How we make space for the important stuff and ditch the rest.
In our family of 5, we have ongoing lists of things that need to be done, and important things that keep slipping through the cracks. If I want a sense of calm and peace in the way we go about our days, I need to prioritize where I put my energy and how I plan my time. I do want calm and peace. I want my time to be valued and respected. And I want to respect my kids’ autonomy along the way. I’ve been trying to balance it all and this is what I’ve come up with so far:
We have the Must Do things that we’re committed to on a routine basis, the spontaneous extras we want to do (like making cookies, going to the movies, inviting a friend over), and the extras we want to add to our commitments (that extra class, that big project, the weekly teatime).
Of course then there are the things that we’re spinning our wheels with, taking up our time, that aren’t actually that important to us. Like 10 hours of legos and minecraft and facebook and Harry Potter a day. Not that those things aren’t valuable, just maybe we don’t want to be spending all day everyday doing them.
Are you familiar with the big rock analogy? It’s the story of the glass jar that fits big rocks and gravel and sand and water, but only if you put the big rocks in first.
The Must Do list is our big rocks, the extras are the gravel, and the spinning wheels is the sand. The things we mindfully want to be doing, vs the sand that we find ourselves choosing in the moment as the path of least resistance. On our Must Do list includes things that everyone needs to do (eat), things that only a certain person can do (practice guitar) and things that it doesn’t matter who does them so long as they get done (feed the dog).
Every day, first thing, come the Must Dos. These are our biggest rocks, our highest priorities. Once all of the Must Dos are either done or scheduled into the day (I trust they’re going to happen – for example, we don’t have to be done with dinner by 10am, but we *do* need a dinner plan before moving on) we can move on to the Priority List. This is the list of extras that we want to do. The “Mommy will you…” list. “Mommy, will you…?” “Yes, as soon as we’re set on the Must Dos.”
When we’re on top of the Must Do list, getting it all done painlessly, we can add extra activities and commitments to it. When we’re not finishing the Must Do list, then we start simplifying our commitments and making more space for the stuff that matters most. In practical terms, this means dropping an activity, or decluttering the stuff that’s taking up physical and mental space in our lives, until we are really keeping up.
A note, all of these things are limits that I’m setting for myself. This is what I need in order to maintain my peace and calm. I am not willing to commit to paying for/transporting to extra activities until I know that the things that we’ve declared are the most important are being taken care of. I’m not willing to go out of my way for someone else until I trust that my needs are getting met too. Ooh, that’s hard to say without feeling selfish. But the more bandwidth I have, the more I have to give, and everyone wins. I’m not telling the kids what they can and can’t do – I’m showing them a window of what I am and am not willing to commit myself to. If they want a class that they have the means to make happen completely without my help, I won’t stop them from doing it. If they want me to drive them there however, then it needs to fit into my structure for me to say yes.
So that is the bare bones structure. I can imagine it getting adapted in all sorts of ways, depending on each individual’s personal priorities.
Here’s how it looks for us:
My kids are 22 months, 6 years, and 10 years old. My main priorities include quality meals, improving our circadian rhythms, a reasonably tidy house, hygge family time, and project time. And so our Must Do list includes things like eating, getting outside, having a meal plan, dishes, laundry, tidying, taking care of the dog, and the fun things that keep slipping through the cracks, like reading books together, one on one time with each kid, board games, family adventure days.
The ongoing Priority List has all the one off things. Some of them are boring, like returning stuff to the store or calling the dentist and others are fun like making cookies or going to the movies. Anything can be bumped up to Must Do status if it becomes time critical. For now, things on the Priority List only happen once the Must Dos are completely taken care of. As we build up routines and trust stuff will get done, I bet we will open up more space to mix in some of the extras during the day.
We also keep an ongoing list of Activities that we would like to add to the Must Do commitments. This is stuff like Scouts, Theater, weekly Poetry Teatime, and bigger projects like learning to sew a dress. The way I’ve been balancing Activities is, we start at 0. At the end of the day, when we’ve checked off all of our Must Dos, then we add (+1). If there are any Must Dos that we didn’t get to, we subtract (-1). If we get up to +5, then we’ve proven that we have space to add to our Must Do list, so we can add an activity (and reset to 0). If we get down to -5, we’ve proven that we’re overcommitted and so we drop an activity, or else clear out a big box of stuff that isn’t sparking joy anymore.
Future notes: I can imagine a more advanced version of this, where different activities have different weights based on the commitment involved, and where boxes of stuff also have weights. And activities and decluttering can be traded out as priorities become clear. You really want to do theater (4 points) but don’t have the time to add that many activities? Trade out one smaller activity you’re already doing (2 points) and help clear out two big boxes of stuff (2 points). We’re not ready for the extra complexity yet though. Another issue that’s coming up is, how do we make it fair when one person is pulling all the weight and others are just reaping the benefits? I don’t have a solid solution for that one yet that balances honoring the person doing the work without leaving behind the person who can’t find it in them to help out.