Why Spontaneity Needs Structure

Why Spontaneity Needs Structure


I don’t post much about parenting or running a productive household, because it is certainly not my area of expertise and others provide such comprehensive value on these topics, I am mostly the student here learning as I go.  But I do believe that running a smooth, productive and balanced household is essential to our wellbeing.

As a fairly new stay at home Mom, I was unprepared for the unique demands of this position.  And in the process of finding solid ground and reestablishing my own health as a priority, this was an area I needed to get a handle on.   Our days at home can so easily run into each other that establishing routine and systems helps us to see the day in clearer focus.  Our children’s needs are many and can surface unpredictably and so allowing for room to meet those needs as they come helps us respond with care and attention.

This toggle between needing to function both under order and disorder left me spinning for a while.  Most of the more concrete responsibilities of my day could best be accomplished in a highly structured, regimented way…BUT as a mother, the more intangible duties of caring, raising and relating to my children required a healthy dose of flexibility and spontaneity.

For me, neither the highly-structured nor extremely loose framework worked well on their own. It was in finding the delicate balance of both that I began to thrive.

I needed some open spaces in my day to respond well to unplanned needs or to capitalize on unexpected opportunities.  I also needed order and structure to be productive, to keep my mind clear, and to establish a necessary rhythm of expectation that my children worked well with.

I think of it as a fence.

The fence posts are like anchors in my day.  Solid, strong and spaced out they can hold the fence up and bear a good amount of stress.  This is my structure.

The thinner horizontal planks are the times in between my anchors that can be filled with openness to new things or simply allow me to be truly present with my children…entering into their play and creating connections together, without my mind wandering elsewhere.

The benefits of having these structured “posts” include:

A more caring approach to my children’s needs

  • Because I know the next post is coming soon, I can calmly interrupt my schedule for unexpected needs at any given time and regain order soon after.

A calmer mental state throughout the day

  • My mind isn’t burdened trying to remember all the things that need to be done.  They are already accounted for during the structured times.

A more productive day

  • In the beginning of my day, I will assign the tasks I need or want to get done to specific times of the day.

More satisfaction in meeting my own expectations

  • I also have cut my tasks into small chunks of time (if I have a large project, I whittle it down to a series of mini tasks).  Most days, I can get 15 minutes here and there to get things done, but I rarely have an hour stretch open up in my day.  Because I have two little ones (a 2-year-old and 8-month-old), I do not allow myself to set up unrealistic expectations about what I can accomplish in a day.

So what exactly does this look like?  Here is an example.  My to-do list for a day may look like this:

  1. Do 1-2 loads of laundry
  2. Respond to 1-2 emails or online transactions
  3. Mail something at post office
  4. Prep and make dinner
  5. Keep the kitchen dishes and counters clean
  6. Wipe down the bathrooms

In the morning I will assign these tasks to the “fence posts” of my day.  These are simply times in the day that are routine and hold structure.   I am not professing I have eloquent or elaborate routines…they are basic and simple, mostly around meal or snack times.  I imagine they will shift and change as my children grow and change.

1.  After Breakfast (around 8:00 am)

  • Start the laundry.  I have made this time a ritual for me and my son (daughter in tow) to do a house chore together.  It could be making the beds, collecting the clothes and starting a load of laundry, or stacking up the recyclables and putting them in the garage.  I can get a chore done, he is engaged- we are both happy.  I just need to keep the chore simple and short.

2.  Mid-Morning Snack (around 10:30 am)

  • Prep for dinner (could be putting things in a crock pot, cutting veggies, or setting out ingredients).  I try to do kitchen tasks when I can during his meal times.

3.  Right Before Lunch (around Noon)

  • This is often when I’ll do an outside errand, so in this example, I would go to the post office.

