A few years ago, I found myself in a state of being perpetually overwhelmed. I mean, I still feel that way a lot of the time now, but back then it was worse. There was more of a sense of hopelessness, a feeling that I was sinking and couldn’t figure out how to pull myself up. Nothing I did seemed to get us any closer to having a peaceful routine or a house that didn’t look like it was b-roll footage from Hoarders.
I pondered and prayed and whined about the issue for months, then, finally, something clicked. I had an epiphany that would change my life, that I still think about almost every day.
Lately I’ve been sliding back into to-do list quicksand once again, and it’s been really helpful to think through this old lesson. I’ve written about it before, but I thought I’d re-tell the whole story for those of you who haven’t heard it:
In January of 2008, I found myself standing in my living room, mired in a swamp that consisted of Christmas presents yet to be put away mixed with bulging suitcases that were still unpacked from a trip taken weeks before. I surveyed this disaster, looked over at the kitchen that was littered with dirty dishes and tipped-over sippy cups, and I had a pretty major “I NEVER HAVE TIME TO GET ANYTHING DONE AROUND HERE” freakout session. I explained to Joe (read: shouted in language that would make a pirate uncomfortable) that I could not live like this for one more day.
Joe suggested that I take some time to relax, so I walked (read: stomped while sighing loudly so that everyone could know how bad my life was) upstairs to my bedroom. I saw A Mother’s Rule of Life on my bookshelf, and I picked it up in a desperate search for inspiration.
The book fell open to a page where the author listed the daily schedule of Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity, as part of an explanation of what a Rule of Life is. As I read that page, I knew that this was an answered prayer. If I had heard a thunderclap it couldn’t have been more of a dramatic moment. So many sources of tension and unanswered questions all came together as I mentally stepped through this sample day:
Daily Schedule for the Missionaries of Charity
4:30 – 5:00: Rise and get cleaned up
5:00 – 6:30: Prayers and Mass
6:30 – 8:00: Breakfast and cleanup
8:00 – 12:30: Work for the poor
12:30 – 2:30: Lunch and rest
2:30 – 3:00: Spiritual reading and meditation
3:00 – 3:15: Tea break
3:15 – 4:30: Adoration Prayer
4:30 – 7:30: Work for the poor
7:30 – 9:00: Dinner and clean up
9:00 – 9:45: Night prayers
A million thoughts flooded to mind, but here are the big ones:
- The primary work of the Order, serving the poor, only takes place between 8:00 – 12:30 and 4:30 – 7:30.
- There’s buffer! Notice that time for meal cleanup and getting dressed is built in to the schedule.
- They say that their lives are centered on God, and this schedule reflects it. There is time dedicated to prayer each day.
- They have a set (and early) bedtime, making time for sleep even if they feel like more work could be done.
- Look at how focused this schedule is! They only attempt to do two things: pray and work for the poor.
Just reading through the schedule made me ache for that kind of peaceful rhythm in my life.
It was comical to contrast this Rule to my own days, and not just because I’m not a nun. Even allowing for our different vocations, my routine was lacking so many things that theirs had. Of course the details of a family’s schedule would be much different, but mine was founded on entirely different principles. The Missionaries’ schedule speaks of simplicity and focus. It’s a routine of people who see themselves as utterly dependent on God and use their time accordingly. It’s generous in its allotments for each activity, and shows a great care for temporal needs like sleep and relaxation time.
I took a moment to imagine what their schedule would look like if it were based on the same principles that guided our home schedule. I laughed out loud when I imagined something like this:
Daily Schedule for the Missionaries of Charity…If I Had Created It
5:30 – 6:30: Mass [sleeping in, so no time for rising, getting dressed, or personal prayer]
6:30 – 7:15: Breakfast and clean up [less time here — hurry up and get to work!]
7:15 – 11:30: Work for the poor [more time here so we can help the poor MORE!]
11:30 – 12:30: Teach religious education classes to children [new activity — let’s teach too!]
12:30 – 1:15: Quick lunch [cut time here, no more rest — too much to do]
1:15 – 3:00: Visit hospitals [new activity — the sick need people to visit them, right?]
