Habits Give Shape to the Day

(Second in a series on working from home.)

A day is precious; we can never get it back. Even if we live to be say, 80, we have less than 30,000 of them. A day is a story – given shape with a good beginning, a build towards resolution, a satisfying ending. Image result for story arc

Everyone, but especially those of us who drive our own workday from home, need habits that give it shape, meaning and energy.

In the same way that bad habits sabotage us, good ones carry us effortlessly in the right direction. Formed within a few months, they serve us well the rest of our lives.  Most of us can brush our teeth, for instance, without an agony of will or effort.

Given the choice, I would spend the greater part of each day in bed, alternately napping, reading novels and eating chocolates. Here are some habits that have led to other outcomes:

A Good Beginning:

Getting up at the same time each day is a really good idea. If you get up when others around you do, it takes less effort. My teenagers don’t need me in the morning any more, but it’s good to see them, join the bustle, ride their energy to get going.

Eating something that won’t cause you to die young is another good idea. More on food in another post.

Focusing mind and spirit on what’s good and true feeds our work as tangibly as our bowl of granola. As a Christian, I read a few pages of the Bible and then some other good book. Ann Voskamp’s “Broken Way” is my latest favorite. This is the best time of the day for me, taking in energy before the demands of the day kick in.

Goals for the Middle:

Everyone needs to walk the line between legalism and aimlessness when it comes to schedules. I hate routine, but without a list for the week and then a list for the day, I will literally stand in the middle of the room and pivot in circles – at home there is something to do everywhere you look.

Some people use fancy apps, some people put sticky notes on the wall, but the challenge is to pick a system and work it. Some need this to do enough work, others need it to make themselves stop.

Many professionals who work remotely tend to work themselves into the ground, equating hours put in with competence and success. Actually, after less than fifty hours a week, the returns sharply diminish. For years I set myself up for discouragement with lists that were just too long. That was dumb. Now I write lists I can finish and I feel like a rock star.

An Ending you can Live With:

I know a writer who finishes each day by reading out loud to his wife. Way to go, Mitch. An actress I tour with catches up with friends online till she starts to nod off. Another friend likes to play Spider Solitaire, whatever that is. She told me the other day she thinks she should be reading at night instead. I disagreed. I think we need to be able to look forward to doing whatever we want to do at the end of the day, provided that’s not injecting heroin, or eating 30 Twinkies – you know, something not destructive.

If my solitaire-loving friend thinks she should read more, then that is a discipline to be added to the work  list, not something she should make herself do when she finally has a few minutes for herself.

Finally, as we close the book on the day, it really helps to review what we accomplished and what we’re grateful for. Those are great thoughts to sleep on.

Working at Home Survival Guide

Working at home – it’s the best and the worst. It opens the way for flexibility, creativity, self-care and family-care. It also offers every opportunity for us to self-sabotage via isolation, distraction, sloth, lack of structure, lack of accountability, lack of support, unlimited refrigerator access – you name it.

More people than ever are home-based – freelancers, businessoffice-work-1149087_640 startups, people caring for kids or aged parents, retired people, people with companies that let them work remotely. Whether you are doing paid work, caring for others, or living out your retirement, we all have work to do, and home-based work means finding your own way to structure and channel time and energy.

The next ten posts will address this challenge. I long for those of us working at home to flourish without feeling trapped, stuck, overwhelmed or left-out.

I remember  when I tried to write freelance from home in my twenties. I would stare at the dark blue wall of my basement office for embarrasingly long chunks of time, trying to squeeze words out of my circular thoughts to feed the empty page. I fought drowsiness from sitting alone in a dark room and had more than my fair share of naps. Suffice to say I did not get rich quick.

Years later, I’m better at working from home. I juggle caring for teenagers, helping my parents, writing for this website and freelance writing, running kids’ programs, acting in a theater company, and keeping my house reasonably clean. Most days end with the feeling that I have done about the right amount of work at the right tasks.

It was not easy to get to this point. People who are swept every day into the energy of a company or institution, carried by the bustle and the structure and the hierarchy; they don’t know how hard it is to get up and keep doing the right thing all day long when no one else is watching.

I think the first thing we need to do is recognize that working alone is hard. We are social creatures. People left alone go crazy.  Just read the solitary confinement studies.  Research  also reveals higher stress and insomnia levels among people who work remotely. If you have been trying to work productively and successfully from home, you have probably had some struggles. This does not make you a loser. It makes you a human.

So let’s begin simply by celebrating what we get done every day.  This will rarely be award-winning. Nevertheless, review your day when work is over, and acknowledge what you did. For example:

  • I wrote a tough report I had been putting off.
  • I helped my relative with cancer to visit the doctor and have lunch in a park.
  • I taught my kids for four hours without yelling at anyone.
  • I made ten cold-calls, even though I was rejected on the first seven and the last two.

The key is to concentrate on work done, not just results. Making ten cold calls is impressive, even if only one pans out. Maybe even especially when only one pans out.

Celebrate the day’s work with some small ritual that is good for you and helps you detach – a journal entry and a walk outside rather than, say, a triple scotch.

When we work at home, there’s no one else to encourage or compliment us. So let’s do that for ourselves.

10 Ways for Churches to Love City Kids

(Last in a series of 10 posts on reaching out to city kids.)

