There are two kinds of people in our house: morning people and not morning people. The division is split clearly down the middle. My husband and boy #2 (the two year old) wake up with the rising sun cheerful and ready for the day. Boy #1 (the four year old) and I emerge some time later, bedraggled and slowly warming up to the idea that the day has, in fact started, with or without us.
If you have read any of my previous blogs, you will know that organisation and planning has not been something that has come naturally to me, though recently things are changing and I’m loving the new found sense that I can, in fact, win the war on chaos and disorder one habit at a time. Why is this so important to me?
Annie Dillard says “how we spend our days is how we spend our lives.” If every day starts with me yelling at my little boys, or leaving my house cross and stressed, or having not spent any time connecting with my husband, then I am spending my life in a way that I wouldn’t want to choose.
Seemingly mundane tasks and routines are the lubricant that keep our families running smoothly, that allow us to experience joy because we are not overwhelmed, that allow us to have cohesive, functional families. The daily irritations that we experience day in and day out over a difference of opinion about the level of order in our homes, not being able to find what we need, always being late, or constantly feeling like we are surviving and not having time to do what we love are what erode marriages, family life and ultimately, joy. My passion is helping families just like mine live life as a work of art, not a chaotic response to circumstance. This is not some misguided belief that everything will always run smoothly or look and feel perfect, but the conviction that by being just a little bit intentional with our decisions, our time, our energy, our space we can create a life that feels meaningful, connected, joyful, precious and peaceful, even in amidst the challenges of ever day life.
I don’t know what mornings are like in your house, but let me tell you trying to get the four of us out the house on time, with everything we need, both shoes on and without things spiralling into fits of crying and screaming (usually me), has taken some strategising.
As an occupational therapist, my job is to help people to do the things they need and want to do. To do that I have to analyse how they are currently performing their activities of daily living (the activities that actually make up their every day life), their volition (what drives them to act and to choose the activities they do), their habits and routines (when and where they are getting them done) and the the skills they are employing to get those things done (including cognitive, emotional, perceptual and social skills)
As part of that I help my clients to work on their executive function skills. Two important skills are the ability to manage time (planning) and the ability to manage space (organisation). As the parent to little people you are also going to need some bad ass people management skills!
So to help you conquer the chaos and defeat disorder, here is your battle strategy:
Want a quick cheat sheet to remember these tips? Click here to download a pdf
1. Manage your people
Be intentional and make the first part of your day heavy on what really matters to you
You cannot win a war unless you know what you are fighting for. So first of all figure out what is most important to you and your family and then start every day by reminding yourself of those fundamental values. Person number one that you need to manage is the one staring back at you when you brush your teeth in the morning. If I start the day stressed or angry that is contagious and will spread through the rest of my family. One thing I like to do is start the day by setting my intentions. What I mean by this is having a ritual where I start the day with the things that I value uppermost in my mind.
So each day I hold toothbrush talks: a little conversation I have with myself reminding myself what is most important to me: my faith and my family. I might have a little bible verse or quote posted somewhere on my bathroom counter which reminds me, for example to “Be kind one to another” Eph 4:32.
Another way I try to incorporate intentionality is to start the day with what Julia Cameron calls morning pages. Three A4 hand written pages of whatever comes to mind. This serves several purposes: it “catches the days” as I can record all those ordinary little moments that make life meaningful, it helps me get my head straight for what's ahead, and to put on paper anything that is bothering me. Sometimes just articulating this helps me figure out how to address it or just find peace about it. I don’t always have time for this before the day starts, but when I do, it makes a difference.
I also like to start the day with activities that are relevant to what is most important to me, so for example reading my bible and having a quick family cuddle in our bed before we all go off into the world. That way I know before we even go anywhere we have used our time wisely.
When I have got myself physically, spiritually, and emotionally ready for the day I can turn my attention to everyone else. Which brings me to
Align your morning routine with your sensory personality and preferences
Each of us have different sensory needs and preferences. To represent it simply there are sensory avoiders and sensory seekers and then those in between. We can divide this down further, and each of our needs may differ depending on the sense we are talking about for the purposes of simplicity we will stick to the two categories: seekers and avoiders. Seekers crave sensory input to put them in a state of optimum arousal (noise, colour, a wide variety of smells and tastes, movement etc) Avoiders find all of this input totally overwhelming and overstimulating and its puts them in a state of hyper-arousal. They prefer to start their day quietly and calmly, eating the same breakfast each day in their specific chair.
