Adding Structure to the Chaos: Living intentionally with your littles

Things Are Always Changing 
Every few months our house undergoes a routine change.  Someone drops a nap, starts waking-up or going to bed at a different time, we alter our family commitments, or the outdoor season changes our activities.
When these things occur, I often notice that :
  • I start to feel stressed and frazzled
  • I start crutching on screen time to get by
  • I find myself wanting to check-into survival mode 
  • I become a "firefighter" mommy; walking around responding and reacting to all of the fires happening in our home instead of being proactive
These signs are warnings for me.  Red flags and indicators that it's time for me to shake things up and change our routine.  I used to think that I got into these situations because I wasn't being a good mom, but now I know that these transitions are just a part of life, and we always need to be growing - doing what's best in each season.  
- Our winter life looks different than our summer life.
- Our life with a napping, nursing baby looks different than a life with children who just take one short nap a day.
- Our life with children that can communicate verbally looks different than life with children who are crying, grunting or whining.
Instead of fighting that, I'm learning to embrace it and see each new stage as a chance to evaluate our family's needs and live accordingly.

The Evaluation Process
Practically, what does this look like?  In a word: planning.
A few times a year, as needed (see warning signs above), I schedule 1-3 hours of time away to evaluate our family life and make changes accordingly.  

Here are some informal questions I ask myself:
  1. What isn't working in my day?  Are there recurring times when myself or the kids are continually melting down?  If so, what is causing it and can I help that time of day go more smoothly?
  2. Am I getting enough time to rest and feel energized?  What time of the day is this happening for me?  Am I trying to squeeze it in at an unrealistic moment and then feeling frustrated and distracted later?  How can I make this a bigger priority?
  3. What tasks am I finding difficult to complete?  Why?  Are those things that can be delegated, hired out or shared with my husband?  Do I need to be more intentional about building those tasks into my week?
  4. Am I providing the kids enough structure, supervision and imaginative playtime?  Am I giving them the security of a routine or are we all over the place?  How have I been doing at protecting their rest and giving them time to wind down?
As I answer these questions, I start to get a feel for the problems in my heart or in our home that need to be addressed, which might be done in one of the following ways:
  • Sometimes I need to repent of sin in my own heart - often laziness, self-centeredness, and just failing to train my children according to God's word.
  • Sometimes I need to change a practical habit - changing a mealtime, adding a snack, moving a naptime, adding time outside, integrating different toys or limiting access to certain areas of the house.
  • Sometimes I need to drop some of my responsibilities because I'm doing too much - talking with my husband to figure out what things can be done by someone else, making sure I'm prioritizing the right things and not getting caught up in worldly expectations.
  • Sometimes I need to be more intentional about prevention - being more organized so that cleaning is faster and I can find what we need, spending time energizing my soul (spiritually and emotionally), recognizing and planning for times of the day that I know are going to be hard (side note: why do I always act shocked that the kids are melting down right before dinner - this should be something I expect and prepare for!)
The Planning Process
Although just getting to this point can feel a little exhausting, you've already done the really hard part!  Once I get a handle on the problems and solutions, I can approach my weekly calendar with more clarity.  

