by heading to bed a little earlier. He’ll be reading in bed at around 9.30 or 10 pm and turning the light off shortly thereafter. That means that often his sleep cycles finish early in the morning. He often wakes quite relaxed and refreshed at 5am. But that’s ok. He just gets up and goes to his study (leaving me still peacefully snoring) and plays on the computer or peruses the internet until it’s time to get going for the day. The activities he used to do at night he now does earlier in the morning. And he’s a lot less stressed, but he’s still getting the sleep that he needs.

There are even smart watches that keep track of your sleep cycles. You can tell them the time that you need to be awake and they will use a vibrating alarm to wake you at a time near to that where you are in a good place in your sleep cycle and less likely to be groggy. No more waking out of deep sleep to the insistent buzzing of an alarm.

Even naps are helpful. Did you know that Winston Churchill took afternoon naps all the way through World War II? Even a five minute nap apparently helps your memory work better. A 30 minute nap helps renew your depleted energy (I took one of those right before writing this) and a longer nap can cut your day in two so that you can work longer into the evening. 

I know that some people who nap for longer wake up feeling disoriented and groggy, so I prefer a nice 30 minute nap. Enough to restore energy, but not too deep into the sleep cycle.

I want to finish with a few tips for getting yourself a good night’s sleep. 

Turn off your screens an hour or so before going to bed. The blue light from screens keeps you awake and the dopamine hits from social media or the adrenaline from playing games or watching TV dramas are not going to help with the calming down either. A book is a great alternative.

Keep your screens and your work out of the bedroom. Use the bedroom for sleeping. Keep your work life elsewhere in the house so you’re not drawn to worrying about it at night.

If worrying about things keeps you awake, choose a time of day when you will worry, either a few hours before bed, or first thing in the morning. Dedicate that time to worrying and write down your worries. Then give them to God (I put them in a shoebox that is God’s inbox). When worries wake you at night, you can tell yourself that you will worry about that in your ‘worry time’ and go back to sleep. (It sounds strange, but it works for me.)

Make sure you do some exercise, again, earlier in the day and not immediately before you’re going to jump into bed and turn your light out. And make sure you don’t drink caffeine late in the day either. Most people stop drinking caffeinated drinks after lunch so that the caffeine has a bit of a chance to leave their systems.

A warm, milky drink before bed and a cool room should be a good combination that will lead to a peaceful and restful night’s sleep.

I am still working on my sleep habits. But I know it’s worth working on and getting right. Sleep is not wasted time, it is incredibly important for both mental and physical health. I hope you can prioritise your sleep and be energised and ready to face each new day.

PS here are a few websites you might also find helpful 🙂

https://www.healthline.com/health/sleep/sleep-calculator#not-enough-sleep

https://startsleeping.org/sleep-calculator/

https://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/health/conditionsandtreatments/sleep-hygiene#general-suggestions

My Life Changing Moment

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels

I used to be a messy, disorganised, cluttered person. I didn’t enjoy it, but I didn’t know how to be anything else. I didn’t know why I was how I was. I didn’t know how to change.

I remember vividly one morning looking at the house and how disgusted I was by it. I couldn’t face the dishes in the kitchen from the night before. I couldn’t face the breakfast dishes that had joined them. I couldn’t face the toys the kids had left all over the floor, or the clothes that were waiting to be washed, and taken off the line, and folded out of the basket. I couldn’t face any of it. It was disgusting. 

I want to make clear here that I was disgusted by my house for myself, not because of what anyone else would think. I did not like living like this.

The mess made me feel angry and confused and weary. The piles everywhere messed with my brain. I was tired from trying to remember where everything was. I was weary from the never-ending cycle of attempting to clean it up, then feeling so tired that I let it get messy again.

That morning, I couldn’t face any of it. I ran away. I crossed the street and had a coffee with my friend and let our kids play together. I knew I was just procrastinating, but that’s what I decided to do. 

And that’s the morning that Moz did something that I had wanted him to do for a while. He brought a mate from work over to have a cuppa. They were doing some electrical wiring in the vicinity so they dropped in to say hello and to have a drink. 

I wasn’t there. They didn’t get to see me or have a nice conversation. What they got to see was my super-messy disgusting house. And Moz never tried that again.

I felt terrible. I really did. But I didn’t know how to change.

Then one night I listened to Focus on the Family on Ultra106.5. That night a lady called Sandra Felton introduced her book, ‘The Messies Manual’. She talked about the underlying reasons we live with mess, with a cluttered house, the reasons we procrastinate. She spoke to something deep inside me. I bought her book and I have never looked back. I now have several copies of her book that I lend out to friends who share with me their problems with keeping a tidy house. 

