I’m not good at taking breaks. I’m good at getting really exhausted and then checking social media, but that is the worst way to take breaks.
My friend Amy recently told me that she doesn’t let her car get under a half tank. She wants to be prepared. And then she said, “Why can’t we do that for ourselves?” If we can manage to keep our vehicles full of fuel, we can also work to keep ourselves fueled and ready to go.
Which means we need to take breaks. And not breaks when we’ve become exhausted and empty–instead, we need breaks when we’re half-empty, before we’re exhausted.
But some breaks that I take are just horrible: Checking social media. Looking at the news and pandemic trends. Watching YouTube videos. Staring mindlessly at a computer screen is not a good break: it doesn’t replenish me and makes me feel more drained.
Here are some ideas on how to take a real break that can actually give our minds and bodies the rest we need and invigorate us to keep going:
Go for a walk.
Read a book.
Talk to a friend.
Play with a child.
Do a small act of service.
Say a prayer.
Sit in silence.
Say something you’re grateful for.
Eat a snack. Preferably a somewhat healthy one.
Drink some water.
Clean up. Even doing a tiny bit can help.
Sit there and do nothing (but don’t look at a screen).
Sometimes taking a break is difficult. I have a hard time changing my focus and I want to just get stuff done. But it’s not efficient to get stuff done by working and working until I’m overly exhausted and I can’t do anything else.
I’m going to keep working on taking breaks–the right sort of breaks that will help me feel happier, energized, and live the life I want to live.
I thought she wanted to be left alone, so I did. And because I left her alone, she thought I wanted to be left alone. And we almost missed a friendship. . . .
I thought they were concerned about germs, so I kept my distance when we were sick. And then they thought I was concerned about germs, even thought I wasn’t. . . .
She was a nerd, and I was a nerd, and we had all the same interests, but we never managed to connect. . . .
I assumed a neighbor was a certain way because of stereotypes and hearsay. But her opinions ended up being more nuanced, and even if we did disagree about some things, we didn’t disagree about everything. . . .
My own assumptions alter how I think about people and how I treat them. But those assumptions are often wrong. I can’t read minds. I don’t know as much about people as I think I do. And people don’t know much about me, either.
We have different lifestyles, different choices, different opinions. We have things in common and we have difference. But it’s easiest to approach every relationship with integrity.
I want to be the same person, to not try to hide who I am. That doesn’t mean I loudly insert my own opinions, but it does mean that I stop trying to adapt myself to fit to another person’s choices. I struggle with that sometimes. I don’t want to be contrary. So I don’t say things or I change what I say in order to fit in.
But so often, I’m adapting based on false information.
It’s better to be honest and true to myself, to let who I am come out more often, and not try to read another’s mind, but to simply ask them about themselves, to understand what I don’t know, and to assume only that I can continue to be kind.
I want to fix everything about myself all at the same time. Spiritually, I want to read my scriptures, say my prayers, and grow in my faith and testimony to God. Physically, I want to exercise for longer, go to bed earlier, wake up earlier, eat less sugar, and drink more water. Socially, I want to serve my neighbors, reach out to friends, and spend more time with family. Mentally, I want to spend less time on my computer, be less distracted, and improve my focus.
And I would also like to take better care of my children, cook more meals, save more money, go outside more–all of it.
But guess what? I can’t do it all at once. I can’t fix every weakness. I can’t change all my habits. I’ve tried and it didn’t work.
Lately, I’ve had one basic goal: wake up at 6:00 in the morning and get ready for the day. It’s really simple and mostly attainable.
That small goal has made a big impact on my life. I feel like I’m improving. I feel more capable and less discouraged. My to-do list gets done better. I’ve been able to focus a little more. Other habits are improving too, even when I’m not focused on the.
I wish improvement came all at once, but it doesn’t. It comes in small and simple steps, one thing at a time. And I improve much more quickly when I focus my efforts on one small thing instead of trying to change everything about my life all at once.
Last year after Christmas was over, I wrote a note to myself:
Make a few meaningful events instead of lots of things. Don’t feel guilty for not doing service every day. It’s okay. Gingerbread houses, snowflakes, and remember the nativity. It’s okay to do something once instead of every year. Christmas: Do dinner for lunch. We don’t like ham and potatoes. Frog eye salad is good, and maybe a random assortment of favorite things. Don’t do too much food. Go and do something together outside on Christmas, like sledding or hiking or sight seeing.
