Throughout my schoolgirl days I loved getting back to school in the fall. Not because I was looking forward to seeing my friends (I changed schools nearly every year), and not because I found the lessons to be so enriching (I found most school subjects to be dull and my teachers were mostly uninspiring); I loved starting school each year because I loved getting back to a routine. There was security in the regularity of a school day. Each morning I woke up, got dressed, gathered my belongings, and headed out the door. My whole day was structured and I didn’t have to think any thoughts about what I was doing or why; I just did what was expected of me. My career was much the same: people made appointments with me through a receptionist, I looked at my schedule each morning, and I did what was expected of me in the time allotted. I am seldom late, I am a hard worker, and I am compliant, so my teachers and bosses appreciated my work and I didn’t cause any trouble. I would have never imagined that almost 30 years of life structured this way would be a handicap to me.
When I first quit working to be home with the children I didn’t have any issues. I was already pretty solidly set on Charlotte Mason and I had two very young girls, so my days were structured around meals and naps and time outside. When I had my third child, a boy, things continued pretty much in the way they had gone. My oldest was five when my son was born, and though we were working on reading (by her choice), out-of-door life, and reading books together throughout the day, we weren’t schooling formally, and life was pretty peaceful. But here again, my days were easily organized around the physical needs of my children. Looking back, those were comfortable and easy days. I had not yet begun the real work of homeschooling or the real work on myself.
Over the past three years, if I am being honest (and I really want to be), I have found one excuse after another for why I cannot get it together for long stretches of time. Some of these reasons are legitimate. There was a time when my very active toddler boy was so disruptive during lessons that we could only do them when he was sleeping. When he quit naps early, there was a time of transition to train him to occupy and behave himself while I was working with his oldest sister or reading to both girls (an activity he would have no part in unless before sleep). We have also moved three times in the last five years. Each move required downsizing and sorting through possessions in addition to packing and unpacking.
But even when we weren’t in a transition time I have still had trouble making things work, and I have finally figured out why. According to Gretchen Rubin’s book, The Four Tendencies, I am an obliger, and I need systems and accountability to keep me on track. This is exactly why I did so well when systems were provided for me through work, school, and baby schedules—people were counting on me to do my part. To an extent I have known this; it’s why I started a Charlotte Mason group: to be accountable to others for teaching nature study and planning field trips. It’s why I made numerous schedules and designed systems for school lessons, meal planning, and cleaning… schedules that I ultimately didn’t follow. So what is my problem? I am distracted.
I am pretty seriously introverted and I think. A lot. Ideas are like shiny things catching my eye and turning my head from the task at hand. I am guilty of half-reading many books because I am so excited to try out the next one. I definitely over-think certain situations and I analyze and contemplate minutiae. To an extent this is part of who I am; it’s not a defect, provided that I put myself in the way of things worth thinking on. I also love to start new projects, whether they be handicrafts, home improvement, or organizing, but rather than having the satisfaction of one completed project, I often have the stress of knowing that I have left things undone. And while it is good that I have so many interests, I really need to exercise some discipline and focus on the task at hand. Charlotte Mason has me pegged. I am the “eager soul” she speaks of:
Now, the eager soul who gives attention and zeal to his work often spoils its completeness by chasing after many things when he should be doing the next thing in order. (Mason, 1989d, Book I, pg. 171)
When my husband and I decided that it was best for our family for me to leave my career, there were two primary reasons, both equally important. The first reason was to be able to home-educate and intentionally raise our children. The second was to support my husband in his work by handling all our domestic affairs. Though I am home all day and though I have no one looking after me, my time is not my own and I am not free to do as I wish. I know this. I believe this. But lately I have been drifting.
