Gregory K. Popcak, Ph.D.
Maureen has one nerve left and her kids are getting on it. Fried from a week of bussing the kids from one soccer game to the next, volunteering in her kids’ school cafeteria, trying to keep up with the house and the errands and managing a part time job that is constantly threatening to go full time on her (without accompanying compensation/benefits…of course), she’s got nothing left. “If something doesn’t give soon, I’m going to short out.”
Ed feels like he’s on a gerbil wheel and he can’t get off. His big problem is that he can’t say “no” to anyone. He means well, but he constantly finds himself trying to make everyone happy only to find that he’s overpromised and, despite running around to get everything done, inevitably disappointing someone. “I can’t catch a break.”
Life just seems to get more complicated all the time. People have always struggled to find balance, but somehow, it seems like there is just more to juggle today that there was at any other time before. The technology that is supposed to make our lives more efficient just seems to make us feel like we ought to be able to do more at work and take more work with us wherever we go. Social pressures make us feel that we have to be all things to all people. We don’t want our kids to miss out on any opportunity lest they “fall behind” their peers. The upshot is that people are more stressed than ever and families are more fragmented than ever. If you’ve been looking for a way to take back your life. Here are some tips to help get you started.
Own Your Life.
Bethany, a working mom of 4, is having a hard time keeping her mental calendar straight. “I’ve got to be in a million places at once today. I’m supposed to be giving the talk at my parish bible study just at the time when my kid’s play starts. When did my life start running me?”
Despite their differences, one thing that the people mentioned in this article so far have in common is that they all talk about their life as if it wasn’t their life. When we get overwhelmed, we have a tendency to forget it’s because we made choices that we could just as easily unmake. We act as if we have become the slaves to some invisible master who won’t let us off the hook. It may feel that way, but it isn’t true. The first step to getting our life back under control is realizing that it’s our life. It might take a little force of will, but it absolutely can be done.
Matthew hit the wall last week. He was so overwhelmed with all of his commitments that he decided to rethink his priorities. “I had to ask myself, ‘What are you doing?‘” I sat down with my calendar and decided to pair things back to what I absolutely needed to do to get my work done and my family intact. I can rethink some of my other commitments later, but right now, I just needed to take some time to figure out how to feel like I was on top of the really important stuff.
Time, Energy, and Will Power are Limited Resources
Many people think that because they can’t see time, energy, or even will power, they will never run out of them. The truth is, all three are limited resources. We start out each morning with all the time, energy, and willpower we’re going to get for the day and everything we do, every choice we make, and every experience we have takes a little bit of all three away from us. People get stressed out and unbalanced in life because we spend all of our time, energy, and willpower doing things that we don’t really want or need to be doing, and then don’t have any energy left for the really important things–like relationships, prayer, and other meaningful activities. Like the sprinter who tries to run a marathon, most people burn through their reserves of time, energy, or willpower before the things that give them joy ever get started. A lot of folks think that because they can’t generate infinite time, energy and willpower that means they are a failure. It just means you’re human. The sooner you reckon with the fact that you only have so much to give, the quicker you’ll be able to be a better steward of your time and save more of it for the people and activities that are really important to you.
Linda used to drive herself really hard at work. And then she’d come home and do it all again. “I used to feel like everything had to be perfect, but the harder I worked the less perfect everything was. When I realized that I just didn’t have infinite levels of time, energy, and willpower, I started pacing myself. I’d do the most important things that needed to get done, and let other things go. I’d take little breaks throughout the day to let my batteries recharge as I went. All of a sudden, I actually felt like playing with my kids or spending time with my husband instead of just collapsing in front of the TV every night. Its really been great.
Take care of your relationships
Relationships can be a huge source of comfort and peace–if you take care of them. Research consistently shows that people with strong relationships–especially strong marriage and family relationships feel more balanced in life and more resistant to unhealthy stress. Many people get overwhelmed because they take their relationships for granted. They assume that their marriage and family will take care of themselves. This is a tragic assumption. Just like cars run on fuel and have a certain fuel economy (how many miles per gallon you get), every person’s life, especially our marriage and family life, runs on time, and has a certain time economy (how much time you need to give to your marriage or kids lest these relationships start running on fumes). It surprises a lot of people to realize that how much time any particular relationship needs to function is an actual number that can be calculated–at least roughly. Try this experiment. Think of a week (a normal week, not a vacation week) when both you and your spouse and/or you, your spouse and your kids, all felt pretty good about each other (or at least better than you usually do). What was different about that week? Think. How much time did you get together that week? Write down your best guestimate at the number of hours. Was it 10 hours of face time? 15? 20 or more? When you have a ballpark figure, ask yourself, “What did we do with that time?” Did you have family meals more often? Have a game night? A family day? A date night? Prayer time?
The number of hours you calculated above represents the minimum weekly number of hours your family takes to function well. The activities you listed represent the sorts of things you need to plan for on a regular basis to make sure your marriage and/or family rapport stays strong. Get your planner and start trying to carve out that amount of time every week. If you can’t do it, start asking some hard questions about what other commitments you can/need to let go of in order to guarantee this amount of time for your marriage and family every week. As Catholics who believe that families are “schools of love” we need to make sure that class is in session for enough hours every week that we have time to learn how to celebrate all the virtues that enable people to live life as a gift.