The note to myself has been helpful this year. I haven’t followed all of it, but reading it allowed me to approach the holidays with less guilt. I have been trying to have a Christmas season that works for us and our family, instead of just doing things because there is some sort of expectation.
I am looking at the note, “Don’t do too much food,” and realizing that I have planned for too much food again this year. At least the food doesn’t include potato casserole and ham, which was a yearly tradition that we didn’t even like.
But I have done a few meaningful events: we attempted gingerbread houses, we looked at Christmas lights, we had a virtual family party, and we completed a move-a-thon fundraiser. I have served other people and reached out to neighbors and friends, but I’ve been more flexible about it, which has opened up better opportunities.
Growing up, Christmas felt incredibly significant. And I was trying to always keep that feeling, but it ended up starting to feel very heavy. I don’t need Christmas time to be different and special and complicated.
Christmas is a time to focus on Jesus Christ, and that’s a simple thing. Christmas is best when it becomes simple–when Christmas isn’t about the abundance of trying to do everything, but about doing the most important things.
Christmas isn’t always the same. This year, I took my kids Christmas shopping (at an actual store). I bought a present for my husband (we haven’t exchanged presents for years). The pandemic means that parties have been virtual and events have been simplified. My decorations are haphazard. I haven’t really watched any Christmas movies. I’ve neglected presents I could have given.
I didn’t everything I wanted to do this year in the way I wanted to do it, but I don’t feel guilty about it. I’m just grateful for where I’m at.
Next year will look different too. And it probably won’t be particularly special. But life isn’t about creating significance through enthusiastic perfectionism, but seeing the significance in small moments.
When I free myself of burdensome expectations that are laced with guilt, I get a little closer to enjoying the holiday season how I really want to enjoy it: simple, fun, and better focused on Jesus Christ.
Like most people in the world today, sometimes I waste too much time on social media and other websites. They are designed be addictive, after all, and rabbit holes are encouraged in the never-ending display of suggested content.
But when I focus on getting rid of that wasted time, I usually fail. I have created some better habits. On my phone, for example, I don’t have any social media apps. I’ve also removed email and my web browser. The only notifications I have are for texts and calls. I also unfollow people, try to have screen-free time, have a blocking program on my computer (FocusMe), and use one site (AllSides.com) to check on news.
All those things aren’t enough. I still waste time on my computer and phone–it’s not a personal weakness as much as simply a really difficult problem.
But here is the one thing that has worked the very best: crowding out wasted time with doing good things. When I have free time, technology sucks it up like a vacuum. But when I have lots to do, technology gets pushed out of my life in favor of better things.
This week was very busy. I had to work on painting my house to get ready for winter and I had two papers to write for my classes in school. It’s also Halloween and I worked to spend time with my kids. When I planned to do many good things, I didn’t have time to waste.
Good habits are better formed by crowding out the bad habits in favor of something better. Focusing on my negative technology use and trying to eliminate it is focusing on the wrong thing–I should instead look at what that technology is preventing me from doing, and work on increasing good works in my life.
I want to read books and write and play games with my family and learn new things and serve others. When I plan for that in my life, my technology habits take care of themselves.
People say, “You should be true to your beliefs.” While that is true, you cannot be better than what you know. Most of us act based on our beliefs, especially what we believe to be in our self-interest. The problem is, we are sometimes wrong….
When we act badly, we may think we are bad, when in truth we are just wrong. The challenge is not so much closing the gap between our actions and our beliefs; rather, the challenge is closing the gap between our beliefs and the truth.
I’ve been stressed and worried at times. Lots of times. It’s easy to blame my circumstances, or to think that I am somehow not strong enough. I want to do better. I mean to do better. Then I don’t.
But my emotions and actions are not caused by my environment. They are caused by my beliefs. If I am to change my emotions and actions, then I must change my beliefs.
I often don’t analyze my own thoughts and beliefs, simply looking at my actions. I found myself discouraged, and focused so much on the discouragement that I felt hopeless to stop it. But when I looked at my beliefs, I was able to understand myself and the discouragement dissipated as my beliefs became a little bit closer to the truth.
I woke up one morning and I made my list of everything that needed to happen that day. My biggest concern was my home renovation–there was a whole lot that I would have liked to get done before winter. I tried to create timelines and figure out how we could get it all done when I wanted to. The timelines never worked out right, and I found myself overwhelmed and stressed about the house. I wrote a to do list, but I had no motivation to complete it, so I did nothing.
My planning wasn’t working. I was sabotaging myself with it, and I needed a better way. And I think I found a better way.
