One of my bigger challenges as a mom of three little boys is coping with highly fractured time. Gone are the days when I could spend an hour getting myself dressed and ready for the day, mosey to the library to get a bit of work done for uni, wander back for lunch, read a novel all afternoon, then head out for an evening with my friends.
Instead, I find myself carving out a few minutes to read my Bible before my kids are up. I rush to get my clothes for the day out of the bedroom/office before my husband starts work (he works from home); . In a down minute, I pick up a book I’m working through, and pause three times to help resolve sibling conflict or make snacks. Instead of a leisurely coffee date with a friend, I send Voxer messages on the fly (and hide in the hallway to listen to the answer).
One particularly challenging afternoon, I found myself crying to my husband that ‘I never get anything done!’ I obviously manage to keep my kids alive, and our house is still standing, but I was more specifically lamenting that sense of accomplishment that comes from sitting down, focussing on something of importance, and getting it finished.
Progress is made of tiny steps.
While my frustration was understandable – it’s no fun to face near-constant interruption when trying to get something done – I had my heart in the wrong place. Instead of working towards the satisfaction of finishing a big project, I needed to rejoice in opportunities to take the tiny steps that add up over time to create a much larger whole.
As a mom with young kids, if I set my sight on hours (or even just one hour) of uninterrupted work, I am going to be disappointed. Worse still, if I decide it’s only worth working if I’m going to be undistracted, then I really will never finish anything.
But there is something even more crucial than that: if I don’t practice working when I have the opportunity, even if it’s just a few minutes, I won’t be fit to take advantage of the times where my kids sleep in a bit late, or my husband takes them out of the house for an hour.
Progress is made of tiny steps. Those tiny steps keep us ‘in shape’ for the bigger (and typically rarer) chunks of time to pursue a goal. As I’ve been mulling over this notion, I’ve seen how it applies in many situations, from physical health, to spiritual disciplines, to intellectual growth.
Little choices add up to a changed lifestyle.
Now that my baby is no longer technically a baby, I have more liberty to leave the house on my own, both for practical reasons and for fun. One goal I have is to go hiking regularly. I’ve never felt particularly physically fit, but I can usually huff and puff my way to the top of the smaller Lake District fells without too many problems. So I set a date and made plans for the first of these walks.
As my first outing drew near, it dawned on me that while I really don’t have time to train to walk up big hills, I can make plenty of choices that contribute to my ability to make it to a summit without embarrassing myself. In everything from choosing to eat better food to cycling to an appointment instead of driving, the more I move around and the healthier I eat, the more I will enjoy a challenging walk and the less I’ll suffer.
Beyond that, the more I choose to get my children out walking – to the playground, on local paths, running errands – the more in shape I get, and the more capable my children become of joining me on more exciting outings. Those little walks now enable bigger walks later on, for both me and my kids.
I did go on my walk. 5.5 miles, and 751 feet of ascent. Plenty of people have walked further and climbed higher, but I felt the benefit of the short walks and cycle rides I had put in here and there in the weeks leading up to my bigger adventure.
Practicing in the little moments makes us fit for the bigger opportunities.
This same theme is apparent when I sit down to write a blog post or read a book. I can tell how disciplined I’ve been with my phone and computer. When I exercise self-control with my phone, leaving it to the side rather than checking it often, for example, I am able to read or write for quite a while without feeling bored, tired, overwhelmed, or distracted. I can properly take advantage of a free hour because I’m in the habit of staying present and focused in my free minutes.
This goes back to a theme that runs through the book Deep Work by Cal Newport, which I’ve mentioned before: if we want to be able to focus when it matters, we need to practice attention when it doesn’t seem important – and especially when the alternative is mindless distraction.
It is so easy to think that these little choices don’t really matter. What is the consequence of checking my phone one more time? It only takes a second! But the fact is that it primes our brains to seek more distraction, to avoid the harder task of focus, and contributes to derailing our efforts to reach bigger goals, whatever they might be.
Starting small fuels growth.
In the same vein, how often are we put off from our spiritual disciplines because we don’t feel we have the time to do them properly? We don’t have time to read a chapter, so we don’t take the time we have to read a verse. We don’t have ten minutes to spend in contemplative prayer, so we don’t bother to take a minute to offer a prayer of gratitude.
I think the key here is that it is ok to start small – as long as we start. I may only have time to answer one question in my Bible study, but if I do that several days in a row, I’ll have soon finished a whole lesson. What’s more – that little effort fuels my desire to do more, which leads me to setting my alarm that bit earlier and picking up my study a bit more quickly.
My husband laughed at me when I told him that I never get anything done. He pointed to the pages of blog posts I’d written over the previous weeks, the meals I’d cooked, the Bible study I’d completed, the books I read, and I realized he was right to laugh. The little moments did add up. In the midst of my fractured time, I wasn’t seeing the sum of the efforts, and, ultimately, that God had blessed my efforts to use my little moments of opportunity wisely.
I think that part of discipline is to take all our tiny decisions as opportunities for faithfulness. Eventually those tiny choices become habits that comprise our overall fitness, whether physical, intellectual, or spiritual. And it is good and right to be fit for whatever lies ahead.