sunset, mum and son, travel, Philippines

It comes like this – a student academic report, downloadable from the parent portal at our school, and I can feel it. The clench of anxiety. I’ve done the school mum thing for two-and-a-half years, the fear lessens every year, but I’ll never forget the first semester. What will it say? What will the grades be? Then arguing with myself, he’s a tiny child, who cares what this says. But it is a hard fight.

A midwife pulls a baby out of you, and the first thing they do is give your child an Apgar score, these are points, like the baby is seconds old and already they can win or lose. Within the first hour of their lives, the babies are measured again. Their weight, length and head circumference go into a book. It becomes a baseline for their first few years. And for the vast majority of us, the numbers will be fine. Normal, the doctor will declare at every wellness check, and you, Mom and Dad, you will breathe out the air you did not know you held. Relief upon relief because at every appointment you’re wanting to know the answer to the question you ask daily: Is my baby going to be ok?

Month after month, year after year, our children are eyed up and down by medical professionals. Soon they attend kindergarten where the measurements change. Social skills, verbal ability, fine motor skills. Can he hop? Can she stack blocks? There will be playdates and Christmas dinners where your in-laws and friends will observe them and remark about so-and-so’s child who does it differently. School comes swiftly and now it’s about their ability to read and add and subtract and sit still and pay attention.

It’s time to open the file with their academic report. Your kid just finished half a year of prep or grade 1 or kindergarten. One report down, 23 more to go, each one more important than the next. It is an unrelenting snowball of measuring sticks. You’re not converting from the imperial system to metric. No, you are negotiating the numbers and letters used to define your child.

Because everything in you wants your child to measure up. Upward toward glorious destinies. No culture in the world celebrates children achieving less than their parents. Western, Eastern, Southern, Northern, you ask a parent anywhere. They want more for their kids. We want our kids to excel where we excelled. We want them to excel where we failed.

We don’t have much patience for failure. These days even mediocrity feels like a dirty word.  

And we are 2019 parents – we are better educated about what kids need and how they work. We’ve got our time-ins, choices, positive AND peaceful parenting. We have speech and occupational therapists who can correct deficiencies early. And when all of that fails, we have the Internet with its vast storehouse of folklore cum research. You could diagnose your child before you ever take him into a doctor’s office.

We are informed. We are motivated. Maybe we are also stressed? We hold in our hands a variety of rulers and thermostats. Ready to take the measurements. Ready to answer our most fragile of questions: Will this child be ok?

Because isn’t this our question behind every weight check and report card? Aren’t we just wanting someone else to tell us, In this big, bad, broken world, your precious child is going to be fine.

quotation about failure and mediocrity

Bad news, Mom and Dad. No one can tell you that.

You aren’t prepared for that teacher who only sees everything your son does wrong.

I promise somewhere there is a coach who does not believe your daughter is a future Olympic athlete.

No one is ready for that call from the principal’s office.

You don’t know when it is your turn to sit in a doctor’s office and receive the news that will tear your world to shreds.

Nothing can prepare us for the disappointments inherent in loving our children.

Here’s what we get to do instead.

When the world comes for us with its instruments and measurements, gently put them down.

Turn to your beloved child and bear witness.

Watch her struggle. Listen to his fears. Tell them they can do hard things. Do hard things with them. Pick them up and drive them home when they don’t.

Stand on the sidelines of their life and cheer.

Cheer for them when you see them triumph over the thorns in their flesh. Cheer for the things only you could see. Cheer when they get it right. Cheer when they get it wrong. You aren’t cheering because of their behavior. It’s your child, because it is him, it is her, they are yours, you get to cheer for them no matter what.

Ignore the sheet that tells you they need to be here or they have to get there. Train your mind, teach your heart to see just him. Just her. Just this child who is yours who will be measured everyday of their life by the rest of the world.

But not by you. No. There’s one place where they will know the measurements don’t exist. When they come home and they know it is all love.

Hi, I’m Devi, and I’m so glad you read this post today. I write about family and faith and every now and then, food. I post stories and images almost daily on Instagram – I’d love to get to know you better and chat, so say hi in the comments or send me a message.