I think many urban churches need to cross cultures and classes and ages. I’ve visited a lot of mainline churches in urban areas struggling with aging, declining membership. Often they are predominantly white and middle or upper class. Often they are in neighborhoods where many people are not white and may be poor. The challenge to these churches is to become parish churches for the people who live right around them, and it may be as challenging as going with a mission organization to another continent. So be it. God has put us here for such a time as this.

2247327_orig (2)Most people who become Christians do so when they’re children or teenagers. So kid-focused ministry makes sense. It’s a joy to witness the group that shows up for youth group at our church on Sunday nights. This is our first group that has integrated black and white, rich and poor, for a sustained period of time. These kids are playing games, talking and praying together. Those who have committed to following Christ work together as interns in our summer programs. I would not have been able to imagine this even ten years ago.

There is so much transforming power in Christian community. Even a struggling little church full of people over 60 can change the future for the kids in their neighborhood.5794254_orig (2)

Here are ten ways to start, linked to articles that explain more (click on the orange letters to go to the articles):

  1. Go where the need is. In a post Christian culture we can’t just do things inside our church walls and expect people to come. We need to take our ministries out into the schools, libraries, preschools, community centers, day cares and playgrounds.
  2. Don’t be afraid of differences. Connect with minorities. Wade into poverty. Welcome people who dress funny. Do not fear other languages, multiple piercings, bizarre tattoos, kids who come only for the food, or anyone who does not yet believe in Jesus.
  3. Consider tutoring at a struggling school. In after-school programs, it’s legal to use the Bible as a text.
  4. Consider throwing a free party for the neighborhood, outside in the summer time. Include free food and water, and think of ways for people to meet, have fun, get into conversations, and draw closer to God.
  5. Consider becoming a foster parent, or providing help to other foster parents.
  6. Consider helping a single mom in your community to raise her family. One older man in our congregation did this, and his love transformed an extended family.
  7. Consider hosting a preschool or day care at your church.
  8. Find ways for artistic members to pass on their gifts to children, with free or reduced cost lessons, classes, mentoring relationships, or by leading dance teams, drama groups, bands, or teams of visual and production artists.
  9. Find ways for athletic members to pass on their gifts, by starting teams, coaching existing teams, sponsoring teams or passing on skills in free or reduced cost lessons.
  10. Provide church camp for children of the neighborhood as well children within the church, and sponsor the kids who can’t afford it. If you don’t have camp, partner with a camping ministry to send a few kids there.

There is a big harvest of children longing for love and truth, in every city. Sometimes people doubt whether they are qualified, or  ‘fun’ enough to work with kids. I say, if you can pass a criminal background check and you’ve got a pulse, find at least one kid to help.

The Agony and Ecstasy of Church Camp

(Ninth in a series on reaching out to urban kids.)

9902990_orig   For years, summer camp was a reliably idyllic experience for the kids at our church. We always went to some awesome facility where kids could swim, boat, run around, eat s’mores around campfires, have raucous worship and animated teaching, sleep in cabins and practice minimal personal hygiene.

Then we started inviting kids from the local school and surrounding neighborhood, reaching beyond the crowd we’d all raised to share the same values and good behavior.

The first year we did this, it was rough. We took on more needy kids than we could supervise well. We had fights, we had kids refusing to do activities, we had kids from tough home environments acting out like crazy, especially on the last day of camp.

My personal low point came on our last morning, helplessly watching an eight year old leap into one of the camp staff’s golf carts and drive it erratically around the cars of parents who had come to pick up their kids.  It was one of those moments when seconds felt like minutes.

We felt pretty beat up after that camp – physically, emotionally, spiritually. What had always been a high point of the year for adult volunteers became something that some of us needed to recover from.

But Jesus didn’t say, “Go create wonderful experiences for your children in safe and sheltered environments.” He said, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel,… teaching them to observe everything I’ve commanded you.” Summer camp is a superb opportunity to carry out that commission with children and teenagers. So we didn’t give up. We pulled back and regrouped, but we didn’t give up.

5345345_origHere’s what we do differently to make camp a good experience for children from different backgrounds:

  1. Set up high staff to camper ratios that ensure activities can go on while other leaders are free to trouble shoot rebellious behavior and emotional melt-downs. In the past, we had two teenagers in cabins with eight or ten kids. Now we have an experienced and spiritually mature adult in every cabin too. We also have an extra staff person in any cabin with a kid who has a disability like autism or a history of behavior issues. We have always had a nurse on site, now we have a mental health counselor too. Even if it means turning some kids away, we are committed to keeping enough staff per camper to ensure that all kids are well supervised and cared for.
  2. We offer summer camp as a privilege for those who have behaved well during the school year. and reserve the right to refuse children who have been repeatedly defiant or destructive.
  3. We have few rules, but they are clear and consistently enforced.  We require parents or guardians to come to meetings before camp so they understand the rules too. Even families who get scholarships have to pay at least $10, and if a child has to be driven home early, they lose their money. If the child behaves well enough to stay at camp all week, they get their money back.

Last summer, camp went really well. These changes kept the atmosphere positive most of the time. The healthiest environment is a mix of rich and poor kids of different races with enough loving, mature leaders to set the tone. Put that together with worship, fun things to do and the beauty of nature, and camp is as close to heaven as it gets.