Why You Should Really Take a Day Off

(Fifth in the series, “Working At Home Survival Guide”)

Imagine your favorite piece of music. Whether it’s  Mozart or Beyonce, it wouldn’t work without rests. Imagine that tune, slightly speeded up, with no breaks, pauses, silences of transition. It becomes an irritating and unsustainable exercise.Related image

That’s how some of us are trying to live. We’re trying to cram every day of every week, feeling worth more because we do more, earn more, see more people, go more places. But speed it all up too much and it’s blur without meaning.

It’s especially easy to skip taking days off when you work for yourself. It’s all up to us, and anxiety over making a living can make a day off seem impossible.

In Julia Cameron’s self-help book for creatives, she insists on the necessity of the weekly ‘artist date’ where we take at least two hours off to do nothing but care for our creativity, not doing what someone else wants, but what our deepest self is drawn to.

This book was one of the more important I’ve ever read (and worked through.) I wouldn’t have found it if I had not realized that my sanity depended on getting away from my three little kids for a chunk of time every week. The first time I did, I sat exhausted on a bookstore bench, and prayed that God would lead me to something that would restore my sanity. “The Artist’s Way” fairly jumped off the shelf.

What Cameron learned through hard experience, was that if she didn’t stop working to refuel, the well dried up. You don’t have to be a writer or a painter for the creative well to dry up. You can be the IT guy who starts to resist change because it takes such huge effort. You can be the chef who starts to find every dish a bore. You can be the pastor who flinches with irritation when the phone rings. You can be the mom at home with little kids who can’t make herself sit on the floor and play one more game.

It takes a day off a week and longer seasonal breaks, to be renewed.

For a long time, I took Sundays off, going to church, going to lunch with my husband and boys, then all of us doing what we liked. The day took on a luscious quality of timelessness and work was far from my thoughts.

Then one of my jobs started to require that I run a program on Sunday nights. This went on for a school year, and threw a shadow on my day off, making it hard to relax even in the hours before it that were still free. I couldn’t see a way to find another day off in the rhythm of family life. At the end of it, I was depleted.  My schedule was far less hectic than many others’, but still I am aware of how that absence of a whole chunk of time off wearied me. I felt like I had to squeeze the last drop of energy from my heart to start a task, it was harder to focus on what I was doing and I was blocked as a writer.

Lesson learned. Not only is it wise to work less than 50 hours a week (see the last post) but there is real magic in keeping one day clear of work.

Now I don’t have time to work on my day off.

 

Our Work is as Good or Bad as our Food

(Fourth in a Series on Working from Home)

I don’t want to write this post. I want to start and end the day with chocolate, eat deep dish pizza for lunch and drink coffee all afternoon. I’m working at home, so it’s all right there for the taking, with no witnesses.

I would do this if I could get away with it. But we really can’t. All day long, we choose either the fuel of life, health and high functioning, or the Fuel of Death. When we eat and drink the Fuel of Death, we lose energy, motivation, stamina and clarity. We need little naps. We think negative, circular thoughts. We can’t sleep at night, furthering the downward spiral.Image result for fattening food

I’m not a physician or a dietitian, but here’s what I know for sure:

Too much coffee jitters and hypes us, affecting sleep hours after we drink it. I’ve had to switch to half decaf, and only two or three cups before noon.

  • Too much food at once makes most of us super dopey. Big lunches especially slow us down. It helps to eat a few hundred calories late morning, then again mid-afternoon.Image result for eating badly, eating well
  • Sugars and refined flour – the principal ingredients in all yummy food – give us nothing, tax our organs and load us up with unwanted weight. The harsh reality is that we were made to eat mostly plants that have not been messed with. You know: apples, carrots, salads, grainy brown bread with seeds in it, nuts. Anyone who has tried a few days of this stuff without the sugar and white flour knows how good it feels. Everything is easier because our bodies have what they need.Related image
  • Some protein with each meal or snack keeps our energy more even – an egg, some nuts, a few cubes of cheese, a little lean meat or fish. It also keeps us from getting hungry again too soon and grabbing handfuls of cheese puffs.
  • Alcohol does not enhance work performance, or any performance. It doesn’t matter that lots of great artists were big drinkers. Most of them didn’t end well and we could have had decades of better work from them if they’d stayed sober.
  • Drugs, illegal or misused, do not enhance work performance, no matter how brilliant we may feel for a time.

