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Daily Rhythms with Anchor Points and Pressure Valves

April 2, 2013


Anchor Points Make Days Predictable and Flexible

These days, I don’t write out a minute by minute schedule to plan each day. Forget minutes–I don’t write out hourly schedules, either. Our days are fairly predictable with expected routines, but they also have a lot unstructured kid free time spaced throughout the day.

We like to call the routines that hold down our day our anchor points. Anchor points are the non-negotiables that tie our days together. We have a few checklist items (e.g., make/eat breakfast, work on article, read book together, take walk, etc…), and then I arrange them within the general time categories when I need to accomplish them (e.g., morning, early afternoon, evening while kids are sleeping, etc…). Wedding this idea with the concept of margin has provided me with more flexibility and opportunities to get things done.

Keep It Simple Schedule

One way to become quickly overwhelmed with small children is to pencil in every minute of the day. When a diaper or potty accident occurs, a shoe is lost while heading out the door, or a child really needs a little more of your attention, the minute-by-minute schedule is thrown off for the rest of the day. Instead, and particularly in this season of motherhood, it may help to focus on times as chunks, and days with routines instead of strict schedules.

In his productivity book Zen to Done, Leo Babuata encourages his readers to eliminate many of the unnecessary items off of their checklists, and just focus on three main tasks for each day. By eliminating others, they are more compelled to actually accomplish the most important tasks.

While such extreme simplification in motherhood (especially the SAHM version) may seem unrealistic, it may help to eliminate the minutia that ends up creating more stress and distracting from accomplishing what is truly important.

Life Tastes Better in Bite-Sized Chunks

Viewing your day as centered around anchor points will also help to break the day into chunks, and allow each section to seem more manageable. Bite-size is easier to do throughout the day than trying to eat a whole elephant at the end of the day.

Mealtimes are great anchor points. Using these as your non-negotiable times, you may choose to break up your day into a breakfast checklist, a lunchtime checklist, an afternoon checklist, and an after supper checklist. Additionally, each day may have its own space for a particular outing or activity. (But when you try to cram in too many, you’ll definitely experience circuit overload!)

Centered around the morning anchor point, you may wish to include breakfast, cleaning up the breakfast dishes, deeper cleaning one room assigned each day, reading through two small books with a child, and answering one e-mail. Of course, with children, there will be a host of other activities that come up: changing a diaper, an emergency bath, or helping an older child work through a frustration or schoolword. With children, flexibility is important–both for your sake and the child’s. Then, push to get all those items accomplished before the next anchor comes up. You can rearrange as life happens, and even eliminate when needed.

We All Need Breathing Space: Margin and Pressure Valves 

We all need breathing space in our days, throughout our days. This breathing space is, as Dr. Richard Swenson titles itmargin. Margin is essential in motherhood, though we don’t often notice it if we’re not intentional about it. Yet its absence often leaves us breathless and wondering why.
In the book Simplicity Parenting, author Kim John Payne discusses the concept of pressure valves. Pressure valves are important parts of the day–they are times during which to release pressure or tension and to sort of “regroup” or “debrief” mentally and emotionally before moving on to the next part of the day. These are important for anyone, but particularly so for the more introverted and easily stimulated child. Such activities can include painting, water play, naps and quiet times, quiet play, or a quiet walk.

Or, as Payne writes about other types of pressure valves:

“For some boys and industrious types, work can serve as a pressure valve. Such work might be doing a project: hauling rocks in a wheel-barrow, digging a hole, building with blocks, catching lizards, or climbing a tree. Ongoing projects that kids are anxious to get back to right after school can be wonderful pressure valves. Any activity a child can “lose himself in” allows for a release of tension, and the mental ease needed to process the day’s events. Whatever the means, active deep play is an excellent pressure valve. As kids reach the preteen years, sometimes hobbies or collections – the beginnings of deep passions – and organized sports can serve the same purpose.”

Personal Experience 
I’ve found that my kids need both unstructured play and quiet times (since naps are not usual for the oldest two) to have a smoother day. And I’ve found that when I am able (not always possible!) my own morning and afternoon with a little quiet space, the day goes much more smoothly on my end, as well. (And if you must live by a minute-by-minute schedule, then schedule these into your day.)
I have watched my children learn to create all sorts of objects with paper, scissors, and glue or in the dirt when “set free” to play by themselves. I’ve also overheard countless stories being relived and enhanced as they become actors in the worlds they create from stories we’ve read, family memories we’ve shared, and totally random compilations of their lives.
As homeschoolers who finished their work quickly, my husband and his brothers (and sister) had many hours with which to invent their own worlds, write and illustrate books in the notebooks, and even make home video movies complete with explosive. I see his creativity then and now, and want that for my children.
But when every single minute is structured, these opportunities are often lost.
As I was working on this post, I noticed that Catherine of The Spirited Mind had a very helpful post that addressed many of the same topics, though from a different angle. I have appreciated her ongoing writing on habit training and children, and benefited from her tying together Charlotte Mason, habit training, and unstructured time.
On my end, I know the coming years will hold more structured (school) time than they do now, but for now we are learning lots with lots of unstructured moments spaced between a little bit of reading and writing. And at present, we are also aiming to grow and learn more habits to catalyze the effects of the unstructured time (and vice versa). I entered adult life with far fewer habits than my husband, so I often feel like trying to instill them both in myself and my children while also living a full life is like swimming upstream. But then again, two steps forward for every step back is still progress!
Do you live by a highly-structured schedule? A flexible routine? Or nothing at all? Or all of the above? 🙂

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  • Susanna April 2, 2013 at 10:31 am

    This was really helpful! Thanks Keren. I know that for me, having high expectations for my days never turns out well. I get mad when Ali has to go potty as we’re walking out the door for ladies Bible study or I wallow in despair when my goals are left unreached by the time my husband gets home. It’s a roller coaster ride that isn’t very fun and helps no one. These are great thoughts to chew on to consider change for our crazy schedule. For now, the craziness will continue until moving, and then Daniel will be the only crazy busy one, and Ali and I will be on our own with plenty of free time. It’s tempting for me to schedule it all up right now with classes and books and such, but perhaps it’s best to do as you said and have a few important things to tackle and wait on the rest. Thanks!

  • Tracy Penwell April 2, 2013 at 11:52 am

    So simple, but so, so helpful at the same time! Going to rethink some things. I think we need to slow down, or at least space out our crazy busy schedule. Thanks for this.

    Oh, and love the word and picture design!

  • Melissa West November 14, 2013 at 7:13 pm

    Funny how such a simple concept can really change the way you look at the day. Thanks for writing this out. I’m going to put some of it to use tomorrow and see how we fare:)

    • Keren November 25, 2013 at 2:20 am

      Thanks, Melissa!