Tech and Your Family

This is the second part of a three part series on making technology work for you. If you haven’t read the first section yet, please find it here. (This post contains some affiliate links. These links allow me to earn a small commission at no extra cost to you.)

Now that you have come up with a real plan for how to manage technology in your life, you are ready to look into managing your kids’ technology. But even with a coherent plan, you can’t just make rules, even highly intentional and rational rules, and expect smooth sailing, especially if you’re talking about teenagers. 

 

Start with yourself

I have done a lot of reading on this subject. Some of the authors were parents, some were counselors who deal with parents and children, and some were just very productive people. 

Based on my research, my own experience, and what my gut tells me, the first step for any successful control of your teen’s tech use is to set an example of intentional and virtuous technology use. 

As a responsible adult you likely have a lot of reasonable and necessary uses for technology. And you might also waste lots of time. To your kids, the two look identical. (You might have trouble telling the difference sometimes too–I know I do.) So a good way to be more intentional with your own tech use, and to set a good example is simply to tell your kids what you are doing when you are using your phone or computer. “Hey, honey, I’m going to check my email.” “I am going to look up a recipe for roasting a chicken.” “I am looking for a craft idea to do with you this afternoon.” “I am reading an article about___.” “I am texting your grandmother pictures of you.” “I am texting my friend.” 

Just saying what you are doing on your phone can help you stay focused on what you are going to do, as well as let your child know that you are actually doing something reasonable with the time you are looking at your phone instead of him.

It’s also important that you be able to set your phone down. Give your kids phone-free quality time. Put the phones in another room during dinner. (More about family dinners later.) It turns out this is more important than you might think. On page 56 of his book, The Distraction Addiction, Alex Pang describes a study in which pairs of people were randomly assigned to have conversations with each other, either with a visible smartphone present, or without a phone present. The study he cites noted, “It was found that conversations in the absence of mobile communication technologies were rated as significantly superior compared with those in the presence of a mobile device, above and beyond the effects of age, gender, ethnicity, and mood.”

So make sure you can set your own phone aside if you want to make effective rules for your kids. 

 

Make sure that screen time is not the only option

A lot of families struggle with screen time rules because screen time is by far the most alluring option open for their kids. They can do something screen-related or they can do… nothing? Chores? This might be the single most important step to take in making sure your kids have a healthy relationship with tech–making sure they have other things in their lives as well. 

Do they have friends that they can have over or go and visit? Do they have real-life hobbies? Growing plants, raising pets, building models, biking or hiking with friends, etc. are all good things that teach real-life skills and are just plain good for you both physically and mentally. These and other activities are what Cal Newport calls “high quality leisure activities” because they require input, and are deeply satisfying. High quality leisure activities are also great opportunities for parents to spend quality time with their older children, and for siblings to spend quality time with each other and really enjoy one another. 

It’s important to set rules, and enforce them, but I don’t think it’s reasonable to expect screen time limitations to be followed if the alternative is staring at the wall. 

 

Set clear and reasonable boundaries. 

Smartphones are very powerful. They have access to literally the entire internet, with all of the information, and all of the filth that entails. They can have addictive games installed on them, and have a million other ways of encouraging you to spend all your time looking at them. 

They also have great potential to help you live your life better. I use mine for my productivity system, writing blog posts and books, and talking to my friends. 

Since the internet and internet connected devices are so powerful, it is important to give kids guidance and boundaries for their use. Below are the rules I would suggest. 

 

My tech rules

(For the record, my kids are 3 and under. I imagine by the time my kids are teenagers this conversation will be somewhat different. I taught middle school and highschool for a few years though–and loved it–so teens are not an unknown topic for me. These are the rules I would recommend to any of my friends who do have teens.) 

I don’t think kids under 18 should have full-function smartphones. They are designed by very very smart people to be addictive, and your teen’s brain has not developed fully. Any addiction they form as a teen will be much harder to break. That being said, if your kid is driving, or otherwise leaving the house alone, it seems sane to allow them to have a way of calling their parents/bosses or other important people in their lives. There are a number of devices that allow only calling, texting, and some offline apps. I recommend getting one of these for a minor child who will be leaving the house alone. The device can be returned to you when the child returns home, which should allow for proper supervision. 