I know that Felton is not the only one giving this kind of advice. There are so many books, blogs, podcasts and courses helping those of us who need organisational help. But I want to publicly thank her for what she did in my life. I am so grateful for the clean house and the clear head and, yes, the headspace for my writing that I don’t think I’d have without her advice.

Sandra Felton shares so much wisdom, but today I will just share the major idea that helped me the most: Her decluttering method.

Sandra calls this the Mt Vernon Method. You start somewhere, say inside the front door at the hall table. You have three boxes: a box for the things you will give away, one for things to throw away, and one for things that belong somewhere else. As you look at every surface, and open every draw and every cupboard, you look at each item and put it in one of those three boxes. And you put back in the drawer the things that belong in the drawer and those things only. And no keeping things ‘just in case’. (She does say that you can have an extra box for those things you can’t decide about. When that box is full, you store it for a predetermined amount of time and then look through it and make the decisions then.)

This is a marathon, not a sprint. As you can, you attack the next space in the house. When you have to stop for the day, you stop. But you just keep going, until over time you declutter your whole house.

I had kept far too much stuff in our house. We had moved four times in a year, I hated the packing so I had left a lot of our goods packed up in boxes just in case we needed them again. I was also keeping every little bit of rubbish, sorry, I mean craft supplies that I thought could possibly be useful for children’s activities. Toilet rolls, cereal boxes, scraps of wool and so on. I was keeping a lot of memorabilia too, like all the letters my grade 10 boyfriend had written to me. It was all taking up space in a tiny house, spilling out onto benches and the floor. Taking up cupboard space so that things we actually needed could not have been put away even if we had wanted to.

I was hanging onto stuff to give me security. But stuff can’t do that. All it did was take away my peace. I needed to throw stuff out. I went through and ‘Mt Vernon-ed’ my house and suddenly our hall cupboard could be used for hanging up our coats, all our food could fit into our pantry, and all our clothes could be put away in our chests of drawers.

In my house now, I even have several drawers that are empty. Not all the drawers and shelves have to be full, you know. You don’t have to keep stuff just for the sake of it.

I am now in love with clear surfaces, with clean lines in a house. With ‘a place for everything, and everything in its place’. As I got organised and cleaned up I found that I enjoyed the experience. That I wanted more and more organisation. Not just of my stuff, but also of my time and my thoughts. 

There are other methods that might work better for you. Marie Kondo famously tells people to pull everything out (for example, make a pile of every piece of clothing you own) then only hang on to those things that ‘spark joy’. Dana, from A Slob Comes Clean, prefers a bit-by-bit process that starts with getting rid of the ‘trash’; the rubbish that is just sitting there in whichever room you are deciding to clean first. I think that’s a great starting point too.

It doesn’t matter much which method you use. If you find that you can never get on top of the cleaning in your house, maybe consider that you might have just a bit too much stuff, and get rid of some. For me it was the starting point of a new way of life.

Hearing Sandra Felton speak on the radio was the start of the Quiet Life journey and I’m so grateful to her and to God for sending her along at just the right time.

If you would like to hear me say a bit more about this, you can find my podcast at ruthamos.com.au and you can sign up there to receive this blog in newsletter form too, straight to your inbox.

How do you declutter your house? Have you come across any organisational tools that you’ve found particularly helpful? I’d love to hear about them.

Brain Buckets

Five Coloured Buckets in Rainbow Isolated on White Background.

When we talked about the big brain dump list, we talked about how our brains cannot hold all the things we would like them to hold. How if we are keeping everything in our heads, there is a big chance that some of the things will fall out.

And, when it comes down to it, do you want to use your brain for keeping track of things? Or do you want to use it for thinking?

I often thought, when I had small children, that some of the reason for the ‘baby brain’ – the clouded mind, the inability to think – was that I was keeping track of everything using only my brain. I had trouble thinking through a complicated idea, but if someone asked me where the socks with the pink stripe were, or what had happened to my son’s sunhat, or whether there was milk in the fridge, I could answer those questions straight away.

But I don’t want to use my brain’s powers for keeping track of the dirty laundry and remembering that we need to buy milk and that Moz is on the roster at church on Sunday. That is not a good use of my brain. I want to use my brain to write novels and blog posts, to edit complicated scientific papers, and to daydream.

So what to do?

It’s quite simple, really. Use tools to keep track of things and use my brain for thinking.

