*This is the second in a two-part series on Being Intentional with our Time.
"In my attempts to promote the comfort of my family, the quiet of my spirit has been disturbed….Another thing I have suffered loss from — entering into the business of the day without seeking to have my spirit quieted and directed….This is of great importance, to watch carefully…not to over-fatigue myself, because then I cannot contribute to the pleasure of others; and a placid face and gentle tone will make my family more happy than anything else I can do for them. Our own will gets sadly into the performance of our duties sometimes.” ~Elizabeth Taber King
Last week, I referenced George Merriam’s wisdom on how each of us requires a “certain kind of fuel” to do what we are meant to do and how the knowledge of this sometimes necessitates that we slow down and load up on that vital fuel rather than mindlessly or frantically moving from task to task. This week I will focus on another reason for us to avoid overcrowding our days. It is important for me to build in a certain roominess into my family’s schedule if I have any hope of remaining a calm and gentle presence in my family’s life. As Elizabeth Taber King observes, having a peaceful demeanor, a restful tone, and gentle way means more to my family than perfection in my home’s appearance or non-stop activity (however fun, educational, or entertaining) jammed into our family’s days.
I recognize that many people, myself included, go through periods in their lives when it is simply not possible to avoid a tightly packed schedule because financial strain necessitates long hours and excessive work. This, though, is not the kind of “overbooking” to which I’m referring. I am concerned with our scheduling decisions in which we truly have choice: extracurricular involvements for our children, social commitments for ourselves, or even, piling up too much onto our to-do lists at home. Often I allow a frenzy to creep into days that are centered at home: days without errands, without external obligations. I can become far too busy, driven even, just taking care of mundane household chores or small renovation or tidying projects. Of course this kind of busyness seems to be out of the best possible desires: to contribute to the order, cleanliness, beauty, and comfort of our living space for those who live with me. Nevertheless, I’d wager, that for many of us busy home organizers, if we asked our families whether they’d rather we accomplish more around the house or were more calm and at ease, more mellow and at rest, they would urge us to be less driven with household tasks and more inclined to peacefulness. We can let our self-will get in the way and can push ourselves so hard that there is no energy left for cheerfulness and scant energy even for civility with those we live with. In the moment, it can be difficult to gain perspective and to recognize that, as my mother might have said, “there is no one holding a gun to our heads” making us accomplish as much as we endeavor to accomplish in one day at home. We are the ones applying the pressure and creating the sense of hectic discontent. We would do well to lighten up on our schedules and daily expectations both outside the home and within it.
Contemporary research on anxiety bears out the benefits of not over-scheduling ourselves or our families. Clinical psychologist and author, Lisa Damour, writes persuasively about how she came to understand the need to build more space into her family’s schedules in Under Pressure: Confronting the Epidemic of Stress and Anxiety in Girls (2019):
“I was about three years into this mothering mania when I first encountered the research on daily hassles…The news that the stress of minor hassles can be as significant – if not more significant – as the stress of true calamities fit with my experience. When one of my daughters came down with the flu, the problem was not that she was sick. The problem was that everyone’s calendar was so jammed that her illness created an avalanche of scheduling problems. In hindsight, this seems obvious enough, but once I learned to build slack into our system (a luxury I’m aware, that not all families have), it turned out to be a really effective antidote to the unexpected and unavoidable stresses of daily life. Whenever possible, I’ve tried to stop asking myself, ‘Can I squeeze this fill-in-the-blank into the week?’ and to wonder instead, ‘Should I? (60).’”
I find myself often weighing opportunities similarly. When faced with a choice of adding something to our calendar, I regularly consider, “Is this going to feel manageable to our family this week, or would it be better to say ‘no’ or to hold out for a saner week?” Unfortunately, the desire to people-please sometimes overrides wisdom when I ask these questions. Sometimes I add items to the schedule knowing full well it’s not a very good idea for preserving the serenity of our week and the peacefulness of my countenance. But I’m thankful for every time I do slow down and resist or delay in the name of our family’s lowered stress levels and to support my own ability to retain a good nature around those closest to me.
Damour suggests that roominess in our schedules allows the unexpected to feel less disastrous and more manageable. Roominess also provides space for us to pause for moments of joyful observation and gratitude: moments that go so far to making life meaningful and pleasurable. She writes, “When we’re not operating at maximum capacity, everyone in the family feels less stressed and anxious. Chronic frenzy is replaced by relative calm, and, when things go wrong, we’re dealing with a frustration, not a crisis….When things are going well, having time on hand also creates room for spontaneous delights (61).” When it is within my power to do so, I desire to structure a life that doesn’t ferment crises, crises ready to create full-on havoc whenever one element of a week’s schedule gets jostled out of line. And I deeply desire a life that leaves room for the unexpected delights that each day brings, if I have the space in my day to notice.
If you are a friend of mine, a family member, or a colleague, and you don’t hear from me for a while, or if it seems I’m not booking a visit or a good catch-up session together right away, it is never that I don’t want to hear from you or see you. It is not personal. Rather, it’s most likely that I’m building in a buffer. I’m building slack into our family’s schedule. This slack allows us to absorb the unexpected with greater grace, and it enables me to offer a more serene and contented, supportive self to others. And I support and encourage you to do the same. We could push ourselves to our breaking points in order to fill our schedules with every opportunity to meet everyone’s requests and desires, but if we did, would we end up being people that others really want to know? What kind of quality of life would it create, and what would our demeanors be like in such a pressure-cooker of a life? It’s challenging to resist the urge to over-pack schedules in a culture that prizes busyness and urges us to be “yes” people, saying “yes” to everything that comes our way. But we and those around us can become casualties sacrificed on the altar of busyness, and when that happens, no one is feeling satisfied with the results.
How effective are you at saying “no” to activities when you suspect that saying “yes” will create at least low-level panic in your week? How might you build in some slack to your schedule (and/or your family’s schedule) so that, when the unexpected comes, you are able to absorb it with greater grace and calm? How would building in some buffer time each week allow for more spontaneous fun and delight? What would that do for your overall sense of well being?