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Living Lightly

Decluttering the Hurry From My Schedule

“Ruthlessly eliminate hurry from your life.” Sometimes I hear a string of words spoken together, and though I understand each word individually, together they don’t compute. So it was when a friend said this sentence to me.

He was implying that hurry is something I can control – an idea I immediately dismissed as preposterous. A full life meant a hurried life, didn’t it? With 3 kids, 5 pets, a house, a body/mind/spirit I need to take care of, hurry is to be expected. I work, I go to church, I have friends, I try to be helpful, and I live at least 30 minutes from anywhere I need to be. One activity always bleeding over into the next. There’s always a rush. If I wasn’t hurried, I must not be doing enough. Hurry was a badge of honor.

I pondered his words for two years, unable to act on them, unable to forget them. I was convinced a full life meant a busy life which meant a hurried life.

That was before the pandemic Marie Kondo-ed my calendar. The little boxes crammed with activities suddenly became empty. It was like a reset. A do-over. Now that I wasn’t rushing from one place to the next, I had the unexpected space to ask myself, had it all been necessary? Without the rush, was my life no longer full? No longer purposeful?  

To my astonishment, I found the reverse to be true. Once the hubbub of going here and there all day long stopped, I got to dig in deep with the people in my circles. I felt my days became more substantive and I got to connect more with my kids, my husband, my colleagues, even with those of you in the Going Green sphere. Sometimes this was exhausting, but it was a good kind of exhausting. The days felt weighty with the pap of life.

The emptying of my schedule did not last forever, and now I have the opportunity to repopulate the calendar. But carefully. The hurried pace of the previous had been blind, thoughtless, driven, frenetic. Instead, I wanted to hold on to the life that was full. But now full of intention, of mindfulness, and of balance, with rest built in. And so I snagged another set of questions, originally asked of stuff, but I now asked of activities:

  • Are they necessary?
  • Do they bring joy?

Were there things in our schedule that weren’t necessary? You betcha. Some things were there because of habit, or because of a misplaced sense of “oughtness”. Some activities had been there out of guilt. They certainly weren’t bringing anyone joy. “This will look good on my kids’ college applications.” (That’s a truly terrible reason to do something if there’s no other passion for it.) Or “I’ll look like a flake if I don’t do this.” Or “That other family does this so we should, too.”

Whose life is this anyways?!

Another thing I’ve realized about schedules is that they are not absolute. It is ok if we don’t make it to every scout meeting or youth group meeting. It’s even ok to call off something that is supposed to be fun. It’s ok to say, “Not this week. We need some space to breathe.”

I feel like I’ve jumped off a hamster wheel. My life is more about the people in it and bigger goals than adhering to an unbending schedule. There’s also more opportunity for conversation and spontaneity. I feel more able to enjoy this big boisterous beautiful world and the people in it.

How much hurry is in your schedule?

Try this for an exercise: Take your schedule and empty it, at least on paper. Before you write in each activity, ask of it, “Is it needed – really needed – or does it bring me joy?”

Making Time for Zero Time

There is one new thing I’ve incorporated into my schedule. My family calls it Zero Time.

Zero Time hinges on the idea that our need to rest differs from our need to sleep. Both are necessary, but we hear a lot more stats on sleep – the golden 7-9 hours. While sleep solves the problem of being physically tired – exhausted even, rest is the antidote to being weary in the spirit.

I’ve lived days where I’ve had sleep but no rest. Days when I was fast asleep as soon as my head hit the pillow and I slept hard for 8 hours. As soon as sleep was done, possibly even a moment before, my body leapt to motion at the insistence of the urgent need of child or dog. And I didn’t stop again until night when I again fell back into bed.

I was sleeping, but I was not resting. And I learned that I am a woman who does not rejuvenate by sleep alone. I need some rest when I’m awake to savor it.

The more I think about it, the more I realize that every religion, faith, or philosophy, even secular sources of balance and well-being recommend some regimen of awake rest. My exercise tracker even wants me to engage in times of mindfulness. Call it Sabbath or meditation or retreat or quiet – it’s a time of stoppage. A time to be and not to do. To observe what’s around you and within you. With no agenda. No obligation. To notice strength. Notice weakness. Notice beauty. Notice ugliness. Notice the present. Notice what’s been.

