Simplify

A picture of the state of Tasmania on the front page of the Mercury Newspaper, caption "We've got a moat and we're not afraid to use it"
Our newspaper loved the line

In Tasmania, we had a really different experience of the first two years of the pandemic from a lot of the world. We live on an island. We had a moat, and we used it. We shut ourselves off from the rest of the world and went about our business.

But we couldn’t keep the virus out forever, and one Friday night, a Covid-positive person got off a plane, lied about his status, and visited a few friends and acquaintances before being caught by police and put into isolation. But we didn’t know where he’d gone or what he’d done and to make sure that we didn’t all get sick, we all went into lockdown for a three-day weekend.

It was a delightful weekend for me. I slept, worked on a puzzle, wrote a bit, hung out with Moz. There was nothing else I could do. Life had become simple. Completely simple. What was the plan for the weekend? Stay home. See no-one. Do nothing.

I’ve been reminded about that time lately. First, when I got Covid and had to isolate for my seven days, and secondly, just recently when my parents came down with it and I went down to help them out (fortunately being immune from my own dose).

I hated being sick, and I hated that my parents were sick too, I would never recommend that anyone try to get sick with anything, let alone Covid, but one good thing about the seven-day isolation period is that you know exactly what you’re going to be doing for the next seven days. And that is nothing. No parties, no church, no work meetings, no walks on the beach, no grocery shopping. Nothing.

And it’s quite nice. It’s nice to look at a completely simple week. All decisions made. All plans cancelled. No guilt. No concern about what others will think. You are required, by law, to stay home and do nothing.

But if it’s that nice, why don’t we do it more for ourselves? Not get sick, but just take time out.

I’ve heard it several times, people wishing that they could have knee surgery so that their life would then be simple, confined to the hospital bed for a while. Or people wishing they could come down with Covid so that everything could stop for a while.

People! You should not be feeling this way! If this whole conversation is resonating with you, that’s a sign that your regular, everyday life needs to change. You are doing too much. It is time to simplify.

“But no,” you say. “I’ll feel so guilty! I’ll be letting people down.”

Maybe you will let people down. But trying to please all the people all the time is a recipe for disaster. 

We want an outside authority to take away the choice so that we don’t feel the guilt for saying no. But what we need is an inside authority, an authority within us that has come from our own life choices that allows us to say yes and no with clarity.

This is really difficult. I’ve written a whole book on it, and I’m writing another, and I’m still finding it hard to know exactly where the boundaries lie. But I believe that being able to say no without guilt is foundational to mental health.

And to do that, we need to know what we’re saying yes to. 

We need to know what our purpose is, what our priorities are, and then say no to what gets in the way.

It’s so much more complex than that, I know. But I wonder, as I speak to you today, whether there is a niggling in your mind drawing your attention to some activities that you know you could do without. If there is a place you can see where cutting down, or cutting out, would leave you with more simplicity and peace.

Skye Jathani, of The Holy Post, said that in Jesus’ parable of the sower, the soil that was good was good because it was just soil. It didn’t have anything added to it – no rocks, no weeds, no birds. Just soil. Taking things away and simplifying can make our lives good soil where good things can flourish.

Is your life feeling over complicated and over full? What are three things that you could say no to in the next week? Or are you feeling like you have a good balance of work and rest in your life? Let me know. Email ruth@ruthamos.com.au, find me on Facebook at Ruth Amos Author, or tweet me @aquietlifeblog.

Time as a container

Does your schedule feel like this kitchen sink?

This week I’ve been reading a great book called ‘Decluttering at the Speed of Life’ by Dana K White. It’s a book in one of my favourite genres – the decluttering genre. I have been inspired by it to throw out a big box full of cassette tapes that we were storing, for some unknown reason, and some old stained placemats. We did a big declutter many years ago. A great big life-changing declutter. And then little bits along the way since then. But it’s always good to look at your stuff again. Things change, and it’s good to look with fresh eyes.

But that’s not what this blog is about. It’s about time management, and rest, and simplification, and saying no. So what does decluttering have to do with that?

Well, Dana K White has a great concept that she calls ‘the container concept’. The idea is this (and bear with me, we will get to time soon): If you have a place to put something then the size of the container limits the amount of stuff you put in it. 

If you have a drawer in your kitchen for pots and pans, once you’ve filled it, that’s all there’s space for. You need to get rid of the pots and pans that don’t fit.

If you have a wardrobe for clothes, then once it’s full of clothes, you need to get rid of the clothes that don’t fit.

The size of the container limits what’s put in the container.

Dana suggests that you put in your favourites first. Then when you run out of space, she has a one-in-one-out policy. For each thing you put in, you take another thing out. 

So, what does this have to do with time management?

The thing I realised, as I mulled it over, is that your day is also a container. It is a limited, finite container for time. It can only fit so much. 

So applying the container concept, you need to define what your time is being used for, and you need to realise that when the container is full, it is full.

For example, the other night we had dinner with our son and daughter-in-law. Those few hours was set aside for spending time with them. And the fact that work emails were arriving on my phone was a distraction from the thing that I had set time aside to do. 