But the trick is to use the proper tools. There’s no use writing the grocery list on the back of an envelope, and the roster on the church newsletter. Then your brain has to keep track of where the envelope and the church newsletter is, and also it spends time wondering whether that particular scrap of paper has been thrown out by mistake when it has a VERY IMPORTANT thing written in the corner that you MUST NOT forget. 

And tying a knot in your handkerchief, no matter how bad your sinuses are, is also not very effective. 

So the tools we use must be effective, efficient, and limited.

Decide what you are going to use and use those tools at all times. Don’t get caught in the trap of using too many tools and then having to look between them all the time to find the thing. Choose some tools and go with them.

Here’s how I am doing it right now.

Groceries are written on a pad on the fridge. When I use something up, I write it on the pad. I have also trained the members of my household to do this, and they do it most of the time. If they don’t, I don’t take any responsibility for it. If it’s not written on the grocery pad, then they will need to go get it themselves.

My general list of things to do is on the Actions app (from Moleskine) on my phone. So no matter where I am, if I start to think, ‘I should put the rubbish out’ or ‘go to the bank’ or ‘fold the washing’ I put that on my phone. If it’s important and time limited I can add an alarm to remind me. But because I know that the jobs are there on the phone, I usually just look at what needs to be done. The app I use can set certain days to do certain tasks and can also make some tasks repeating tasks. It’s all very handy.

I write out my work to-do list on my paper diary on my work desk. That helps me to limit the list of things I’m trying to do in a work day. And it helps me to plan the day too.  

But those two lists are not my brain dump list, of course. For the brain dump I use Evernote. And I also use Evernote for any thoughts about projects – like book ideas, blog post ideas, or even larger household projects. And Evernote is great because you can put websites in it too. I also keep my ‘books to read’ list in Evernote. The only issue with Evernote is that it can become a ‘write-only’ piece of software. You can put heaps in it that you never look at again. So be wary of only adding information that you will want to look at later.

Another thing I keep in Evernote is a packing list. When we go anywhere to stay the night I can easily pack for the occasion because everything I usually pack is written in the list. So I feel confident that I’m not going to forget my chargers or my decaf coffee, they are on my list and they will be remembered.

I have a small notebook that I keep by my bed. I use that for those pesky thoughts that come just as you get comfortable. ‘You must remember to ring your mother tomorrow’ for example. I write it down in the notebook and then transfer it to my phone the next day. (No, my phone does not live next to my bed and I hope it never will.)

I also have a small notebook in my handbag, but I tend to use my phone instead these days rather than pen and paper.

And finally, I use google calendar for keeping track of my appointments. I love that I can add things on my phone or on my computer. And if I want Moz to know about them I can put them in the calendar we share so that we both know. It’s kept on the cloud so I’m not going to lose the dates even if my phone or computer dies.

Those are the things I use to remember things, to keep track of things, and to store my thoughts so that my brain is clearer and I can use it for thinking. 

So remember, keep it simple and limit the number of brain buckets, but make sure you write it down.

My novels can be found at rjamos.com and you can drop me a line @ RuthAmosAuthor on Facebook, @aquietlifeblog on Twitter, or email me at ruth@ruthamos.com.au

A Daily List

Previously on this blog I talked about ‘The Everything List’ – the big brain-dump list of everything, the list that you use to clear your brain and to keep track of all the different jobs that you need to do. That is a really important list to use to get life organised, but it is not a list that you can work off on a daily basis.

If you just use the one big list, you run into a couple of problems pretty quickly:

1) You can jump from thing to thing on the list, never quite finishing anything and never getting focused work done, and

2) You end up feeling like you never achieve anything because the list never gets any smaller. 

This means you never feel productive, never get that nice feeling of being finished, never feel satisfied that you’ve done a good day’s work, and that leads to procrastination.

There is a solution: use a daily list.

The list for the day should be small. It should contain only the number of things that you can realistically achieve in that day. At first, that might be hard to judge, but as you go on you’ll start to see how much you can do and limit your list to those things.

For example, it took me a while, but I realised that editing 5,000 words takes me about two hours. I used to hope that I could squeeze it into an hour or so, and add more to the day. But now I know that if I get a 5,000 word editing job, I need two hours to do it. And so I set that time aside. I don’t try to do more than I can in the number of hours I have.

To keep the list small, it’s helpful to write it in a small place. You could use a Post-it note or an index card. I use a paper diary that has a week to a page, so each day has a small section of about 2 cm by 5 cm. The diary has the hours of the day on it too, so if I need to block out two or three hours for a job or activity I can do that and limit the amount that I can add to the rest of the day. Just having the limited space to write the list on keeps me aware that my time is limited too.