My family calls this Zero Time because it is a time with zero agendas, zero goals, zero plans. And it’s pronounced as one word, like we say White House. For me this is a time of stillness because that is how I recharge. And often it’s outside. But that’s just me. Your way to cease striving may be active, loud, and social.   

Zero Time is a grace we give ourselves. It is also a tool that prepares us for the work ahead and makes us better at what we do.

Moments of Zero Time

There are three degrees of Zero Time – moments, hours, and days. A moment is what we can work in most easily. It doesn’t take much away from what you have going on. It is a spot to raise up your head from your work, whatever it might be, and notice something bigger, maybe something beautiful. It is a pause. A breath.

If you’ll indulge me a dip back into my English teaching roots, I find a great example of a Zero Time moment in Robert Frost’s poem, “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening.” Passing a neighbor’s land on horseback, he stops, “To watch his woods fill up with snow.” I love this moment. There was not an agenda, but there was a purpose. To see beauty. To notice that “the woods are lovely, dark and deep.” I imagine how this would fuel the rest of his evening. He has “miles to go before I sleep,” but being able to reflect on that glorious silent moment might carry him through with joy.

We have an unwritten rule in our house that if someone points out a beautiful sunset, you stop what you’re doing and go look at it. If someone says the cats or dogs are doing something super cute, you stop what you’re doing and go see.

If we use moments of Zero Time to practice seeing beauty or seeing some part of the bigger picture, then we are conditioning ourselves to have that perspective more regularly.

I think about the 2007 experiment the Washington Post conducted with violinist Joshua Bell, asking the question, Can we perceive beauty when we don’t expect to?

At an inappropriate hour, in an unexpected place, if we are confronted with beauty, will we see it? Bell played violin for 45 minutes in a D.C. metro station during rush hour. By all metrics, if beauty can be measured, Bell’s music is beautiful. Based on the minimal response from the plethora of passers-by, they concluded the answer was no. People don’t recognize beauty if they aren’t expecting it.

But what if we trained ourselves through regular intentional practice, to expect beauty and to see bigger things than the small tasks which sometimes fill our days? What good will this do? Each day becomes a blank canvas waiting for the masterpieces of our observation to fill it.

Our memories become treasure troves – remember when we saw the owls sitting in the bare branches silhouetted against the orangey blue of the dusk sky? Remember that sourceless melody drifting on the wind as we walked home? Remember when we were paddling on the lake and we stopped and let the water move us at its whim? Remember driving the car with the top down and the feeling of the wind and the hot sun? Remember the taste of the fresh orange juice we squeezed? Remember the crunching sound of our hiking boots on the rocky trail? Remember seeing the multicolored hot air balloons against the clear blue sky? Remember when we fed the horse, and the first loud snap-crunch of carrot surprised us so?

During life’s uglier moments, imagine being able to reach into such a collection and finding one to cling to. What a help that is to remind us that hard times will pass and there will be beauty again.

Look around you to find beauty and perspective. It doesn’t have to be a big scene. It can be the softness of a surface near you. A flower by a sidewalk, the clarity of a child’s eyes, a sleeping cat. Take time to notice. Make a list somewhere for when you are having a really crummy day, unable to see any joy anywhere, you can reread all these beautiful observations and relive them.

Hours of Zero Time

Hours of Zero Time need to be planned into the schedule intentionally. And what fills this type of Zero Time will vary more widely based on passions and druthers. These aren’t possible every day, but regularly, block off hours in your week when it works for you.

What you choose to fill this Zero Time may best be identified by the outcome. Afterwards, you should feel refreshed, as though you’ve been away from the hubbub – you’ve had a break. If you still feel hyper alert, frenzied, frenetic, stressed, stretched, then whatever you were doing that you thought was restful, wasn’t. Do something different next time.

I cannot give you a list because mine would be entirely different from yours. Recently, my Zero Time is reading, walking, crocheting, doing puzzles, playing tennis, sitting in the hot tub after dark with the lights off staring at the stars and trying to find the ISS trek across the sky. This might sound exceedingly dull to you.

For my oldest, Zero Time is taking his computer apart and putting it back together. He does this regularly. I cannot adequately express how much doing this would stress me out. That’s not my Zero Time.

