Lately, I’ve seen many articles and blog posts about the search for balance between writing and life. Most of what I’ve read has been geared toward stay-at-home mother/writers, but I think all of us–women, men, mothers, fathers, singles, religious, those who work in the home, and those who work outside of the home–have the same struggles.
We are a culture of multi-taskers. The same day-to-day realities of work, family, and home that past generations dealt with, remain. Now, in addition to that, we also deal with the “virtual” reality of global, up-to-the-minute accessibility to one another through cell phones, email, and social media. The blessing of this reality far outweighs the burden, but it can be a burden. It seems that no matter what task is begun, in addition to the chorus of voices of children or co-workers who need assistance, is the chorus of bells, whistles, rings, and beeps alerting us to text messages, finished loads of laundry, Twitter mentions, or a call from your Aunt Lulu in Michigan.
Personally, I’ve tried turning off Tweetdeck, email, and Facebook while I work. I’ve tried switching the cell phones to vibrate. I can tune out the buzz of the dryer. But sometimes, during writing time, my kids actually need me. The dog might have to go out. The phone in the house might ring. Not everything in life can be turned off, nor should it.
That doesn’t change my frustration when I get interrupted.
There is an answer, however, that I’ve found through two recent books I’ve read that has helped me tremendously. As is often the case, it’s incredibly simple but incredibly profound.
First, from Dani Shapiro’s Devotion:
“One afternoon…Sharon Salzberg spoke about a Buddhist teacher in India, a widowed woman with many, many children who had no time to sit on a cushion, meditating. How had she done it, then?…How had she achieved her remarkable ability to live in the present? The answer was simply this: she stirred the rice mindfully.” (89)
Next, from Mitch Albom’s Have a Little Faith:
A little girl came home from school with a drawing she’d made in class. She danced into the kitchen, where her mother was preparing dinner.
‘Mom, guess what?’ she squealed, waving the drawing.
‘What?’ she said, tending to the pots.
‘Guess what?’ the child repeated, waving the drawing.
‘What?’ the mother said, tending to the plates.
‘Mom, you are not listening.’
‘Sweetie, yes I am.’
‘Mom,’ the child said, ‘ you’re not listening with your eyes.’
Stirring the rice mindfully, listening with your eyes, attending wholly to the task of the moment, this is the secret to balance.
If my son comes into the office when I’m writing and I type while he’s talking to me, we’re both frustrated, and that frustration creates ripples for both of us. If I stop, turn to him to hear what he has to say, and then turn back to my writing, the moment is a complete moment, not a series of interruptions. We are both fulfilled and can both move on without carrying the negative feelings of the interaction once it’s passed.
If I attend to the dinner I’m trying to cook instead of doing it while talking on the phone, packing my son’s backpack, and pulling clothes out of the dryer, I won’t burn the dinner, have to make my Aunt Lulu repeat herself, and forget to pack my son’s lunch for the field trip.
It also applies to work: if I turn off my email alert while I’m blogging or writing I make significantly more progress than if I switch back and forth. For me, unless the tasks are extremely simple, multitasking ends up leaving me with more work, more fires to put out, and a flawed product.
I still have a lot of work to do in this area, but at least when I get frustrated I can remind myself to stir the rice mindfully or listen with my eyes. My co-workers (ahem, my kids) generally respect the boundaries I’ve set during writing time. The dog usually leaves me alone once I sit at my desk. But now, at least I have a coping strategy if they don’t.
How about you? Do you have any tricks for finding balance in your work or family life? What works for you? What doesn’t?