Schedules and hard stops

January 9, 2008 | 23 comments

Contrary to what some charitable readers might think after reading my New Year’s post, I have always been scattered and disorganized. Even before I had three kids in diapers — heck, even before I had any kids, even before I was married — I lived like this.

In fact, I remember a time a few years ago when I was feeling particularly overwhelmed, I asked my 90-year-old grandfather if people were this busy when he was younger. I was sitting on the edge of his couch, glancing at my watch because I was in a rush to get to “important” thing on my to-do list, but I wanted to take a minute to hear about his life on the farm back in the 1920’s. Surely there was a ton of work to do to keep a farm up and running — was daily life back then the chaotic mad dash that it is today? Did his mom always seem overwhelmed and frazzled, bemoaning how behind she was on everything?

He replied with an emphatic no.

Life was not rushed and chaotic. They didn’t live under the constant feeling of being stressed and overwhelmed that people seem to today, he said. They had their share of worries, and lots of hard work to do, to be sure, but daily life had a peaceful rhythm to it that is utterly lacking today. I wondered if maybe he was looking back through rose-colored glasses, misremembering life back then. Yet when I asked other people of his generation, they all replied with the same answer: life is hectic today in a way it never has been before.

I’ve always wondered why.

Meanwhile, my husband has long been intrigued by the impact of artificial light on health. Ever since a vacation we took to Costa Rica where we experienced the inky blackness of nights with few artificial lights — and the major impact it had on our physical and mental health — he’s been wanting to do an experiment where we try to go a few days without any artificial light, using only candles at night.

A couple months ago he got all excited to make this happen, and when I went to turn on the kitchen light to clean up after dinner he reminded me to light a candle instead. I became increasingly exasperated as I tripped over unfinished cleaning projects and almost knocked over a candle while transferring clothes to the dryer. Then the dusky candle light started to make me feel sleepy, which only added to my irritation. Finally, when I knocked down a stack of folded clothes from trying to put away laundry by candle light alone, I put an end to this crazy experiment.

“This is absurd!” I huffed as I went through the house flipping on every light I could find.

As my husband and I squinted at each other in the harsh overhead light, he suggested that we try the experiment again another time. I chuckled at his naivete — didn’t he see from the way things had gone tonight that such a thing is simply not feasible? “It’s impossible, ” I informed him. “There is no way we could get by with candlelight alone.” He pointed out that it is not technically impossible since nobody even had electricity in their houses until relatively recently in human history.

Though of course I knew on some level that that was true, for a split second it struck me as completely incorrect. How could it be possible that people lived before artificial light?, I wondered. I was hardly past the half-way point of my day when the sun had set, not even half way through my to-do list! How did they get anything done?!

“Look, ” I replied. “The only way we could possibly do a couple nights without artificial light would be…oh.”

Something dawned on me as I spoke. The only way we could get by on sunlight and candles alone would be to completely, totally rethink our expectations for what we could accomplish; to have all major work completed and cleaned up by sunset; to attempt only quiet activities like reading or sewing or family time in the evening hours…to live like our grandparents lived. We’d have no choice but to slash our to-do lists and our expectations of what we could get done in a day. We’d have to get up early and work purposefully and diligently to get the most out of the fleeting daylight. Feelings of panic and rush would be futile since we’d live with a clear sense that we cannot create more working hours than the light allows, that the sun is going to set when it sets, and there’s only so much we can do. Life would have a distinct daily and seasonal rhythm.

It would be pretty peaceful.

I’ve thought about this a lot lately, thinking of the flaming disaster that was our experiment of trying to go even one night without artificial light, and what that says about our lives and how they compare to all the societies that lived without modern technology. Here are some of the things I’ve come up with:

Just like with modern finances, modern daily life allows us to live under the illusion that we can add working hours to our day at will. Technology allows us to overspend our time just as credit cards allow us to overspend our money.