If you do give your child a smartphone, don’t let him have it in his bedroom. People (adults or children) are most likely to do stupid things on their phones alone at night, and it’s also really bad for your sleep. 

Boundaries for teens

If your child is in middle or highschool, he will likely need internet access for his school work, and a computer for typing papers. I think it’s important for kids to learn how to type properly before leaving school. I recommend a program like Mavis Beacon, or whatever they use nowadays. I recommend giving students access to a computer in a public area (and only in a public area) and having an effective internet filter like Covenant Eyes

Your child may need to have his own email account. If you have a decent relationship with your kid, this shouldn’t be a problem, though depending on the age of the child, it might work well to have them share their passwords with you. I would not allow my teenage children to have social media accounts. (The only exception I can see myself making to this rule at this point would be if my teenager had a business and was using a social media page exclusively for business purposes. In this case I would imagine that adult advice in managing the account would be both helpful and welcome.)

As for computer games, that is a personal decision that each parent has to make on their own. Different people are more or less likely to form addictions. If you know you have a tendency in that direction, you should be more careful with your kids, because addictive behavior is influenced by genetics. I think my rule would be absolutely never more than an hour a day of entertainment screen time, and gaming only as a social activity. (The only exceptions I would make to the social rule would be games that teach you to type, or other practical skills.)  I don’t think I’d let kids under 10 or 12 play either. 

These are just my rules. Everyone has their own needs and difficulties. But no matter who you are, no matter what your rules are, you need to have a good relationship with your kids to make it work. 

 

No rules will work unless you do this

Having the perfect rules, and having perfect technology habits yourself is not enough. If you take nothing else away from this blog post, I want you to take this away: The most important thing you can do to keep your kids safe on the internet (or elsewhere) is to develop an open and loving relationship with them. 

Let them know that they can talk to you about anything. You don’t want your kids being too embarrassed to ask you about the disturbing pictures they saw on someone else’s computer. You don’t want them to be too scared to tell you if someone tried to take advantage of them. 

 

Here is some advice therapists, counselors, priests and others often give on this subject: 

Eat dinner as a family, and make it a pleasant daily ritual. It’s good for your health and for your relationships. And talk during dinner. Talk about anything and everything. Most of all, let your kids talk. Let them ask questions, tell stories, and argue (courteously of course).

Make sure your children know you love them no matter what. Children have love languages too. If you’re not sure your kids know you love them, make sure of it. Discipline should show love, not make your kids doubt it. There are many ways to discipline, and you need to find one that works for each of your kids. Whatever you pick, it is vital that it leaves your children very clear about what expectations and consequences are, and also leaves them feeling loved and respected. Make sure your relationship with your kids is based on love, not fear. 

Teach your kids about their bodies.

Making sure children know how their bodies work and what appropriate and inappropriate touch are like, and what to do if they see or experience anything inappropriate. This knowledge must be age appropriate, but the general consensus is that it’s better to go too early than too late. 

When you do teach them about their bodies, be sure not to leave them with a sense of shame or embarrassment at the topic. If your child senses that you are embarrassed by the topic, it can lead to an unwillingness to discuss problems that arise, and even marital difficulties later on. 

If you are for any reason incapable of giving a reverent, honest and open explanation of bodily processes to your child, then it might be a good idea to ask a trusted friend to explain it. 

 

Managing Technology in Your Life Part 1

Several months ago someone asked me to write about teens and technology use.  I thought it sounded like a fun topic, so I researched the subject. I fell down a rabbit hole of books about tech and kids, tech and society, social media, etc. Then I read Digital Minimalism–by far the best of the lot–and was thoroughly overcome with a sense of inferiority. I knew that no blog post I could ever write would be anywhere near as good as that book. And I also knew that I couldn’t just write a blog post that said, “Read Digital Minimalism. Just do it. You will be happier.” 

So I didn’t write at all. But I finally decided that I just had to share its ideas. You should really just read Digital Minimalism, but I will try to make this blog post the next best thing. 