With this small space to write your daily list, you then turn to your master list. Look down that list and figure out what you are going to attempt to do today. What does today hold? As your eyes run down the master list, some things will catch your attention, maybe because they are urgent, or maybe because you have a desire to do them today. Both these attitudes are good – in fact, it’s a good idea to have a mix of things you have to do and things you want to do on your list if you can possibly achieve that. And don’t forget all the regular things too – checking email, washing clothes, all those repeating tasks. You need to set aside time to do those too. 

But only as much as you can fit into a day.

And what if a new job appears through the day? Because you’re almost guaranteed that something’s going to show up. You’ll have a request pop into your email in-box. You’ll get a phone call. Someone will knock on your door. 

Well, the thing is, your day is full. The new job either goes on the master list, or it goes on tomorrow’s list. But you don’t just try to squeeze it into today. Today is booked already. You have a complete list today.

If the job is extremely urgent, then you can bump one of today’s jobs onto tomorrow. But I don’t recommend that. If at all possible, tell the asker that your day is full today, but you can do the job tomorrow. You’ll be surprised at how often they will accept your explanation and put off the deadline.

Wouldn’t it be nice if time was unlimited? If you could squeeze more and more in to a day? But it’s not the case. Time and energy are limited commodities and we need to act as if they are. We need to take control of our day and use our time to serve us and to enable us to do the work that we have chosen to do.

Annie Dillard said, ‘How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing.’ 

Let’s use our daily lists to make sure that how we spend our days gives us the opportunity to give to the world the gift that only we can give.

Do you have another way to organise your day? Do you use pen and paper, or an app on your phone? How do you make sure you don’t try to squeeze too much into a day?

Focus

Our culture seems to be a little addicted to overwork. I mean, working hard, putting effort in, getting heaps done. That’s all good, isn’t it? That’s valuable. That makes us feel like productive members of society.

We can tell ourselves that we are working and that it’s all goodness and duty, but maybe sometimes we are working long hours to avoid our families, or our feelings, or ourselves.

And just because we are putting long hours in, doesn’t necessarily mean we are getting heaps done.

Moz remembers a time when he was doing a night shift. He and his boss worked until around 3am when they realised that their productivity and efficiency had gone right down. They chose to take a nap for a couple of hours and then get back on with it. They finished up at around 7am.

If they had worked through, they probably would have still finished at around 7am. The nap gave them the boost of energy they needed to work efficiently for the rest of the night.

In a similar way, the other week my pastor took a mental health day. He works six days a week and after a while he got a bit tired. (Fair enough!) By taking a mental health day he could come back to work refreshed and get more done, more efficiently. 

But I hope you notice that there’s a word that keeps coming up in this discussion, and that’s ‘efficient’.

A business in the UK (Voucher Cloud) surveyed 1989 workers and asked them how many hours they would actually work in an 8-hour day. The answer averaged out at just under 3 hours a day. What did they do for the rest of the work day? They read the news, chatted, made snacks and hot drinks, made phone calls, and even applied for new jobs! 

By working efficiently and effectively, you can get more done in less time and free up time to do what you love.

There are several tricks that you can use to get this efficiency and sense of focus.

Firstly, it is a good idea to figure out what you are working on right now. Make a list, prioritise, and then focus on the job that is the top of the list. If you’re jumping from job to job, you’re not going to make a dent in any of the tasks you need to achieve. Find one task, focus on that one, and get it done.

You can trick your brain into getting into work quickly by using separate spaces for different activities.

If your brain knows that this is a ‘work space’ then it will get into work mode much more easily. 

Caleb (my son) worked this out during the COVID year when he had to do his university studies from home. He had a desk and a desktop computer where he could have listened to lectures and worked on his assignments. The problem was, that desk was where he played his computer games. So when he tried to work at that desk, his brain told him that it was a gaming space. He did much better when he worked on his university assignments at the dining table, and relaxed by playing computer games at his desk.

As I do all my work from home, I need to do the same thing. I have a desk, an office space that I use for editing work and administration. When I want to write my novel or work on something creative I often move to the dining table, or even take my laptop to a café so that I can be in a different frame of mind. To relax, I head up to the lounge room. But I try not to do any work sitting on the couch. That is my relaxation space.

Another way to keep focus is to get rid of interruptions or distractions.

I used to keep Facebook and Twitter open on my desk top so that I could look at it for a ‘break’ through my work day. But I realised just how much I was being derailed by that, so now I usually peruse the socials on my phone in my relaxation place, rather than on my computer in my admin place.