The thing is, science says that we can’t do two things at once. Multitasking is a myth. When you’re multitasking, you’re actually swapping attention from one thing to the next and back again. And that means that the nothing gets your pure focused attention. Even just getting a notification of an email can distract you, break your focus, change your train of thought to a new track. And according to the studies, it takes about 20 minutes to get focused again after that. 

This became a problem for me that evening with the family. I grew stressed as I watched the emails come in. I was distracted from the relaxing evening and felt under pressure. 

So I decided to do something about it. I talked to my tech guy (my husband, Moz) and he found an app I could put on my phone so that it stops checking the email after 6pm at night and doesn’t check it for the whole weekend either. This is a boundary that allows my rest time to be rest time, and my work time to be work time. It’s a definition of what my time-containers are for. 

I’ve also had a lot of work on my plate lately. And while I’m very grateful for it, it has meant that I’ve had to do some one-in-one-out work on my time containers. I’ve had to prioritise what I’m doing with my day. I can’t fit in more than fits in the container.

So when I was given three thesis chapters to edit, that meant that I couldn’t fit in the recording and editing of my podcast, and the uploading of my blog, and the emailing to my newsletter list. However, I didn’t let it stop me from working on my novel. That came first (favourites first) and then the paid work. And then the day was full, so some things had to wait. 

There are so many options to our days. There are many different possibilities for how we spend our time. But the time is finite and we just cannot do it all. We have to prioritise. Choose our favourites. And some things can be put off until a later time, but some things will just need to go. Sometimes we have to say no to some opportunities.

We might like to think we can just squeeze and squash more in. We can just push our schedules a little harder and work longer and go without sleep. But doing that makes our day feel like an overstuffed closet. And in the end, it’s going to all fall out all over the floor.

Instead, let’s apply the container concept to our time. Designate a use for a period of time. And when the day is full, allow it to be full, and either say no to new things, or put them into the next container we have available. Favourites first, and let the amount of time you have limit what you’re able to do. 

Was this helpful for you? Let me know in the comments, or write to me at ruth@ruthamos.com.au or find me at Ruth Amos Author on Facebook, or tweet at @aquietlifeblog. And please feel free to share with anyone you think it might help.

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.

Enjoy the process

A tennis ball

We’ve been watching the Olympics a lot lately, getting our fix of all the different kinds of sport. So I thought I’d start this blog with a sports example.

Here’s a story about Novak Djokovic:

“[Tennis champion] Novak Djokovic said in an interview with the Financial Times that “I can carry on playing at this level because I like hitting the tennis ball.” The interviewer replied in surprise: “Are there really players who don’t like hitting the ball?” Djokovic answered, “Oh yes. There are people out there who don’t have the right motivation. You don’t need to talk to them. I can see it.”

(From James Clear’s newsletter).

Moz, in his role as a teacher, talks to a lot of kids who are thinking about what they should do with their lives. And it’s not just kids, I think that some adults are really wondering if what they do is ‘all there is’ and whether they could change to do something else. They might be unhappy in their job situation, or maybe they’ve been laid off or something like, I don’t know, a global pandemic has happened and has changed their life or the way they are thinking about their life and they’re looking for what they want to do next.

My life has been a journey to find the process that I enjoy. 

I started my working life as a check-out chick, then a bank teller. I was unhappy in both of those situations, basically because I was an introvert operating with a flat people-battery all the time. These jobs weren’t right for me, but I have a friend, Judy, who worked in a supermarket for 30 years and really enjoyed it. I interviewed her in my podcast.

I left the bank to have children, and worked as a family day carer and a stay at home mum, again, using up my social energy to the utmost. But again, my friend Kerry just loves family day care and that’s where she knows she belongs.

To help with the resulting depression, I decided to go to university. And I loved it. Just loved it. I thought I’d be happy working at a university for the rest of my life. And I was happy for a good 15 years. But that time came to an end too. I have another podcast interview with Matt who serves God and the university and finds it fruitful and rewarding.

When I was thinking about leaving the university, I thought long and hard about what I wanted to do with myself. Like Djokovic, I wanted to do something where I enjoyed the process, and not just the outcome.

One thing I love to do is write. I know that some authors like ‘having written’ but I like the process of writing as well. I like to sit down at my computer, just like I’m doing now, and pounding out words. This makes the job of author an ideal job for me. 

I also like to read, and I read very quickly. I have a good grasp of the English language, and now that I’ve worked as a scientist, I have a good grasp of science too. And this enables me to work as an academic editor. Believe it or not, I like the fiddly process of working with words to make them sound beautiful. I like bringing order out of chaotic journal articles. I like the process.

When Moz talks with the kids at school about what they want for their future careers, they are often thinking of the outcome. ‘I want to make lots of money’ or ‘I want to be famous’. This is really short-term thinking, happily-ever-after thinking. Thinking that when you get to a particular point, you’re going to be happy from then on because everything will be perfect. I get trapped in this kind of thinking all the time. But I’m learning to change. I think it’s much better to think of the types of things you enjoy, and how those can be used to solve a problem or to give value to others.

Do you enjoy being inside or outside?

