A Quiet Christmas

Four white candles with a pink candle in the centre on a black background.
My Advent Wreath

We’re in the middle of it now. Right in the middle of all the Christmas activities.

Take some time to breathe.

I’m going to put some suggestions up on this blog that you may not be able to implement until next year, but I thought I’d put them up anyway. Next year’s Christmas will come around soon enough, and some things you might be able to do this year.

But before I get started on the dos and don’ts of Christmas celebration, I want you to stop and think. Stop and breathe, stop and ponder on what it is that is important to you about Christmas.

Now, I know that if you are a Christian, you’re going to say that the most important thing is that we’re celebrating the birth of Jesus. That’s obviously true. But think about how you spend your Christmas. If someone looked at you from the outside, would they say that this is the most important thing to you?

No judgement here at all. I think that for me, I love to celebrate the birth of Jesus by heading in to church for the Christmas Eve midnight service, but celebration of family comes very high up on my list of priorities for Christmas. And you can tell that by the fact that I have a Christmas Eve celebration with my children, a Christmas Day celebration with my parents and a Boxing Day celebration with my in-laws, my children and my parents and anyone else who wants to come along (it’s HUGE). It’s obvious, from the outside, what my priorities are.

Whatever is your priority, how are you making time to focus on that thing? Are there activities that you do that are spending time on things you really don’t prioritise? How could you lower the amount of time spent on those things, and increase the amount of time spent on your priorities?

I think that one of the stressful things about Christmas is the fact that we are all running around trying to meet the priorities of other people and do things that we don’t value. I’m not saying this is the time of year to massively annoy your close family and friends, but with communication, compromise, and a few well-placed boundaries, we could all have a quieter and more enjoyable Christmas.

When I was a young child, Christmas in our family was a huge burden. We had a Christmas Eve church service, a Christmas Day church service, and then lunch with my mother’s side of the family and the evening meal with my father’s side of the family. By the time we rolled ourselves from one huge meal to the next, us kids were ratty and looking for presents (more presents, and yet more presents), and the adults were exhausted. 

So we changed things. One family spent Christmas together and the other side met on Boxing Day (the day after Christmas, if you’re not British or Australian).

As life went on, things changed more as things do. Us children grew up, got married and had children of our own. Now there were even more in-laws to keep in touch with. So now, as I said, we do our small family Christmas dinner on Christmas Eve followed by the midnight service, then lunch with my parents on Christmas Day. Then on Boxing Day we go to Moz’s family for the whole day. And as for my wider family? We do Christmas in late January or early February. The weather is better, there is more chance of having a swim, and everyone is less stressed and more able to relax.

There are other options, of course. Scottie’s family (the morning host at Ultra106.5 FM) does the big Christmas with all the family every second year. One year Christmas is small, one year it’s huge and lasts for a week or so. I think that’s a really good idea.

Tsh Oxenreider suggests that if you celebrate the whole of Advent it takes the pressure off getting Christmas just right. She has written a book called Shadow and Light that you can find at https://www.tshoxenreider.com/advent along with an Advent playlist, a whole lot of art work, and some other tools to help you make the whole season beautiful.

Are there traditions you are doing that don’t suit you? Are there traditions you would like to try? One year I made my own advent wreath and lit the candles each week. I enjoyed it immensely but I haven’t brought that particular tradition into the following years. 

A new tradition we have started in our family is the Secret Santa tradition. This makes gift giving so much easier, especially now we are adults and are so more difficult to buy for! We use the website drawnames.com.au, which even has a gift giving guide if your particular person has been difficult and not filled out a wish list.

If you’re feeling stuck with all the cooking, perhaps it’s time to let others have a go. What’s the worst that could happen? You can stock some packets of chips in the freezer so that no one will starve. Or everyone can eat pretzels to their heart’s content. One year we had a charcuterie board competition, where each family brought their own imaginative cheese platter to the big family celebration, another year, a dessert competition was the go. Getting others to bring a plate like this spreads the work around and makes it fun at the same time.

The main thing is to figure out your priorities and boundaries, and then to communicate clearly. And I have found that if you hold everything loosely (like telling your adult children that they can choose when to come and see you), you end up getting a lovely surprise when you see people making your company a priority in this busy season.