I turned 37 a few months ago, and I wanted to collect a “few” lessons I’ve learned along the way. Here they are in no particular order.

Just because you have a high pain tolerance as a child doesn’t mean you’ll have one as an adult.

Having a named, agreed upon, signed-on-the-dotted-line best friend isn’t a long-term guaranteed friendship.

Years of trust, being there for each other, telling the truth, laughing together, cheering each other on, connecting points: these are the marks of a friendship that lasts.

You don’t have to have a group of friends. You just need one person who gets you.

The more underwear you have, the less laundry you have to do.

Read more. Read everything. Read outside your faith. Read outside your opinions. Read good books. Read bad ones. Read poems and prose, opinions and news, analysis and plays. Words build your life.

Stand in the sunshine, not just because you have a vitamin D deficiency but also because it’s nice to be warm.

You need hobbies. Start one and see where the fun leads you.

Truth comes in layers. There is no way to know it all, but you can hold each piece at a time. You can be captured by its beauty, you can turn it over in your hands, you can let it sink deep and transform you.

It takes time to discover the lifestyles that make you anxious and fearful. But when you discover what they are and the people who represent them in your life, start cutting anxiety triggers out.

Therapy is one of your keys to living well, but therapy only works if you will tell the truth. Whatever layer of truth that may be.

You cannot expect someone to simultaneously diagnose what’s wrong with you and tell you that everything is fine.

Perfectionism is not your friend.

Failure is your friend. But only if you can see it as an invitation to move forward.

Marriage is good. Marriage is hard. Let it be whatever it needs to be.

You judge in others what you are most afraid of in your own life. Instead of judging others, examine your own life.

Never judge another parent.

Judging others achieves nothing.

The only life you can change is yours.

Pray. About everything. At all times. It is the only thing you can do about matters outside of your control.

You get to say no. About anything you want. For absolutely no “good” reason.

Listen to your body, she is your friend, what she has to tell you is important.

Women who put you down are not your friend.

Say you’re sorry when you do something wrong or make a mistake. When you can, find ways to right your wrongs. This is true repentance.

Listen to your hunger. Explore your hunger. Find the deepest thing that you are hungry for and feed it.

You don’t have to stay in therapy with a therapist you don’t connect with or like. You don’t have to give reasons for not going.

Trust is hard. It is supposed to be hard.

Your kids will drive you crazy.

Watching your kids grow will be one of the greatest joys of your life.

Motherhood is a close negotiation between who you are and who your kids are.

Getting older is a treasure, with every year you glow brighter, rough edges rubbed off, you are becoming more beautiful, wiser, stronger, better.

Go back to your doctor. The point of a general practitioner is continuity of care. The more they see you, the better picture they get of your overall health. Don’t just go when something bad happens, go for a follow up. Take their instruction seriously. Take their advice. But also know when not to.

Instead of worrying, look for what you can do. Act or put it aside.

Practice discernment by practicing reflection. Pay attention to what works over time and what doesn’t work.

Say thank you every day.

When you see something beautiful, when you feel something lovely, hold it in your heart a little longer. There’s no need to rush past.

Life is a gift. Your life is a gift. So live.

Now it’s your turn: What lessons have you learned this year?

In November 2017 I started washing my face. Ok I had always possessed a bottle of Neutrogena cleanser and moisturizer, but I found out that there’s a difference between a retinoid and retinol, and I paid attention to words like hyaluronic acid and vitamin C, not the kind you chew.

I started small with a bottle of toner and a pack of round cotton pads, then I added serums and acids. After a few months, I realized I stuck to a routine in the morning and evening. There were many things I did not do – wake up early, go to bed early, clean the kitchen before sleep, reading before bed, and on and on – but  every morning before I left the house I washed my face, and before I went to sleep I did it all over again plus a retinoid.

