Our two oldest children are 20 and 24 years old. They spent their childhood without cell phones, Facebook, Netflix, Snap Chat, Instagram, Twitter, etc., that is until they were about the ages of 12 and 16. That is when they got their first cell phones. They were the last children to grow up through adolescence without these technologies as a part of their everyday lives. My husband and I, of course, spent much of our lives without them. We are the generation that looks back and remembers a time when these things simply didn't exist, and it almost feels like another person lived that life or like it happened in a dream. As we are all well aware, our cell phones are now pretty much a part of our person, almost like a pair of contacts or eyeglasses. We are very aware of where our phone is at all times, and that phone is our life line to one VERY important aspect of our lives... INFORMATION. Let's face it, we grown-ups have some pretty fond memories of "the good old days" when we were unknowingly free from, well, knowing. We could spend all day reminiscing about the simplistic, stress-free sanity we all felt back then, but there is no changing our current times, and, lets be real, I'm dependent. I'm sold. I NEED to know! Don't you? So, now that we find ourselves here in the information age, how can we use it for good and harness it when it tries to disrupt our lives? I'm going to give you a list of ideas. That's all you really need right? Every piece of technology we have has this powerful thing called an OFF button. That OFF button is the harness and reigns with which you can prevent technology from getting control over you.
1. Set aside 1-2 times a day to check social media for personal pleasure. If needed, make it harder to check social media by removing apps from your cell phone that enable you to check it on the go. EEEEK, really? Yes, it feels amazing. I've tried it, and it feels like you are on vacation. Try it for a week or a month. You may never go back! Hey, your kids will thank you! We are on our phones WAY too much, myself included, and our kids and friends suffer for it.
2. Set aside 1-2 times a day to check email, and focus on answering questions immediately and cleaning out your inbox before you are finished. This will keep your email from getting cluttered up. Unsubscribe from anything that you do not love or is not useful.
3. If you are using Twitter, Instagram and/or FB for the free marketing, then limit yourself to using it for a small portion of your day or week, and make sure that you are seeing enough yield for your time spent. Remember to spent 20% of your day getting an 80% yield for yourself, your family, and your community. If it's not worth your time, then there are people to whom you can delegate or hire it out.
4. Remember social etiquette with your phone and devices. Never use it at the dinner table. Never look at your device when someone is speaking to you. Put your phone away when at a social gathering. Teach your children eye contact, and turn your phone ringer OFF whenever you are in any place where it might distract another person.
Boundaries You May Need To Place On Others
1. Wait as LOOOOOOONG as you possibly can before getting your kids hooked on technology. This can start as early as infancy. Yes, we had wooden puzzles that made cow and sheep noises, and no, we did not add the batteries. Yes, the parking garage my sons played with made car wash noises and such, and no, they had no idea this feature existed. Before the age of two, protect your little ones, and make the animal noises yourself with them. Try old school methods until they are the wiser for it. Then, don't sweat it, and if they want the sounds on, go for it. Our kids never knew these toys made sounds, and they don't until this day. We also have a strict rule of being 12 years old before owning a cell phone in our home, and we limit tablet and computer use before grade school. Just hang in there as much as you can; there is no guilt in a parent with a screaming baby using their phone to play Elmo in the grocery store line for sanity's sake.
2. Keep phones out of your kids' rooms at bedtime. Period. The end.
3. No phones while eating, snacking or engulfing food in anyway when you are eating with another person. Use that time to socialize.
4. Try and limit or eliminate children's phone use on short car rides, especially when you are one-on-one in the car. This is a wonderful time to catch up, so ask them questions or have them tell you about their day.
5. Mutually agree on technology boundaries with your spouse, partner, or roommate. Find time to relate and socialize together without the interruption of information.
6. Try a cell phone free day with your family once a month or a cell phone free vacation! I know of families who have done this, and they feel twice as refreshed once they get back. My kids love getting a break from their cell phones on vacation. Remember, they have never known any other world, so the peace and calm and quiet is especially wonderful to them!
Let's face it, the information age is both completely wonderful and completely addicting. By placing some, or all, of the above boundaries on your technology, you can get the benefits of accessible information without it ruling your life and causing a HUGE lack of focus and distraction. Don't beat yourself up. We've all spent too much time scrolling. Practicing healthy boundaries over technology will feel refreshing and give you more time. Share what boundaries have worked for you in the comments below. I would love to hear them!
