Habits Help

Each day a million thoughts run through your head. You see and hear lots of good things to try. Your goals are many and varied. But, how to do it?!?

We have discussed multiple strategies on this blog that help answer that question, and today we will add one more aspect.

Routines are effective. The more habits you can create in your day and then string together into a routine, the more you will accomplish without thinking about it. Yes, it takes time to build those habits, but the investment pays off immensely in the future.

When you think about eating an elephant one bite at a time, habits are a great illustration of “one bite” a day. If you do one thing every day (or every weekday), how much would be accomplished in a month? Or a year? If you want to do something more (like exercise or read), doing that thing 10 minutes a day will add up. After a few months, you will indeed have done something more.

Habits provide rest. When you get to the point that you have a habit (like brushing your teeth), you don’t have to think about what you are doing while you are doing it. Some days that is a micro-nap for your brain; other days it is free space for creative or deep thinking. Make the most of it!

Also, we are not designed to go full-out all day long. Scattering mental breaks throughout your day gives you a chance to catch your breath — while still accomplishing what you continually need in hygiene or chores or growth — before expending energy on the major efforts of the day.

Structure builds security. When you know the road you’re on, you are comfortable lifting your foot to take a step. In complete darkness in an unfamiliar room — not so much. When your routine is established, making exceptions is safer. When you know what to expect, you will naturally feel less anxious. You can be confident you will come back to the “normal” day. Bases are covered, so a special activity is not a concern.  If you have put wise effort into big picture planning ahead of time, you can relax and enjoy the small trip.

____________________

Not only do these points all apply to us, they also help with children. A regular, daily routine will:

  • minimize repeated instruction (they know what they are doing; they do it every day), and
  • require less energy in creating and communicating a new schedule for every hour and every activity.
  • Children love the security of structure. Once it is established, they will be active advocates for keeping it in place and you on track!

Planning Your Day

You may not lay in bed each night and plan out the next day’s steps while you try to fall asleep, but we all benefit from at least a few minutes of thinking ahead. We all have a limited number of hours any given day. How best to use them?

At the most basic level, you need to know what needs to be done and when. Often a day contains scheduled commitments. Other tasks fit around those.

The most effective way to keep track of what you have to do is to keep a to-do list written down. Some times you can remember the three things for the day, but how often do needs change during the day? Writing it down frees up mental space and ensures you won’t forget as distractions keep coming. Whether you use an app, a planner, a calendar or a Post-It note, having a list will keep you on track.

Once you know what you need to do, you can consider your schedule for the day. Somethings are non-negotiable (i.e., school pick-up). Thinking through how long each item will take and how long your unscheduled blocks of time are will help you fit each task into your day.

Your energy level is also a factor. We tend to have daily cycles. Some are morning people; others are night owls. Sometimes you need to take time to get up to speed in the morning, so late morning is high production time. Know yourself, and then you can plan your more difficult tasks for when you have the most resources to handle them. Chores requiring less brainpower can be completed when you are winding down or warming up.

Prioritizing is valuable. Ideally everything that needs to get done gets done. We all know that doesn’t necessarily happen! You create margin in your day by knowing what is most important and focusing more time and attention on those things. Also, if you are not intentional about identifying and investing in your priorities, they will fall by the wayside.

Multitasking is often dangerous, but it can be used to your advantage. For instance, if a daily walk is a priority for you — great! Can you make that time even more productive and valuable? You can walk and think or talk without having your stride suffer. Perhaps you could use the time to memorize Scripture or keep up with edifying podcasts. Would this be a good time to spend with your children or mentees or friends, focused time on your relationship that also benefits your health?

If you have a sedentary task, you could combine it with laundry, which is not a completely all-consuming process. You can sit and work for an hour, then use the need to get up and switch a load to also satisfy your physical need for a stretch break. Then back at it for another hour. You finished a few hours of desk work AND a few loads of laundry. Now to fold it all…

Personally, I’m a big fan of being able to cross items off the list! It is motivating. Success breeds further success. Crossing off also helps visually more than check marks (unless you have isolated check boxes) because you can see in a split second what is done and what isn’t. A nice wide marker has even more impact. Then at the end of the day, you have the satisfaction of knowing what was accomplished and the help of knowing what may need to move to the next day.

Taking a few minutes prior to tackling each day to write it down, prioritize, map a path and mark your progress will make a difference!

 

FYI: Planning

Following is a collection of links that may be of interest to you related to our current topic. Note, listing does not imply endorsement. Please evaluate for your own situation.