There was this small voice inside of me saying, You did it, you stuck to a routine. (The voice did not sound like Rachel Hollis’ just in case you think this post is about her or her book – it is not.) That was almost a year-and-a-half ago, but it was the first domino. The first habit that started the rest of them.

I’m no habit guru, and this blog isn’t a productivity blog. But I think you are a person in a middle space of life, navigating transitions and tensions, looking for stories of hope. And that’s where this story about finding helpful routines fits in my own life and hopefully yours.

Would you think I’m crazy if I told you that my life has more clarity and discipline in it because I started washing my face?

Well, it does.

And I think it could for you, too. Your small change may not be washing your face – it could be a slight adjustment in what you drink or eat, it could be a shopping habit, practicing piano, an evening walk, new ability to focus because of the Deep Work Challenge, meal planning, not checking work emails at home. Perhaps it could be something equally small, an “insignificant” part of your daily life like washing your face, but small changes have profound impacts.

The easiest routines I’ve built into my life in the past year-and-a-half somehow all tagged on to the face washing.

A year after I started washing my face with new dedication, I went back to one of my neglected journals. I call it a prayer journal, a place where I put the week’s worries and doubts. I started writing a gratitude list next to my weekly list of anxieties, and I did it every night before I went to sleep (it’s a similar practice to the Daily Examen).  I washed my face, and whatever time I went to sleep at night, I pulled the journal out and made a list of what I was grateful for in the day. Soon I started going to bed earlier. Not because I thought I should but because I wanted to. In February I started turning my phone off at 8pm, changing into pyjamas, washing my face, reading a book in bed, and writing my gratitude list. Now I’m offline an hour before I go to bed, a practice I’ve desired for years.

I feel peaceful when I go to sleep, I feel well when I wake up in the morning. You may read this and think it sounds ridiculous, but we all get to set the boundaries around what our lives look like. What would it look like for you to spend your time with intention in the evenings and mornings?

Don’t waste your time wondering why your life isn’t the way you want it to be.  You get to decide what works for you – you get to set the boundaries around the final hours of your day so that you end up with an evening that will work for you and the people in your life. Yes, you may have to negotiate with a spouse, kids or friends, but please do it.

(My Deep Work tools, I set them out every night on the kitchen counter and use them first thing when I get up to write in the morning.)

I’m on day four of the 21-Day Deep Work Challenge now, and there’s one thing I needed to make this work: Basic routines. Have you been joining the challenge? How has it been for you?

Whenever we want to make a change in our life – however big or small – there are supporting actions around it that need to adjust or change as well. When I started washing my face, it was not just about buying a product to use. It was also about making the time at both ends of my day to wash my face. I had to get up a smidgen earlier to make school drop offs work and use vitamin c on my face. It was a tiny adjustment because I only added one piece at a time, but those tiny adjustments one at a time took me in a new direction.

Here are a few questions to think about as you go about making Deep Work a lifestyle for you:

Where does Deep Work fit in your daily life? 

What needs to get moved around to make Deep Work happen?

Who do you need to talk to about helping you make this happen? 

Where do you need to take on more responsibility to free your time for Deep Work?

Where do you need to let go of responsibilities to free your time for Deep Work?

What is your face washing habit (the small thing you can do daily that may become an anchor point for future habits)? 

Now it’s your turn: How’s your Deep Work practice going? Are you encountering resistance? What helpful routines could you add to your life to help you stick to your deep work plans or just life plans in general? 

So you’re in. You want to try Deep Work out for yourself, March 11 is almost here, and now what? How do you get ready? How do you know you’ll be able to do this? This post is a practical one, full of ideas and tips. Read on, Deep Worker. We are only beginning this journey – treasures await.

What work should I pick?

Choose something you want to do. It’s going to be very, very hard to do something undistracted for 21 days if it is the kind of thing you don’t want to be doing anyway.