It is a bad thing to think that time is our own to do what we like with. We are all employed; we all have duties, and a certain share of our time must be given to those duties. It is astonishing how much time there is in a day, and how many things we can get in if we have a mind. It is also astonishing how a day, a week, or a year may slip through our fingers, and nothing done. We say we have done no harm, that we have not meant to do wrong. We have simply let ourselves drift. (Mason, 1989d, Book I, pg. 173)
My biggest weakness, my most time-draining occupation, has been social media. It is quick and easy to access right on my phone; it is full of ideas and is a window for momentary domestic escape. But it is a huge distraction for me. As I said, I tend to focus on minutiae, and Facebook is not a place for precise use of words. I have occasionally found myself involved in a discussion during school hours which set my whole day wrong. Compared to a well-run and joyful home, conversations on Facebook are of no importance to me. Allowing one day to start wrong throws off my whole week. Why would I do this to myself? And those stolen moments between duties when I look at Facebook, is it time well spent? No, I am stealing those moments from myself. I think Miss Mason would agree that it is often (not always) a poor use of time:
… desultory reading affords entertainment, and perhaps an occasional stimulus to thought. Casual reading—that is, vague reading round a subject without the effort to know—is not in much better case: if we are to read and grow thereby, we must read to know, that is, our reading must be study—orderly, definite, purposeful. (Mason, 1989e, p. 382)
When I skim random articles posted by people I don’t even know or read all the answers given to a question I haven’t even asked, I am not reading to know. I am simply entertaining myself.
And then there is Instagram, filled with so many pretty pictures and thoughtful ideas. Curated to my own tastes and used in moderation, Instagram is quite lovely. But I have often found myself aimlessly scrolling when I should have been working. As I said before, social media is an escape—an escape from a situation I have created by my thoughtless drifting. In failing to keep good habits I have acquired poor habits.
The heedless, listless person is a servant of habit; the useful, alert person is the master of a valuable habit. The fact is, that the things we do a good many times over leave some sort of impression in the very substance of our brain; and this impression, the more often it is repeated, makes it the easier for us to do the thing the next time. (Mason, 1989d, Book I, p. 208)
And when I let these acquired habits rule my day, I get nothing in return. In moderation, all the pretty pictures on Instagram can be inspiring and encouraging. It is fun to keep up with friends and share little bits of my life and thoughts. In excess, however, I find that the opposite is true. In excess, I get discouraged and even covetous. If I had such a beautiful kitchen I would keep it spotless. I wish I had more time to sew or knit or make beautiful things like so-and-so. If only I could have beautiful moments like that with my children. But these thoughts are so deceptive. If I took that time to clean my kitchen, it would be beautiful. If I took those few minutes of scrolling to do instead of watch I would have more time to sew. If I took those stolen moments to look at my children I would realize that I have beautiful moments with them every single day, moments too precious to ruin by taking a photo.
So what do I do? How do I gain control and become the master of my habits? I am planning to do it one thing at a time.
It is well to make up our mind that there is always a next thing to be done, whether in work or play; and that the next thing, be it ever so trifling, is the right thing; not so much for its own sake, perhaps, as because, each time we insist upon ourselves doing the next thing, we gain power in the management of that unruly filly, Inclination.
Now, the power of ordering, organising, one’s work which this implies distinguishes between a person of intelligence and the unintelligent person who lets himself be swamped by details. (Mason, 1989d, Book I, p. 171)
Ouch, Charlotte, that last one stings, but I know you are right. If I know what I should do and I do not do it, I am acting unintelligently. More than that, for me it is sinful.
So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin. (James 4:17, ESV, 2016)
God has given me the life I have wanted since childhood. I have a loving husband who is a wonderful father, I have the privilege to stay home with my precious children, and we live on 3.5 acres in the country. And yet I squander my time and I do not do what I ought. And I know it. So for me it is sin.
Still, knowing all this, it is so hard to change my habits! But I am encouraged. I don’t need to do it on my own power. Usually I am not drawn to read self-help or encouragement books, but recently I came across Hello Mornings by Kat Lee. Her advice to start with just three minutes each morning is exactly what I needed to move me to action. The book goes way beyond mornings and into habits. It helped me to realize that days turn into weeks, weeks into months, and months into years, but a day starts in the morning. And a day that starts with God and good habits becomes a life that is built on God and built on habits that are meant to form me and shape me into the person He wants me to be. The person He can use for His glory. Miss Mason says the same thing. A lot.
