Monday, December 8, 2014

Operation Stress Relief - Another Post In My "Giving Up On Productivity" Series

I had a revelation the other day. Or maybe it was an epiphany, I don't know. But it was something that seemed so obvious when It finally came to me, It being that my main focus should be lessening stress. I've known I need to do that for a while, but I still always saw relieving stress as a means to an end - basically, that if I were less stressed I would be more productive, able to get more done, etc.

At the Mockingbird Conference, David Zahl talked about the Cult of Productivity, and referenced modern American advertisements and mantras that make pretty clear I am not the only one who has this problem. For example, you want to get a certain type of mattress because it will make you more ready to go, go, go the next day, not because sleeping well is an end in itself.

A good example in my life is solitude. I can survive without it, and I have for many years. But I definitely don't thrive and in fact, I now have problems functioning because of its lack. But when I get time alone my main goal is not simply solitude because it is restorative in itself. No, my main goal is to get alone so I start feverishly working on some productive thing. I think I should be able to immediately switch from the swirling mind of chaotic misery to calm and prolific creativity. Guess what? It doesn't work and then I have guilt that I didn't use my alone time "well", meaning I "should have accomplished more". I am not willing to let solitude have me and do whatever it will.

Another good example for me is food and cooking. I'm sure all seventeen of you know that food and its preparation is my arch nemesis. On the surface, I tell myself this is because I am not on top of things like meal planning and other food imperatives at which mothers are supposed to excel. So, the guilt of that adds to my stress. Then the other day, there I was, with the horrifying spectre of cooking before me, and I remembered that I needed to reduce my stress and wondered how I could do that. Sometimes ordering pizza or making some boxed stuff is the way to go, but if that happens too often it increases my stress too, because of the guilt that comes with serving crap food.

I need to back up here and say that in order to reduce my stress from the ground level, I have to accept that things like cooking and cleaning (which are mostly my responsibility, and that's fine) take a lot of time. I tell myself that art or starting a creative business or journaling is more important than food or exercise or a table that is not covered with crumbs, papers, a chess set and other accoutrements of a family who is in no way minimalist. But it obviously isn't because my stress level goes way up if I neglect these bedrock things. In some way I think I am trying to climb Maslow's pyramid too soon (not that I literally believe in self-actualization to a great extent). Yes, I have food, shelter and all those basic needs in one sense. But my belief that I (with my amazing creative depths that need to be plumbed RIGHT NOW, Dahlink) shouldn't have to spend any significant time on them hasn't led me closer to self-actualization, but rather closer to despair.

Then there is the issue of minimalism, which appeals to me in theory. But I probably have more art supplies than a real minimalist has in all his or her possessions. Plus, I always think of the minimalist style as being too, well, white and looking like Ikea, which is definitely not my style. But I do agree with the idea that we would do better to "Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful". For me, beautiful ALWAYS means color, so the whole white, beige and black thing is out. And I doubt that my house will ever be super clean, as in doorframes without grimy handprints and cupboard doors without coffee splashes and baseboards without dust. But there is definitely unnecessary stuff, especially in closets. I have no problem with messes being made in the service of life, but another mess on top of the last mess on top of general clutter will be the end of me.

I remember being very, very annoyed when I read the Mitford book series and I saw that the only reason the main characters could be so available to others and so creatively prolific is that they had a full-time housekeeper and cook.

Now, back to food. My problem is not meal planning. Even though I really don't have a specific plan, there are quite a few things I know how to make and which most people say taste pretty good. But my problem is executing even a planned meal without the stress of it compelling me to stab myself rather than slice the chicken. So, I asked myself what was so stressful about it. And I answered, "It takes such a long time to prepare everything, which makes a mess in itself. Then you have those prep dishes, plus the time actually cooking, then the tension of eating a meal with a bunch of kids while already a blathering idiot from the cooking process, and then the mess left after it's all over." So, main problems are 1) Time 2) Mess 3) The actual meal and 4) Mess.

Then I asked, "How can I make this unavoidable task less stressful?" And I decided that:

1) I need to do any possible prep work - chopping veggies, peeling potatoes, grating cheese, measuring liquids, greasing pans etc. way earlier in the day, ideally before noon. Then I need to wash those dishes.

2) I need to pick a time to have dinner ready. I know a lot of you smart people already do that but since my husband has a totally unpredictable schedule it never became a habit with me. I chose 4pm and in the morning I decide when I need to start cooking with my already happily prepped ingredients to have it done by that time.

3) And this may be the controversial one. I decided that when the meal is done, I am leaving and going for a walk and letting everyone else eat. They all know to do their own dishes so when I come back I can eat and have nothing left to do but put the food away. I'm sorry, but I am not a lover of family meals because someone is always asking for something, spilling something, talking incessantly or (insert annoying behavior you can't possibly handle after a terrible experience like cooking). For you people who have loving family devotions and rousing but respectful discussions about politics and philosophy over dinner, don't judge me too harshly.

4) Any dishes that accumulate after dinner just get put into a dishpan and are easily dealt with in the morning.

This has actually worked quite well in the week or so I have been implementing it.

I am tired of always being in fight or flight mode. I didn't realize that's what it was until I watched a documentary on stress, and they said that in our culture, most of us are constantly pumping out that adrenaline which is really only made for times of danger. We do this by always being on call or in work mode, or by worrying about possible situations in which we might need to fight or take flight, but which almost never happen in real life. At my rapidly advancing age, I am becoming more concerned about how this will affect my health. Since I obviously don't have much time or mental/emotional energy to put into art and other interesting pursuits, I'd like to be alive in five years when I will have the time, instead of trying to do what I can't and dying of a heart attack or some other stress-related disease (of course, God may have my heart attack on schedule for tomorrow, but since I can't know that I'm going to assume that reducing stress will be helpful in the long term.)


  1. Nodding to just about everything and laughing at #3 - good for you! I'm not there yet, but you're so right about the fight or flight.

  2. Oh my gosh, I LOVE you! I cannot count the number of times I've said that whomever decided family meals are good for kids must never have been to our house, because they're just STRESSFUL I'm sure I never digest my food well in large part because I have to deal with all the kids while I eat.

    I like your solution.