Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Staying Mentally Strong: # 6 Examine Your Habits

Yesterday, I had some free time and spent it at a bookstore. I perused a new book: The End of Overeating by David Kessler. One of the things brought up in the book was the idea that habits really help us -- they let us get things done without having to expend mental energy to accomplish them. This frees up space in our brains to attend to other tasks.

We can see this in the example of riding a bike. When we learn to ride, it takes all our concentration to stay on the bike and make it go where we want at the speed we intend. With practice, all this becomes automatic. Eventually, we can take a relaxing bike ride in which we don't think about the mechanics of riding at all. Our brains have learned the bike riding habit and it has become something we don't have to think consciously about. We can think about other things while we ride. We do the same thing with driving a car, washing dishes, penmanship, even reading a book.

We have daily habits that work the same way. Dressing for the day is automatic. We don't have to concentrate to get the clothes on, and we usually do it while thinking of other things. Eating three meals a day is a similar habit.

Taking a little extra time to examine our daily habits can sharpen us mentally, because good automatics make life run smoother and accomplish tasks that we don't have to consciously take time for. Then we are free to use that mental energy for other needs.

Sometimes the shift we need to make is simple, small, and easy to accomplish. This was often the case for me.

Here are two stories to illustrate:

Getting Things Together In One Place

Since we live in Pennsylvania, we have to turn in annual portfolios of our students' work. One of the things that was so time-consuming for me was finding the school work. I know this sounds ridiculous. I mean, where could it be? Well, all I can say, is you would be surprised at what can happen to paper when you live in a busy household with two lively boys and two cats. We tried several approaches to the problem. I tried to put the papers away each day. That didn't work too well, because I had too many distractions. Next, I gave that job to the boys. That didn't work too well because they forgot and I had too many distractions. Next, I tried to put the work in plastic crates and occasionally stuff it into their portfolios. That was better, but the cats loved the crates and did things in them and the boys spilled stuff in them and so on. I didn't do the filing as often as I should. The boys forgot to put dates on their papers, and I forgot to check to see that dates were on the papers. They forgot to put page numbers on the papers. Later we had trouble identifying which exercises in the book went with those particular answers. There were a lot of papers that never found their way into the crates at all. I kept thinking: what's the matter with me? This should be simple. Do I not have a shred of discipline? But lecturing myself and setting new resolutions like this year I will absolutely not sleep until every page is in the portfolio didn't help.

What did help was a new habit. After seven years of this, I had a revelation. That day I went to Wal-mart and bought a small spiral bound notebook for 79 cents for each subject. Every time one of my boys did an assignment, he wrote in the notebook -- if it was humanly possible. This meant that all the papers were attached and stayed in one place, in spite of the way our cats tried to tear the pages out of the notebooks. It meant that the pages were in chronological order, so when a date was missing or the page number was missing, I could quickly tell which exercise the answers were for and what date the work was done. We also discovered spiral bound notebooks with pages that were perforated so we could tear them out cleanly and neatly when we wanted to place them in a three-ring binder for the portfolio. The remaining work which could not be done in the spiral bound notebooks was a smaller amount and easier to keep up with. I did absolutely no extra work to make this happen, and it saved hours of work and anguish.

Personal Time

Throughout my homeschooling experience, finding time for personal Bible study and planning was a challenge. The thing that finally helped me most was a new habit. I moved our reading period to the early morning. The boys and I arranged the first part of the day for this routine: they would have a bowl of cereal and then start reading their books. They read for an hour every day. This became their favorite part of the day, and it meant that they were able to read widely and deeply. In their high school years alone, they each read 100 classics. The reading time became a kind of sanctuary to all of us. We never answered the phone at that hour. There were no visitors at the door at 8:00 a.m. I used the time to read my Bible and get ready for the day. My Bible stayed at my teacher's desk, so it became an integral part of my daily preparations. As I developed the habit of using that hour in this way, my struggles with finding daily time for Bible reading and planning evaporated. A new habit, which seemed effortless before long, had solved my problems.

What are the automatics of your day -- the ways you do things without thinking consciously? Are they working well for you?

1 comment:

  1. Since I have just compiled my portfolios (and I TOO am in PA...what part are you in?)

    I completely relate to your post...and I DO have an organized filing system...LOL...and the papers STILL get lost!

    Thanks for sharing your experiences with us even though you are no longer in the trenches wonderful that the Lord has led you to reach out and uplift those of us who still are!


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