For my middle child, it inevitably involves something mechanical going very fast. For my daughter it is lounging on her bed with a cup of tea, listening to audiobooks (usually something British), while coloring or practicing her handwriting, with a cat sprawled across her lap.

Sometimes Zero Time fails. I wake up earlier than everyone on Saturdays and hope for some Zero Time. I head down to the kitchen for a cup of tea and a book for the precious hour before others stir. But sometimes I find that the dog has pooped on the floor (he’s 14) and in the process of cleaning that up I find that my Sal Suds All-Purpose spray which I need to clean the floor is empty, so I go to refill that, but find a pile of damp stinky towels in the laundry room sink which need to be moved so I can get to the water. So I start the laundry which announces to the cats that I am awake, and they rush to let me know they are hungry. But they can’t eat because they have scattered their food across the counter, and according to them, food is only edible if it is in their bowl, so I meticulously put it all back. Now the dogs have noticed the cats have been fed and they demand theirs, too, and that means going into the garage to open a new bag.

The tea and quiet is long forgotten. But I will try again another time.

Sometimes Zero Time is unexpected. There’s an unlooked for bliss to being up in the watch of the night. I can’t imagine intentionally setting an alarm for 2 am, but sometimes I awake then, after the first cycle of sleep, unable to settle in to the next, and I don’t entirely mind getting up for a while. I only mind it because of how I might be low on energy the next day. But as far as the moment goes, it’s strangely sweet. The house is quiet in a way it is never quiet during the day. Not just quiet, but still. At rest. There is peace. A cessation of effort, of the striving that is my constant daytime companion. I love my house at this time. I enjoy it. I don’t look around and see tasks. I look around and see home. I can settle into a chair, under a lamp, cat beside me, tea in hand, book open. No next thing in mind. No time crunch looming. Just now. Here. 

Days of Zero Time

These are far fewer and take more advance planning. You might call them vacations, but not all vacations are Zero Time. Again, they must be restful and rejuvenating. For me that is hours hiking along a mountain stream, for you it may be rappelling off a cliff or dancing with friends. Either works if it refreshes the spirit.

Perhaps start with just one day – or a half a day – put it on the calendar. On this day, your only plan will be to engage in what you find restful – be it something quiet like watching the sunset or something active like my brother’s “board meetings” out surfing the waves. It doesn’t have to be far away, so long as you have given yourself full permission to walk away from the to-do list. Over time, perhaps you can work up the courage to try several days together, occasionally, to sink deeply into rest. Such times allow you to take stock of where you are and what you’re doing, and get perspective on the big picture.

What Are My Zero Time Obstacles?

Here are the thoughts that commonly get in the way of my Zero Time:

  1. There’s so much undone. The laundry, the dishes, the clutter, the bills, the exercise. I think, “Once I get all of this done, then I will rest.” And how often is it that all of this is done? Exactly. So I remind myself that it’s okay to set aside my to-do list. Taking care of myself isn’t being selfish.
  2. I think everything will fall apart if I stop. Now this is just arrogance, thinking that it all depends upon me. Believe it or not, I am not what is holding the world together. People have managed for millennia without me and will do so for a long while yet. They’ll be just fine if I take a break.
  3. I fear people will think less of me. Here’s the irony. If I don’t take the time to rest, I turn into a snippy, snarky grump. How much less of me will people think then? It is doing a good turn for those around me if I take the time to rest. Then others see a better me. Plus, I’m setting a good example. Other people need to rest, too.
  4. I forget. Probably the main cause. My head is down and I’m in the groove. One thing after another, check, check, check. Until I drop. Until I hit a wall. Until I raise my head in wonder that it is dark and clock has four numbers on it. This is why I have to put my Zero Time on the calendar.