When I get to this point, I have a pencil, post-it notes, crayons or colored pencils and my insights from my brainstorming session nearby.  I start with a piece of paper with the weekdays across the top and times along the left side.  This allows me to time-block.  Here's my process - start with PENCIL:
  1. Plug-in the non-negotiables:  naptimes, your personal time with God, mealtimes, homeschool time, recurring commitments (like a work schedule, a bible study, a class, your child's preschool, etc.).  This provides a you can see what time you're ACTUALLY working with.
  2. Plug-in the non-urgent but important:  here's where you can really be proactive.  If you want to read more to your kids, then put "reading" into your daily routine.  If you want to exercise, read the bible, clean up the toy room or do the laundry more faithfully, write it down!  This process really makes the difference between a mom who is just randomly caring for her priorities and a mom who is making progress in her priorities.  You have to plan for it or it won't happen!
  3. Plug-in some margin:  literally - we have "free time" on our calendar.  Why?  Because we'll take an unexpected play date, visit my husband for lunch, run an errand out of the blue, or we just need some down time.  I've found that planning things down to the 15 minute increment sets me up for failure.  But if I build-in non-scheduled time, I can still accomplish everything I need to do AND be spontaneous.
Once I get everything blocked-in, I color in like items so it's easier to read at-a-glance.  Then I review:
Did I address my "problem" times of the day?
Did I give myself accountability where I'm struggling?
Does this schedule give me freedom and excitement, or am I feeling more burdened by it?
And that last question is REALLY important, because the point of all this isn't to tie your hands behind your back or make your life harder - it should free you to be doing the things you really care about, like loving Jesus and your family well.  

How it Plays Out
Honestly just the process of planning, writing and coloring it in is enough to put it on my brain and my heart.  I often display our calendar on the fridge and pray about it.  But even though it's in a visual place, after about a week or so I rarely reference it because it just becomes our new rhythm.  The first days are the hardest, but with continued commitment and accountability, I find our family getting to a better place.

Also, I try not to get discouraged when we have an off day or week.  These happen.  Kids get sick, I go through phases where I feel less motivated or more scatter-brained.  Sometimes we're too busy.  The main thing is that I don't want to let that become a pattern, just giving up our structure altogether because we aren't following it with 100% perfection.  Our whole family does better when we keep going back to our plan, refocusing on our goals and mission.

Finally, I always have to remind myself that my hope for a "good life" isn't in the perfect structure of our day.  Yes, structure is helpful to our children (and to me) and practically things DO seem to go better when we follow a routine - but falling out of our routine isn't an excuse for me to fall apart.  With my hope securely rested in Jesus, I can take the day the Lord has given me with gratitude and flexibility - not needing it to always look my perfect way (easier said than done!).  It's important not to judge your whole life against the standard of how well you're keeping your calendar.

I'd love to share a bit more specifically about what our day looks like right now (I've had so many requests for that) - but I'm always a bit hesitant to jump right to the practical.  No one else's family needs to do it like ours - but maybe that would be a good follow-up post to put theory into practice.

Hope this was a helpful snapshot of our planning process in each season of life!

Lean Living: Why One Family of 6 is Living With Less

Buried in stuff & stuck in "survival mode"
When I (Emily) was pregnant with our fourth child, we were living in an extended season of "survival mode", and we were starting to feel buried in stuff.  Kids' clothes were pouring out of closets, little books were strewn about and shoved into tight cabinets, toys were disorganized and littered every room of the house.  When we didn't have time to pick-up, we became pile people. Our files were bursting from the "to-be-filed" box, with little hope of being looked at any time soon.  All of us were exhausted by the "stuff management" dominating our daily routines.  Before the arrival of our sixth family member, we knew something needed to change.  I started by doing small organizational projects when I had margin in the day, which meant changes were happening, but slowly.  Then, late last fall my husband, Brad (who has a background in engineering and a love for excellence) was caught up with a passion for managing our possessions well.  

At first, I was a little defensive.  As a homemaker, it seemed like he was inserting himself into my domain, in essence saying, "Since you aren't taking care of this problem, I will."  But I've come to see that his help and influence on our family in this area has been tremendously valuable.  Our house has done a 180 degree turn from where it was a year ago, and it's still in the process of changing.  Laundry responsibilities, toy pick-up, filling, and keeping track of our things has become significantly easier.  
While this isn't an external fix to our internal heart problems, God is still using this to teach us about entitlement, contentment, and what we really treasure.
I wanted to interview and bring him alongside me to share about this, because I really can't take much credit for it!  Also, he speaks this language* really well, and is the best person to inspire others to make a similar change.  I hope you enjoy this interview I had with him about the concept and heart behind our desire to live with less.  

