AREWP Day 4: Focus and procrastination
[AREWP stands for "A Reckless Experiment With Prayer." This is part of an ongoing series about bringing peace to my daily life. You can read the other posts on this subject here (scroll down).]
Until I started this experiment of drastically restructuring my life around prayer, I didn’t realize how unfocused I tend to be, and just how much I use the word “later.”
Because of the extreme extent to which I am not a morning person, I have Lauds (Morning Prayer) scheduled to begin after breakfast time, at 9:30. An interesting thing has happened: because I know that I’ll need to stop all work to pray, I naturally tend to focus more on one task at a time, getting to a clear stopping point before prayer begins.
In the past, breakfast and kitchen cleanup were jumbled together with to-do list items for the day, meaning that rather than having, say, a clear breakfast time that ended when the kitchen was restored to order, followed by folding clothes, followed by adding some pictures to a photo album, it would all be one jumbled project that extended throughout the morning: I would start folding clothes as the oatmeal cooked, then drift off to eat breakfast, fold a few more clothes, set out the pictures to add to the album, put some dishes in the dishwasher, remember that I was folding clothes…and so on and so on. At the end of the morning I’d often survey the house to see a bunch of unfinished projects, feeling like I’d accomplished nothing even though I’d been working all morning.
This week (and last week when I did the trial run), it’s been different. Having to stop everything to pray snaps me out of the scattered, unfocused daze. I’ve naturally fallen into the habit of only dealing with breakfast and cleanup before Lauds, waiting until after prayer to start any to-do list tasks. Having a clear time at which I must stop to pray also motivates me to pick up the pace a bit, moving purposefully instead of shuffling my feet as I did when I felt like I had a daunting amount of unstructured time stretching before me.
Probably the biggest difference I’ve seen in this area, however, is at Vespers (Evening Prayer). I will be shocked if I don’t keep up with commitment #2 for the long haul, because it has already brought more peace to my life than any habit I’ve ever adopted.
The commitment I made was that every evening at Vespers I will keep the ancient tradition of that being the prayer said at the lighting of the lamps: I will light candles, and though I will continue to keep the lights on as needed, I will use the lit candles as a symbolic gesture that the day has ended, that all work from the day must wait until tomorrow. Though dinner, post-dinner cleanup and bathtime happen after Vespers, all projects and tasks from the day are off-limits until the next morning (creating the rhythm and hard stops I talked about here).
Every evening, as the sun is setting and I see that the time for Vespers is approaching, I glance around the house to see if there’s anything I need to do before I light the candles. And I see tons of stuff, every time. My knee-jerk reaction is to fall back on my normal mantra: “Later.” All the kids toys I hadn’t yet had them put away? “Later.” That data entry I need to do at the computer? “Later.” The sheets that needed to be changed that I hadn’t gotten to yet? “Later.” I did not realize how much I say this until I tried to stop.
Having the workday cease at Vespers has drastically reduced my use of the word “later.”
What used to happen was that I would keep saying “later” until I finally had to give up and go to bed in defeat when it got ridiculously late. Now, every day around sunset, a few minutes before I light the Vespers candles, I make a conscious decision about what will and will not get done. I finish the tasks I’m able to, and get the others to a stopping point for tomorrow. As usual, I often find that I don’t have time to accomplish all that I wanted to do. But here’s the difference: now it is an active choice, whereas before the decision would be made for me when I ran out of time and it was way past my bedtime. Now I feel in control, whereas before I often felt defeated and overwhelmed at the end of the day.
This rule also helps reinforce the realization that I can’t do it all: when I felt like I had an indefinite amount of time in which to work, I tended to pile more on my plate. This week of forcing myself to make time for prayer, to observe the natural cycles of work and rest that my body so deeply craves, has meant that I haven’t gotten everything done that I wanted to do…but it’s also meant that I’ve actively decided what won’t make the cut rather than simply running out of fuel at the end of the day. It’s meant that the work I did was done with a peaceful sense of purpose, energized by the knowledge that I only have a very finite amount of time to work until a period of prayer and rest begins.
I don’t mean to give the impression that I’ve been gliding through my days on Cloud 9 since I’ve been praying so much more often. I’ve experienced plenty of the usual ups and downs of daily life. What I can say, however, is that in terms of bringing a sense of order to my life, in terms of establishing a sense of control over my to-do list and peace at what I can and cannot do, in terms of finally living in a way that reflects the priorities I’m always talking about, putting prayer first has worked better than I ever thought it would. Obviously, it remains to be seen if I’ll keep up with it for the long haul. Let’s just say that my hopes are high in that department.