Life before modern technology was full of hard stops: the work day ended at sunset — if you didn’t finish laundry during the day there was no going back outside to the washboard at 9:00 at night; the work day began at dawn — if you got breakfast on the table an hour late that was precious time cut out of you and your family’s very finite workday; even finances had hard stops — when you spent your last dollar there were no tempting “0% interest for six months!” credit card offers waiting in your mailbox. And with a life full of hard stops, even the most disorganized, scattered people must have been forced to have some kind of routine, and to limit their to-do lists. Even people as inept at time management as I am must have been gently reminded to get to a stopping point and wind down their projects each day as the sunlight began its slow retreat from the sky.

When I considered also that in many times and places people lived in small villages where the community undertook activities together — e.g. the men all went out to work the fields at the same time, the women did the washing and cooking in a community area at the same time — I started to think that maybe one of the reasons so many people feel scattered and overwhelmed these days is because we’re just not meant to have to create our own schedules. Humans are used to powerful forces beyond their control like the availability of light or the momentum of community activities structuring their days. Having an Excel printout just isn’t the same. It doesn’t provide a true hard stop to simply have a line on a piece of paper. We’re free to ignore our arbitrary, self-set deadlines (as some employee at some recycling plant no doubt thinks when he keeps seeing papers with labels like “Jen’s Daily Schedule” and “Jen’s Daily Schedule – NEW” and “Jen’s Updated Daily Schedule” fly by).

I realized that without the structure of cohesive communities and the hard stops of life without technology, people like me are adrift. It is all too easy to float past the arbitrary boundaries I set for myself and lose any semblance of a routine; and by virtue of just flipping on some lights, my workday never really has to end.

There are people out there who are good at self-imposing routines, who have a natural tendency to have a clear end to their work days and observe periods of rest. I am not one of them. I love the idea of creating a “family liturgy, ” of “imposing order through structure and ritual”…yet how does someone like me bring structure and order to my days? How do I make it real when modern technology allows me to do drift out of the ritual and do whatever I want whenever I want? How do I make sure that “Jen’s Family Liturgy” isn’t just one more forgotten piece of paper down at the recycling plant? How do I create hard stops?


  1. Julie D.

    I also have been rethinking my schedule, luckily without having to set the house on fire to do so! 😀

    I like your insights about “hard stops.” I have lately been imposing a computer off/no emails rule after a certain time of day. Lately, what with a retreat coming up this has been slipping and I can feel the pressure coming back. I am reminding myself that emails and my responses are not indispensable 24 a day and that a certain time of morning is enough. This may seem like a no-brainer but it is suprisingly difficult to impose that discipline regardless of that knowledge.

    Thanks for your further insights on this subject. 🙂

  2. Amy

    Jen, I don’t comment enough, but I *love* your blog. I can’t wait to read your next piece, as I am so much like you (minus the eloquentness of your blog LOL) and I have often wondered about the things you are discussing in this post. I wonder if my husband ould go for only candlelight after dark? 🙂

  3. scmom (Barbara)

    I’m really enjoying this series. I’ve had these same thoughts rolling around in my head lately. I’ve got something started on my blog and I’ll post soon.