And finally, remember that some people don’t have a busy Christmas. For some, this is the most boring and the saddest time of the year. Your best Christmas present may be just to notice and to give your company and time to someone who is alone. Jesus sacrificed his home in glory to come to us as a tiny baby. His throne became a manger. His throne room a stable. Is it too much to ask that in response we give up some of our precious family time to the lonely ones around us?

May your Christmas be blessed whatever you do this year. And may you remember the reason for the season and rejoice in the coming of our Saviour.

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?

Can we have it all?

out of officeYou know, we can’t do it all. Not all of the time. None of us can.

Sorry to start the post with such a strong pronouncement, but I’m hoping it’s not too much of a shock for you.

I think that each of us wants to have every area of our lives sorted out beautifully all the time. Each of us is striving for:

  • Good family relationships
  • A satisfying career
  • A healthy body
  • A vibrant spiritual life
  • An exciting social calendar
  • And the ability to eat unlimited amounts of chocolate

But it’s just not possible to be there in that paradise at all times. No, not even that last point.

Not even if you quit your job and start your own business from home. Even then it’s impossible to have all of it, all of the time.

There is no silver bullet. And believe me, I’ve spent a fair bit of time searching for one.

This week’s podcast interview is with Professor Matt King, and I asked him about his work-life balance. I know that in academia, the pressure to work long hours is intense. And Matt is trying to balance that with a young family and some ministry opportunities as well.

He said something really wise.

He said, ‘I’d prefer for some parts of my career to be diminished than to just respond to the pressures of being more, more, and more. … At the moment, my personal research is taking a hit. … It’s about priorities.’

So there’s a difficult path for each of us to walk. Which thing do we compromise on right now? Which thing do we concentrate on? What is the aspect of our life that needs special attention, and what needs to be dropped lower on the list for the time being?

Perfection will come, but not until the next life. For this life we are stuck in an imperfect, fallen world and that means making some hard decisions.

I think I may be worse at this than a lot of people. I love being needed. I love it when someone sends me a text and says, ‘Can you help out?’ Whether it’s ministry or editing or just being there for a friend, I love to help out in a crisis. But this means that my schedule fills quickly, that my life gets too full, and that I run out of time for myself, for my family, for my spiritual growth. I need to continue to learn that sometimes it is important to say no.

As I write this, I am frantically working on getting all my jobs finished so that I can take two weeks of holidays next week. I haven’t had a proper holiday for a long time, so I’m really looking forward to it. And I’m intending to book this type of holiday into my schedule regularly, even if that does mean saying no to some editing jobs, or saying no to some ministry opportunities. It’s not easy, but it’s very, very important.

How do you set your priorities? Do you feel the pressure of being ‘more, more, and more’? How do you deal with it? Do you take holidays?

 

Are you missing some of my blog posts? They come out every Monday. Sign up to follow the A Quiet Life blog on WordPress, or you can sign up to my newsletter on www.ruthamos.com.au  and you will receive every post straight to your email inbox. You will also find my podcast, my book ‘My Year of Saying No’, and any short stories or other books will be up there as they come along.

If you would like to support this blog and the podcast then you can head over to Patreon.com/quietlife and help me out for as little as a dollar a month. Thank you so much!

Hello! I’m back!

20190803_135921
This is us on one of our mini-adventures at the Thumbs in Orford

You haven’t heard from me for a while here at the blog. The last month or so has been a time where I’ve concentrated on my editing business and my family, and everything else has had to take a back seat. I have been blessed with a very big editing job with a very tight schedule and it has been important to put that at the top of my list of things to do. Weekends have been spent going on mini-adventures, taking time out, and installing a dishwasher. All very important things. 🙂

It was very easy to prioritise money-making activities, but I knew I needed to keep going with some of my author business too, and in that area I decided to concentrate on writing my novel. So you’ll be glad to know that 17,000 words were added to the latest Deadly Miss novel in the month of August. Well, I don’t know if you’re glad to know that, but I certainly am. It helps me to know that I’m making progress.