As I try to write this post I am actually feeling very distracted; which is ironic, but true. I've been up for hours, and though I've had an hour of meditation, and learning, I have been having trouble just getting started on my TOP 3 most important tasks of the day. I think this is because what I had planned to do today was rescheduled due to sick kids, it is raining heavily, it's Monday, and, honestly, I wasn't really prepared mentally to write. Basically, I keep finding myself getting caught up with distractions like a little laundry here, a few things to pick up there, and I am obsessed with checking social media since I uploaded some pictures from our weekend. Yes, I had re-evaluated my TOP 3 list, and, yes, I had a new plan for the day, but I was still avoiding it. Sound familiar? What do you do if you still feel like you are spinning around in circles? The culprit is usually distraction; the kryptonite of finding focus. Some distractions are unavoidable like a family member who is unexpectedly ill, or the need to sleep, or eat. Tasks DO pile up and responsibilities do not just go away. Other distractions are totally avoidable like social media, certain phone calls, TV, or someone wanting your attention, rather than needing it. So, what do we do when we have unavoidable distractions come into our lives like a kid home sick? What do we do when we have even more avoidable distractions that keep popping into the forefront of our brains?
How To Find Focus With Unavoidable Distraction
First, pause and re-evaluate what ultimately matters most at that moment, and second, re-prioritize your TOP 3 based on that awareness. Often this is a temporary shift in goals, but things happen; and so we adjust.
In February of 2015, one of my sons became very ill. Day after day, week after week, he got worse, and worse until, by April, he had lost a lot of weight, and strength, and even color. He was diagnosed with Crohns Disease and, thankfully, after diagnosis, was quickly in remission, and on his way back to health. I was 6 months into the start up of my business, and I was seeing success with it's growth. However, when my son got sick, and needed help, it changed my motivations, and ultimately, my personal goals for myself and, our family. Since it made clear sense for my husband to keep working I needed to take care of my son. Working with clients was put on hold. I had to cancel with our babysitters, and instead do everything I could do to get him well. At the time I didn't know if, or when, I would be back to work, or if I would loose momentum, and clients in the process. However, it was unavoidable, and it was my top priority.
Maybe you don't have anything tragic happening in your life that is unavoidable. Maybe you have an inbox sitting on your desk, or in your email that is nagging at you to procrastinate when what is most important is preparing for an upcoming meeting. Maybe there are toys scattered all over your family room, and company coming that night, but there is only a half an hour before naps, and its a beautiful day to go out and play. Stuff adds up and things happen, but sometimes we need to go back and re-evaluate what ultimately matters most in light of new circumstances. Then we can re-prioritize our TOP 3 based on that awareness.
More often than we like, we have our game plan, but notice ourselves procrastinating in unhealthy ways. If you catch yourself doing this then, you need to practice single tasking. Choose your first activity, and do only that one thing without distraction. Start with 5-15 minutes a day. Silence your phone, shut social media windows, close your office door, whatever you find you need to do. I deleted all the widgets on my phone for a month once just to make it harder for me to check social media mindlessly throughout my day. Even if you remove physical distractions your mind may try and sabotage your focus by wandering off. Notice each time it happens and be patient with yourself. Practice letting go of your thoughts whether they be worries, ambitions or stress and focus on what you are doing in that very moment. If necessary write them down as they come to mind if that helps to let them go. Instead of avoiding what you already know and have decided to be most important in that moment, avoid your distractions, and focus on the one thing that is in front of you till completion. Practice healthy procrastination and remember to put your time and effort into the 20% that yields the 80% not the other way around. In doing this, you will relieve stress and find that you are able to tackle the 80% that isn't as important, delegate it to someone else, or even let it go.
In this information age a lot of our distraction comes from social media. That's why I decided to devote an entire part of the "Finding Focus" series to that particular issue. Until then, practice single tasking for 5-15 minutes a day on the 20% that yields the 80% most value in your life, and the lives of those around you. Balancing simplicity in your life is about finding focus and that isn't always as easy as it seems. However, just as it is with anything we practice, 5-15 minutes a day of single tasking will increase both your focus and lower your stress level. I found that I felt like I got more accomplished by focusing on less. Awareness, Prioritize, Avoid Distraction...you are well on your way.
