Today's guest post was written by Allie Rice, our resident web designer and consultant. In You’ve Got Mail, Kathleen Kelley (Meg Ryan) is writing an email to Joe Fox (Tom Hanks) in which she talks about how her life is valuable but small. She then goes on to ask: Do I live this way because I like it or because I haven’t been brave?
I would actually argue that living a small life is very brave.
When I think of a small life, I think of Paul’s exhortation to the Thessalonians to live quietly. There are many good reasons to live quietly, but for me, it’s because I don’t want to miss the things that only surface in the spacious quiet. For me, like Elijah, the voice of the Lord isn’t in the gale and it isn’t in the earthquake and it isn’t in the fire; it’s the still small voice (1 Kings 19).
But living a small but valuable life — living quietly — is hard. Sometimes, our lives feel too big — too many people, too many engagements, too many text messages, too many to-dos. Other times, our lives feel too insignificant — too many mundane tasks, too many obligations, too many hours on Pinterest, too many dishes and diapers. Still other times, our lives feel too noisy — too many Instagrams, too many lifestyle blogs, too many screaming toddlers, too many expectations.
And often times, our lives feel too big and too insignificant and too noisy — too much and not enough, all at the same time.
We're running all day and yet getting nothing done. We’re giving all of ourselves and yet feel the crushing weight of inadequacy. We’re never alone and yet we’re lonely.
I’ve run up against this too much and not enough for many years, and managed it with varying degrees of success. But since becoming a mama, it has become louder and sharper. I’ve become messy and disappointing. My desires — to create things, to love people well, to check my checkboxes and plan my plans and do life on purpose — haven’t changed, but my life certainly has.
If I want to keep living intentionally and getting things done and fighting against a big, noisy, insignificant life, there are some things I have to do.
I have to say no to good things.
The truth is that there are too many good things and not nearly enough time for all of them. I tend to have a default setting of yes. But that was never sustainable or wise, and now it’s impossible and foolish. Just because something is good doesn’t mean that it’s something God has for me, and I have to discern the difference.
How I make it happen:
- I constantly ask, "Has God given me grace for this?” This is not a question of what he has given someone else grace for (or, more accurately, what I perceive that he’s given them grace for). He may have given someone else grace to make homemade goldfish crackers and candy corn, but he hasn’t given that grace to me.
- Per Shauna Niequist’s recommendation, I made a list of things I don’t do. (My list includes things like I don’t shop at WinCo and I don’t garden.) See also: Quit something on Thursdays.
- When all else fails, I give myself a refresher on why to say no and how to be less available.
I have to be okay with working incrementally.
I love giant expanses of time where I can really dig in and make substantial progress. I like to finish things the day I start them. But life with a baby who doesn’t sleep (and now a toddler who doesn’t sleep) doesn’t yield expanses of time. Instead of having three hours to write a blog post on a Tuesday, I have to invest 20 minutes a day for a few weeks. Instead of doing all the house cleaning on Saturday afternoons, I have to clean my house for 15 minutes a day (and, let’s be honest, have a slightly dirtier house). I have to remember that one big achievement is the sum of many small faithfulnesses. Or as Van Gogh put it, “Great things are done by a series of small things brought together.”
I make this happen through time blocking:
- When we ask the question, “What am I going to do today?” it’s likely that we’ll feel overwhelmed by all the things or end up discouraged because we were derailed halfway through a project. Instead, I ask, “What am I going to do in [area] for the next [minutes]?”
- Set a timer for a limited amount of time (usually 20 or 30 minutes) and use that time to do something specific. When you go into it knowing you only have 30 minutes, you’re likely to pick tasks that actually need doing and that you’re actually going to finish in 30 minutes.
- And if you don’t finish the task, don’t despair — you can set aside another 30 minute block tomorrow to wrap it up. Instead of feeling like your tasks are “now or never,” you’ll know they're “now or soon."
I have to redefine accomplishment.
If I only feel accomplished when I complete a project, I’m going to have a lot of disappointing days. I have to count every one of those small faithfulnesses as accomplishments. Some days, my only accomplishments are brushing my teeth and keeping the toddler from eating rocks. That’s enough.
How I make it happen:
- If you’ve attended a liturgical church or read the Book of Common Prayer, you’re probably familiar with the daily office: prayer and scripture for times of day. I’ve started thinking of the responsibilities of my days as another kind of daily office: Bags to be packed in the morning, snacks to be prepared in the afternoon, bottles to be washed in the evening. It would be ideal to complete several tasks or an entire project every day, just as it would be ideal to spend an hour or more reading the scriptures every morning and evening. But some days — and some seasons of life — aren’t conducive to these things. Instead, I do my daily office — I read my few verses and attend to my personal litany of daily duties — and have faith that, when it’s possible, the Lord will entrust me with more (Luke 16).
- If something requires more than one step to be completed, it’s a project, not a task. This is why laundry sits on my to-do list for three days before I get to check it off. I try to avoid these projects masquerading as tasks whenever possible. Breaking things into their smallest possible pieces makes your tasks attainable, simple, rewarding, and transparent.
- I’m a big fan of the priority triangle — the idea that, at any given time, you should have fewer big things than small things on your plate. The problem is that my triangle is too big. There have been times in my life when having 20 small things, 12 medium things, and 5 big things on my agenda was doable. That time is not now. Three small things, two medium things, and one big thing is probably where I should cap out in this season of my life. Know your limits. Draw a smaller triangle.
I have to find my value in my identity, not my role.
When I have more capacity, I can find much of my value in what I do. But when I have little time and zero margin, I’m forced to find my value in who I’m created to be. This is actually a profound gift.
I’m so quick to slip into striving, to pursue every cliche of so-called biblical womanhood, to try to be a Proverbs 31 woman (whatever that means). Yet when my life feels too big and too insignificant and too noisy, I can only be one thing: beloved daughter of the King. And the only way I can make that happen is by leaning into Jesus.