And when I really REALLY need to focus I bring in another technique. This is the Pomodoro technique. Named after a tomato-shaped kitchen timer. Remember those?

I set the timer on my phone for 25 minutes. During that time I am completely focused. I do nothing else. No phone calls, no socials, no email. The job is the thing. I do the job. Then, the timer goes off and I give myself a five minute break. I walk around. I stretch. Then it’s back for another 25 minute work session and so on until I get the job done.

Studies show that it takes 5-10 minutes to refocus after an interruption. That is why it is so important to keep your phone on silent and your socials closed, and even to turn your email off while you focus on a task. 

Speaking of email, the best way that I have heard to deal with that constant interrupter is to only check your email three times a day and to deal with it as you check it. Schedule it in, like a meeting. That way it doesn’t derail your other good and focused work.

I don’t have a problem with good productive work. But I do have a problem if it takes over your whole life and leaves you no time for anything else. And one way that I see that happening is if you half-work when you should be focusing. It means your work drags out, doesn’t get done, comes home in the evening, takes over your weekend.

Instead, try setting a timer and really focusing on your work. That way, when you get it done you can really relax, have some fun, be creative, play, with no guilt at all.

What do you use to help you focus?

Living by Your Values

Do you know what your top values are? Do you know why you make decisions to do, or not do certain things? Do you have any idea what it is you’re really reaching for?

Recently I found out that I really didn’t know what values I lived by.

I had been talking with my psych about some unhelpful ways of thinking (that I am learning not to use) and she said, ‘Yes, that’s unhelpful, but that’s ok. You notice, you tell yourself that you understand why you’re thinking that way, and then you go back to your values and live from them.’ Which is very helpful information. Unless you have no idea what your top values are. 

So I asked her about that, about how to find out your top values. She gave me the following exercise, which I did on my holidays.

The first thing I did was google ‘list of values’. I copied off two lists and ended up with about 150 different words or phrases that described things that we can value. Some of them doubled up, that’s ok.

I printed off the lists and cut up the pieces of paper so that a different word or phrase was on each piece.

The first thing to do was go through the pile of values and divide them into three piles:

  1. Definitely me
  2. Maybe me
  3. Not me at all

After that, I got rid of piles two and three and concentrated on pile one.

It became much harder now.

I needed to take that pile and divide it again into:

  1. Definitely me
  2. Not quite so much me

It was important to me to note that all the statements in this pile are things that I value. Getting rid of one out of the pile didn’t mean that I no longer valued that thing, it just meant that it wasn’t part of the group of absolute top values.

I repeated this step until I was left with a list of five values.

It was simple, but not easy.

I had three nights away. It took me two and a half days to cut my list down to five. 

When I journaled about those five values I found something interesting. There were two in that five that could be incorporated into the other three. Which brings us to another important point. Words, like Humpty Dumpty says in Alice Through the Looking Glass, can mean whatever you want them to mean. This list of values, it is supposed to clarify things for you. Not to lock you into a box. Not even to broadcast to others (like I’m doing now) so that they can lock you into a box. They are to help you live your life with clarity and purpose.

What the words mean to you, might be very different from what they mean to another person.

My top five values were:

Peace

Family 

Security

Wellness

Excellence

But as I journaled about them I realised that Wellness to me means peace in my body. So that comes under the value of Peace. And I value excellence in my work because it enables me to keep my job. So that comes under Security. (Also, my year theme, the Year of Order, comes under the value of Peace. As I bring order to my life, I get more peace.)

So I ended up, after three days, with three top values:

Peace

Family

Security

These values can be lived out in two ways. They can be selfishly grasped, or they can be lived for yourself and others according to God’s will. They are not morally good or bad in themselves, it all depends on how we live it out.

For example, I can approach the value of Security in two ways. I can save up all my money, work harder and harder, trust in my money, my investments, my work to give me the security I long for. If I do that, the Bible calls me a fool. I could be as ‘secure’ as I could possibly be and the stock market might crash, or even worse, I could die (like the rich fool in Luke 12). What would my security gain me then? Nothing.

But if I place my security in God then I will be ‘like a tree planted by streams of water which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither’ (Psalm 1). 

Your values are your great strengths and your great weaknesses. It depends how you live them. 

I think this is an excellent exercise to prayerfully undertake. I don’t think you need a week’s retreat to do it, but I suggest you do it over a few days. I did not find this an easy undertaking. But I have found it super helpful.

And if you would like to share your top values with me, I’d love to hear them. Leave me a comment, or head to http://ruthamos.com.au and use the Contact Me box, or find me on Facebook or on Twitter @amos_rj.