It was going to be a year of new beginnings. We had one child entering Kindergarten, one starting middle school, one moving on to high school, a freshman beginning college and one graduating from college and entering the workforce. I was also preparing to launch a new business within a month, still flying high from my vision of getting my business off the ground, when reality hit. In my head, I had imagined September to be a wide open road -- all the kids would be tucked neatly into their various schools, and I would have plenty of free time to devote to my "master plan" of doing it all. What-ever...As it turned out, between afternoon half-day kindergarten and the middle and high school bus getting home, I had all of an hour and a half total to myself. So, as any mom would do with all this free, I completely over-committed and decided it would be my "exercise, errand-running, business-building, school-volunteering and socializing with friends" time for me. Sadly, what actually happened was I ended up getting yesterdays dishes done...sometimes...on a good day. Frustration quickly set in with a big helping of guilt, you know, that awful kind of guilt where you feel like a failure on various levels, but no matter how hard you try you still can't seem to please anyone, especially yourself. With my hubby buried up to his eyeballs at work, I was the IT parent, and I was busy. Problem was, I was also aware that I wanted more. The garden where I had spent that past summer realizing what it was that really mattered the most to me needed less tending, and I rarely stopped to meditate on what was truly motivating me. I was driven by each day's to-do list and trying to paddle upstream in raging water. I needed to focus again. This time I turned to my girlfriends for that priceless "think out loud and hash out your thoughts" kind of conversation; the kind from which I try to spare my husband when I'm not yet entirely sure what I want to say and am not ready for him to tell me how to fix it. It just so happened that one of my dear friends was paddling right beside me in the same boat -- going upstream, or trying to. Sometimes friends can save you 1000's of dollars on counseling sessions (not that there is anything wrong with counseling, of course). I seriously NEEDED those talks. Though I had taken the time to pause and reflect on what was most important to me, I couldn't seem to figure out how put it into action, and I was frustrated with spinning my wheels and getting seemingly no where. It wasn't enough to just have an awareness of what I believed, I was supposed to do. I needed more than a destination. I needed a map. Talking it out with my friend helped me to rehash what my my non-negotiable's for each given moment, or day, were versus what I hoped to accomplish, and I made a flexible plan for both. It wasn't the best daily plan, and I would eventually learn that and adjust, but it was a plan, and it was based on what I valued most at the time. Like I said, I have since learned A LOT about what my true priorities are. Everyone's are different, and they change, so we adjust. Fast forward to now with some practical advice for prioritizing your day; a road map based on the the values that matter most to you. In the end, I'll fill you in on how it looked for me.
TOP 3 Picks
We only have 24 hours in a day (8 of which I hope to be sleeping) so that leaves us with 16 waking hours. Most of us, these days, have at least twice that many hours worth of responsibility, so how do we use our time? The answer? By learning to pick our top 3 most important tasks for the day. These are things that no one else could do, but ourselves. They should be the tasks that yield the biggest impact for us, our family and our world. It is important to make those TOP 3 picks specific, and do them first thing, once your work day begins. For the stay at home parent with young kids it might look like keeping the children safe, fed and learning. I know when my kids were little if I kept them alive, and they ate nutritious food, and learned something new, that, that day was a success. For the corporate business person it could be answering email, prepping for that big meeting, and writing a memo. For those who are retired it might be personal exercise, volunteering, and cooking a healthy meal for themselves. I understand that there are often many more important tasks that each of us have in a given day, but start with your top 3 and focus on them until completion. This will cause you to invest first in what will give you the biggest yield. Be flexible! Do what has the biggest impact on you, your family, or your work.
Don't sweat the small stuff
When you begin to practice prioritizing, things might get a little messy in other areas. The dishes might stack up on the counters, your filing pile might accrue, or there might be a little extra dust on the bookshelves. This is good, no sweat! Smaller tasks can often be delegated, hired out, or done less often. They usually don't offer you, your family or the world much of a yield, or impact so, learn what matters most, and if necessary ask for help with what is left undone.
If you focus on practicing the priority of your TOP 3 most valuable, highest yielding tasks each day, you are going to need to learn to put off other tasks till later. Whenever possible, try not to repeat tasks. You could do all the days dishes once a day. Only do laundry, meal planning and grocery shopping once a week. Try large batch cooking or whole house cleaning so that you are not repeating chores. Maybe stick mail in a drawer and attend to it once a week, while at the same time paying bills, recycling and filing it all in one sitting. There are endless ways that you can try healthy procrastination which will buy yourself more time to invest in what is most valuable, meaningful and full of impact.