Do you like to bring order or make a creative mess?

Are you the ‘sit quietly and read and write’ type like me, or do you like to be active?

Do you fill your battery by being with others or by being alone?

The more you understand these things about yourself, the more you can look for a job or activity where you can give value to others and also be fulfilled yourself.

I really love to encourage people to find these things that suit them and do them to the best of their ability. It took me 40+ years to find out what suited me. I had several false starts. But I couldn’t be happier now.

My sister also has walked this path. She knew she wanted to be a musician, but what sort of musician? She tried classical and jazz performance, she tried music teaching, she tried working in administration (another of her gifts), and then she found film composition. That is her happy place, working in film in all sorts of ways. Composing, orchestrating, going and doing all the recording in the studios. One film she worked on recently (supporting the composer), Minari, was nominated for an Oscar. 

Once again, it took her a while to find her thing, but now she’s found it she’s unstoppable.

Nothing we do is wasted. I’m grateful for all my experiences on the way through. They have built me into what I am today. But I’m more than grateful for the ability now to work in a way that I love on projects that I enjoy.

I can’t encourage you enough to find activities where you enjoy the process. Not just the pay cheque, but the work you need to do to get the cheque. Enjoy hitting the ball. Whether it’s for money or just for love. It’s life changing.

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?

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.

Silence and Solitude

‘I had 90 minutes to myself,’ the tweet read. ‘No questions, no demands, just 90 minutes for me. OK, it was a root canal, but still.’

When was the last time you had time alone?

Now I know that COVID meant that we were all living on top of each other, and in most places in the world people still are. It’s hard to get time alone. 

And if you managed to get some time alone, what would you do with it?

Would you fill it with music? TV? Social media?

No judgement here – I obviously started this blog with a Twitter quote, and I’m not going to tell you how many levels I have completed in Candy Crush.

But there is real value in spending time in silence. Alone, and in silence.

Silence and solitude is one of the great spiritual disciplines, and it is that for a reason.

Sitting in silence with God at the beginning of the day reminds you that you are a human being, not a human doing. That you are loved by God just for who you are. That the world doesn’t need you to spin it in order for it to turn.

Sitting in silence for ten minutes after a hectic morning resets your body and your brain and helps you to get your priorities right again.

Sitting in silence reminds you that it’s not all about you and that you’re not needed. But that you are loved. It helps you get in touch with your own thoughts and feelings. It helps you know where you’re at and where you’re going.

It’s a circuit breaker in the 100 mile an hour rush that life easily becomes.

This is how I do it:

The first thing I do is write down everything I’m worried about. I put that all on a piece of paper and then file that piece of paper in the shoe box that I’m calling God’s In Box. Now the worries are for him to deal with and are out of my head.

I have a special place, I sit on one end of my couch. The other end from where I sit when I’m watching TV. Other people go all out with special places for this and decorate and light candles and such. You do you. But it helps to have a regular place where you do this. If you keep places separate, then your brain and body knows, ‘This is where we do this. We’re doing silence now.’ This separate places thing works for other activities as well.

You can set a timer, so that you’re not always looking at your clock to see how the time is going. I sometimes set a timer, but if I have time I just leave it and go until I feel done. At least ten minutes, but sometimes as long as fifteen. I hope that someday I’ll be able to go even longer.

I start by taking three deep breaths – in for four, out for six, or something like that. This helps me to know that you’re starting now.

Then, I just sit.

If distractions come, I bat them away and keep going. If I find that my mind is still running at a hundred miles an hour, I stop and listen. I see how many different sounds I can hear. Birdsong, distant traffic, the house creaking as it warms up for the day. 

This is a time of not achieving, not doing, not being productive. I’m not thinking things through, I’m not actively praying in words. I’m just being. 

We can be addicted to words. Especially if you make a living with words like I do. We can think that they are absolutely necessary all the time. But they are not, and praying without words like this is … it’s just a beautiful thing.

We can be addicted to activity. Why sit for ten minutes when you could be cleaning? Gardening? Ringing a lonely person? Working? Exercising? But sometimes we need to know in our souls that we are worth more than just what we do. We are valuable for who we are. And that it doesn’t all depend on us. I am not the saviour of the world.

Sometimes I finish with The Lord’s Prayer, sometimes with a prayer of gratitude, sometimes I just finish.

If an insight comes to me, then I might journal it. But this is not about journaling (another great thing to do) this is just about being.

And that’s it, really. 

Can you do it? Ten minutes a day. You could get up ten minutes early, or you could go to bed and sit quietly before sleep. You could spend ten minutes in silence while going for a walk in your lunch break. Yes, you don’t have to just sit, walking meditation is a thing, or swimming, or cycling.

I cannot recommend this practice highly enough. Ten minutes a day of just you and God. Give it a go.

If you want to learn more (and I highly recommend that too) read Invitation to Solitude and Silence by Ruth Haley Barton. This is the book that I’ve been using to start my practice.

And if you’d like to chat with me about your experience, why don’t you leave me a comment? Or head to the Contact Me box at http://ruthamos.com.au or find me on Facebook or on Twitter @amos_rj.