Pruning the thicket of activities down to what's truly important

At first I believed that every worthwhile request, every beneficial duty I could possibly perform, every benevolent gesture that sought a sponsor meant me, meant that I had to accept, to perform, to comply with. Didn't I have an obligation to my community, my school, my job, my friends, my family, my political action group, my church, my country, my husband?

And there was the social life of delightful parties, terrific invitations, the concerts, ballet series, subscriptions to live theater, neighborhood sewing circle, potlucks, gourmet dinners, and visits from relatives.

And of course I couldn't leave out the children. Shouldn't I take them skiing , to Cub Scouts, 4-H, dancing, school trips, weekend hikes, museums, galleries, movies, library, church, Sunday School, friends' houses?

And then this terrific job offer - after all, the children are in school all day. A teacher, perfect hours.

STOP. Where is my life?

Just like an overcrowded closet, my schedule needed a thorough cleaning.

Step 1 was to phone almost everyone. ''I'm sorry. I have overcommitted myself. I won't be able to for three months. Then I'll have to let you know if I can continue or not.''

Amazing! No one ranted, raved, huffed, or even got fluffed! Yes, some called back, ''Couldn't you just, or only, or just for today?'' But another firm, friendly ''no'' actually did the trick.

Then, with breathing space at last, I considered how best to use the time I did have. Obviously, I needed a guideline, a set of priorities.

Instead of yanking out an activity here, a commitment there, I decided to mentally dump everything and put back only three categories:

Job. If I accepted paying employment outside the home, I must not only be present but able to fulfill those demands with energy and resourcefulness.

Family. Most important on my list. Writing specific daily activities on the calendar helped us judge how to budget our leisure. Also, allowing extra unscheduled hours seemed wise in order to savor the little things that crop up daily - the need for help on a special report, the spontaneity of a hot-dog cookout after raking leaves, the cozy quiet of pasting photos in the album together after supper. Moments of calm for healing hurt feelings, for listening attentively to the endless tale related by an imaginative child. Peaceful emptiness for all to stretch out in companionable reading silence with our favorite books.

Church. Of utmost importance to my life. I need daily opportunities for prayer, study of the Bible and the teaching of my church, and church-related activities.

This meant more phone calls. It meant measuring every request. It meant holding every proposal up to the chart of my ''big three'' priorities and asking , ''Will this activity strengthen our family and increase our enjoyment of each other?'' or, ''Will one more item clog the hours and push us into a frenzy of diversions rushed to and rushed through?''

I'm here to tell you, less is better. We'll do things differently some other time. Our children, third and fifth graders, will grow and change. How fast baby and tothood have disappeared already.

But I can work for 20 more years after they're in college. I can serve my political party for decades. I can host everyone I know with the most elaborate of formal dinners and an immaculate house when my little dear ones are married and gone. I can help out with those worthwhile projects when I come home every day to a quiet, empty house.

I'm glad we learned to say ''No.'' In doing so, we are thinking of our family , to whom we enjoy saying ''Yes.''

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