Start with a plan

When you’re coming up with screen time rules for your kids, the most important thing is to have a coherent idea of the role you want tech to play in your life. Making up arbitrary rules doesn’t work. You need a coherent and principled system, like digital minimalism. 

On his blog, Cal Newport (author of the book Digital Minimalism) defines digital minimalism as “a philosophy that helps you question what digital communication tools (and behaviors surrounding these tools) add the most value to your life.”

It’s not about going home and throwing out your TV, your smart phone, or your laptop, unless you decide rationally and intentionally that this is what is best for you and your family. You might, but that’s not really the point. The point is to use your technologies to help you get what you want, rather than letting them run your life. 

What do you want?

So the first step in coming up with a tech plan is to list your goals as a person and as a family. What would your perfect life look like? What do you want to achieve? What kind of leisure activities would you like to spend your time on? What would you like your kids to be and do? What sort of quality time do you want to spend with your children? What talents do you want to develop? What talents do you want your kids to develop? What big financial, relationship or personal goals do you have in your life? 

Really take some time to think about these questions, because the answers will be the basis not only for a sound tech strategy, but also for a happier and more fulfilling life.

 

What tech do you use?

The second step: List all of the tech you (and your family) regularly use. This includes devices (eg. Laptop, smart speakers, ipods, smart phones, TV, gaming consoles, etc.) It also includes services and social media platforms. (eg. Cable, Netflix, Facebook, Instagram, etc.) 

Be thorough. Really take stock of the technologies you use and how you use them. And how much you use them–which might be hard. A time tracker might be useful for this. There are automatic time tracking programs for both computers and phones which can tell you how much time you spend on which apps. If you want to track all your activities, not just the ones on particular devices, you can also use the pen and paper method, or there are apps that you can use on your phone to track your activities of all kinds. It can be quite interesting to see how much time you spend on different things, but time tracking is hard. I tried it for about 3 days (using a simple app) and by the third day I gave up, exhausted from the effort of trying to be always aware of what I was doing. 

Cal Newport actually recommends taking a 30 day break from all inessential technologies just as a sort of detox, so you can think more clearly about what you have been spending your time on and whether you want those things back in your life. This might actually be easier than tracking your activities.

 

Is your tech helping you get what you want? 

Step three is to compare your two lists. Look at each technology in your life and ask yourself three questions. 

  1. Does this device or service help me achieve any of the things I have decided that I value? 
  2. Is this device or technology the best or only way to achieve that goal? 
  3. How can I minimize the downsides of this technology and improve its effectiveness for my purposes?

If anything on your list does not pass the first test, then get rid of it. If it’s not making you happier or helping you achieve your goals, then you don’t want it in your life. 

The second question is where things get more complicated. An example would be Facebook. Let’s say I’ve decided that keeping in touch with my family is very important to me, and Facebook helps me do that. But is Facebook the best technology for helping you stay in touch with family? Or when you log in, do you mainly see angry political ranting and cat videos that distract you for the next 15 minutes (or the next hour) and take you away from your family who is present. Consider alternatives. I, for example, don’t use Facebook for anything personal. I have some friends who live elsewhere who I want to keep in touch with, and I have chosen to use a group chat instead of Facebook, because I think that this maximizes my meaningful interaction with my actual friends in ways that Facebook does not. 

But maybe you decide that Facebook is indeed the best choice for you. This is where question 3 comes in. How can you use Facebook so that you minimize the negative consequences of it? I do use Facebook. I used to find it irritating, frustrating and time wasting. I was frustrated that my email was constantly full of updates. But I had found that it was the most effective way to advertise my blog, so I had to figure out how to mitigate the negative consequences of having it in my life.

Because my only purpose for having Facebook is to advertise my writing, I blocked all email notifications. I have Facebook only on my laptop, and not on my phone. I post links when I write a new blog post, and then I leave. I have learned that looking at my Facebook feed makes me angry and sad, so I pretty much limit my Facebook use to posting links and leaving. (I also occasionally network using the private messenger function, but never on my phone.) This works very well for me.

Other people might need to use Facebook because of a Facebook group that they participate in. It is possible to bookmark that group’s page, so that when you need to check your group you can go directly there without looking at things that irritate and distract you.