  4. Literacy-chic

    I’ve got to say, Jen, that I’m not a particularly organized person either. THe thought of all of these schedules, etc., makes me overwhelmed just thinking about it. Personally, I let a lot go. I prioritize & do what needs to be done first, first, then I get to the other things. And when things come along that I want to do more–like sewing projects or making king cakes–I may stress out about it a bit, but in the end, something else takes a back seat and as long as everyone has clothes to wear the next day, it’s all good! I guess it also depends on what your idea of order is and what you sacrifice order for. I, for example, do not have my son in extracurricular activities. Never did. I’m not a soccer mom–the only time he played soccer is when his school was a few blocks from my house and had a noncompetitive soccer club a couple of days a week after school. We tried a couple of other extracurriculars that year, but when they didn’t work, we didn’t sweat it! Now I know that this is not your specific problem. I do wonder, having read yours and a few other frantic moms who can’t get organized blogs, and I wonder if your lives are truly that much more busy than mine, or if your standards, like mine, are too high. When I think or perfect housekeeping, I imagine my grandmother, who certainly did have a “system” and never had anything out of place. She got up earlier than I did and went to bed a bit earlier–not terribly. She had a wonderful meal on the table from scratch every evening. Many days she walked to the store to get the ingredients. I could go on. So if this is what I think perfection is, and try to achieve it, I never will. But what are you trying to accomplish in a day? Enough to be able to sit down in the evening and relax a little knowing that the tasks that will not wait are taken care of? Or do you literally try to do everything each and every day? This may be a symptom of being an only child–everything had to be in place all of the time, because no one was there to mess it up. But sometimes if you know the toys will be pulled out again in the morning, you might just decide not to clean them up at night. If you can walk through the house, great! If not, you have a built-in layer of security–should anyone ever break in, they won’t get very far! 😉

    One other thing to remember is that in the past women had a task-a-day system and planned other things accordingly. In New Orleans, for example, wash day was typically on Monday, which was also red beans & rice day, the rationale being that the red beans could cook on the stove all day without interfering greatly with the washing & folding activities.

    There, now that I’m finished giving “how to be lazier” lessons, I’ll leave the real advice to your other readers! 😉

  5. Occasus Pars

    This has been a great series. My wife and I read and discuss them quite often – this will be another one I’ll be printing out to take home as well. I’m really looking forward to the follow up to this post.

    Tiber Swim Team
    Class of 2007

  6. the mother of this lot

    Hi Jennifer,
    I came here from another blog, and I really enjoyed reading this post. I’m looking forward to the next instalment!
    Perhaps your husband would be interested in taking part in this:

  7. Jennifer F.

    Thank you for all your comments!

    Literacy-chic – I see what you’re saying, and perfectionism is truly something we need to watch out for. I really don’t think that’s the case with me though.

    With the goal of “bringing peace to our house” (rather than “getting organized!” or “getting things done!”), my husband and I sat down and discussed what things we needed to be done each day to feel at peace. This is a list unique to us — there are things on there that aren’t important to other people, whereas we let go of a lot of things that are important to others. And when I look at this list, if I can’t fit it into my available time after I factor in the “must do” daily tasks like feed the kids, take a shower, etc. then we simply have to cut things. But the things I attempt to do each day are truly just the minimum of what we need to feel relaxed and calm, which isn’t all that much (and I’ve lately been good about letting even that go if I just don’t have time to do it).

    And in terms of having a routine, there are definitely people out there for whom that’s not important. You’d think that I would be one of them since we never had any kind of routine at my house growing up. Yet I’ve found that I can be MUCH more relaxed and at peace when life has a daily / weekly / seasonal rhythm.

    Anyway, all of this is to say that I think that my husband and I have done a pretty good job of keeping the ultimate goal in mind, “Will this bring peace to our household?”, and evaluating everything against that. The details of what the involves, though, may be different for us than for other people.

    Thanks for the interesting thoughts!

  8. Jodi

    Thought provoking post. I think about these things a lot also. I think of hard stops as down time. There are certain circumstances that used to always result in down time: going on an elevator, waiting in line for something, even using the restroom. People rarely have these down times any more because of cell phones – every moment you have to be ON! To those of us who struggle with discipline, turning “OFF” is a moment by moment battle. Jesus give us strength – to sleep through a storm.

  9. Lady of the Lake

    Great thoughts, Jen. I love all the little details you write in your posts. I can just picture the wheels in your brain turning.