First, this is what I need to get rid of:
Yearly goal setting. It is usually too hard to plan out an entire year at a time. By the end of the year, I am always in a different place and my goals aren’t relevant anymore.
Monthly goals. A month is usually too short to accomplish significant projects.
Task-oriented planning with looming deadlines. Planning should include more than time-sensitive to-do lists. If that’s all I have, then I don’t really make any real personal progress. I get too attached to productivity, when most of my actual values are not related to being productive.
Not allowing for flexibility. I’ve planned out days in 15-minute increments before. When I could follow that plan, it was awesome, but usually I need more flexibility than time stamping everything I need to do in a day. Like most people, I end up severely underestimating the time that something will take.
And now, this is my better way of planning:
It’s pretty easy to divide up the calendar year into seasons or other sections, and life sort of falls nicely into those seasons (particularly if you and/or your kids are in school). I currently have my fall goals for September to December, and then I’ll set goals again from January to April, and then from May to August. (I could also do three-month periods instead of four-month periods, but the idea is still the same). Seasonal goals are less stressful for me because I have a longer time frame than with monthly planning and I’m able to think more about the structure of the projects I’m working on. And unlike year planning, I can usually forecast the next few months with some degree of accuracy.
Priorities and Values
I set productive goals (getting something done) and character goals (who I want to be). Character goals are important, but can be hard to quantify, and I actually still struggle with how to incorporate them into my planning.
But when I am planning, it is good to remember what I value and actually find important: my relationships with my Heavenly Father, my husband, my kids, other family members, and friends and neighbors. I also want to keep progressing and improving, becoming more patient and loving. My relationships suffer when I only focus on getting things done.
Then if I prioritize and order those productive goals, I can be more efficient by focusing on a few important things.
Usually I have a few different major projects in the seasonal planning, and then I can prioritize subtasks within those projects. I don’t like to have deadlines or a time frame, because I need more flexibility. I just need a general order of what to do next.
When I’m planning my week or my day, I look at the things that come next and write them down for easy reference. I write down more than what I think I can do in a week or a day–so I’m not trying to get everything done and checked off. I’m instead giving myself general guidance of what I could do.
Then I have to determine my processes. When and how am I going to work and when am I going to play? When can I work on relationships? What can I eliminate?
I’ve been inspired by Martin from Wintergatan Wednesday, and he has this awesome video that talked about internalized and externalized goals. There is a lot we can’t control. I can’t estimate how long something will take or what complications will come up. My best goals can deal more with things that I can control.
It’s better to have a goal to write for an hour than to have a goal to finish a story or an essay. I try to focus more on those processes: what do I want my daily life to look like? How do I want to live?
This week, for example, I want to work on my house for a few hours every day (and each day is a bit different on when I can do it). This is my process that I can use in order to slowly achieve my prioritized list. I will also turn off computer from 4:00 to 8:00 so that I can focus on my kids.
Finding deep work
I’ve been reading Deep Work by Cal Newport, which has made me think about certain projects where I need to work more deeply instead of just trying to accomplish things without focus. My children constantly interrupt me. But I can use the rare, undistracted moments for deep and meaningful work. I remember there was one day when I took three hours and just worked on my school work while my husband was watching my kids. I loved focusing intensely, and I want to do more of that.
And sometimes I find it better to focus on a few big things and do those well instead of trying to do lots of little things.
Eliminating that which has no worth
If I want to focus, I have to learn to eliminate the things that don’t have any much worth in my life. Cal Newport’s book Digital Minimalism talks more about this. Distractions are mostly technology-related: YouTube, Netflix, Facebook, Instagram, random Google searches, etc. I really have to watch myself and it’s a process that I am still working on.
But when I get stressed out, I often want to numb my feelings by getting on my computer and letting those website determine what I think about. This isn’t always a bad thing, but I want more mental space in my life to listen and to think.
Leisure and thinking time
I need to have some more space and flexibility for the things that aren’t productive. I want to have time to do what I love, not just what I think I need to do, and time when I’m not constrained by goals and accomplishments, but I just get to exist.
My relationships need my time and attention. And I want to do things that are an end to themselves, not a means to some other end. I rarely have time to ponder and think, read a book just because, or sit outside and enjoy nature. I want more of that time where I am enjoying what I’m doing and who I am with.
I am trying to develop better habits in my life. The book Atomic Habits talks about focusing more on how you get things done and those processes than just thinking about what you want to get done. Good habits are way more productive than good to-do lists.