These are just examples. Maybe the technology you’re looking at is Netflix. Maybe you have decided that watching a TV show or film with your spouse or your kids is a valuable way of connecting with them, and that Netflix is the best way of accomplishing that. But maybe you are frustrated because you find that every time you look at Netflix you spend half an hour being irritated because you can’t figure out what you want to watch. Maybe a good choice for you would be to make a rule that you don’t open up Netflix unless you have already decided what to watch, or that you will set a 10 minute timer, after which you will pick whatever has looked best so far.

The point is that every technology you have, every service you subscribe to, everything you own, takes a certain amount of space, time, mental energy, and sometimes money to maintain. Is it worth it, and how can it be minimized? This is the decision you have to make, based on your own goals for you and your family

Now that you have made a coherent and principled system for making technology decisions, now you are ready to tackle the sticky issue of how much and what technologies are appropriate for your child to use. 

That will be for next time. 

 

Why It’s Important to Celebrate

As it is Saint Patrick’s Day, it seems like a good time to talk about celebrations. And so of course I will start with a quote from a well-known atheist–Ayn Rand. In Atlas Shrugged, a character comments, “Parties are intended to be celebrations, and celebrations should be only for those who have something to celebrate.” The character who said it was explaining why she found a particular party so insipid–everyone was trying to feel special by surrounding themselves with the trappings of celebration, but they had done nothing worth celebrating, and so it didn’t really work. They–and she–still instinctively felt the emptiness of the occasion and were deeply unsatisfied. 

You need a reason to celebrate

Now of course we can celebrate many things other than our own accomplishments. We also get to celebrate the accomplishments of our friends–especially the ones who have already died, like Saint Patrick. We do not earn the right to celebrate at Christmas and Easter; Christ earned it for us. 

Birthdays are also a good excuse to celebrate. I suppose an argument could be made that celebrating a child’s birthday is an excuse for the parents to celebrate their accomplishment in keeping their kids alive for another year. But people can be pretty wonderful, and a person’s wonderfulness is certainly worth celebrating at least once a year. The same goes for weddings, anniversaries, visits of out of town friends and relatives, and other such occasions.)

But the idea that celebrations need to be earned still has merit. You can’t just celebrate whenever and however you want, for no reason. It is meaningless and fundamentally unsatisfying. 

You need to celebrate when you have a reason

But if celebrations ought to be earned, then that means that when you have earned it, you really ought to celebrate. 

The first time I can recall really putting this idea into practice was the day I finished sewing my wedding dress. After months of planning, designing, sewing, and fitting, finally, a couple weeks before my wedding, it was done. I was so excited that I invited all my housemates to go out for frozen yogurt with me at the local frozen yogurt place. That was the most enjoyable frozen yogurt I ever had. I felt like I had earned the celebration, and I felt that my friends were happy at my success as well, and that made it all the more delicious. 

Since then I have tried to incorporate the idea of celebrating accomplishments into my life. 

I like to have dinner parties or go out for dinner with my husband to celebrate milestones on projects that are important to me. Somehow these parties or outings are just a little more special because of it. I have dinner parties just for the heck of it as well, but I think I genuinely enjoy the celebration parties more. (Maybe it’s partly that I get to tell my guests about my accomplishment, and so I know that others are celebrating my win as well. Perhaps it is because I have particularly wonderful people to call friends, but I think that they really enjoy celebrating my wins with me as well.) 

Celebrating helps you be more productive

So having an accomplishment to celebrate makes me enjoy my celebration more, thus making my life happier, but I have noticed the reverse as well. Knowing that I will celebrate my accomplishments makes me more motivated to accomplish things. When a project is very time consuming, it can get discouraging. It starts to feel like you will never ever ever be done. I have been translating a book that is over 700 pages long for the last few years, and even though I enjoy the work, that project has definitely sometimes felt like it would never be over. But I have been celebrating reaching the end of each chapter, and it really helps me keep going. I attack each new goal re-charged by celebrating the accomplishment of the previous one. 