Let me give you an example of how to put this in practice. As a seeker, the second I wake up I like to go outside and get some fresh air and feel the breeze on my face. At the moment I also like to take a quick photo from my bedroom balcony as I love to see how the landscape changes. When I shower I have a variety of strong smelling soaps which I switch between constantly so I don’t get used to the smell. When I dress I wear bright colour and noisy bangles. My husband, more towards the sensory avoidant side of things eats the same breakfast each day, sticks to one brand of toiletries and wears some or other shade of blue. We have to be aware and considerate of each other's preferences. If you, as a seeker, start the day with a blast of loud music, you may find that your sensory avoidant child starts every day grumpy and overwhelmed!
Clarify your roles and expectations
A sure way to cause stress is to not have clear expectations. Have you negotiated your roles with your spouse? Who does what and are you both happy about the division of labour? Unmet expectations breed resentment and resentment kills relationships. Do people really get divorced over fights about housework? Yes! Because daily resentments build up over time. In our house my husband wakes up first, makes the breakfast and the kids school lunches and then brings me coffee in bed (for which I am extremely grateful). When I get up to say goodbye (he leaves early) I clear the breakfast dishes, unload and reload the dishwasher, hang up the washing which was on a timer from the night before, get the kids ready and take them to school. This is what works for us currently. Often circumstances change: a new job, an earlier start time for school, or a new baby and then a renegotiation needs to take place.
Give positive reinforcement for age appropriate chores
It’s not only us that have jobs in the morning. The kids have to make their beds, put their jammies under the pillow and get themselves dressed. Let me tell you the way a two year old makes their bed might not be how you would make it, but kids thrive with a little bit of responsibility and I think they are way more capable than we give them credit for. When they appear each morning next to our bed dressed for the day, they are extremely chuffed with themselves! Research shows just how giving chores to kids sets them up for success. Recently we have started a system where they earn marbles for each task they complete, and extra if those tasks are unprompted. When their jar is full they get a small reward. Its a standard joke in our house that our kids earn marbles so mommy doesn’t lose hers!
2. Plan your time
Once you have assigned responsibilities the next step is planning your time. When I worked in the field of addiction we used to speak about “The 7 Ps”: Proper prior planning prevents piss poor performance! Apparently its military adage.
The thing about planning is that it might seem boring or predictable to those of us who are not that way inclined. However, the benefits are worth it because it gives us something valuable back: time and peace of mind. Any parent who has spent an hour searching for a lost shoe will know what I’m talking about!
Go to bed at a reasonable time
If you wake up exhausted you are going to want to keep hitting the snooze button. Starting your day with procrastination does not set you off on a good footing! Trust me I know the temptation of just one more episode on netflix, but set yourself a “going to bed alarm” which goes off half an hour before you need to be in bed and stick to it. My day starts way better when I don’t give in to the temptation of staying up into the wee hours the night before!
Do it the same way every time
If you follow the same sequence of activities each day you are building habits and thus reducing the need for decision making, memory, and planning. The reason for this is that one habit cues the next one so: finish breakfast, pack school lunch, leave. Given that boy #1 and I are both pretty forgetful this helps a lot! If we get out of order invariably by the time I’ve tied boy#2’s shoes, boy #1 has wandered off and forgotten his backpack somewhere in the house! Behavioural research shows us that to make habits stick we have to do them the same way every time because this is what builds the neural pathways responsible for habit formation.
So figure out what each family member needs to do each day and create a sequence that works.
Don’t be a tidsoptimist!
One of our executive functions is self monitoring. Our ability to know how long tasks actually take. I tend to believe that I can bend the laws of physics and fit an enormous amount into a short space of time. This invariably means I am running late and feeling stressed. If there are two things that can slow time to almost a standstill its watching kids put on their shoes and fasten their own seat-belts! I look at the clock, its time to go, I say “put on your shoes” and 5 million years later we are ready! Of course they insist doing it themselves and while I value their independence sometimes I just desperately want to take over which causes a battle. So factor in the time things actually take!
3. Organise your space
Now lets talk organisation!
Make sure everyone puts everything where it is supposed to go EVERY TIME
Many a morning I have found myself yelling at my kids for losing their juice bottles while I hunt for my lost keys. The irony is not lost on me. These days we have put a few very simple systems in place which have made a huge difference
Get organised the night before
Create a command centre
Near the door
So there we have it! I hope these tips have been helpful. I promise you if you manage your people, plan your time and organise your space, your mornings are going to go much more smoothly.
Want a quick cheat sheet to remember these tips? Click here to download a pdf
Pssst I have some exciting news! On 18 February I am kicking off my brand new course Living Life Well, click here to find out more
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