The statement of the obvious must be repeated until we really believe it; Good food leads to good work. Bad food leads to bad work. I know there are some people who code for twelve hours at a time on Monster drinks and donut holes, but it’s going to catch up with them.

Changing eating habits is really hard. I’ve worked on one at a time, and I’m still far from ideal. Drinking a lot of water is a good habit to start with. Only buying good food really helps. Measuring quantities helps. Planning the day’s food ahead helps.

However we do it, we will be sabotaging ourselves when we try to work without the fuel our bodies were made for.

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.

Unblocking our View of God (10 Ways to Spiritually Recharge, Part X)

When it comes to being aware that God is right here with us, most of us are blocked. Like a guy with foggy glasses, like a girl who has the radio cranked too loud to hear her GPS, there are some simple things we need to do before we can perceive what is so close.

This is the last in a series of ten posts that discuss things we can do on our own to let God into our heads and hearts. Any contact with God is renewing. So, in summary, here’s what we can do to spiritually recharge:

Elijah on Mt Horeb, by Sister Genevieve
  • Find beautiful quiet places to be alone undisturbed.
  • Give yourself time alone in silence, undistracted by noise and the demands of people.
  • Learn to meditate on true statements, repeating them while you breathe slowly and deeply.
  • Examine yourself and confess to God the ways you have harmed yourself and others.
  • Practice gratitude for what is in your life right here and now.
  • Develop faith by praying for healing of physical, emotional and relationship problems.
  • Surrender to God anything that is not good for you, or is taking the place of God in your life.
  • Build a habit of reading the Bible often.
  • Learn to study the Bible for yourself.

There’s a balance between spending time alone with God and experiencing God in community. Each needs the other, each feeds the other. People who want to seek God benefit greatly from worship services, service projects, Bible classes, prayer groups, retreats with spiritual directors. These are the things we tend to think of first when considering practicing a faith.

But following Christ is much more than practicing a religion. It is a relationship with the one who made us, saved us and loves us every moment of our lives. God really wants time alone with us. And whether we want it or not, we really need time with God.

Whether it’s once a week hiking in a forest, or every morning sitting in an armchair for fifteen minutes, our spirits can be continually renewed, like a fountain that never stops flowing. All we have to do is give God time and permission to work in us.

How to Get a New Mind (10 Ways to Spiritually Recharge, Part IX)

Why is it that people can go through genuine conversion experiences and really believe in Jesus, yet still be jerks? It confounded me for years. I’ve seen selfish, cheap, bigoted, mean, even abusive Christians, make it much harder for those around them to have faith in God.

Gradually I’ve realized; the invitation to grow in knowledge and goodness is as unforced by God as the first invitation to come to faith. If we don’t do anything different to change what’s in our minds, our behavior won’t change either.Image result for bible study

The way our minds get changed is by studying the Bible. Until we do this, we’re victims of the families and cultures we were raised in. The Bible is the playbook for being in God’s community, across all time and cultures. One verse in Romans, a letter in the New Testament, says, “Be transformed by the renewing of your mind.

Mental transformation takes place when we’re exposed to new information, when we lay aside opinions to observe, analyze, question and act on it. A good process for Bible study allows all this to happen.