Troubleshooting Common Zero Time Fails

1. I try to engage in Zero Time but I got a text/email/IM which sucks me back in to the hubbub.Turn your phone off. Put it in a drawer or in a different room. Go somewhere that it won’t work.
2. I try to rest, but I fall asleep.You may need the sleep more. Try to get enough sleep so you can have some awake rest, too.
3. When I sit down, I get sucked into a game or social media on my phone.Take the apps off your phone. Log out of the social media, and forget the passwords. Hardcore, I know. Try a paper and pencil game instead of a screen game.
4. My schedule is too full, and I can’t fit it in.Write it on your calendar. It’s an “activity” of sorts, too.
5. I have young kids and if they’re awake, I can’t rest.Find a friend with young kids, or coordinate with your spouse, and do some swaps. But you have to promise not to use the time for some to-do. Keep each other accountable to this.
6. My family inevitably needs me right then. They see that I’m “not doing anything” so they think I’m available.Reserve a special something they only have access to while you have your “time-out” so that it’s extra engaging for them. And tell them what you’re doing, which is a great model for them in their lives. Keep trying.
7. I’m in the middle of something and I just can’t stop.Set a reminder on your phone.
8. My commute used to be my transition time to stop working, but now I work from home. It’s hard to stop.Find another buffer. Perhaps a time of exercise or a slow walk about the yard or block. Something that takes you elsewhere – even if mentally – for a bit. Arrange to meet up with someone – or even with your dog!
9. As soon as I sit still, a wave of thoughts hits me about things I need to do or things I’m worried about.Keep a list handy, and write them down for later. It will all be there when your rest time is over, but you’ll be more ready to handle it.

Zero Time, times of intentional rest and restoration, makes us mentally stronger, more creative, better problem solvers, more resilient, more pleasant, and even funnier.

Sometimes we’re so busy doing our life we forget to live our life. Making time for Zero Time helps us regain our perspective and our purpose.

This article is an annual series of identifying and eliminating less obvious toxins in our life. Read about clearing out identities and voices.

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Kelli Chen says:

Fabulous and informative way to structure time! As a mother of 3 sons, owner of a small business, running a non-profit for unadoptable animals, there is never enough time. This article literally brought tears to my eyes and I’m grateful that Lisa Bronner brought this to my attention. I am a Dr. Bronner devotee from the early 1980’s when all the company had was their famous Peppermint Castile soap, which was our Godsend. Our toothpaste, our face, body, shampoo, house cleanser, laundry soap – our everything. From the inspirational messages on your bottles to your now expanded line of products, we are hooked. Love your toothpastes, Magic Balm (which works on dogs pads and noses) Sugar Soaps and our ever favorite Baby Unscented (which we purchase by the gallons). Can’t rave about you enough and now you are helping me with my scatter brained time! Love you and keep up the fabulous work! Your grandfather would be so proud!

Lisa Bronner says:

Thanks so much, Kelli! My family is so glad to be a part of your lives!

Kim says:

Thank you for this thoughtful post, Lisa. Zero time is so important! I think it’s important to hold it sacred and normalize it among our friends and families so they know to respect it.

Nancy says:

so true and so important. thank you. (here in Tucson, I am always pointing out the sunrise/sunset/rainbow) always look up!

Lisa Bronner says:

Hi Nancy- I agree! There are great treasure to be found when one looks up!

Desiree says:

This was soooo on point! The bestest writing too.. Awesome.
Thank You … author and GOD for this reminder. In the nick of Time…errrr “Zero Time”

It’s the Quality… not the Quantity.

ChefDes,
Chicago, Illinois

Patti says:

This article you have shared with us is simply beautiful, thank you beyond words for this. With such challenging times we have all been through over the past two years, your words are a helpful and welcome reminder. I really connect with what you have to say and how you share and are so truthful. I needed to read this today and it was there in my inbox!

Lisa Bronner says:

Hi Patti- I’m glad to hear this article came to you when you needed it!

Terrence Ward says:

Excellent article. I live in the suburbs of Chicago and yesterday we had a 12- inch snowfall. My zero hours were spent outside clearing the snow. After I was done, I felt profoundly alive and refreshed.

Paulette says:

Thank you for this, Lisa. It truly spoke to me, and I am really looking forward to putting some Zero Time on my calendar. I needed to read this today! Thank you thank you.

Lisa Bronner says:

Thanks, Paulette! It’s great to hear this article resonated with you. Enjoy your Zero Time!

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Lisa Bronner

Green means life. “Going Green” is living in such a way to promote vitality and vibrancy in every sphere of life. Grab an idea to make your days healthier, simpler, and more beautiful at their core.