But all the other parts of my business – the blog, the podcast, the marketing, even the interior formatting of the novel that is complete all of these dropped off the bottom of the list while the money-making went on. I mean, if I had worked 24/7 I probably could have got it all done, but I decided not to do that. I believe in weekends and I love my sleep.

However, I have missed sharing with you all on this blog, and I’ve really missed the podcast, and I’m so glad that the work has settled down a bit and now I can get on with those things again. Podcast recording is happening again, and soon I’ll have more episodes to share. And today I can write my blog.

I feel refreshed by the break from the bits and pieces that make up my life. And even though I’ve been working flat out, I’ve also been able to take some time to think about my business structure, my life structure, and the way I want it all to work. The next couple of weeks I’ll be working on setting priorities, and working out how I’m going to spend my time, as I put all of the little bits and pieces back into my daily schedule. You might hear more about that as the weeks go on.

So there’s not much of a message in the blog today, except to say, ‘Hi! I’m back! I missed you all!’

Or maybe the message is that sometimes when life gets full or messy or difficult, it’s OK to drop some parts of your life, and know that you can get back to them later. We don’t need to do all the things all the time.

How are you? Has life been particularly busy for you, or are you in a quiet time right now? (Do quiet times even exist?) How do you go about setting priorities?

succulent garden

Weeding Your Time Garden

succulent garden
This is my succulent garden. Ironically I had to remove a large weed before I took the photo.

I have a new metaphor for time management, and I’m not sure if I’m going to use the metaphor very well, but I’ll give it a go.

Time management is like gardening.

Now, if you’ve read my short story The Useful Plants then you might know just how much I like (or rather don’t like) gardening. But I have a little bed of succulents near my front door that I take care of so I know something about it.

The thing I’ve noticed about gardens is that you can spend time on them, pull them into shape, prune and weed and tidy, and they look wonderful. But if you then think, ‘The job is done’ and leave them alone, the weeds creep in, the plants get overgrown, and the garden becomes messy again and require a lot of work.

This is the gardening cycle that I have experienced in my lifetime. But I know that the frustration is my own fault. Because the better way to deal with a garden is to work in it regularly. Head out there every week. Pull the weeds while they are small. Tidy up a little. And then, and this is important, spend time out there enjoying the beauty of what you’ve created.

So I hear, anyway.

But I know for sure that the same principle applies to our calendars, to our time management. You can set up the best system in the world, but it is not a set-and-forget situation. Over time little bits creep in. Extra jobs appear. Worthy activities find space. And suddenly you’re living in an overgrown mess, running from one thing to the next, head spinning, feeling really busy.

And I think the main point of this metaphor is not to be surprised that this happens. It’s just the second law of thermodynamics in action: The entropy of the universe is always increasing. Things tend towards disorder and randomness. It’s the way it is.

So we should not be surprised that the schedule we planned in January is now out of control in March (as mine was). Instead, maybe it’s easier to accept that and then deal with it, than to worry about it getting out of control again. Like the weeds in the garden, it’s just going to happen. We just need to be prepared.

We need to regularly head into our time garden and weed. We need to check where we’re at and make sure that our priorities are being taken care of first. We need to make sure there’s space in the schedule for rest, and space for time with those we love, and space for time with God.

And then, and this is important, once we’ve tidied out time garden, we need to take the time to enjoy its beauty. To rest in the rest. To appreciate the calm. As Eugene Peterson says, ‘Leisure is a quality of spirit, not a quantity of time’.  We can have a totally clear schedule and still feel busy. It’s better to enjoy the restful activities that we’ve built in, to really be present when we go for an evening walk, to actually concentrate on the book that we’re reading, rather than to be always thinking about our incomplete to-do list, having the worry whir away in the back of our minds even when we’re supposed to be resting.

I garnered this metaphor from an excellent book I read last week — Off The Clock by Laura Vanderkam. This is the most people-centred time-management book I think I have ever read. It doesn’t tell you how to structure your life to shut people out so that you’ll get more work done, instead it suggests ways of making the most of the time that you have so that you feel less busy (and still get the work done). I cannot recommend it more highly.