The science of habit formation agrees with me here. In Atomic Habits, James Clear describes how habits are made up of cue, craving, response and reward. One way to encourage the formation of desired habits is to make the “reward” part of the habit particularly satisfying. This is where celebrating your milestones comes in. It’s the start of a new self-reinforcing good habit of accomplishing your goals. 

Do what works for you

Maybe hosting dinner parties doesn’t sound fun to you. (I would love to try to change your mind about that, but another time.) Or maybe you’re on a really tight budget. Celebrations don’t have to be complicated or expensive. And the accomplishments we celebrate don’t have to be earth-shaking. It can be as simple as enjoying a glass of wine with a friend when you finish painting your living room, or playing volleyball with friends after you take your finals. (Or taking a nice warm bath. Whichever is more your style.) Even just calling a friend to share your good news is a good way to celebrate. 

Next time you set a big goal for yourself, take a moment to think about how you will celebrate when you reach that goal. I think you’ll find that you will not only enjoy your celebration more than you expect, but that you’re also more likely to achieve your goal when you have a concrete plan to celebrate afterwards. 

What Makes a Good Day?

I had a good day. My back was hurting, the baby cried, the toddler wouldn’t leave him (or me) alone, and I never did get around to washing my giant pile of dishes. I also broke the washing machine. But it was a good day anyway. I went to bed feeling satisfied.

So I started wondering what makes a good day. It doesn’t seem to matter very much what actually happens. Sometimes a good day is spent partying with friends. Sometimes it’s spent at work, just doing your job. Sometimes it’s a day of housework. Sometimes it’s spent quietly at home not working. It can be fun or just calm, noisy or quiet, at home or out, alone or with others.

So if good days come in all kinds, what makes them all good?

And, more importantly, how can we have more of them?

Goals

My current theory is that good days are days where you feel satisfied because you accomplished something you wanted to do, or at least made progress in that direction.

If you were supposed to go to work but instead you slept in and drank tea, you probably wouldn’t consider it a good day.  But if it’s a day off, and you sleep in and drink tea, then that’s great, because you’re accomplishing your goal of having a relaxing day off. And at the end of the day, you will be able to sigh with satisfaction as you crawl back into bed, saying, “that was a good day.”

Now if you can only have a good day by accomplishing a goal or making progress to the goal, then that implies that you have to set goals.

To do lists

There’s a lot of different ways of setting goals for the day. The most obvious is probably the to do list. Writing a to-do list is great, because it says, “here are these concrete tasks that I want to accomplish today.” It is a simple and relatively easy way to take control of your time. It’s easier to maintain than a schedule, and it really helps you remember your goals so you can accomplish them. It’s also been shown that crossing things off a list when you do them gives you a little dopamine rush. Crossing things off lists just makes your brain happier.

A lot of people think that to do lists are sad–just piles of things you don’t want to do, but have to. But there’s no reason you can’t put pleasant things on your list too. After all, self care is an important part of life. If you want to put your feet up and drink a glass of wine in the evening to help you wind down, why not write that on your list? Is it any less valid of an activity than washing dishes, or renewing your driver’s license? Is taking a few minutes to relax and read a mind-broadening book somehow inherently less valuable than cleaning the bathroom, just because it’s more pleasant? I don’t think so.

Of course, cleaning the bathroom is important. But aren’t you more likely to be able to keep up with your routine housekeeping tasks if you get a little break now and then?

If you write “clean bathroom and then eat chocolate” on your to-do list, won’t that make it more pleasant? (Unless you are one of those unfortunate people who doesn’t like chocolate. In that case, replace chocolate with whatever makes your life better.) And by all means, put “write to do list for tomorrow” on your to do list for today.

The idea of crossing a bunch of things off lists doesn’t appeal to everyone. But there are other ways of setting goals for the day. Some people theme their days. For example a housewife (oh how I dislike that term) might decide to make Fridays kitchen day, or Saturdays laundry day. Or maybe every second Saturday of the month is yard work day.

Other goals

But these methods assume that your goal involves accomplishing tasks. But sometimes our real goals aren’t about productivity but about just living. If you aren’t feeling well, maybe what you really need to do is set a goal to rest and relax.

You can also set virtue goals. Today, I will smile more. I will yell at my kids less. I will be encouraging and supportive.