Choose something that has the possibility to create mental strain, meaning something that is slightly harder than what you’re used to. Here are a few examples:

Crafting (knitting, crocheting, sewing) – pick a pattern or a stitch you don’t already know or one that is slightly harder than what you’re already about to do

Practicing an instrument – pick pieces of music that’s at a higher level

Reading or Bible study – choose books (novels, poetry, non fiction, studies) that are harder for you to understand

Work-related projects – pick a complex one, maybe something that’s had you stumped for a while

Design – learn a harder software or technique, you know your ability, work to express your ideas in a better way from before

Art/painting/drawing – try a new technique for 21 days, pick a style you typically struggle with

Photography – find an area of it where you need to grow, do you need to get better at using light? Or a particular editing software? Do your compositions need work? Where do you need to grow as a photographer? Make your deep work pushing into that space.

Teaching – study a new teaching style, one you don’t already know. Develop a new set of lesson plans. Read in your area of study, but harder reading that what you normally do.

What is deliberate practice and why is it important?

In Deep Work one of the things Cal Newport says is, “to learn requires intense concentration…to master a cognitively demanding task requires this specific form of practice – there are few exceptions made for natural talent” (p34-35).

Newport also references the work of neuroscientists on page 36-37:

These scientists increasingly believe the answer includes myelin-a layer of fatty tissue that grows around neurons, acting like an insulator that allows the cells to fire faster and cleaner. To understand the role of myelin in improvement, keep in mind that skills, be they intellectual or physical, eventually reduce down to brain circuits. This new science of performance argues that you get better at a skill as you develop more myelin around the relevant neurons, allowing the corresponding circuit to fire more effortlessly and effectively. To be great at something is to be well myelinated.

By focusing intensely on a specific skill, you’re forcing the specific relevant circuit to fire, again and again, in isolation. This repetitive use of a specific circuit triggers cells called oligodendrocytes to begin wrapping layers of myelin around the neurons in the circuits-effectively cementing the skill. The reason, therefore why it’s important to focus intensely on the task at hand while avoiding distraction is because this ist he only way to isolate the relevant neural circuit enough to trigger useful myelination.

from “Deep Work

You and I need deliberate practice in our life to master anythingAnything. This is how you learned how to ride a bike, this is how you learned how to write. Myelination. So wouldn’t it be great to get better at something we want to get better at?

How do I do this in a formal workplace? 

I’m assuming this means your Deep Work is related to your work (please don’t use work time to work on a personal project for this challenge).

Look at your schedule – where can you block out 30 minutes to an hour a day in the same place? Can you book a solo meeting room if you’re in an open plan office? Can you wake up earlier in the day and get to work before anyone else is there? Talk to your boss – explain that you want to try distraction-free work daily to see if it will impact your productivity. My guess is they will be all for it. Train yourself to keep work email, work chat or anything else that pings turned off while you do your work. And no Facebook.

Why do I need to achieve anything at all? I’m happy with my life. 

The 21 Day Deep Work Challenge is not about achievements. This is about training your mind to think without distractions, it is about changing our day-to-day operations from multi-tasking toward a deeper, focused way of living. For some of you, there could be a tangible achievement at the end of it – for me I’m hoping that this will lead to long-form writing that will one day be published. But you may spend the next 21 days reading daily – the achievement isn’t in how many books you read. It’s in the treasures you will find from reading without thinking about anything else, it will be the exercise of allowing your mind to engage with harder topics. Our brains are meant to be stretched past the point of mental strain. If we achieve something as a result, that’s great, but it’s more about giving our minds a chance to do what they were created to do.

But Devi, I’m already a deep worker. 

Good for you (and please leave comments about how you do it, we want to learn from you). But can you stretch your deep work time? Instead of 30 minutes, can you work with no distractions for one hour or two? Cal Newport says that more than four hours is a waste of brain space, so don’t push yourself past that. You can make this challenge whatever time limit would be a challenge for you – you do not have to stick to 30 minutes a day.

I’ve got small kids at home with me, I can’t do this. 

I wrote a post just for you – head over here to read about why Moms of littles should do this and how you can.

I can’t live without my phone. 

What are you worried about? Identify that and you’ll know how to proceed. I know that the kids’ school has my hubby’s contact information, so they will call him if they can’t reach me about one of our kids. They also have two other (trusted) emergency contacts. Try going without your phone for 30 minutes several days in a row, I promise, you will be ok.