  10. Anonymous

    There’s a great book called “Light’s Out” that you may want to check out. The idea is not just that the light is electric or “artificial” — even candelight throws off your natural rhythm to a degree. I worked in a greenhouse for years, and there are plants (like poinsettias) that won’t bloom or turn color unless they get a signal from the day length. Even a streetlamp outside a greenhouse can throw the plant off and it thinks it is still another season. The idea behind this book is that we keep ourselves perpetually in summer, always getting ready for a winter that never comes, and we act like it — stuffing ourselves with the available food, etc. It makes us unhealthy because we never get that winter down time. You’re right about the speed of life, and the hard stops, but don’t forget the seasonal limits of rural folks centuries ago. In winter, you didn’t feel the need to work 12 hour days because, well, you couldn’t. We’ve got no down time.
    Anyway, thanks so much for the blog, you’ve pointed me in several absolutely helpful directions. I appreciate your work.

  11. Dustmite

    Awesome post! I am a bit scared to find out the possible answer to your prayers as I am afraid I would not like to apply the same answer to mine. I too have a hard time with setting boundaries. I typically do not go to bed till around mid-night and if I do a Google or YouTube search at ten to mid-night it will be closer to one in the morning before I head to bed. I am sure my life would be better with less technology – I just pretend it wouldn’t be. If I didn’t watch TV or sit on the computer all night (or even better, do both at the same time) then how much more peaceful and content would my life be? How much more involved with my kids would I be? If everyone turned off the TV and the computers, maybe America would sit on their porches, wave and smile to the neighbors walking by. Maybe America would be more like it was in the 50’s and early 60’s.

    On another note, when you were telling the story of your grandfather it reminded me of a wasted opportunity I had years ago. Several years ago my great grandfather passed away (he was in his early 100’s). It was a few years later that it dawned on me that my great grandfather was alive during the civil war and experienced all of the history that ensued after the war. He was alive during the “old west” and cowboys and gun fighters. I never realized it until it was way too late to even talk to him about it. I was so busy with life in general that not only did I not sit impatiently listening to him, but I never even thought to.

    Thanks for another great post!

  12. Anne Marie

    Your post brings to mind Psalm 90:12 Teach us to number our days aright,
    that we may gain a heart of wisdom.

    I think the question is who’s time table are we living on God’s or that of the culture of the day?

  13. Irene

    First of all, I just love your blog. I read it a lot, but don’t comment as much as I should. You really have so many interesting thoughtful things to say.

    Second, this is a great post. And SO true! We wonder why we are so stressed, and have so many problems that our grandparents/ancestors never had. But they didn’t work day and night. They didn’t buy everything on credit and then look to someone to bail them out when they can’t make payments.

    I definitely don’t think that we are necessarily “better off” now than then. Things were simpler then, but, I think so much better in many ways.

    One thing that scares me, and I am not sure why, is the proliferation of cell phones. Especially by teens.

    Teens are literally in touch with their friends constantly. Being a teen is so hard, but it just seems scary that they can now be in contact, and influenced, by their friends literally every second of every day. No matter where they are, no matter what they are doing.

    I know some parents set restrictions, but many don’t. I just feel we are setting ourselves up for disaster when our incredibly impressionable teens are getting influenced way more by other teens than their parents/grandparents etc. Many people look at me like I am nuts, but this cell phone craziness just seems a disaster in the making to me. Maybe I am nuts! HAHA!

    Sort of off your subject, but I guess still related to your “technology” theme! haha! Sorry!

  14. Renee

    Makes me wonder how Thomas Edison would respond.

  15. La gallina

    I’m with your husband. I am fascinated by living a slow old-fashioned existence without artificial lights at night. I’ve imagined what it must be like to live by the rhythms of natural light. My family, however, thinks I’m a fruitcake, so the lights are still on…

    I do live as slow a life as I possibly can. Moving back to a small town helped. And keeping schedules very light. Focusing on kids, homeschooling, meals and laundry is pretty much all I do. The days are full and busy, but I don’t have too many outside obligations. That helps.

    I do still fantasize from time to time about living in an Amish-style world with no electricity, a close knit community, homemade everything, and schedules based on the seasons. (I rode across country once on a train with a large group of Amish, and I never heard people laugh so hard or have so much fun in my whole life!)

    But I’m happy where I’m at.