So happy gardening everyone! If you’re in Australia I hope you enjoy and make good use of your 8-hour day holiday, especially if the good use is resting. And if you’re in the Northern Hemisphere I hope that the advent of spring helps you to think about your time garden and how you can make it just as beautiful as the blossoms that no doubt are coming out now.

Do you like gardening? Are you surprised by the creeping disorder of the universe? What do you do to keep your time schedule under control?

Are you missing some of my blog posts? They come out every Monday. Sign up to follow the A Quiet Life blog on WordPress, or you can sign up to my newsletter on www.ruthamos.com.au  and you will receive every post straight to your email inbox. You will also find my podcast, my book ‘My Year of Saying No’, and any short stories or other books will be up there as they come along.

If you would like to support this blog and the podcast then you can head over to Patreon.com/quietlife and help me out for as little as a dollar a month. Thank you so much!

Seasons

Priorities

Earlier this year when I was trying to figure out what to say no to I made a mind-map of my life. I divided it up into sections – family, church, work, writing, and health. In each section I put the activities that I wanted to include and make time for and I used that map as a method of saying no to those things that didn’t fit in the segments.

It was a good way of seeing what there already was prioritised in my life and of figuring out what things just didn’t fit into my priorities. A way of looking at what I valued, and a way of testing each opportunity as it came.

It wasn’t that long ago that I filled in this mind map but I can already see things that no longer fit my life. For example, one of the planned tasks under ‘work’ was to apply for a new position that I knew would be advertised at my workplace this year. This position was an opportunity I had been waiting for for years. I thought it would fulfil my desire for permanency and security and I was ready to go for it.

In the, I don’t know, three or four months since I completed the mind-map my ideas completely changed. I no longer want to apply for the job. I wouldn’t accept it if it were handed to me on a silver platter. I’m ready to change direction and so grateful that I’m not locked into a long term position.

I often get sucked into what I call ‘The Enid Blyton Mindset’. The idea that if you get everything under control, get into the right school, job, or relationship, or have a certain amount of money saved, or figure out the right exercise routine, or somehow just get every area of your life just right, then you’ll live “Happily Ever After”.

Of course, it doesn’t work like that. Things are constantly changing. Your exercise routine might work really well until you get sick, or the amount of money you have for a buffer might be exactly right until your car breaks down and it all gets used up. Life is particularly skilled at throwing spanners in the works. We need to be flexible, constantly changing, constantly growing.

Some seasons of life are particularly hard. One of the seasons of life that I found especially draining was when my children were small. As much as I loved my children (and still do), it was all I could do just to get through each day. I lived in a constant state of exhausted fog. I don’t think that I could have done any writing when the kids were small, even though it is the thing that gives me life and joy now. It just would not have fit into that season of my life.

The thing I’m trying to say is that our needs and wants can change over time. It’s not that we have one perfect life set-up that we are struggling towards and when we get there it will be bliss. No, I think we need to be flexible with ourselves and take the time to have a good hard look at where we are every so often so that we can adjust our list of priorities. What was once so very important may now be dropped off the list. If a new priority (maybe taking care of ageing parents) comes on to the list, other priorities (the morning tea roster at church) might have to be knocked off. Or it might just be time, like it is now for me, to deliberately change your life so that a new major priority can get major chunks of time.

What do you think of the idea of seasons? Is it time for a change in your life? Or are you just hanging on to see a certain season through and wondering if things will ever change?

I am saying no to things this year in order to spend more time on my writing. This post is part of a series I am writing about what I have learned about saying no. I’d love to have you join me on this journey. If you want to make sure you never miss a post, you can sign up on WordPress and the post will be sent to your email address every week without fail. I apologise for the lateness of this week’s post. I’d like to blame anyone else, really, but it’s my fault. Life happened. We’ll try again next week!

I am also writing a cosy mystery and it’s coming to the pointy end now. If you would like to hear more about the writing process, and see the cover reveal, drop an email to rijamos@gmail.com and I’ll add you to my newsletter list. The newsletters are chatty, with a writing-focus, and only come out monthly so they won’t clog your in-box.

You’ll notice some special art in this series. If you want to see more of it you can find the artist on instagram @deteor42. Today the artist says the art is very millennial but I’m sure all us older ones can still relate.