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!
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