Sunday, May 11, 2008

Peace, Quiet and the American Way

This weekend started much as many other weekends.  First, there were some invitations to do some things over the weekend with friends.  Then there was the list of things we needed to do.  Then, of course, a list of things we wanted to do.  Add those things up and we would have needed 3 weekends just to fit it all in - and then a weekend to recover from it all.

The problem was that because of all of this, we started out tense.  First, it was the tension on Friday night - we decided to get some takeout, and I called my husband when I was on the way home from the train station so that he could call the order in.  Feeling like he had to decide what he wanted right then now made him tense.  In retrospect, it would have been worth it to just have me come home and decide what we wanted together - and we probably would have spent less too.

Then Saturday, we had to run out to the doctor, followed by a series of errands, which turned into another stressful occasion.  For some reason, we just couldn't get on the same page, into synch.  

So about halfway through our errands, we stopped.  We came home, curled up on the couch together, and just stopped.  For about 30 minutes, we did nothing.  And almost as if by magic, all our tension dissolved.  

Why?  We gave ourselves margin.  What is margin?  It's space, breathing room.  It's permission to put down the to-do list and curl up on the couch.  And do nothing.  

In the book Affluenza, authors John De Graaf, David Wann, and Thomas H. Naylor quote lecturer Dr. Richard Swenson of Menomenie, Wisconsin.   He found, in the words of the Affluenza authors that "too many of his patients were stretched to their limits and beyond with no margin, no room in their lives for rest, relaxation, and reflection.  They showed symptoms of acute stress."   In Swenson's words: " I recognized that people didn't have any space in their lives, didn't have any reserves.  The space between their load and their limit had just disappeared". 

Everyone I talk to these days is busy.  Busy trying to keep the house clean, the errands run, make sure our bosses know that we're working hard, busy with kids and spouses and family and friends.  Just..busy.  With an endless to-do list.   And we're all trying to find balance,  whatever that is - to me, balance sometimes feels more like a description of trying to stay up on a high wire and not fall off rather than something appealing.

Modern life is a juggling act.  How do you maintain friendships while carving out enough time for yourselves?  How do you keep the house clean but not spend the weekend cleaning? How do you balance your Mom's needs on Mother's Day with your own desire for your husband to take the kids and just give you some quiet time for a few hours?  And what on earth will we have for dinner?

The answer is you give yourself margin.  You give yourself permission to have margin in your life.  You shut off the cell phone and don't answer the house phone during dinner.  You go for a walk rather than dusting the living room.  You say no to an invitation.  You stop answering email at 11 pm.  

You have to create it though - no one is going to give it to you.   And sometimes you can't - you just have to step up and meet that deadline, or show up when you would rather be doing something else.  But whenever you can, stop and ask yourself "Is the world going to come to an end because I didn't rake the yard or clean the toilet today?"  If the answer is no, then maybe you could do it tomorrow.  Sure, it needs to get done.  But starting to see your own downtime as a need - just as say, seeing savings as just another bill to pay - allows you to feel like it's okay.

The funny thing is, the sky doesn't fall when you do build in margin.  We still got most of our to-do list done this weekend, and what we didn't, we'll do tomorrow, or the next day.  

Creating this margin, of course, is easier said than done.  Much easier.  I know, because I struggle with it all the time - I am a compulsive doer.  I have difficulty relaxing.  But I am slowly learning that I must relax, I must do nothing in order to be a happy, healthy person.   The minute that an invitation to dinner raises my blood pressure rather than giving me something to look forward to, I say no.  I still juggle, because I cannot, and don't want to say no all the time.  But I am trying to no longer punish myself by getting everything done.  Because even if my to-do list is complete, there's another one, and living like that is miserable.

We are, as Joe Dominguez and Vicky Robin say in Your Money or Your Life, human beings, not human doings.  We need to just be.   Margin is a requirement, not an add-on.  

Which is why I'm writing this in my pajamas, sitting in bed with a cup of coffee.  I'll get up soon and finish all the things I need to finish, but for now, I'm content.  

So if you'll excuse me, I have to get back to doing nothing. 

I'd love to hear how you create margin, and manage all the competing demands of modern life.  What have you learned about how to create space and time for yourself?


Megan said...

Ooh, I think this is a great tip. I read an article a couple of years ago pointing out that invitations were not demands or requirements. I think it is very common amongst women to feel like we are required to attend every event to which we are invited.

I have put a personal moratorium on that and no longer attend events about which I am not excited. I just don't. If I am invited to a home-sales party (candles, spa products, etc.), I simply decline. If I get an invitation to a baby shower in the middle of a Saturday afternoon and I would rather spend that day with my husband or getting a pedicure with my sister, I will send my regrets with a gift. No excuses, just my regrets.

I know people don't always like it, but there's only so much we can do to keep others happy. That said, there are plenty of events I still attend. The ones I look forward to!

Lisa said...

Hi, I've been reading your blog now for several months, and I really enjoy it.

I've been tempted to write you a few times and have just never taken the time, but this posting seemed the perfect opportunity.

I struggle with this same issue, typically my own creation. I am definitely the planner in my marriage and understand what you mean about going all weekend long and losing time to focus on being "in synch" with my hubby.

I can't say that I've conquered this, but some strategies I use....if I know it's going to be a dreary weekend, I'll put the 'to do' list on the back burner and spend time with my honey watching movies and ordering Chinese food, knowing that the next weekend is likely to be prettier and more inspiring for both of us to be up and about.

He is happy totally vegged out and I can do that for some period of time but will also look for low stress things I can do and still be around for some quiet time; like organizing pictures or recipes or reading a book, maybe chatting on the phone.

Sometimes I just acknowledge that our pace or expectations for the weekend are different and he's okay if I go on about my way to run errands and leave him at home. He's even ok if I leave him a Honey Do list as long as I'm ok when I return and maybe only 1 thing has been done.

I try not to bug him about projects during the week to give him 'Margin', and I try to leave at least 2-3 nights during the week free from social engagements.

We have sort of unofficialy declared Friday night as 'date night.' Unless one of us is going out of town or has some kind of special event, we try to keep Friday nights for us, saving things like dinners or parties for Saturdays.

I too have learned to prioritize invitations and try to make sure I have energy and enthusiasm for the ones I choose to accept. With others, I have learned how to gracefully decline.

It's nice to know others struggle with similar issues. Hope these ideas help.
Take care,

Our Common Cents said...

Sometimes, work gets the best of us and we need to invest in ourself in order to get back even better returns when we return to a crazy, busy life.

It's a great idea, one which more people should take advantage of. Too many times we forget to stop and smell the roses in life. Thanks for the reminder.

As a side note, I've linked this post to my weekly roundup here -