  16. blog nerd

    I’m like you. Disorganized. My husband thinks of me as an organized and schedule oriented person. That is just because it is a)relative to his disorganized self and b)a reaction to my essentially disorganized and chaotic nature.

    I crave routine and ritual. I’ll go for so long with a useful schedule and routine and then, even though its benefits are obvious, I let it go in a fit of inexplicable but nevertheless predictable apathy.

    That’s where I am now. I feel powerless to get onto a better schedule–I’ve started with a morning rosary. I’m on day 2–and i see positive movement but still I’m floundering as the house struggles to redefine itself into its post-Christmas shape.

    I’m babbling but (once again) your post has me thinking.

  17. Jennifer F.

    Very interesting comments. I appreciate all the new responses.

    Irene – I totally agree. I also feel really concerned at how common it is for teens to have cell phones (and generally have 24/7 contact with one another). You’ve got to read the book I talked about in this post. You’ll love it.

  18. sophie

    I completely agree about life in the technological age. But it’s not just about electricity and lights, it’s nutrition, too.

    Think about the massive explosion of Starbucks and other coffee bars throughout the world. I see kids in grade school walking around with frappuccinos and lattes. And think of Red Bull and all the other “energy drinks” that are laced with caffeine.

    Seems like our whole culture is on an upper. No wonder we need Ambien and Zoloft to get some shut-eye.

    (And in some cases, other illegal substances to get some rest and escape the craziness of our world. How damaging those are to our bodies and souls.)

    I never thought about the artificial light, though, but it makes so much sense. Please let us know how this experiment works for you. Are you still using candles?


  19. TwoSquareMeals

    This post and the comments have been fascinating. I find myself wondering how to do this with a husband who is naturally a night owl. Wonder if there were night owls before electricity? I’m looking forward to more!

  20. Abigail

    The “hard stops” idea has actually hit my husband pretty hard at work. We’ve been praying over this issue because he is the only one in the office with a young kids and he wants to get out the door by 5:15. Time after time, he’d call me at 4:55 saying “looks good, I’ll be home soon” only to have his immediate superior show up at the door 30 seconds later with a “must need” project discussion that takes up another 30-40 minutes. It’s extra rough coming home late because I’m usually up to my ears with rowdy kids and dinner preparation.

    Last week, over his favorite meal of chicken and dumplings, I told him “I don’t think I can make this meal anymore. I’ll just switch back to some crock-pot cooking menus because this one is too time intensive to handle on late work nights.”

    “Oh no,” he answered. I’ll sit down with my boss and put a stop to these non-emergency 5:00 meetings! There’s no way I’m going without this meal for my supper.”

    That response just made me laugh. Here I’d been praying for weeks to become more sensitive to my husband’s modern work day-home life juggle. In reality, I just needed to cook something extra special for supper –dinner is now a “hard stop” that helps him put the brakes on a runaway work week.

  21. Anne Kennedy

    I grew up abroad without electricity and running water and it was very restful. Its been difficult (still, after 15 years) getting used to fitting more into the day. As night would fall, in the village, we’d dash around and make sure the lamps were lit and the oil filled and the water jars filled and then we’d make supper by candle light and eat it by candle light and then read to each other, or take a bath by candle light (and oil lamps). I do try to fit more into my day with electricity and running water, but I am also tired all the time, and its psychologically difficult to wrap my mind around a changing and scattered schedule. My husband is constantly frustrated with me for my disorganization. I miss the oil lamp and candle light. The minute I go home and can see the real night sky I am so At Rest. And then here, in America, I live on that rest until I can go back. This place is crazy. Prayer helps, but there’s nothing like turning everything off.

  22. Marilyn

    Keep up the good work. Cheers:-)

  23. dorothy

    Wow. I just came over from Brush Strokes and I really appreciate this post. I’m very similar to you being disorganized and all too easily disregarding my arbitrary schedule, staying up way too late to get things done. My husband and I constantly lament not ever sitting down together until we fall into bed at the end of a very long day. I’m so excited to read the rest of this series! Glad to have found you.


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