*For clarity sake, we are defining the word lean in the business industry / manufacturing sense, which is the systematic process of eliminating waste.   When you make something "lean", you make obvious what adds value, while reducing everything else.  (Brad applied this concept to our home)
Basically, lean living is a way of life that strives to eliminate uninspiring, wasteful, or non-functional possessions in an effort to maximize time and space for relationships and things that matter eternally.
Q & A with Brad:

How would you define "Lean Living":
I'm not sure of the official title for it, but to me, lean living is an intentional way of being mindful about the way you spend resources (time, money, and abilities) with the goal of making room for the things you most want and need to do in your given roles.  It's both increasing the value-added things (the things only you can do and want to do) and decreasing the things that take away from your most important responsibilities.

What made you think our family needed to adopt a "Lean Living" philosophy?:
I got tired of feeling out of control in the big and little things.  Our evenings (as a couple) were spent restoring the home; picking up, cleaning up, and preparing for the next day.  The reality of facing that for the next decade wasn't very exciting.  Also, our family is still growing, so we really needed to put boundaries and systems in place that enable functionality at a level beyond just "survival".  There is a baseline of work that has to get done, no doubt.  But I wondered, "Are we making it easy or are we making it harder for ourselves?"  Parenthood is tough enough as is, and if there are a handful of things I can do to make it easier, they should be considered.
For example:  If we have a tub full of toys that the boys can tip over in two seconds, we're really just creating work for ourselves later.  With too much stuff, the boys become de-sensitized by the quantity and are unable to focus on one thing.  Limiting their access and options has made clean-up faster for us and playtime more enjoyable for the boys.
For example:  When I'm looking for my cell phone charger all the time, I'm wasting 2, 3, 4 minutes an evening trying to find where the charger is...or where the fitbit charger went.  One evening, I got a container from Lowes to store our remotes, headphones, jump drives, chords, memory cards, chargers, etc. in one place.  Now it's all co-located, so now Emily and I aren't going "where's that thing at?".

How should someone get started with "Lean Living"?:
1.  Just do something.  It can be paralyzing when you consider the amount of work, but start somewhere and you'll make progress a little bit at a time.
2.  Start with yourself.  Pair down your own wardrobe before digging into your spouse's part of the closet.  Get rid of your own college textbooks before going insane trying to decrease your children's' book collection.  Once you've set the tone, you can bring the family along with you.
3.  Find a process.  There are methods and philosophies you can read up on.  Do your research and find what works best for you.  I think you can make a huge dent over a couple of months, but then it's continuing the practice.  You have to start thinking lean.

What have been the most difficult parts of this process (for you and for the family)?:
The hardest thing for me?  The changes haven't happened fast enough!  I would like to have the world stop for two weeks (ship the kids off so Emily and I can crush every room of the house).  Obviously that's not possible or practical.  It's a huge elephant, so we have to eat it one bite at a time.
The family has had a difficult time making choices about what to keep.  Whenever you are purging, giving away, identifying duplicates, and deciding what to keep, friction can happen.  We have perceived freedom when there are lots of choices (although the reality is, we have much decision fatigue).
For example:  We've gotten rid of 20 mugs that we've collected and purchased.  It's easy because there are some obvious ones we've given away, but then you get down to a few and you really have to think critically.  One of the things we try to ask is, "Have we used it recently?  Does it excite or inspire us?"

What are your goals for "Lean Living" - how will you know when you've accomplished your goals?:
One of my goals for lean living is sustainability.  It's easy for me to get fired up about something for a season, but I don't want this just to be a fad.  I'll know I've accomplished that goal if a year from now, we're still using this lean vocabulary, employing the new systems, and being aware of the things we bring into our home.

Do you see any dangers or drawbacks to "Lean Living"?:
"There is more joy in owning less than can be found in pursuing more."
- Joshua Becker 
As with most things, there are disadvantages.  But in my opinion, the benefits far outweigh the disadvantages.  The biggest critiques are probably that we are de-owning "perfectly good things" that we could technically use.  For instance, we consigned a bunch of clothing that was very very gently used.  The cost per wear ended up being higher than we'd like, but we learned from that.  Sometimes you have to radicalize the process and start fresh with less.

