Yesterday, I read an article titled “Overcoming Writer’s Block Without Willpower,” by Mike Bechtle. I was struck by a particular paragraph:
“In their book Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard, researchers Chip Heath and Dan Heath share the results of their revealing study that found we have a finite amount of willpower available. Simply put, when we use it up by resisting a chocolate donut all morning, there’s nothing left to stay disciplined in our writing an hour later. The ‘willpower tank’ has to refill before we can use it again.”
Of course this made sense to me as a writer, but it really resonated with me as a mother. This morning, I asked Liam three times to get dressed, even promising a trip to the park as soon as he put on shorts and shoes. I finished changing Kellen and returned to Liam’s room to see how he was coming along. Liam was nowhere in sight. Then I heard a giggle from the toybox and noticed that all the items that were once inside are now on the floor. I wanted to groan in frustration, but instead I smiled because I know he was pleased with his own trick. He cleaned up the mess, but only with careful supervision to ensure he didn’t wander away. We finally made our way to his room where he wiggled and squirmed as I attempted to get him into a pair of pants. After getting his socks and one of his shoes on, he told me the socks were itchy and he requested different ones. I insisted the socks were soft as baby kisses and he started to cry.
I’m pretty sure my daily reserve in the willpower tank was used up in that ten minute span.
I began to think about this willpower game in employment terms. You know how when you have a trainee, it takes three times as long to complete your morning report, because you have to explain and demonstrate every step, and the whole time you’re sitting behind them wanting to shout “just let me do it”? Having children is like having a trainee who takes eighteen years to learn the job.
Bechtle went on to discuss discipline vs. distraction. He writes:
“We used to be interrupted once or twice an hour by the phone or a visitor. The mail came once a day. It didn’t take up our willpower reserves just to stay focused on a task.
Today, daily life is more like standing in a hurricane. Cell phones make us accessible 24/7. Mail comes electronically and constantly, often several times a minute- and announces its arrival with a ping from our laptop, tablet, or smartphone. We’re surrounded by sound in our car, in our office, at the gas pump, and everywhere else through texting, tweeting, and social media. What used to be a gentle breeze of information has turned into a Category 5 storm, and we’re focused on survival instead of productivity.”
Amen, brother! The only problem is, I can turn off my computer; I can silence my cellphone; but children do not have mute buttons (oh man, if only). Last night at dinner, Ben and I are trying to have a conversation. Kellen had finished his meal, and was starting on his dessert of fruit. Every two seconds he was saying “blackberry, blackberry.” He is learning how to talk and wants us to repeat every word back to him, to confirm we know he said it. At first, I absentmindedly tuned him out. But the longer I took to respond, the more insistent he became. He started shrieking “Blackberry! BLACKBERRY!” Ben looked and said, “yes, blackberry,” and Kellen was finally appeased.
I was pondering this predicament as I made breakfast. I check my email approximately three times a day. I determined I could limit it to two, but I wondered if such a slight change would truly make any difference. I already limit my cellphone usage. If you know me, you know I rarely answer my phone. TV time is limited to time when kids are asleep. It seemed I was pretty helpless in regards to my own personal hurricane. Then, incessant beeping interrupted my thinking process.
Kellen was playing with a fire engine. It had lights, whistles, sirens, beeps- the kind of toy kids love and parents loathe. Once my ears honed in on that sound, I could hear nothing else. Then Liam began imitating the siren, followed by Kellen chiming in on the chorus. The cat became anxious from all the noise, and started meowing and scratching at the door for escape. I could almost see a lightbulb switch on over my head. Ding! It’s the toys!
Ok, it’s not the toys. But I am surrounded by no less than twenty little sounds at any given time, adding up to a deafening roar. I might not be able to control my kids talking or my cat meowing, but perhaps if I could limit some of these smaller distractions, I might find a moment of peace amidst the storm. Maybe?
The old devil called “Mommy guilt” also started to kick in. I was practically ready to run down the street stark naked, screaming in a fit of madness from all the noise. This is the environment they are being raised in. Was I dooming them to a life of speaking only through text messages and taking meals at their computer desk so they can play World of Warcraft without interruption?
Like most problems, this one would not be solved with a few minor tweaks. I had planned to go to the gym this morning, but my mind got the better of me. I imagined them glued to the TV at the kid center, eyes fixed to the program for an hour or more, waiting for Mommy to blast her quads. I’m being dramatic, but it just started compiling in my mind- the toys, the TV time, the stereo, skyping. I irrationally rearranged my whole schedule so we could limit our distractions for the day.
We headed to the library. During the drive there, I reached to turn on the stereo no less than three times. It is a force of habit, but I also wondered if there is something about silence, just silence, that makes me uncomfortable. Whenever I meditate, I feel like I’m not doing it right because I can’t shut off the wave of thoughts entering my mind. How does one enjoy the silence without listening to Depeche Mode?
Although libraries are stereotyped as quiet, the atmosphere was teeming with sound. However, I have to admit the noises were of a more pleasing variety. No annoying cell phone conversations, no irritating toys. Just kids interacting in the play area, grumbling over having to share the dishes in the play kitchen, but otherwise getting along. If the toys are less stimulating, are they somehow forced to get along better? Perhaps the only way to make boring toys fun is to share them with a friend.
After the library, we headed to the park for a picnic. Again, sound everywhere, but somehow pleasant. Actual person to person conversations, children laughing, birds chirping- I’m not making that up, birds actually chirped.
On the car ride home, I didn’t reach for the stereo. I settled into the relative quiet of my car, as one child slept and the other babbled. I entered my home feeling renewed and relaxed.
But I know every day can’t revolve around trips to the library and park. Sometimes I have to get things done. Experts love to advise providing children with simple toys like blocks, so they can use their imaginations to play. But imagination has to be developed. Liam is old enough to see a pile of blocks and think “I’ll make a city, or a tower, or a gourmet meal.” Kellen still wants or needs me to sit and build with him, show him how the pieces interact and cheer him on when he stacks them on top of each other. It’s a shortcut, but sometimes, I need a Thomas computer or an Elmo cellphone to get the dishwasher unloaded.
I also have yet to face the Toddler Witching Hour today- the hour just before Daddy gets home, alsomi known as the longest hour of the day. Right now, as I sit typing in relative peace, I tell myself that I could get used to this limited distraction lifestyle. But as the day wears on, and we all become a bit more tired, a little more stressed, and a lot more sick of each other, I’m sure those distractions will be looking mighty nice. Evening beer, record player, and a few texts to Daddy inquiring “when will you be home?” Sounds just about right.