Create Your Tranquility by Organizing Your Life

“Create Your Tranquility by Organizing Your Life” – A Letter

July, 2007

My Dearest Darling God(dess) Daughter –

Some time ago (and forgive your Goddess-mother on this, she’s had to install new software, which takes her an unduly long time) — you asked a simple and basic question: “What do I do now with my life?”

Very simple. Very straightforward. And so to-the-point.

And in terms of an answer, I punted. I pointed you to Rainer Marie Rilke’s book, Letters to a Young Poet. (And actually sent you a copy, along with buying one for myself — so that I’d know what this book was recommending to you.)

The essence of Rilke’s teaching was, “Know yourself. Take time for yourself. Embrace solitude, as you need this to know YOU.” Which in your case, I know, is much easier said than done. You have recently graduated, and are the mother of three active young children, each of whom has special demands on your time.

In the midst of all the hullabaloo — and stress — of your life, and the magnificent miracle that you are, having cared so well for your children in addition to graduating, as well as working and getting funding for school, marriage and moving several times — you have rarely, since you were much younger, have had time just for you!

And so while it would be easy, and much too “prescriptive,” to say: “Go, do this. Do that. This will bring your life into order, and give you peace, happiness, and serenity” — we know this would not work. Your answer for yourself must, and will, evolve from within you.

So much that this answer may feel awkward and uncomfortable to you, let me reiterate: Spend the time getting to know yourself. Rilke had it right. Solitude is necessary. And since you cannot get solitude in large chunks, given your life situation, you must therefore obtain it in very thin slices. However you get it, and you must, strategize for it, work for it, plan for it, and by all means — take advantage of every opportunity to have some time alone with yourself.

Of course, you will get a job. And my hat is off to you, BIG KUDOS, that you got your degree in math and computer science. Your mother had gifts in these areas, as I do, and I am SO PROUD OF YOU for having stuck in there with the tough coursework, the labs, and the total “rigor” of that area. You’ve done a very tough and demanding thing, and now as you get a chance to look back on what you’ve done, you can sense that you can be proud of yourself. You should be!

In terms of first “professional” job, it almost doesn’t matter what you select — something that makes at least modest use of your skills, is within your commuting range, pays you well, and offers good benefits is a starting point. Just keep in mind that your first job is only a starting point; it is a “placeholder,” something to keep you going while you find out what you REALLY want. And that, actually, is the REAL job in your life right now.

This letter is not about organizing your money or your life — although it might seem like that. Rather, it is about establishing a framework that allows you to organize your life.

1. Get your life into as much “basic alignment” as possible, in order to create some “clear space” for you to have for yourself. This means: Get a job, preferably one that meets the above criteria and ALSO has reasonable hours and reasonable demands on your time. Unless you really and truly want to experience the “start-up” lifestyle, this might NOT be the time to join a start-up company, or any company that would expect exhorbitant overtime. Also, look for a manager who is sane and sound, and reasonable in terms of his or her expectations. Look for a situation where the co-workers are also sane and sound, and at least moderately pleasant. Should any of these requirements fail, keep moving. Don’t stay in a toxic environment, keep moving until you are in a sane and sound and clear one.

2. Use the money from this job to buy yourself time for yourself. This is a necessity in making headway with getting your family to the best level possible, and getting the most “performance” out of everyone — including yourself! (Performance includes downtime, by the way. Think of it as “scheduled maintenance and repair.”) Hire someone to help with the kids; even if you are there also, this person can take up slack — from feeding the baby to mopping up the floor after you and she feed the baby. Find someone who can pick up groceries and prepare a simple meal, help with the housework, sort mail, entertain the kids when you’ve had a long day, and in short, do anything that can ease your stress level and give you a few minutes of blessed time. Hire a housekeeping (maid) service. REALLY. You’re going to be working 9-5, plus some. There’s commute time, there’s household organization and management, there’s being a wife, and a mom. There is very little time for dusting in between. You are now at “Officer” rank, you are the General Manager of your Household. Delegate As Much As Possible (AMAP). Find someone (a college student, another mom who will bring her child over and take care of some of this, or even a for-real au pair) who will be your “right hand.” This person needs to be reliable, even-tempered and even-keeled, able handle a moderate amount of responsibility and make good simple decisions, and able to handle a moderate amount of stress. This person’s role is to decrease your work level, not add to it.

3. Do as much as possible to simplify and streamline your life. Take the time to set this up right; it will pay you well in the near future. Get as many bills as possible to be paid online. Get a day-planner with inserts (so you can insert lists and special topics pages). Now, if ever, is a good time to invest in one of the well-known brands that offers an educational service in how to get the most from “day-planning.” In addition to values, goals, “weekly tasks,” and daily goals, think ahead to longer-term events: holidays, Christmases, etc. Set up a savings account for Christmas; put in a regular amount each month; that is your Christmas budget and no more! (You’ll never go over-budget again.) And actually — now that you’re getting a job, make a budget. Make two, in fact — one for time, one for money. This will help you value your time more. Plan and prepare as much in advance as you possibly can for birthdays, holidays, gift-giving. Think through your Christmas strategy starting NOW (yes, in July) — who gets cards? Who gets gifts? What can you start NOW that will make your life easier? Think through a strategy that is reasonably low-cost, you can do in some bulk, and (for those who get gifts) is totally consistent with your budget and the time that you are willing to put in to this. If you can have all of your basic preparations lined up by — say, Columbus Day (knowing that you’ll spill over up to Thanksgiving), then the holiday season is yours to enjoy. Plan ahead similarly for other big life events — e.g., if you and your family want a vacation next year.