Other things that have helped:
Planning before I go to bed (instead of when I wake up in the morning) can be very helpful so that I wake up and know what I’m doing, instead of slowly wandering about my mornings.
I enjoy using my spiral-bound bullet journal to do my planning because it is so flexible.
There are many times I just need to shed my guilt and throw it away.
Putting it in action
So by focusing more on priorities and processes (instead of to-do lists), I don’t feel as overwhelmed. I feel like I’m could live up to my potential a lot better, because I’m looking at a bigger picture of how I want to live, not just what I want to do.
Here is how I have put it into action on planning my home renovation:
I set seasonal goals of renovating the exterior of the house, renovating the bathroom, and then starting on framing and electrical. My plan is to work on the house every Friday and Saturday with my husband, as well as working on it a few hours every other day.
I write a list of everything that needs to get done in the next stage and update it regularly. The list is grouped into basic categories.
I prioritize this list. I worry about the order, not a timeline. This prioritization is a loose guideline, and I am often working on more than one thing at a time. But instead of trying to accomplish the whole project at once, I’m just working on what comes next.
Then I figure out my processes to work on those tasks. Instead of writing what I want to accomplish in a week, I write down how I want to work in that week.
Every Friday and Saturday, we work on the house. That’s all I have to do on those days. And then I plan other time throughout the week where I can work. I write down what comes next, but I won’t get all of it done. I’ve accomplished a goal for the week if I follow the process, not it I checked everything off.
I’m more free from the stress of always having to do and never doing enough. I start to actually live the way I want to live.
I don’t follow herd behavior. I think of myself as a creative and independent thinker. I don’t always go with the crowd and I do my own thing. You might think of yourself the same way.
The truth is, we pretty much all just follow herd mentality most of the time.
When businesses started to open again after the shutdown, there was not a mask mandate where I lived. And every time I went somewhere, I looked around to see if people were wearing masks or not. If the majority of people seemed to be wearing masks, I would wear them too. If they weren’t, then I wouldn’t. I knew I should wear a mask, but I just didn’t want to feel awkward.
When the mask mandate happened, then everyone was wearing a mask and it was easy.
We follow herd behavior even when the information says otherwise.1 So we will literally know better, and then follow the crowd anyway. If everyone else is jumping off a cliff, chances are you will consider it for quite a while.
Is this always a bad thing? Not necessarily, because usually the herd is not jumping off a cliff. Sometimes herd behavior is safe and comfortable. We end up feeling nicely invisible, fitting in and doing what other people think we should do.
But other times, we really need to act differently. Sometimes the herd is not doing what is right, and we know better.
Find Your Herd
Instead of trying to be independent thinkers and have the willpower to always stand out, we should instead simply surround ourselves with better herds. No matter how strong you think you’re are, the pull to fit in is very strong.
We are social creatures and we need the support of other people. There are so many uplifting groups out there, and we can often choose our friends and the people we spend time with. We can realize that the desire to fit in and be safe and normal can be a really good thing–as long as we are choosing where we fit in and what group we are going with.
When we better understand our own values, we should work to create herd behavior that follows those values. We can work to make the world a better place, by elevating and expanding those groups that want to do what is right.
I woke up, feeling uncertain about the direction of my life. My to-list was very full: write a blog post, work on framing the back wall of my house my house, clean out my kitchen cabinets, read stories with my kids, talk with my husband, finish reading about econometrics, etc. I don’t have a career, but I have wanted a sort of clarity: should I focus on writing or economics or renovation or blogging or something else?
My main priority is to take care of my kids and my family, but then what do I do with my time (especially now that I actually have time without my kids)? How do I contribute to my community and the world?
As I thought over all the things I wanted to do, I realized that everything that I was thinking about was a project that would someday end.
I need to plan for those endings.
Looking back on my life, I am very satisfied with the projects that I started and finished, such as writing novels, , web design, or learning the piano and organ–I don’t do those things very much anymore, and I don’t feel any pressure to do so. They had an ending.
I am studying economics right now, but I will finish my current degree in December. My home renovation will eventually be completed. I will finish the book I am writing.
Instead of saying generalizations that I want to write or study or renovate, I feel a lot happier when I make it a more specific project with an ending: I am going to work on writing this specific book. I am going to renovate this house. I am going to get a degree.
Goals are so much more motivating when they have an ending to them.
Even when we think about long-term projects, like being in a career for years and years, eventually all of it will end.
Our biggest accomplishments and the things that we are most satisfied with eventually end, and that ending is the frosting on the cake and the wrapping on the present that made everything worth it.
