Mise-en-place

Most of my habits start from a place of pain or frustration. For example, I was of tired of seeing an Army uniform thrown on the floor of my bedroom—and I knew that yelling at my husband to put it “somewhere else” wasn’t going to help. It was only solved when I gave him a place to put his uniform that he liked and we worked on creating that habit together.

Whether you’re trying to grow a new habit or maintain an old one, it will be greatly helped by a concept you probably already know about: mise-en-place. It’s a French term that means “everything in its place” and usually applies to chefs trying to cook fast in a kitchen. If all their ingredients and spices are knives are set out, they will be ready to make their meal with speed.

Back to that uniform—we have a chair in the corner of our bedroom and now I leave it clear as a staging area for my husband’s physical training clothes and a place for his uniform in between washes and wears. Voila!

Often, if I’m trying to build a habit and it’s not working, it’s not from lack of willpower. It’s from lack of an easy system.

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As an Army chaplain wife, I have my own uniform of sorts … pins that I need to remember to wear to official events, such as monthly spouse coffees, spouse trainings, ceremonies, etc. I am embarrassed how often I forget. A spouse of a senior chaplain solved my problem when she suggested I just always leave them in my purse. (Why didn’t I think of that?)

I found a little jewelry pouch, put them in my clutch, and now I’ll always have them when I need them. Because when I’m scrambling to give instructions to a babysitter, put on my nice shoes, and say goodbye to my kids, these pins are the last thing I’m thinking about.

What habit are you trying to build that could be helped by putting the right thing in the right place? Your Bible, journal, and pen on your nightstand? A new face cleanser on the counter and in the shower? Workout weights and a mat set out in the living room the night before?

Paper Filing

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People often ask me what to do with paper. What do you keep? How do you store it? When do you sort it?

I love digital, and keep much of my brain in Evernote, but there are some papers you really just need to keep in physical form and I don’t have time to decide what those are on a daily basis. I found my favorite solution almost 10 years ago in FreedomFiler, a system that requires minimal set-up and then almost zero maintenance. I bought the kit and some folders, read the instructions, set it up, and then moved on with my life.

The genius is that everything gets put into a color-coded folder, and then the system tells you when to sort things. For example, I dump all receipts and papers I get throughout the month that don’t immediately get recycled into that month’s folder. I have 12 monthly folders for odd years (2019) and 12 for even years (2018). At the end of this year, I’ll switch out the odd for even folders, and then sort through that year’s papers as I go. By two years from now, I’ll know for sure whether I needed that receipt, bill, or other miscellaneous document. This month, I took five minutes to sort through March of 2017’s papers and tossed all of them.

Semi-permanent papers, such as hospital discharge papers, go into folders, and then you decide when to sort through them. Permanent papers get their own permanent folders. Tax papers rotate every 10 years, so I know how long to hold on to those. I’m so thankful for this system! Whenever I need a receipt for a return or auto insurance papers, I know just where to go.

It might sound complicated, but I promise it’s not. And the investment is so low—I think I spent about $30 for the kit and $30 on files almost 10 years ago. That’s well worth the money for freedom from the paper crush.

It’s OK to Struggle

We’ve been struggling this week for many reasons, one being that my husband’s work schedule is changing, the other being the endless snow days here in Washington State that have cancelled gymnastics, tae kwon do, our weekly preschool-like Bible study, and church for almost two weeks. Now even the weekly Thursday babysitter that I share with a friend and her kids is sick. My kids are driving each other and their parents nuts.

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Sometimes, when we’re in seasons like this, I will scroll Instagram and feel weighed down by yes, the perfect pictures, but also the Momcouragement: “Go get ‘em, girl!” Well, I don’t got ‘em, random stranger on the Internet. Like our car out on the unplowed roads full of slushy snow, we are swerving around all over the place as we’re trying to get a grip.

Thankfully, the habits we’ve worked on during the easier seasons are holding us up right now in this harder season and helping us push through negative feelings. These are the habits of:

  • Mom waking up early

  • Kids not waking up early

  • Rejecting sweets and treats as emotional crutches for the whole family

  • Not watching TV in the mornings, except Saturdays

  • Doing our homeschool math and English, no matter our feelings

  • Sticking to our daily cleaning schedule

  • Making the beds

  • Tracking the budget

The pieces of our routine that aren’t affected by this tumultuous season are also some big dabs of glue for us, especially our breakfast devotions (reading the Bible, memorizing our catechism) and our nightly reading time before bedtime.

So what I want to tell you today, to bury the lede, is that it’s OK to struggle! It’s OK to be in the middle of the fight. It’s OK to be trying really hard and failing, especially when you’re trying to start new habits or break bad ones.

You know the days when you fall down and you pick yourself back up only to fall down again? Or you repent to your kids, only to yell at them again and need to repent again? Here’s something important: You are teaching your kids more on these days then you are on days when things go smoothly. I learned this when my son was a toddler and struggling with daily tantrums. His tantrums would trigger angry flashes from me, I would ask for his forgiveness, and then another tantrum would trigger another angry flash. Repeat. I must have asked my three-year-old for his forgiveness five times one day. I felt awful. But the next week, when he disobeyed me, he asked for my forgiveness for the first time unprompted. I had been teaching him how to be humble without even realizing it.

If you’re working on your first good habit or trying to break that bad habit, it’s OK to struggle—as long as you don’t give up. One study shows that it can take 30 or more attempts to quit smoking. (Mark Twain once said, “‘Quitting smoking is easy: I've done it thousands of times’.”) If you give up the seventh time, you may never get where you want to be.

Sometimes we need to go to bed and get good sleep to receive the next day’s mercies, as my good friend once told me. As long as we still get up, get those mercies, and get going again.