How do I know I can discipline myself to do this? 

You don’t know, but the rewards of doing something you thought you couldn’t are enormousFor me distraction number one is my phone, so I’ve started leaving in the car when I come in to do my work. I go get it when I’m done or if I need it for something. I’ve learned to stop clicking to different browsers when I’m on my laptop. When I struggled to even do that, I close the laptop and write by hand. I’ve turned off the wifi in our house. I’ve gone somewhere with no wifi to work. You know what your distractions are – find ways to eliminate them slowly.

Your brain can learn new tricks, you can acquire new habits. You are stronger than you realize. You can do this.

Also, a quick reminder, this is 30 minutes. Allow yourself to be distracted the rest of the time. See which one you prefer (wink).

Can I do this for longer than 30 minutes? 

Absolutely. The recommended time is one hour to 90 minutes and no more than four hours.

Now it’s your turn: What other questions do you have? Please put them in the comments – I’d love to hear them. 

Nearly six years ago, there was a boy and a rock that said, “You did it.” He was my then-two-year-old. We moved to Sweden early August 2013 with him and his baby brother, and it was a flurry of delightful, stressful activity. Driving on unfamiliar streets on the right side of the road, navigating new supermarkets, getting used to life with two children and the demands of a baby, the list of things I felt I could not do was unending. But there was this one morning when my two-year-old and I walked down to the water near our house with the baby in the stroller, we threw rocks into the water and watched the splashes.

My son tried to reach his favourite big rock, and he said he couldn’t do it. But he stuck with it, he tried, he reached further. He did not give up. And soon enough his tiny fingers grasped the edges of this rock, he grabbed it.

He did it.

The story became part of our family legend as The Rock That Says “You Did It,” the mantra I’ve repeated to the kids when they have to reach within them to find an extra piece of courage for whatever challenge they face.

That boy is almost eight now. He reads for hours and tells me how time travel could work one day. It took him a few years to learn how to ride a bike, he fell off, his confidence shattered, he had to find something else deeper inside of him. He did it. He can ride almost anywhere. He learned how to swim. He plays soccer. He learned how to lose at games and how to play people who are better than him so he can learn how to win.

I’ve watched from the sidelines of his life as he learned and mastered anything he wanted to learn. How did he do it? How did his brother (now nearly six) learn to do anything? They disappeared into a quiet, focused place. They set their mind to learn, it was like the world around them vanished while they repetitively drew letters, sounded out phonograms and pushed their bodies.

And I watch them with a silent envy. Why is it so easy for you? Where do you get your energy for this? Where did these reserves come from to work hard? How are you able to overcome failure?

I wrote about the 21-Day Deep Work Challenge yesterday, but if I’m honest, there is one group of people I thought about more than anyone else: Mothers of small children. Yes you, the one who read about this Challenge and thought, “Not for me.”

I can imagine that you thought the idea of 30 minutes of time without distraction is a fantasy, and that I have no idea what I’m talking about. Yes, both my children are in school in 2019. Yes, it feels like the absolute greatest luxury of my life. But no, I haven’t forgotten what it was like. When my kids were still with me at home, it didn’t matter what their age, the idea of undistracted time was a fantasy.

I started a load of laundry.

Someone needed food.

I folded a t-shirt.

Spilled milk had to be wiped up.

I read to my kids.

Their noses needed wiping.

I put one to sleep.

The other needed help on the toilet.

Then I stepped on a piece of LEGO with my left foot while my right foot landed in a squishy pile of breakfast oatmeal on the floor. Obviously.

In those early years of motherhood, I was distracted by something necessary every few minutes. A stream of activities that were constantly interrupted all day long, all week long.
Into this mix came my smart phone in 2014, and when I had a few minutes to spare, I had a piece of technology in my hand that connected me with family and friends around the world. There were beautiful things, like seeing photos of my new niece a few hours after she was born, but it only heightened my distraction. I found myself unable to pay attention to almost anything for more than 10 or 15 minutes at a time My kids got older and had activities, but I would sit on the sidelines of a swimming lesson, bored, and scrolling through my phone for no reason. Fast forward to 2019, and I’ve found myself watching a movie on Netflix and looking at Instagram at the same time.