Here’s a suggested format, with much of the material based on appendices from “The Bible Study Handbook,” by Lindsay Olesberg:

  1. Pick a book of the Bible. Maybe start with the gospel of Mark, a short record of Jesus’ life.
  2. Find some background on when the book was written, to whom, and what was going on historically with those people. You don’t have to become a scholar, but a some context is needed, from a site like Dr. Craig Keener’s , or a book  like,  “What the Bible is All About,” by Henrietta Mears. Once you have some context, don’t keep flipping to other sources for interpretation. Just dig into the passage.
  3. Select a short section at a time. Mark 1:1-20 is plenty to start with. Read the passage.
  4. Read it again, looking for the facts – who, when, where, what happened, how.
  5. Look for connections in the writing, such as repetition, patterns, contrasts, cause and effect, images, metaphors. Pay attention to words like ‘therefore’ or ‘because.’
  6. Write down any questions you have, to research later or ask people you know.
  7. Sum up what you think the main themes of that passage are.
  8. Ask yourself how the passage applies to your life.
  9. What can you do to act on something you’ve learned?

A few things to keep in mind:

  • Lots of us tend to jump from reading to application. Don’t. Take plenty of time for steps 4 through 8.
  • Remember that we haven’t understood the Bible till we know what the author was communicating to his original audience. That’s why you need some context from history and culture, and to scan what passages come before and after.
  • Expect that you will encounter God as you study. Try to be humble and open to what God wants you to see.
  • Studying in groups can be really rich; there is the combined observation and interpretation of many different personalities. But realize that if the leader is talking a lot, it’s not study, it’s a lecture. Try to find a group where everyone is given responsibility to explore the text.

Some people find a little time to study every day, some take a chunk of time on the weekend, or even go on study retreats. You may not notice anything different at first, but a year or two of regular Bible study changes our lives in profound ways.

Soul Nutrition (10 Ways to Spiritually Recharge, Part VIII)

he first time I tried a regular discipline of Bible reading, I ended up flinging it across the room. It didn’t make sense to me. Probably because I was too tired – I’d gotten it into my head that you were supposed to read the Bible first thing, which meant I had to get up before 5 am. I don’t recommend that.

Image result for reading the bibleBut I do recommend reading the Bible most days. Some people love it right away. For many of us, it’s an acquired taste. The Bible claims itself to be inspired by God. Before I could believe that, I had to read a bevy of apologetic works like, “Evidence that Demands a Verdict,” and “Mere Christianity,” in addition to a month long pilgrimage to a Christian community in the Swiss Alps to study how the Bible came together. I’m naturally doubtful and cynical.

Other people become convinced just by experiencing the Bible on its own. There is a different quality to it than other books. Stuff jumps out at you. Words seem to sink in deeper. Repeated readings reveal deeper levels of truth. I’m easily bored, but I’m not bored by the Bible (Wait, except when people read it in a singsongy voice.)

Reading the Bible might not always feel good, like a walk in the park or other things suggested in this series, but it’s like eating vegetables. Repeated over time, it does us immense good. No one notices a change if vegetables are skipped for a day, but years without them will make you chronically sick. The Bible is our soul nutrition.

What to Keep in Mind:

Before you read, ask God to open your mind and teach you what you need to learn. Humility comes before wisdom.

Ask yourself what the author was intending and find out who he was writing for. Background and context is needed for any text to make sense.

Keep in mind that the bible is 66 separate documents written by many people in different genres over about 1500 years. Observe how cool it is that it all hangs together as well as it does.

You don’t need to read it in order. That can be heavy going. I return often to the gospels, the four accounts of Jesus. I read the Psalms a lot too. I try to balance Old and New Testament books, often alternating. Old is the foundation, New is the house that’s built on it, which we get to live in.

Try not to jump too soon to interpretation. Really notice and comprehend first, asking who, what, when, where, where, why, how?

If something confuses or irritates you, tell God. It may come clear on the spot, or you may get a sense that it’s not time for you to worry about it yet.

Switch it up. Sometimes you’ll want to read big chunks quickly for an overview. Other times, take little sections and drill in, mulling over it and perhaps memorizing.

Sometimes study it, sometimes read devotionally. The difference is whether you stand back from the text an analyze, or read it like a letter written to you by someone who loves you. We need both.

Don’t let doubt, cynicism, suffering or apathy keep you from the Bible. Give it a shot, daily. If you have to fling it across the room, aim for something soft.