St Ignatius of Loyola writes about virtue goals in the Spiritual Exercises. He calls it, “particular examination of conscience” and suggests a method for it, which is not unlike the method that Benjamin Franklin used for his famous “virtue journals.

Whether or not accomplishing goals is really the secret of having a good day, learning how to set goals and work toward them is definitely essential to having a good life. My last post was about the tool I use to help me stay on track with my goals. What methods do you use?

 

Some Helpful resources. (These are affiliate links. I get a commission for qualifying purchases, at no extra cost to you. However, I am recommending these books because I liked them and think that you will benefit from reading them, not because I am paid to do so.)

Atomic Habits

This book simply and clearly explains how habits are formed, why people so often fail to form the habits they want to form, and how to stop beating your head against the wall and start making real progress

 

Digital Minimalism

This is the best book on using (or not using) tech to make your life better instead of letting it control your life. One of the best written books I have ever had the pleasure of reading.

 

How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big

This book is hilarious, as you would expect from the author of Dilbert. Parts of it are rather random. Half autobiography, half self help book, half comedy, it is full of good advice and funny stories. (Yes, I know that makes three halves.)

Why I Let My Phone Run My Life

One of the biggest struggles I’ve had since quitting my teaching job to take care of my own children is staying organized. I was a reasonably organized teacher. I had binders for every subject, specially labeled computer files for each week of each class, and I even (mostly) stayed on top of my grading.

But home life is harder to organize. There are so many things to keep track of, and less boundary between personal tasks and work tasks. Feeding and caring for the baby needs to be done, but eating and showering equally needs to happen, and there is no boundary between baby time and mommy time. As far as babies are concerned, everything belongs to them, especially mom’s body.

And then not only are there baby needs and mommy needs to balance, there’s also a house to care for. Food to cook, and, if you’re like me, other projects that aren’t as optional as they might seem to others, because doing them is the only way you can feel that you are still your own person and not some new nameless being known only by the generic title of “mom.”

 

So, how to keep everything organized? How to remember to take showers, to get meat out of the freezer so supper tomorrow will actually happen, and to send that email, all while a baby wants to be held every minute of every day (and night)?

Ideas that didn’t work for me

I tried writing lists on little scraps of paper the day before, but I was frustrated by having to rewrite all the routine things that had to be done every day, or most days, but that still managed to be left on the back burner if I didn’t explicitly plan them.

I was always discouraged about having forgotten to do the dishes, or vacuum, or sweep….

So I tried the command center thing.

I put an inspiring quote on the wall. I made white board calendar templates and framed them so I could write reach month’s events as they happened. I made a weekly schedule so that I could have a recurring checklist of daily and weekly tasks. And I made a menu board.

The menu board worked pretty well. I often filled it out, but the weekly planned schedule didn’t. If I couldn’t do Monday’s tasks for some reason, my whole week got thrown off. And besides, seeing my list of daily and weekly tasks that I still wasn’t doing despite having a chart on my wall was just discouraging. Even though I could cross off all the things I did, all I was really seeing was the things I hadn’t done.

And then even when I did do a task, it wasn’t worth the trouble of going to the kitchen to cross it off, because then I would just have to wipe off all the marker the next day and start over.

So the command center wasn’t working.

I tried redoing the quote, redoing my weekly board to be more user friendly, reorganizing things to make my writing supplies easier to access, but it still wasn’t working.

 

That’s when I heard about Todoist, and the idea of a phone-based system that was actually designed to help people manage complicated work schedules as well as personal tasks was enticing.

I installed it on my phone, and I have never looked back.

Five ways Todoist helps me stay sane

 

Remembering stuff

You know that feeling where you know you need to do something but you can’t remember what it was? And how frustrating that is? Or you know you need something at the store, but you can’t remember what?

I don’t have that problem nearly as often now, thanks to the todoist inbox.

If I notice I’m low on soap, I can just grab my phone and add a task. If someone mentions something they would like to have, I can add a task, and when their birthday rolls around, I know what to get them. If I hear a cool song on the radio, I can write that down too so that I can listen to it again. Or if a friend recommends a good book, or I get a letter I need to answer, or if I just come up with a marvelous idea that I can’t act on right away, all I have to do is grab my phone and type a couple words.