Systems

File Crate System — a method to plan a year for your family

Personal Retreats — book and templates for personal retreats

Progress toward Goals

Starting Your Day with Purpose — living intentionally, one small step at a time

Setting SMART Goals — five filters for successful goals and how to achieve them; another description here

Kaizen — the large impact of small, continual change

Daily Goals and Wins — a daily exercise to maintain focus and document progress

Ideas for Goal Setting — how to achieve progress with small steps forward

Personal Development Plan — the importance of making a plan in advance

Benefits of goal-setting — motivation as you walk through your preferred method

Managing the Gap — Your goal vs. your present

Calendaring

Making Time — how our values impact our use of time

Effective Use of Your Calendar — what goes on the calendar and what goes on the to-do list?

Using a Daily Planner — from the bullet journaling angle

Busyness — how busy are you?

Making a Plan

So you are ready to evaluate your life and make some goals. You have a few hours completely uninterrupted (we can dream, right?) to pray and think. As you look through each segment of your life, you come up with a list that looks something like this:

  • Spiritual – Need to find concentrated prayer time rather than sporadic and occasional
  • Home – Find a better solution to housecleaning on something other than an emergency basis
  • Church – Exercise hospitality
  • Education – Take a class at the rec center to learn a new skill
  • Community – Volunteer to make a quarterly meal at the local Ronald McDonald House
  • Health – Walk 10,000 steps a day

As you review this list of steps forward in each arena, which are also potential short-term goals, you look at them in light of your current life. You know that school is starting and the oldest is starting with a travelling team for the fall, so extracurricular classes will probably not fit well with those schedule changes. It is a good goal to exercise the mind and to meet neighbors, but now is not the best time.

You also decide to hold off on the quarterly meal until you can find a friend to share the commitment with you, for the sake of your schedule and financial resources.

Looking at the remaining goals, you feel they are equally attainable, so now it is a matter of choosing which one you will do now. Sometimes two work together well, as a housecleaning plan and walking; both will increase your activity level on a consistent basis. Or prayer and hospitality can support each other as you are motivated to pray for those you welcome into your home.

Remember: Don’t worry about the goals you don’t choose. They put you ahead of schedule the next time you sit down to evaluate. Remember that one step forward is better than none. And I assure you, no one can do everything all at once. Steady, gradual improvement over time will add up.

So let’s say you choose prayer and hospitality as your immediate goals. Great! Now how will you go about reaching those goals? Brainstorm ideas that would support your success. These are steps forward from where you are to get you where you want to be.

Is getting up a bit earlier enough to create the time in your day for prayer? Would a prayer journal help keep you on task and visibly show daily time? Do you need to hire a sitter or teach young children quiet time? Write done your ideas and choose what will work best for you.

Decide how you would like to exercise hospitality. Sunday dinners with other church families? A neighborhood picnic in your back yard each month of the summer? Hosting a Bible study? Hosting an exchange student? Friday game nights with youth in your church or neighborhood or school? Once you have that settled, put together a list of invitees. You can use the church directory, your knowledge of your neighbors (or determine to introduce yourself to each one), etc. Then plan your schedule (subject to change, of course) and your menus.

Now you can work the plan you created! You have a goal and know the steps you need to take to reach it.

Plan to Succeed

You know what you want (usually), but do you know how to get it? A goal can look so attractive in the abstract, but without a path we often look and move on. Especially when goals seem ambitious or overwhelming.

How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time. Just like it is impossible to swallow an elephant whole, we can’t tackle everything we want to improve overnight.

Chapter 4 of Shopping for Time discusses the value of a regular personal retreat, including time to evaluate your priorities and come up with an action plan. Even if it is just a morning to yourself twice a year, you will benefit from the time looking back and then forward. Prayerfully consider each of the arenas we discussed last week. Then come up with just one step forward for each.

You will benefit the most if your steps are clear, measurable and attainable. If you don’t know exactly where you are going, you won’t arrive. If you can’t tell if you arrived, you won’t feel success. If it is impossible to achieve, you never will. Revise what you have until you know specifically what you want to accomplish and that you can expect to get there.

Once you have done that, look at the steps you assembled and pick one or two to implement in the next 6 months. Take into account your situation and what is involved and other responsibilities that factor in. But it is important to pick one. As the authors of Shopping for Time* said,

This is extremely important. If you target too many areas for growth, you may fail to make progress in any of them and end up more discouraged than when you began. However, if you develop a plan to change in one area, you will be surprised at the dramatic difference it will make…Remember this: even if you only change in one area, you will be doing more than if you hadn’t sat down to plan at all.

You did not waste time coming up with all your steps. You can go back to them for consideration the next time you evaluate. They also help you make the best choice each time you plan.

Next week we will look at an example for how this can work. Until then be thinking about your areas and when you can devote some time to goal-setting. The dividends are available to you, if you make the investment.

 

* Shopping for Time: How to Do It All and NOT Be Overwhelmed, by Carolyn Mahaney, Nicole Whitacre, Kristin Chesemore and Janelle Bradshaw, Crossway, 2007, page 61.