Ladies, there is apparently scientific evidence out there for the fact that this was killing my brain cells. In Deep Work, Cal Newport quotes late Stanford University researcher Clifford Nass’ NPR interview on the subject of multitasking. Nass studied behavior in the digital age. Newport says on page 158, “Nass’ research revealed that the constant attention switching online has a lasting negative effect on your brain.” To NPR’s Ira Flatow, Nass said in 2010:

“People who multitask all the time can’t filter out irrelevancy. They can’t manage a working memory. They’re chronically distracted. They initiate much larger parts of their brain that are irrelevant to the task at hand…they’re pretty much mental wrecks.”

from p158 of “Deep Work”

I don’t want to be a mental wreck. I don’t want to multitask anymore. I want to take what time I have and devote it toward focused work, whatever that work may be.

Nass is talking about people who choose distractions while they are working. As moms, there are many distractions we don’t choose, our children are a natural, wonderful (and not) part of our lives, they are packages of distraction, and that is just fine.

But what about the way we choose our distractions? The texting, the apps, the cooking while filling out forms? The emailing while doing a bank transfer? The Netflix watching while social media watching?

I want present in my life today the same resilience and brilliance I see my in my children. The way they attack a task and focus? It’s how to learn. It’s why your kids and mine go from not reading to reading. It’s how they learn the monumental task of writing real words. It’s how they learn to ride bikes and swim. They repeat a skill they did not know over and over and over again without doing anything else at the same time.

They believe they can do it. You know why? You and I are on the sidelines cheering them on. Telling them to try. Encouraging them to move past their failures and struggles. Telling them to keep going, reach further, the rock is within your reach. You can do it, kiddo.

Hey Mum of small kids, that message is for you, too.

You can do it. You can reach further. That skill you want to learn that you think is too hard? You can learn it. It is not too late.

I want to dare you to take this challenge. However hard it may be for you in this season of your life. The care and nurture of your children is important. Your role in their lives is irreplaceable. But it is not the only thing in your life. Don’t let your mind go to waste. You need your brain to function for a long life of meaningful work, however you choose to define the word “work” in your life.

This is not the time to be more distracted because there are already things that will distract you. That should distract you.

Push yourself to do mental work that will challenge you. It doesn’t have to be for money. It doesn’t have to be for a boss. Make yourself think harder. When you’re bored (and lord knows, I was bored a LOT with small kids), push past the urge to scroll mindlessly through your phone. Pick up a skill instead.

Tips on How To Work Undistracted When You Have Small Kids

  1. Pick work that you genuinely want to do – don’t pick something that you feel you should do
  2. Talk to your partner if you have one – tell him about this in detail, ask him how he can help you
  3. Set aside the time – I think the same time daily is what will work best
  4. Wake up before your kids – be honest with yourself, can you really do this?
  5. Plan to do it after they are in bed (be honest with yourself – are you someone who can work at night? Don’t do it if you cannot)
  6. Give your kids 40 minutes of screen time
    1. Take them to the toilet before, put a large snack out for them and their drink bottles.
    2. Explain to them that Mommy is going to have alone time as well
    3. Go into a different room and close the door.
    4. You get 10 minutes to prepare, and 30 minutes to do your work. Set a timer and do your work until it ring. I wish I had done this when my kids were smaller.
  7. During the three weekends, ask your partner to take care of the kids while you do your deep work, maybe try to push yourself to 60 minutes.
  8. Find a friend with small kids to do this with – encourage each other, swap kids to help each other do your deep work

Now tell me: If you’re a mum of small kids, what could you focus on for 30 minutes daily for 21 days? What would you love to do? How could you do it? If you don’t have small kids, do you have a lady friend in that stage whom you could help out? Could you pass this on to her – encourage her to try?