 

Then, when I have a few minutes to sit down, I can take all my notes and put them in the right categories, and schedule them to pop up automatically when they need to be done. The program is designed that way, so it’s really easy.

 

Shopping

 

Having the inbox function is great for shopping, because when I run out of something in the bathroom, or think of something I need in the bedroom, I don’t have to either remember it or go to my specific shopping list place to write it down. I can just add a task to my shopping project right there on my phone.

And then I don’t have the issue of forgetting my shopping list, because it’s right there on my phone, and I rarely forget to bring my phone.

Another great feature for shopping is that I can share the shopping project with my husband, so he can add items to the lists as well, even when I’m already at the store, (and vice versa.) It helps smooth out communications that way.

 

Marriage meetings

 

Another way todoist helps me and my husband communicate is helping us organize our weekly marriage meeting. (If you’re married and not doing a weekly marriage meeting, you should really consider it. It’s amazing. Read this article to get started on the right foot.)

We were doing the meeting thing but it was a little hard sometimes because we couldn’t remember all the little things we needed to talk about. So it dragged out and got disorganized… And we would write down the decisions we made each week on a piece of paper, and then forget to look at it again.

Todoist changed all that. Now we have a shared meeting project where we can both dump the things we need to discuss, and when we get to the “what needs to happen around here” section, all we need to do is look at the list. It’s easy, effective, and satisfying.

And then when we decide what to do, it’s easy to schedule things and decide who will do them right there in the app.

 

Menu planning

 

I’ve also started using todoist to plan my menus. I love it because I can plan my menu anywhere or anytime I have a free moment. I can be in bed having trouble sleeping, sitting in a chair nursing a baby, or waiting at a doctor’s office, and I can just whip out by phone and plan a menu, creating appropriate shopping list entries at the same time, and scheduling cooking tasks, like get out frozen meat at the appropriate time.

I still have an occasional day where dinner time rolls around and I don’t know what to make, but it is so much less frequent now.

 

Keeping it together

 

I sometimes struggle with depression, get sick, or just get overwhelmed. And as frustrating as it is to be sick, depressed, or overwhelmed and need a break, the worst part is when it’s basically over, and you’re able to start getting back to work. Picking up all the pieces of your life, and trying to remember where you were after a good night’s sleep is hard enough, but after a week of being out of it, on vacation or sick–that’s practically impossible, and likely to send you back into the pits of overwhelmed despair.

With todoist, though, I don’t have to worry about it. The undone tasks pile up in my to-do list, yes, but I can just chip away at them one at a time, and they get automatically rescheduled when they are supposed to be. It only takes a few days to get back on track with household tasks.

And for more unusual projects, all the tasks are still there. I don’t have to recreate the whole idea in my head again every time I have to take a break.

 

To sum up

I have been using todoist every day since July, and it has been incredibly helpful, both for accomplishing everyday mundane tasks like cooking dinner, but also for helping me move ahead on exciting projects and accomplish big goals. Out reminds me to exercise, to write, and to keep in contact with friends more consistently. It helps me plan activities to do with my kids, dates with my husband, and gifts for my friends and family. It also helped me finish writing and publishing my book.

Perhaps most importantly, it makes it easier for me to forgive myself for not accomplishing every single thing every day. If you can’t get through everything on your list for the day, that’s okay. It keeps track of what you did accomplish, how close you came to the goal you set yourself for the day, and lets you reschedule tasks easily and simply for another day. I love waking up in the morning and looking at all the things I can decide to do today. And then in the evening, I can look and see how many things I accomplished, and what things I get to do later.

Todoist has been a lifesaver for me. I have been not just more productive, but also more relaxed since I started using it, and while I still have plenty of challenges, todoist helps me face them.

If you want to use it too, it’s available at Todoist.com, or in your phone’s app store

(For the record, I use the free version of todoist, which is available for free to anyone, and I have not been asked to write this review, nor am I receiving anything in return for it. I just happen to think it’s a wonderful way to use tech to help people be happier and more effective.)