Len and Gina, married for 15 years with three kids (13, 10 and 7) were tired of the car being the only place where the whole family got time together. “All the kids ever saw was the back of our heads.” They decided to radically look at their schedules. They found a week when they all felt pretty good about being a family and realized that they ate three meals together that week, got a movie night and pizza in, and took Sunday after church to go to the nearby mountains for a picnic. They were able to do this that week because their daughter’s piano teacher was sick and cancelled her lesson, which meant one less night out than usual. They decided that, from now on, kids could only do as many activities as the family could fit in a Tues or Thurs evening and a Saturday afternoon. They committed to dinner together Monday, Wed, and Friday and a family day every Sunday after church. Plus, instead of the kids getting themselves to be, Gina and Len decided to have a family prayer time right before bed and read a chapter book to all the kids together. The whole ritual took about 20 minutes. These few changes brought about huge benefits for their family. Len says, “I can’t tell you what a difference it’s made. We’ve always loved each other, but we actually enjoy each other’s company so much more than we used to. There’s less stress at bedtime, less yelling in general. I wish we’d done this years ago!”
Once you’ve established the amount of time it actually takes to put your family first and add in the amount of time it takes for your to fulfill the responsibilities associated with your work or roles (such as homemaker) you have really good idea of what’s left for personal time or other important, but less essential, commitments. Having a format like this makes it infintitely easier to “let your ‘yes’ be ‘yes’ and your ‘no’ be ‘no’” (Mt 5:37) when faced with people who ask you to make commitments you just don’t have time for.
Don’t Fly By The Seat of Your Pants
One of the reasons many people feel so out of balance most of the time is that they have no rhythm to their life. Every day is made up as it goes along. While, in theory this sounds spontaneous and fun, it’s actually confusing and exhausting. For an individual, it can spell the difference between a good day and a bad one. For a couple or family, it can spell the difference between peace, love, and security, and chaos, frustration, and instability. You can’t underestimate the power of rituals and routines to help you achieve a sense of balance while still allowing for the unexpected in life. While the exercise above (in point 2) can help you get control of your schedule, actually establishing the activities you identified as regularly occurring rituals and routines helps anchor your life. Several decades of studies show that the presence of rituals and routines in person’s, couple’s, or families life counteracts the many emotional, relational, and physical problems that often accompany stress including depression, anxiety, high blood pressure, and divorce.
There are many people who fear rituals and routines, thinking that it leads to monotony and boredom, but that’s not the case at all. The fact that you have a praytime every evening with your spouse doesn’t tell you how to pray. The fact that you have a family mealtime several times a week doesn’t tell you what you eat and whether or not you use the good china. On the other hand, establishing rituals and routines allows you to know what’s coming, and to think ahead so that you can exercise your creativity when it’s time to celebrate the ritual or routine.
“I used to have my smartphone on for work all the time. I let it dictate my day. I was always afraid that I’d miss something important. Ironically, making myself constantly available to answer every email, text, or call that my office wanted to send made me miss all the most important things in my life. I decided to set regular times to check my phone, but then other times that it was off, so that I could concentrate on other things, a good meal, times with my wife, prayer. It’s taken my emotional temperature down by about 3000 degrees. I feel human again.”
Don’t be afraid to say “NO”
People are often afraid to say, “no” to others, because they don’t have an objective point of reference for agreeing to or declining requests. Someone asks us to do something and we either feel excited about the possibility or too guilty to say “no.” All of a sudden our life becomes cluttered with a host of worthwhile, but completely irrelevant activities that take of a lot of time but add little meaning. All of this, of course, makes our stress level increase exponentially.
Doing the priorities exercise we discussed above and establishing a rhythm of life through regularly scheduled rituals and routines helps you get an objective sense of what you can and cannot do so that when someone asks you to commit to something, you have an objective basis (your established schedule and rhythm of life) for saying “yes” or “no” to some new pursuit or opportunity. The additional clarity helps eliminate the guilt of saying “no” and the stress that comes from a too cluttered life.
Don’t Lean Too Much on “Me” Time
Getting time to yourself can be an important way you can reset your stress levels, but too many people think that getting away and leaving everything behind is the only way you can distress. Surprisingly this is a recipe for more stress. Research on stress management tells us that when people try to distress by running away from their life and commitments, the stress of re-entering their life practically eliminates the time they were away. Surely you’ve heard people complain about coming back from vacation? I’ve heard some people say they wish they never went away in the first place because so much piles up waiting for them when they come back. The same is true for “me” time. The more you get, sometimes the more you need. But, if you set your priorities as has been described in this article, and establish the rituals and routines that give a semblance of order to your day, getting the occasional time out can be refreshing and restorative.
Life is stressful, and there isn’t any question that its getting more stressful all the time, but you can get on top of the craziness and learn to ride the wave–and enjoy yourself while you do it–instead of letting the wave wash over you. If you or your family struggle with any of the issues mentioned above, such as time management, stress, or saying no, then contact your PaxCare Tele-Coach today and begin the next step towards reaching your goals. Call us to get the skills you need to succeed!