3:00 – 3:15: Tea break [this would usually get cut because of hospital visits running late]
3:15 – 7:30: Work for the poor [no Adoration prayers — there’s important work to do!]
7:30 – 9:00: Dinner and clean up [shorter time so that they can hurry up and get to work]
9:00 – 10:00: Make Rosaries to give to the poor [new activity — the poor need rosaries!]
10:00 – 10:30: Night prayers [shortened since we’re busy doing ALL THE THINGS!!!]
10:30-11:00: Spiritual reading
So, yeah. If I ran the convent like I run my house, we wouldn’t limit ourselves to one area of focus! We’d visit hospitals and make rosaries and teach religious education to children and even squeeze in a few more hours of work for the poor. I’d slash prayer time to try to accomplish more practical things; I’d squeeze in a few more hours of productivity by cutting down time allowed for meals, cleanup, and rising.
And after about a week, Jen’s Missionaries of Charity would be stumbling through each day in a state of near-panic, collapsing into bed at night feeling wired and scattered. They’d rise each morning with a sense of failure clinging to them as they scrambled through their morning routines, knowing that there’s no way they’d accomplish the tasks set before them.
In other words, they’d live in a state of feeling perpetually overwhelmed and behind. Like I do.
When all of this dawned on me, I decided to re-create my own daily routine with a single goal: to bring peace to my household. I got out a blank sheet of paper and titled it Daily Routine. Rather than starting by writing down the long list of things I supposedly “had to” get done, I started by writing out how long it takes to do the very basic things like preparing and eating meals, getting myself and all the kids dressed, bath time at night, etc.
Then I wrote down time for the things that are supposedly my priorities in life: prayer, quality time with family, decent sleep, and so on.
Only after that was done did I attempt to fill in the empty slots with time for checking items off my to-do list. I couldn’t seem to make it come together, so I turned to Joe for help. He suggested that I prioritize my list of tasks, and then we’d go through the list and write in each task where there was an open slot on the next day’s schedule.
I brought my list over to the couch and began ticking off items. “Put away laundry. Make a deposit at the bank. Call the insurance company about –”
Joe interrupted me. “That’s all.”
“Wait, what?” I asked. I was totally confused. Was he saying he didn’t want to do this exercise anymore? I didn’t understand why he cut me off.
“That’s all you can do in a day,” he said. “Look at your schedule. It’s full. That’s it.”
To my horror, he was right. If I were to stick to a schedule that’s ordered toward peace — one that has plenty of buffer, that blocks off ample time for the things we claim are our priorities, and that respects my needs for sleep and rest — I couldn’t do everything I was currently attempting to do. In fact, I couldn’t even do a fraction of it. Bringing peace to my household would come at the sacrifice of a very large chunk of my to-do list.
I realized in that moment that those constant feelings of not getting enough done were not primarily because I was lazy or disorganized. I was so busy beating myself up about those phantom failings that I wasn’t taking an honest look at the real problems:
My stubborn unwillingness to take anything that I’d deemed important off of my to-do list.
My lack of trust that God could work it out — that the fabric of the universe would not completely fall apart at the seams — if I couldn’t do what I wanted to do when I wanted to do it.
My prideful refusal to hand off tasks to other people, since they wouldn’t do it “right.”
When I began to try to live by the new, focused schedule, I found that more than anything it was an exercise in letting go of control. I understood on a visceral level why it’s monks and nuns who are known to have the most peaceful daily routines: because it requires great trust in God to walk away from your endless list of demands when there is still technically time to get a few more things done. It requires tremendous faith to rest.
As I find myself getting overwhelmed yet again by having one (or fifty) too many things piled on my plate, I’ve been thinking about this lesson often. There’s an almost exhilarating rush in those moments when I close the laptop with so many emails left unread, shove the laundry baskets aside, and push the paperwork into a pile to be sorted tomorrow. It feels dramatically counter-cultural, and even exciting in an odd way, when I muster up the courage to rest.