Maureen has one nerve left and her kids are getting on it. Fried from a week of busing the kids from one soccer game to the next, volunteering at her kids’ school, trying to keep up with the house and the errands, and managing a part-time job that is constantly threatening to go full time (without accompanying compensation), 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 constantly finds himself trying to make everyone happy, only to find that he’s over-promised and inevitably disappointing someone. “I can’t catch a break,” he says.
People have always struggled to find balance, but somehow, it seems like there is just more to juggle today than there used to be. The technology that is supposed to make our lives more efficient just seems to give us more work. Social pressures make us feel like 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 families are more fragmented — and people are more stressed out — than ever before. If you’ve been looking for a way to take back your life, here are some tips to help get you started.
1. Own your life
Bethany, a working mom of four, 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 a talk at my parish Bible study at the same time that my daughter’s play starts. When did my life start running me?”
Maureen, Ed, and Bethany all talk about their own lives as if they weren’t theirs. When we get overwhelmed, we have a tendency to forget it’s because we made choices that we could just as easily unmake. The first step to getting our life back under control is realizing that it’s ours. 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 priori- ties. “I sat down with my calendar and decided to pare things back to what I absolutely needed to do to get my work done and keep my family intact.”
2. Remember that time, energy, and willpower are limited resources
Many people think that because they can’t see time, energy, or will- power, they will never run out of them. The truth is, all three are limited resources. Like the sprinter who tries to run a marathon, most people burn through their reserves of time, energy, or will- power before the things that give them joy ever get started.
A lot of folks can’t generate enough time, energy, and willpower to do what they feel needs to be done. But that doesn’t mean they are failing; it just means they’re human. We must realize we only have so much to give. When we do, then we’ll be better stewards of our time and save more of it for the people and activities that are really important.
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. It has really been great.”
3. Put relationships first
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 and more resistant to unhealthy stress.
Just as cars run on fuel and have a certain fuel economy (how many miles per gallon the car will go), every person’s life, especially 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 before they 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 the last time your family had a “good” week (a normal good week, not a vacation week), when everyone felt pretty good about each other (or at least better than usual). What was different about that week? How much “face time” did you spend together — 10 hours? Fifteen? Twenty 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 needs together 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 (Evangelium Vitae). Having a format like this makes it infinitely easier to “let your ‘yes’ be ‘yes’ and your ‘no’ be ‘no’” (Matthew 5:37) when faced with whether or not to take on a commitment you don’t have time for.
4. Instill routines, rituals, and rhythms
One of the reasons people feel so out of balance is that they have no rhythm to their lives. 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. Multiple studies show that the presence of rituals and routines in a person’s, couple’s, or family’s life counter- acts the emotional, relational, and physical problems that often accompany stress, including depression, anxiety, high blood pressure, and divorce.
Many people fear rituals and routines, believing they lead to monotony and boredom, but that’s not the case at all. The fact that you have a prayer time 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’ll eat or what you’ll talk about. Establishing routines allows you to know what’s coming and to think ahead so you can exercise your creativity when it’s time to celebrate that routine.
“I used to have my cell phone on for work all the time,” says Joe. “I let it dictate my day. I was always afraid that I’d miss some- thing important. Ironically, making myself constantly available to answer every e-mail, text message, 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, and turn it off the rest of the time 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 3,000 degrees. I feel human again.”
5. Embrace “no”
When someone asks us to do something, we either feel flattered they asked us, excited about the possibility of a new situation, or too guilty to say no. All of a sudden our lives become cluttered with a host of worthwhile 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 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 accepting or declining. The additional clarity helps eliminate the guilt of saying no and relieve the stress that comes from a too-cluttered life.
6. Refresh with timeouts
Getting time to yourself can be an important way to reset your stress levels, but leaving everything behind can sometimes be a recipe for more stress. Research on stress management tells us that when people try to de-stress by running away from their commitments, the stress of returning practically eliminates the benefits they may have found by being away. But if you set your priorities and establish the rituals and routines that give a semblance of order to your week, getting the occasional timeout can be refreshing and restorative.
Life is stressful, but you can get on top of the chaos and learn to ride the wave — and enjoy yourself while you do it.