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.

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10 Responses to “AREWP Day 4: Focus and procrastination”
  1. Abigail says:

    Jen, I’m so excited about your experiment. Thank you for your insightful, honest posts on this subject. Keep up all the good work. Imagine how happy that bouncing baby will be with all of these prayers and scripture readings poured over head. She’ll be so much more ready for adulthood than either you or I were!

  2. elizabeth says:

    You are so generous to be sharing this with us! I’m amazed and inspired by your willingness to reorder your life by giving it all over to God. I think I’m going to use Lent as a time to at least start praying Vespers. I hope it brings some much-needed structure to my home as well! (And besides, my annual attempt to give up something needs a shakeup. I don’t really think forging sweet tea is transforming my soul in any deep way!)

    I went to confession and adoration of the Blessed Sacrament last night. After confession I went into a pew for a quick prayer, but then a priest started the rosary so I stayed for that, too. I absolutely loved it. I think I’m going to start taking my 2-year-old daughter. I think more exposure to prayer in church will help her sit through Mass quietly (though she does pretty well as it is). And since she’ll eventually attend CCD on Wednesday nights (and that’s when I’ll be doing RCIA beginning next fall), why no get into the practice of a midweek visit to church? That will also provide some structure to our week.

  3. Jenny says:

    Thank you for sharing this trial run with us. Since Ben died, I have been in a fog, walking around but not being able to focus on tasks during the day. I have the Magnicat magazine and usually do the evening prayer, but now I am inspired to try and add the morning and night prayer at set times like you are doing. Hopefully this will bring some structure back into my life. I’ve been praying for you this week.

    Jenny

  4. Magda J. says:

    Hi Jennifer, I found your site through Karen Edmisten. Everything I’ve read has resonated with me. I have that same habit of unfocusedness and started every project at the same time (multitasking gone amok). I’ve been prayer the Morning and Evening prayer with my husband using the Magnificat for a while now, and it hasn’t helped me all that much, but you’ve inspired me to make it more of an event — a full stop — instead of something I do as I eat breakfast. Thanks so much for blogging, I look forward to reading more.
    Magda J

  5. Amy says:

    I am so enjoying this series! I would love to hear more about how it’s affecting your chores…I have no idea what it’s like to do one chore and one chore only until completion. If there is a momentary gap (like waiting for oatmeal to cook or cool) I’m filling it! Are you getting enough done to keep up?

    I know many women (myself included) whose lives would be transformed by that peace you describe!

  6. Whimsy says:

    I have five children under ten. I think I’ve left about five hundred perfectly good sinks of dishwater to go cold because of interruptions by somebody — usually a baby.

    It’s worth it.

  7. Mellanie C. says:

    I’m in awe of you. A lot of what you’re saying really resonates with me because my husband, who is Jewish, deals with this type of deadline every Friday afternoon as Shabbos (Sabbath) approaches. I think having read your post will help me to be more tolerant of my husband’s situation, and perhaps I can figure out how to resolve my own issues. Thank you for being so forthright about your journey.

    Mellanie

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