Habit forming and Self-Discipline

A bad habit begins in childhood

When I was a child, my mother would often have to call my name four or five times before I would respond. It wasn’t that I was deliberately ignoring her or rebelliously refusing to answer. It was because I was usually so deep into a book, a game or my own fantasy world that I didn’t actually hear her. I zoned out frequently, and not always on purpose.

I loved to read as a child. While I still love to read, I don’t have much time, and to be perfectly honest, I’m a little nervous to let myself read the way I once did. As a busy mom and business owner, I can’t afford to get that oblivious to the world around me. But when I was young and without the same responsibility, I would read for hours, lost in dreaming the stories I was reading. I read quickly, devouring whole series of 4-5 novels in an afternoon. I could visualize the stories as if they were movies playing before my mind’s eye.

Oblivion isn’t the best habit

That ability to hyper-focus can be a gift, but at the same time, can also translate into an easy distract-ability. I know that sounds counter-intuitive. When you focus, generally you are blocking out distractions. Hyper-focus, however, is not just blocking out distractions, but being completely unaware of the world around you. That means, then, that when one is not hyper-focused, the other extreme can happen, where every little sound and color and flash of light can draw one’s attention away from the task at hand. It’s not a good habit to get into.

When I became a mom, I had to learn not to “go so deep” that I didn’t even hear my baby crying. At first, I avoided reading entirely, for fear that I would zone out and put my little one at risk. Gradually, I learned how to “come up for air”, not unlike learning to swim, only in this concept of time rather than water.

Coping methods

For a while, I started using background noise to prevent myself from blocking out the world. It’s hard to zone out with a movie, radio or tv show on. I needed to be able to concentrate, but still stay aware of what was going on around me. Then timers and surrounding myself with clocks became a way to survive. I had to teach myself to pay attention to the time.

To be honest, I have no innate sense of time passing. I could tell you sincerely that I only was 20 minutes getting groceries, when in reality it took me 2 hours. The only way I knew how long it took to drive to my parents was because my GPS told me it would take so many hours and minutes. Even now, 5 minutes can feel like hours, and hours can feel like seconds, depending on what I’m doing.

Not actually lazy

ad26b-id-10046747It took me a long time to get over the idea that I was just lazy or undisciplined. I had always felt so guilty for being unable to manage my time the way others seemed to, so naturally.  As a child, I had learned coping mechanisms for getting things done on deadlines, but I was constantly late or really really early for appointments.  I avoided tasks that I found unpleasant, even if they wouldn’t take me that long. They still felt they would take much longer than they did.

It wasn’t until my oldest daughter was diagnosed with ADHD, and showed a lot of the same characteristics and struggles I did. I realized that, like her, some of these things weren’t because I was lazy but because I had poor time concepts. I wasn’t aware of time passing out of deliberate choice, but because I needed to be taught this. It didn’t come naturally to me. Some people can’t sing, or have no sense of rhythm. I have no sense of time.

Need better tools

When that lightbulb went off for me, I felt a huge weight lift off. I wasn’t struggling because of something I just wasn’t doing or couldn’t do — I just needed better tools and teaching to do it.

03dfa-id-10055125That’s when I became a planner and printable junkie. I still have hundreds of files on my computer of templates and worksheets and ebooks about managing time, planning a schedule, making to-do lists and setting goals. I have shelves full of books about organizing calendars, managing chores, creating systems and taking charge of your time (and life!). Because I figured that if I wasn’t naturally a time-aware and organized person, I was darn well going to learn.

Planner junkie

I’ve used dozens of planners and calendars to manage my life. I’ve tried variations of digital and paper-based organizers, apps for my phone and software on my computer and physical coil-bound books and simple printed out sheets in a binder. And I’ve set up home management binders. I’ve done brain dumps and made lists of my lists. Over the years, I’ve done courses on taking charge of your time, and making over your calendar and cleaning your schedule. I’ve attempted to implement various systems and schedules, following this expert or that.

Tools that work for the time-awareness-challenged

Finally, I’ve learned to relax again. Most of the systems and planners and software were designed by naturally time-aware people for other time-aware people. It’s no wonder they’ve frustrated me to no end. There are only a few key concepts I’ve needed, and only a few tools I use to stay on top of everything in my life.

First, I use a chime. In the old days, they had big old grandfather clocks, that chimed every 15 minutes. You could tell what time it was just by the chime that was used. I have a similar function I use on my phone. It helps me stay aware of the time, and provides useful breaks in my day.

Second, I use a paper calendar-planner. Something about physically writing something down helps me remember it, and there’s nothing more satisfying than actually crossing off something on my list. My favorite planner is PlannerPad, with space for active to-do lists in different categories, a timed and untimed daily planner in a weekly spread, space for notes and monthly calendars for planning ahead.

More strategies

Third, I use routines rather than schedules. Routines are repetitive sequences of events, and the order of the events is more important than the time. I “anchor” my routines to big things like meals, that generally happen around the same time. This way I don’t forget some of the little things I want to do that turn into my big priorities.

Finally, I take the time to plan and review frequently. I plan a week at a time, usually on a Sunday afternoon when my children are all sleeping. I check our weekly schedule for planned outings, go over my budget and plan my menu and grocery list. Monthly, I’m checking our planned outings to match up my budgeted income and making sure they’re all in the weekly schedules.  Seasonally, I plan out our school year, update our chore lists and menus, sign up for extracurricular activities, pencil in social events and family trips, and note any holidays or birthdays. Yearly, I take a mini-vacation while my children are gone, to look back and review the last year, then I update and set goals for our school, my personal life and my business.

Hard won time management skills

My time management discipline has been hard won and self-taught. But it has been so well worth it. I’m more relaxed. I’m healthier, physically, emotionally, spiritually and relationally. My home is cleaner, my stress levels are lower, and I even get time to fun things, both on my own and with my children. Best of all, now I have the freedom to be spontaneous, because I figured out how to plan my time.

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