Because who we are is not what we do. I get so discouraged when I think about what I want to be when I grow up. So I change the question. I actually asked my son the other day, “What is one thing you want to do when you grow up?” He said he wanted to be a fireman. And that seemed like a good answer–he could be a volunteer firefighter, or work seasonally on wildfires–and it would end, and he would go and do something else.
Make Exit Plans
If you start a business, plan for the end. What happens at the end of it? Do you hope to sell it, for example? Pass it down in the family? Or maybe you realize it’s a temporary solution and eventually you’ll just have to close up shop and move on.
If you start a career, make an exit plan. When do you want to retire? What promotions or other job opportunities interest you? Is there any more education could you get? What other jobs are interesting to you?
What is your exit plan for vacations, hobbies, where you live, temporary relationships, leisure? When do you want it to end and how do you want it end?
What do you want the ending of your entire life to look like?
I don’t want to do one thing in life. I like doing lots and lots of things, and that’s okay. There are times when I will focus on just one thing for a time, and then it will end, and I can move to something else. I don’t have to live my entire life all at once. My identity does not need to be permanently categorizable.
What is the best work I can do in this temporary season of life–and where does it end?
I always thought I was a very honest person: I never told lies or cheated or tried to steal anything, so I was good.
But here’s the thing: I still very much care what other people think about me, and sometimes dishonesty creeps in as I fail to admit my shortcomings and mistakes, both to myself and to others. Admitting what I do wrong has been my biggest struggle with honesty. I want to be an awesome person that doesn’t make many mistakes. But I am not: I yell at my kids, I pick my nose, I get discouraged, I waste time, and I support political candidates without knowing much about them.
My lies are plentiful: I want to hide things from the building inspector. I pretend that I heard someone speaking when I wasn’t paying attention at all. I tell a friend I’m doing fine and everything is great when it really isn’t. When I don’t know something, I fabricate information. And at the store, when my kid breaks the top off a bottle of soap, I stick it on a random shelf and walk away.
Some of these may be trivial. But when dishonesty starts to creep up in small ways, it becomes a lazy way to deal with hard things. Dishonesty just pretends that those hard things don’t exist.
But honesty is when I have to face life as it actually is, giving up my idealized version of reality.
So how can honesty solve life’s problems if it seemingly makes life harder? Because denying the truth doesn’t make the truth go away, and when I face the truth, then I free myself.
Honesty can help solve depression.
Almost all depressing thoughts are lies.
LIES: I am not worth anything. No one likes me. Life is too hard. I can’t do this anymore.
TRUTH: I am worthwhile. Lots of people like me. Life isn’t too hard (what does that even mean, anyway?). I can do it, and I will do it.
Honesty can solve anxiety.
Anxious thoughts are lies.
LIES: This will never go away. People are looking at me and judging me. Bad things are always happening everywhere. I’m stuck here forever.
TRUTH: Everything does go away. People are often too caught up in themselves to notice others very much. Good things happen just as much as bad things.
Honesty can solve parenting difficulties.
I lie so often to my children, and they respond a lot better if I just tell them the truth.
LIES: Clean your room or else. I will take that away in five seconds. If you do not do better, I will punish you. You are so difficult. Because I said so and that’s all that matters.
TRUTH: I love you. I’m proud of you. This is really hard for me right now. I don’t want to yell. I make a lot of mistakes. The house is messy. I don’t want to clean it alone.
Honesty can solve problems at school or at work.
LIES: I don’t have any questions. I understand everything. Sure, I can do that. I haven’t done anything wrong.
TRUTH: I have so many questions. I don’t understand what is happening. I’m not sure I can do that, but I can try. I messed up and I will try to make it better.
And honesty can help solve everything else.
Do you have a job interview? Just be completely honest and then there is no reason to be nervous.
Did you make a big mistake that’s keeping you up at night? Just admit what you did wrong and ask for help.
Do you have unpopular opinions? Don’t make excuses. Stand up for what you believe is right.
Are you angry with someone for some reason? Talk with them and see if you can calmly work it out.
Want to improve your relationships? Stop gossipping, tell the truth about others, and tell the truth about yourself. Be vulnerable.
There are a few truths that can get you through extremely difficult times:
First, that you are always worth something.
Second, that everyone, including you, makes mistakes.
Third, that so much of life, including mistakes, is temporary.
When you face truth, you can find peace by releasing the expectation of perfection and finding true meaning in life as it actually is.