4. Cultivate routines that structure your life. This means that you have known time to do certain tasks, and known time that is yours for family, and known time that is just for you. One of the biggest “routines” is food preparation: Revisit how you do the food shopping for the family; can you find the “smart line” between eating out at fast foods (low quality and expensive) versus making everything from scratch? Take advantage of the “middle ground” – foods that are somewhat prepared, like pre-cut veggies, pre-made salad mixes, things that cut your preparation time down to less than a half hour.

Planning and preparation will reduce your stress. So designate one time each week for cleaning out the fridge, checking the food sales, and making menu plans. Designate another time for food shopping. (Biggest hits right after payday, smaller fill-in purchases weekly or semi-weekly thereafter.) Plan this to be a LONG day. Buy your foods in bulk when you can. For example, if you buy several huge packages of chicken on sale, or a big package of hamburger, divvy it up as soon as you get home, and freeze what you can. You might even get very ambitious and plan on cutting up fruits and veggies as soon as you get them in. Make best possible use of your freezer, and see about getting a free-standing one — especially useful when you have a family. Then, designate a third time or day to prep food for the week ahead. If you cook on the weekends, try to make one dish for the family to eat, another to freeze and reheat or bake later. On the weekends, think about dishes that will give you easy leftovers for the first part of the week. Also, start dishes that take several days to prepare — e.g., those that involve slow-cooking beans. (At the end of this letter, I give two of my favorite “family meal” prep ideas.)

5. Organize everything that has to do with what you and the family wear. One thing that works is to schedule one day a week to be “wash day. ” I know this sounds very old-school / old-song, but order brings harmony. Lack of order (planning, and imposing some structure on the family) brings chaos. One day to wash, fold, put away. As you do this, plan what both you and the kids will wear on what day. Organize accordingly. (They can help with all of this as they get older.) Make a mending pile, and schedule a time to get to it. Schedule time (one child per month, or all every quarter, however you do it) to go through their stuff; what is outgrown is shared with a neighbor or given to Goodwill. Once a month or so, hit your favorite thrift stores for “broken in” clothing for YOUR kids. It’s just the universe of recycling.

6. Use Sunday evening to final-prep for the week ahead. One good tactic is to do wardrobe layout for the entire week ahead.Check the weather. Make sure that you have your work wardrobe organized, purses chosen, lipstick in the first one you’ll use, lip liner freshly “sharpened,” enough money and small change for the week ahead. If you are keeping track of expenses (and I recommend the “little notebook” approach), do your catch-ups. Everyone finds their books / bags. Preload the car AMAP. Cell phones should have been charged over the weekend; they go into purses / briefcases, etc. Notes get written to whomever is working for you, checks to cleaning crew are made out. All of this is DONE, out-of-the-way, and accomplished. You are the “General,” you are “marshalling your forces.” Your Monday morning, and all mornings for the week ahead, should be smooth. Do a final check of the wall calendar and your day-planner for events that need some organization, money, or planning. Plan who will do and cover what with hubby and your “right hand,” whomever that might be.

7. Invest what you’ve saved by being diligent and organized. You can save a good bit of money by having your family brown-bag their lunches. By Sunday evening, everyone has lunch money, or packed lunch. (If you can afford the space, get a separate fridge for lunches. You can always pick up an extra fridge for very small dollars. Even a small-sized fridge can help. Make this a priority, because it will make getting out in the morning easier. Which makes the rest of the day easier. Which makes the rest of your life easier, and creates more time for you.) Packing becomes a “family affair.” You might pick one evening a week where you get the kids to help pre-pack lunch items. Write names on a week’s worth of bags. Pre-fill with trail mix in little snack bags, wrapped cheese sticks, apples, tiny wrapped chocolate candies, etc. Then, every day or every two days, make sandwiches, and load up the bags the night before. (See if you can start teaching hubby and kids to do this while you are getting dinner on the table.)

Your Reward: Serenity — it is rewarding in and of itself. But beyond that, give yourself both financial and time rewards for being focused and diligent and organized. In the sense of “paying yourself first,” take the money that you normally would have spent on one delivered pizza or Chinese meal and put into a piggy bank, or the real bank, in a savings account that you do not use. Have an IRA with your bank. Periodically, add all of this to your IRA. Similarly, estimate what you’re saving by brown-bagging lunches, put into an IRA. Or into a separate fund designated “downpayment on house” or “vacation.”

Also, take the “minutes” that you saved by cooking meals in advance. Those are also yours. Hire a sitter to be with the kids, and get out of the house – either alone or with your darling. You’ve earned it! If you go out alone, take your journal. Go to a decent little coffee shop, muse and write for a while. Or get yourself out early on Sunday, have a cappucino and a little breakfast by yourself. This is your reward for being diligent and organized. (If you must — pre-load a Sunday breakfast for all, get that all organized so you can slip out for a little bit on Sunday mornings while they get up and have whatever you’ve set out for them. Return only when you’ve had sufficient “you time” to tide you over for a while.)

Note that having a “support team” — a good babysitter / mother’s helper / au pair, a cleaning lady, and a certain amount of “easy-to-fix” food, etc., is a necessary and justafiable budget expense. This is not a luxury, this is a necessity to having a job, managing your family, and having a well-run home. If anything, develop an additional income source — one that will make you wealthier. But recognize and budget in the people to help you, even as you do “smart things” that reduce expenses (e.g., for meals) in other ways. These “smart things” are also bringing a better quality to your life, and increasing your serenity.

I am so envisioning you enjoying not only your first “professional job,” but also enjoying the increased sense of competence and control in having your life run more smoothly —

Love – Alay’nya

P.S. — Having done this for most of the past several years, I have been moving on to a deeper and more comprehensive set of strategies, that I will write to you about in the next letter. But it is an organizational framework such as this that allows greater levels of strategy to happen. I love you! Be well. I am thinking about you, and sending love in your direction.