Also, you do run the risk of having a more "spartan" home (barren, bland, bleak), especially from an aesthetic perspective.  But I think most people say, "Hey there is a spot, I need to fill it with something!" (a chair, dresser, shelf - that eventually has 30 things on it).  When you don't do that, it might give the impression of coldness to some.  But I think the home, and a creating a hospitable environment, is much more complex than that.

What would you say to a wife or a mom who feels overwhelmed with her home making responsibilities?:
1.  That's good.  It's the woman who thinks "I've got it" that probably isn't in tune with reality.
2.  You're normal.  Everybody feels overwhelmed at certain points.
3. "Focus on doing that which only you can do."  You have been uniquely gifted and called by God to be a first follower of Christ, then a wife and a mother (assuming you are married with children).  Take your callings very seriously, because reflecting Christ with excellence in those roles is essential and no other woman can replace you.  What are you spending your best, most productive moments on?  Are you distracted by your interests, shopping online, blogging, browsing the internet, or interacting on social media to the neglect of your home and family?  If you are spending your most precious resources (time and energy) on other things, you might need to evaluate your priorities.  When you are bogged down with pressure to do non-essential things, you need to re-focus on your identity in Christ and your God-given purposes.  Get perspective on what's most important from the word and other wise women.

How could a homemaker influence her own family to make a similar change?:
  • Educate yourself.
  • Start small.
  • Start with your own stuff.
  • (and if you have kids, include them)
How do you see "Lean Living" as a practical reflection of biblical truth?:
There are a number of biblical references affirming the fact that our possessions don't bring true joy (and they don't last).  And yet, we are filling our homes and our time with copious amounts of "stuff".  There is nothing inherently wrong with having possessions, but we can't put our hope in material treasures.  If we aren't careful,  stuff can start to become a substitute for the only thing that can satisfy, God himself.  The truth is that our lives aren't going to be any better (in a lasting and meaningful way) because of that cool new shirt, the latest iPhone, the trinket on the shelf, the beautiful piece of furniture, etc.

What lessons have you learned throughout this process?:
1.  I'm shocked at how quickly our lives, closets and basements can fill up with stuff.  In our case, it's 7 years.  Without even trying, our home is chocked full of things from just living everyday life.  You have to actively resist this.
2.  The benefits are immediate AND long-term.  Which is good - most things have just one or the other.  There is immediate progress and potential, but there is long-term promise.
3.  There is a lie that I've bought into that says, "I'll start living the way I want to once things change."  For me, the specific lie has been "I'll be able to focus on loving our family more once I get the house under control.  If I can just organize all our files, get rid of the old stuff, and get the crayon box figured out, then I'll obey God's call to engage my family."
And that's just not true.  I will never reach a point of perfect - there will always be another "thing" to get done in the house as before we can start living the way we're called to live.  
I'm very linear in my thinking "Let's do this and then I can do that" but life is much more parallel.  My boys are still getting older each day, and I need to spend time with them and with Emily.  Life will only be in this stage once.

How does this look practically? (emily):
As I was interviewing Brad, he kept giving great practical examples (many I couldn't include to preserve the length) of how this is playing out in our home.  Of course, these changes are unique to our family, and in no way should be legalistically applied to others.  Our hearts have just been so greatly impacted by this change in thinking, that we hope it can help other families who might feel overwhelmed!  As we were talking, we thought that the practical examples would best be described in a follow-up post or video.  But we'll leave you with a couple pictures from our main living areas to give a snapshot of what our home looks like on an average day.  These photos weren't staged!  They were taken after my normal naptime cleanup routine.  While our home doesn't look this "perfect" when our kids are awake (there are toys around, food scraps under the table, pillows on the ground etc.), this is an example of how much easier it is to pick-up when you have less to manage!

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