Guest blogger, May Jones, is the author of a collection of short stories. She has an undergraduate degree in English and drama from Carnegie Mellon and a masters in writing from the University of St. Andrews. May teaches writing and public speaking at a liberal arts college and lives with her husband and two children.
Jessica often blogs about stress, and rightfully so. Stress has the unfortunate power to affect everything from weight to sleeping patterns to skin tone and even libido. It’s absolutely no wonder so much is written about it, and so much is tried in hopes of combatting it. Yet, the very prospect of changing one’s life to be less stressful can be, in and of itself, quite stressful.
I believe that, at the beginning of any quest for self improvement, one must first separate the pipe dreams from the achievable goals.
When it comes to stress, we must realize that we have only a very modest amount of control over life’s really bad things – the broken hearts, missed opportunities, the suffering and gone loved ones. Though living kindly and responsibly will stave off a great deal of nightmares and keep us afloat (or at least functioning, on islands of manageable circumstances and seeming sanity), even near perfect living, if such a thing exists, cannot prevent all misfortune.
Make no mistake…big, awful, stressful tragedy awaits each and every one of us. If you are the owner of a life, it’s in the contract. I am not a psychologist or counselor, and it’s not my place nor any other non-professional’s to tell you how to recover from heartbreak, or how to bounce back professionally, or how to properly grieve. What I’m suggesting is that we can never be prepared in a good enough way to handle this kind of stress. The best we can do when it comes to life’s really bad things is to try and endure.
The stress we can address is the litany of minor complications that prevents us from improving how we live on a daily basis.
The thought occurred to me, when I was chest-deep in the work of motherhood – one child hungry, the other one crying because he couldn’t find a toy – that I was harried in that moment because I didn’t have a system in place to deal with the minor toy and feeding related disasters that were constantly occurring. That were guaranteed to keep occurring. I remembered a moment from college – a night freshman year when I was in over my head, serving on a stage crew for the theatre department. A wise senior crew supervisor said, “everything has a way, everything has a home.”
Most people have heard mantras about success being more habit than anything else. Most experts believe it takes anywhere from 10 days to a month to establish a routine. And surely, most diets and exercise plans and January resolutions fail because the habits didn’t stick. To succeed in making minor, stress-reducing changes to one’s life, one must define both a way and a home. In the case of my backstage work, that meant the props went out and came back in a specific order and at a specific time, and that they also had a specific home. Labels and chalk outlines were involved. When I applied this space/time continuum philosophy of organization and habit to my personal life, I found equal success.
A good system can free up your wasted hours, save you money, and reset your internal hectic-meter as near as possible to zero.
And since it’s your life you’re trying to slightly alter, you don’t need any particular guru to tell you how to do it. Figuring out a system is fairly easy, but first requires you to identify the elements of your life that aren’t working as they should. By all means, don’t attempt to find a spouse or make millions or get famous or cure cancer. At least not right off the bat. We’re explicitly talking about ‘sweating the small stuff’ as they say…lost mail, overdue bills, too many last resort fast food dinners.
Speaking of mail, my husband and I realized we had no system that dictated who should or would get the mail, open it, and file it where it needed to go. The mail had no way and no home. Our mail “system” didn’t work. We decided that I would get it from the mailbox, file mine away in my own cabinet, and put his on his dresser.
I was also notorious for forgetting that I had put a basket of clothes in the washer. I’d get busy with the kids or my job or something else, and three days later I’d find the stinking load of whites. Thanks to my phone’s reminder app, I created a system where my phone tells me every Monday and Friday to do a load of laundry, then reminds me 45 minutes later to put said clothes in the dryer. It was a surprisingly simple solution and it’s worked.
I know there are other failing systems my family could address. We’ve tried scheduling meals, sorting toys, setting bedtimes…all with promising to humbling success. The point isn’t that you copy mine or anyone else’s system – though if you think something will work for your purposes, copy away – it’s that you and you alone are probably the best author of your life’s own improvements. You (probably, if you practice honest self awareness) know your strengths and weaknesses.
And so, if you know you need motivation and structure, you might want to try making a list of the three main things you want to accomplish each day on a little chalkboard hung where you’ll no doubt see it. If you’re grappling with time management, as I was when it came to cleaning my house, carve out an hour here or there that you might actually, plausibly use for the intended task. My time management solution was what I called “The Dora Cleaning Hour”, meaning when Dora the Explorer was on from nine to ten, and I knew my children would sit and watch, I got done a good-enough amount of sweeping and dusting. If you need reward and to learn delayed gratification, like one of my kids does, set up a system. Ours is to bestow a button from an extra button jar on our children as a reward for good behavior, potty-trainedness, finished dinners, and nights slept in own beds. They get real coins in exchange for their buttons at the end of the week and can save up to buy candy or small toys. It’s an incentive system that a toddler can understand and abide, but could easily be adapted to suit a grown person’s goals.
Again, the point is not necessarily to have a system prescribed to you, but for you to make the effort to assign a way and a home to the things in your life that need them.