The Sanity List

There’s a baby screaming and grabbing your ankle, a toddler emptying out your spice jars, and you have a headache…. There’s just no way you’ll make it until nap-time, or whenever the babysitter arrives, or your spouse gets home.

Or maybe you’re at work, and you didn’t sleep well the night before, your coworkers are driving you insane, your computer is refusing to work, and you just don’t know if you’ll make it through the day without screaming at someone.

Whatever situation is making you feel desperate, if you’re feeling that way, you’re not going to be thinking clearly. You feel trapped, frantic, and like there’s just no way you can survive. And this is not a good frame of mind for creative thought or good decisions.

Which is exactly why–sometime when you’re not frantic–you need to be proactively creative and make pre-crisis decisions.

This is where the sanity list comes in.

Everyone has activities that make them feel better when they’re stressed, though not everyone has figured out what they are. The idea behind the sanity list is to write some super simple relaxing activities down and post the list somewhere it’s easy to see. You know that next time you’re feeling that way, you aren’t going to be in any state to come up with great ideas, so you do that beforehand.

I’d like to share the sanity list I just wrote, just to give you some ideas. (My stressors usually involve a couple of adorable children who don’t have off-switches, so my ideas will reflect that.)

 

Say an Our Father

When you feel swamped by stress and screaming and frustration, sometimes it helps to realize that you really can take a few seconds away from whatever your troubles are, and lift your thoughts to God. And the last phrase of the Our Father–“forgive us… as we forgive those…” is always a helpful reminder when you’re angry.

Play music

Music has the ability to change the mood of a situation very quickly. Find some music to calm yourself and the situation down. The act of choosing a song to listen to can also help just by breaking you out of your cycle of negative thoughts. For at least a couple seconds you are thinking of doing something that might help, instead of just trying yourself how impossible it all is.

Go to a store

This won’t work for everyone, but when I’m having a really bad day, I sometimes find it helpful to pack myself and the kids into the car and go to a store. My kids like the new things to look at, and so I usually get a break from the crying…and if not, at least there are other people around to keep me from murdering anyone–just kidding (mostly).

Call a friend on the phone

I do this a lot. I really enjoy talking to friends, and often they have an outside perspective on my problem that allows me to find a solution. Or at least they sympathize. Which is also helpful. In any case, the phone call helps pass the time and take my mind off how angry, frustrated, or tired I might be.

Go for a walk

Just getting outside for a few moments can sometimes clear your head. Try checking the mail. Your screaming kids won’t kill themselves in the thirty seconds it takes to walk to the mailbox.

If that’s not enough of a break, going for a walk sometimes helps. If I’m home alone with the kids that means getting two small kids into clothes, loading them up in a stroller, and going around a few blocks. My kids love going outside, so it can be a good redirect for them, and even though the walk itself might only take five or ten minutes, the whole process of getting everyone dressed and out the door takes longer, and gives positive direction to the chaos.

And yes… going for walks doesn’t get the dishes washed or the laundry folded, but it’s good exercise and it might just keep you sane. And that’s more important.

Eat a snack

If you’re feeling desperate and angry, is always worth checking to see if it’s been too long since you ate. And if there’s kids involved and they’re being awful, they’re likely hungry too. Eating a healthy snack with protein in it can often make this difference between a good afternoon and a terrible one.

Exercise

Strenuous physical activity is a good mental break, and it can also make you release endorphins which will make you feel better. One of my favorite exercises for when I’m going crazy is running up and down the stairs a few times. I’ve never liked jumping jacks, pacing back and forth indoors doesn’t get you tired enough, and pushups are too hard. Running up and down the stairs is just the right amount of challenge. It tires out your leg muscles, but it also makes you breathe hard, which is good for your health, and I find it’s an excellent outlet for anger and frustration. It only takes a couple minutes.

Writing a sanity list and posting it somewhere easy to see is a very simple way to make your life more intentional and less reactive. It gives your calm, level-headed self a way to reach your frantic upset self when you need it the most.

If you’re interested in ideas for living more intentionally, check out some of these other articles.

Finding the underlying problem

Getting out of survival mode

Choosing your personal style