(*A side note to single parents here...I was in your shoes and I FULLY understand the level of extra responsibility you carry. You are not alone. You are exhausted, and stretched beyond measure, but you have just as many values that matter to you--if not more--than the rest of us, all while carrying added responsibility on your shoulders. Finding focus by practicing priorities is not a pipe dream for you...it is a life jacket)
So, back to how I figured out how to "manage it all"...Well, actually, I didn't. I let a lot of it go, I delegated, I hired some of it out, I got my minions (my kids) to help out more. That September, I started with my TOP 3 priorities each day. I chose exercise at home in the morning, working with clients from 1-5 pm and carpooling the kids from activities from 5-6. These were things that only I could do, and they were non negotiable's to me at the time. In order for me to do this, we hired a cleaning lady to clean the house, a babysitter to watch the kids after school, and we started giving the older kids an allowance attached to a list of chores like: doing their own laundry, walking the dog, etc. I was able to build my business and grow it in the first 6 months; something only I could do, and the essentials around the house were getting done. Soon we would find out some unfortunate news that would change my priorities, and we would need to adjust, but for now I was making enough to pay the cleaner and the sitter and I loved my job. In Finding Focus, Part 3: Avoiding Distraction, I will go into what to do when unexpected things come up that you can not avoid, and how to limit distractions that you can avoid. Until then, find your TOP 3 Picks, don't sweat the small stuff and practice some healthy procrastination. Do those, and you will begin to find your focus...
I was completely overwhelmed. Completely. It was early May, and we had just moved more than an hour away from my husbands office into our dream home, with 6 kids and our dog. With Jeff gone most of each week, I spent my days unpacking, setting up house, decorating, planting my first garden, and looking for a new job after being a stay at home mom for more than a decade. It was the end of the school year when EVERY single teacher seems to assign the dreaded "at home school project" and I was in neck deep driving to more sports and activities than I could possibly do myself. Car pools were driving in and out of the driveway, and I kept a Costco sized box of snacks and drinks in my trunk for the loads of kids I was transporting each day. We ate in the car from convenience stores and take out restaurants, and pretty much ran ourselves ragged all afternoon and evening. Our weekends were filled with kids birthday parties, sports, errands and maintaining the house. Honestly, I don't remember much at all from the first 5 months after we moved. Things were beyond busy, and we were beyond stretched. I was able to maintain keeping up the house cleaning, grocery shopping, and laundry during the week, but I had really hoped to start working again after the summer, and I had NO idea how I was going to manage that. Every time I asked my husband for advice he gave me the same answer, "Figure out what it is that you want to do, and then do that." I found it infuriating. "I want to do ALL of it!" was my immediate response each and every time we talked. In truth, he really got me thinking. "What DID I want?". I spent the rest of that summer pondering this each morning as I gardened. What were my most important priorities? What did I value more than anything else? What would help others the most, and also mean the most to me? His advice honed in on the simplistic core of my question. What was it that ultimately mattered to me? Instead of trying to solve 100's of smaller questions about practical issues that I was trying to figure out, he first pointed me to dig deeper into myself and FOCUS on my key priorities. This was the beginning; the way I found the path to balancing simplicity. That time in the garden was life changing for me. It was there that I became aware, by being mindful, through quiet meditation, and pausing to reflect. As I picked warm tomatoes and watered the cucumbers I allowed myself the stillness to think about what it was that really mattered to me the most. In the end, it was during this time of reflection where I found the FOCUS, that gave me the theme, for that which I was able to map out the rest of my values and priorities. I had a vision...some direction, and it was thrilling. The daily practice of tending my garden and mindfully using that time to reflect gave me the focus to become aware of my deeper motivations and desires. I still take time daily to focus. It stills brings me an awareness of what my motivations are and resets my priorities. There are so many ways we can spend time focusing. A time of meditation, quiet reflection, prayer, washing dishes, or like I did, watering a garden. During this time, mindfully reflect on what is ultimately driving you. What are your thoughts, worries and responsibilities? Allow yourself to be still with these, and become aware of what is most important to you. That is how you find awareness and reset your motivations, and this is the beginning of finding focus. So, what did I figure out in that tomato patch anyway? Turns out I wanted to build my own business with flexible enough hours so that I could still be home with my kids before and after school all while still doing something I loved during the day. I'll explain how this all came to be in my next focus blog, "Finding Focus, Part 2: Practicing Priorities". Until then, go find a tomato patch and discover something wonderful. Five minutes a day is all it takes...