‘Ye are not your own’ … free to do what you like with your own. Therefore, excess in sports, excess in easy-going pleasure, excess in study, excess in desultory reading, excess in carelessness in regard to health, any excess that we have a mind to, is lawful if only it is expedient…
But if children are brought up from the first with this magnet—‘Ye are not your own’; the divine Author of your being has given you life, and a body finely adapted for His service; He gives you the work of preserving this body in health, nourishing it in strength, and training it in fitness for whatever special work He may give you to do in His world,—why, young people themselves would readily embrace a more Spartan regimen; they would desire to be available, and physical transgressions and excesses, however innocent they seem, would be self-condemned by the person who felt that he was trifling with a trust. (Mason, 1989c, p. 103)
A little at a time, I have been making changes. First, I signed out of Facebook and turned off all notifications. At the time of this writing it has been nearly a month, and I don’t miss it a bit. I cut back my time on Instagram. I make only 1-2 posts per week, I only respond to comments in the evening, and I set a timer to limit my browsing to 15 minutes per day. I have also limited the amount of people I follow so that my viewing experience is only fun and uplifting, not discouraging to me.
I have limited the books I read for myself. I now allow myself only one nonfiction and one literature audiobook at a time (to make me look forward to chore times), and the same goes for physical books. I will not start a new book until I finish the previous. I now read not to consume, but to consider. I have given up what John Wesley called “desultory reading”:
Be sure to read not curiously and hastily, but leisurely, and with great attention; with proper intervals and pauses, that you may allow time for enlightening of divine grace. Stop every now and then, to recollect what you have read, and consider how to reduce it to practice. Farther: Let your reading be continued and regular, not rambling and desultory. It shows a vitiated palate, to taste of many dishes, without fixing upon, or being satisfied with, any… (Wesley, 1872, p. 305)
I have also limited myself to one handicraft project at a time (usually done while watching television with my husband in the evening) and one house-related project, which I must complete before I begin anything else. I am very proud of myself for not going to the fabric store to buy material for curtains before I finish painting the living room. This discipline gives me the satisfaction of finishing the project at hand and the motivation to move on to the next project.
Realizing that I really do need systems, but also that my days cannot be ordered according to my preference, every day being exactly the same, I have settled on a schedule that works well for our family. We school four days a week, two afternoons and two mornings with recitations and literature in the evenings. We have a set morning routine for getting ready and a set evening routine for winding down, but the middle changes depending on my husband’s work schedule. I keep a running to-do list for little things and I have enough of a framework planned to know how to arrange our days the night before and still do what must be done. Chores are done during our most structured times of day, morning and evening and on the days when my husband works day-shifts. We also have a puppy. Her needs ensure that I walk at least a couple of miles each day and, since she does not yet have the run of the house, I spend an hour cleaning up the kitchen in the evening so that she can romp and play after the children are in bed.
I feel really good about all these changes. I am a servant and a steward. God has given me great responsibilities and equipped me to do them:
His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence… For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love. For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they keep you from being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ… Therefore, brothers, be all the more diligent to confirm your calling and election, for if you practice these qualities you will never fall. (2 Peter 1:3-10, ESV, 2016)
Charlotte Mason stressed that love and admiration for God is the key to overcoming the challenges of life:
Let them grow up… with the shout of a King in their midst… There is no safeguard and no joy like that of being under orders, being possessed, controlled, continually in the service of One whom it is gladness to obey. (Mason, 1989b, p. 57)
If I stay focused on God and his plan for my life, even if I start by only reading one verse and taking three minutes each morning, I will hear the shout of a King and that shout will drown out the distractions of the world.
ESV. (2016). The Holy Bible: English standard version. Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.
Mason, C. (1989b). Parents and children. Quarryville: Charlotte Mason Research & Supply.
Mason, C. (1989c). School education. Quarryville: Charlotte Mason Research & Supply.
Mason, C. (1989d). Ourselves. Quarryville: Charlotte Mason Research & Supply.
Mason, C. (1989e). Formation of character. Quarryville: Charlotte Mason Research & Supply.
Wesley, J. (1872). The Works of John Wesley (Third Edition, Vol. 14). London: Wesleyan Methodist Book Room.