Three phone messages are on your machine, a new project was just given to you by your boss and you have four errands to run between work and the time you get home tonight.
If this sounds typical of your life as a Catholic and layman, you're not alone! Managing family life (the primary lay vocation) and the demands of being a professional takes perseverance and grace. The good news is that it is possible, and a few pointers can turn chaos into balance. Mix in your faith and you've got a powerful combination. Consider the following P's of a balanced lifestyle.
In order to keep your head above water and maintain some sense of control in your life, you've got to set priorities and have the courage to keep them. Just consider some of the things to keep track of: work, relationships with your spouse and friends, parenting, exercise, home maintenance, vacationing, yard work, volunteer work, etc. If you look at these all at once you may feel so overwhelmed as to be close to tears. All of us can relate to that feeling.
Decide today to make a list of priorities and then work your life around it. Priority #1 is always going to be your relationship with Jesus Christ. If you have a family, priority #2 is going to be family-related. From there, all other things flow. Work is a means to an end. Whether that end is making enough money to support your family or providing you with an avenue to serve God, it's still only a part of your life. Keep your list on the fridge or in your planner. Let it remind you of the most important people and commitments in your life. My friend Keith often skips the happy hour attended by many of his coworkers after work on Friday. For him it's quite simple: his wife is waiting for him at home with their three beautiful children and it's obvious that they take precedence over a couple of beers with the guys.
It's not easy to craft your life around your list of priorities. For example, if maintaining good health is high on your list (it's high up there, right?) and you have to attend a professional conference where they only serve high-fat foods at the lunch break, you'll have to keep your wits about you. Skipping or nibbling on lunch could leave your stomach grumbling during the afternoon session (embarrassing), but with some advance planning you could find an alternative. Perhaps you will take a brisk walk off-site to find healthier fare or bring along some supplemental snacks, like an apple, in your purse or briefcase.
The point is that every priority you have, from low to high, represents a goal and reaching a goal requires being ready to navigate the obstacles that get in your way. Whether it's maintaining good health or an early-morning prayer ritual, you'll need plenty of poise. A ministry coach once told me to anticipate roadblocks so that when they appeared I would be better prepared to find a way through them.
Most of the time we stop trying things after we fail just one time, and yet history is filled with many great minds who failed time and time again only to "get it right" after numerous attempts and maybe years later. It all depends on your perspective regarding defeat. If you look at it as a part of victory, then launch into that new project you've been dying to begin. On the flip side, if defeat is something you dread, then the list of things you've "always wanted to do but were afraid to try" will get longer and longer. It was Benjamin Franklin who said, "Energy and persistence conquer all things."
Scripture is filled with stories of holy men and women who persevered and ultimately attained their goal. Whether it's the persistent widow from Luke's Gospel or the Lord Himself as He fulfilled His mission on earth, one finds an easy connection between our faith and persisting though trials.
How does this play out in our professional lives? In our workplaces, we can have the courage to try new techniques and methods. If we have courage, we can encourage others. When colleagues tell me about a "bad day" I often remind them that each week has five days — don't let one bad day get you down. Persistence is even important when dealing with coworkers whom you might find disagreeable. Rather than labeling or pigeon-holing, expecting "the way he always responds," look for and nurture even the most modest steps toward improvement.
Each week must include some kind of quiet, contemplative preparation in order to accomplish the high-priority items that are essential to being successful. I am amazed at how many people just "show up" on Monday morning and figure things out as the day goes on. While some professional environments might permit this kind of reactive posture, most do not. For example, I work in a school, an environment where preparation is key. Here are some ideas for wrapping up one week and moving prepared into the next.
Step One: Set aside time on Friday afternoon to "download" any unfinished tasks onto paper or into your planner. This could also take place sometime on Saturday. The important point is that you devote enough time to it and do it while the week just past is still fresh in mind. Don't fall into last-minute rushing around to prepare classes, meetings and other items by allowing them to slide to Sunday evening. (If you're like me, Sunday night is probably your least effective time of the weekend to do planning for the week.)
Step Two: Begin with a review of your mission statement, your priority list, and internal sense of what you're "all about." This should include a professional's examination of conscience: Am I doing a good job — as unto the Lord? Am I setting a good Christian example? Am I sharing my faith with others?
Step Three: Look ahead at the following week and schedule in those important projects that are facing you. How does your project list look? Which projects will take precedence this week and what are the absolute next actions that you can take in each of them? Who do you need to contact in order to help you complete your work? Schedule specific tasks for specific days. The more precise you can be, the more you'll get done.
Step Four: Pat yourself on the back — you've just done what only 10% of the population does in planning your week. Great job! Feel good that you're being proactive and taking your week head-on before it takes you on.
When was the last time you had three or even four weeks in a row with regular scheduled personal time with God? OK, three or four days? Many Catholics go months without sitting down and having a good chat with the Lord. For those of us in Catholic education, our busy schedules often take precedence over our personal time in prayer and devotion, but a full calendar doesn't have to dominate your life, and it can't if you are seeking more balance and calm.
We all need some time to ponder and think deeply about what's going on in our lives and how to keep Jesus Christ involved in our daily affairs. I find that some of my best times of reflection come through non-religious actions like going for a walk or working in the garden, but I know that I still need to sit down and read my Bible and pray.
Do you have a place for prayer? If not, designate a prayer spot somewhere in your home that you can customize and make your own. Maybe there is a window seat or rocking chair that you can claim. I've remodeled a small room in my basement just for prayer, study and reflection. I've placed photos that I like around the room and calming colors. You may want plants or sacred pictures.
Consider your time for prayer. Shouldn't it be when you are at your best? I'm at about 10% brain capacity after nine o'clock at night, so I try to schedule my prayer time in the early morning. My kids aren't up and it's a great way to start the day. Routine is very important so I try to keep to the same time each day.
My spiritual director recently asked me about my motivation for prayer and I had to stop and think; I hadn't been asked that question in over a decade! If it was simply to "do my duty," I might as well take up a hobby, like water-color painting. Instead, my heart wants to draw closer to the Savior of the world — my Savior. Prayer nurtures my relationship with Christ so it makes sense to pray and it makes sense for prayer to be a priority. Consider your motivation for prayer.
St. Augustine of Hippo once said, "Peace is the tranquility of order." Boy did he hit the nail on the head! When our lives are balanced, the result is a deeper sense of inner peace, confidence and joy. Balance is needed to achieve the kind of orderly life that allows you to serve the Lord more fully and with greater passion. If you work on all of the P's mentioned above, you will be struck when someone says to you, "you know, you are a very peaceful person." That feels about as good as when someone tells you that he thought you had been going to the gym to work out. So why not start today by taking the first step onto the path of balance and peace?
Your faith motivates you to seek balance, and balance in turn helps to give nurturing your faith the place it deserves in your life. The two things grow together. Enjoy the journey.