The Three Books on Your Nightstand

Early this year, when Instagram was flooded with resolutions, and I was already feeling anxious and exhausted, a writer I admire, Abigail Dodds, posted to her Instagram stories a caution about resolutions. Her wise words: Make resolutions for the life that you have. Have you ever thought about that?

If you have four children under five, don’t tell yourself that you’re going to read 100 books this year. Instead, Dodds said, maybe you aim to read as many of the best children’s picture books as you can. It’s important to make goals and habits for the life that we already are walking in—not for the life that we admire on social media.

I’m still chewing on this wisdom, especially as I think about my own resolutions, and especially, my GoodReads Challenge goal for 2019. My husband did read 100 books last year, and he’s going to try to do it again this year. His job as a pastor, chaplain, evangelist, and military officer makes this goal make sense. I, however, spend my days teaching a kindergartener and preschooler about the world.

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This year, I have set my goal at 20 (non-picture) books and I will be following Charlotte Mason’s advice to only leave three on the nightstand: one stiff book, one moderately easy book, and one novel. When I do make time to read, I will choose whichever calls to me most. Even if I fall asleep exhausted after two pages, after a while, those two pages will add up to all the pages in my three books.

The wisest woman I ever knew–the best wife, the best mother, the best mistress, the best friend–told me once, when I asked her how, with her weak health and many calls upon her time, she managed to read so much, “I always keep three books going–a stiff book, a moderately easy book, and a novel, and I always take up the one I feel fit for! — Charlotte Mason, “The Parent’s Review,” Volume 3, no. 2

Part of the discipline for this strategy is be engaged with only three books at a time—no more. (Raise your hand if you started 25 books last year and finished none of them!) The other part of this strategy that I love is that there’s always a book that serves to push me.

I’m hoping to read Mason’s six-volume series on home education this year, as well as the “Illiad” and the “Odyssey” to catch up with my virtual reading group, Mother Culture. Both Mason’s and Homer’s books will benefit me greatly as a home educator. I always like a good heaping spoonful of grace, too, so you better believe that any chapter books that I read out loud to my son this year will also count toward my 20.

The Morning Five

I know we need a new habit when we encounter a predictable pain point in our routine. Lately, our mornings have been rough. We’ve already worked hard on the habits that get me up when my husband wakes up at 5:30 a.m. so that I can workout, read the Bible, unload the dishwasher, and start the coffee, all before my kids come downstairs.

It’s when the kids come downstairs that we were having problems. My kids were hangry. They would turn down oranges. They wanted something to do. They would turn down the math worksheets I’d left out. Meanwhile, I would be struggling to get breakfast on the table.

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The solution came from Farmhouse Schoolhouse, via a friend who had tried out the routine.

  1. Decide on the five most important things for each child to do before breakfast.

  2. Trace Daddy’s hand.

  3. Write one of each of those tasks in each finger.

  4. Place this on the back of the child’s bedroom door.

  5. When the child completes the task, he or she gives Daddy a high-five!

I used the general idea, but made the idea my own with icons from Peaceful Press’s Chore Pack because we use and reuse these chores and my kids are familiar with the graphics.

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The first morning, my son didn’t even say, “Good morning.” He just came downstairs, hunting for a dry-erase marker and got right to work. This was a triple solution for us, because not only does this give me time after my workout to make breakfast, it’s also the perfect part of the day to introduce his personal Bible reading and piano practice.

One thing you’ll notice about habits as I write about them: I borrow wisdom from everywhere: books I read, friends I talk to, conversations with my husband. I invested in a printer, laminator, and paper cutter because there’s one thing that’s guaranteed about parenting: it’s always changing. The next time we need to introduce a habit or skill, I’ll be ready.

Do the Next Thing

“Do the next thing.” I can’t tell you how helpful this phrase is to me.

Right now, it’s room time, when my three-year-old naps and my six-year-old plays quietly in his room, and I have about 30 minutes before my next interview. I’m trying to decide whether to get a workout in before I shower, to finish cleaning the bathrooms, to work on clearing the piles of clutter from the kitchen counter, to finish my Bible study homework before class tomorrow, or to get the beef stew cooking in my InstantPot.

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We have already done breakfast devotions and breakfast. I have unloaded the dishwasher and scrubbed the sink. My son has been extra wiggly lately, so instead of Morning Basket today, where we sing hymns, memorize Bible verses, read literature, and more, we took a field trip to the beautiful Chambers Bay in University Place, Wash., and walked a steep 3.25 mile loop, which included a stop at the bottom to observe sea lions and a bald eagle and stop at the top to play on the playground.

Often, this part of the day is my pause button, but it’s also when I’m the most anxious about all that’s weighing on me, including my kids’ progress in learning to read, article deadlines, and upcoming deployments.

This is when I tell myself, out of habit, “Do the next thing.” I can pick one thing from any of my systems. I can do today’s cleaning chore, using Clean Mama’s system (“every day a little something”). I can cook the meal, using Instant Loss’s meal plans. I can do a workout, using FitnessBlender’s eight-week workout program (I’m in the middle of my third program, FB 30 3). I can even pick one of my six to-do’s written down on Paper + Oats’s designed task printables.

All that matters is that I pick one and move. My goal every day is to have down time with my husband at night, so that pushes me onward when I’d rather nap or scroll social media.

I’ll never get it all done, and my counter will probably be finally clear when my kids move out of the house, but the goal is progress, not perfection. .

6 Go to the ant, O sluggard;
    consider her ways, and be wise.
Without having any chief,
    officer, or ruler,
she prepares her bread in summer
    and gathers her food in harvest.

— Proverbs 6:6-8