4.  Lunch (around 12:30 pm)

  • Switch the laundry

5.  Afternoon Snack (around 2:30 pm)

  • Wipe down the bathrooms
  • Keep up with the kitchen and dishes

6.  Nap (around 3:00 pm)

  • My son’s nap time is highly variable lately– and quiet times are not quite smooth yet, so I always assign something that is OK if it doesn’t get done.  It has really helped me and my attitude not to assume I’m getting his naptime since we are in an obvious transition.
  • So I may assign my email transactions knowing I can do them once they are in bed if I need to.

7.  TV time (around 5:00 pm my son can watch a 30-45 min. DVD)

  • Make dinner

These fence posts mean that we have large open stretches of time that we can fill in as the day goes.  Sometimes I know we will be doing an outing or I have a certain craft planned, but having these open times has allowed me to really be present with them.  I know that for the next 1-2 hours I can just be with them, get down to their level, think spontaneously and go with the flow.  Are they feeling energetic and want to run around? — let’s head outside. Are they feeling a bit slower and introspective? — let’s get out the puzzles or books.

When I’m in these spaces of time, I’m not preoccupied with, “when am I going to get the food prepped or the emails written?”  I’ve already accounted for that.  It can leave my mind. And I can really be there with them.

I’ll be writing a little more on some other ways I’ve come to attain that delicate place where we can get the needs of running a household done while being present with our children and attentive to the finer demands of mothering.  I am still learning and improving daily.  These are simply some things that have been helpful to me along the way.

If you thought of your day as a fence, what would be your posts?   How do you find that necessary balance in your life?  Is this something you struggle with?  What works/doesn’t work for you? I’d love to hear from you!



13 responses to “Why Spontaneity Needs Structure”

  1. Hi Lisa, I’ve never thought of organizing my day this way. I’m a mom to an 18 month old and a 3 month old and I’m still finding it tough to get into a rhythm. I’ve worked off a daily plan for nearly a year now and while it’s good most days I find I get stressed if it doesn’t all go according to plan. Ah ha moments: I like how you do chores together…of course! and do other chores while it’s snack/meal time and everything in between is flexible! As a control freak it’s difficult for me to let go but I’m working on it!

    You’ve given me some things to think about and I will certainly try setting up my day keeping your fence post analogy in mind. Thanks a bunch!

  2. @sherri: I can remember when that aha moment came to me too– doing chores together…It seemed so obvious and simple…I had plenty of time relatively to go slower and get things done WITH them, but I had been so trained for so long that I needed to do chores in the most efficient manner possible that thought never entered my mind. Hope you have a blast doing things around the house with your little ones!

  3. wow lisa! i always work better (and i think kids do too!) if i know the day’s plan. i love the image of the fence. it also makes so much sense to break down big tasks into mini-ones! i have been trying to clean out my closet for months, but never seem to find a big enough chunk of time to get it done. breaking it down into mini-tasks is brilliant!


  4. I like the idea of “time blocks”. For instance, from 8:30-12:00 is a homeschool time block for my family. Although we are quite scheduled within this time, there is room for some movement as long as we are learning. Similarly, 8:00-10:00 pm is a “me” time block during which I read, exercise, etc. Keeping my daily “to do list” to a reasonable number of items also helps as does choosing two days each week to STAY HOME. It is amazing how much time and energy even little outings can require and the days I stay home I feel I not only accomplish tons but feel so much more relaxed with my kids. Regular chore, music practice, meal and bedtimes are other “fence posts” which add positive structure to our day.

  5. Okay, this post is truly amazing! You have described the tension so well between the need for structure and spontaneity. I love the word picture of the fence! I think my mind has actually been trying to come up with something like this, but hadn’t really gotten anywhere with it…probably sensing the need for that structure (as in define daily priorities) and yet wondering how on earth that is going to happen with all the things that pop up during the day. 🙂 You can’t really schedule meeting a child’s needs…what tends to happen is that I lose “control” and then never really get back on track for the rest of the day.

    My fence posts would probably be similar to yours, the daily household chores, snacktime, lunch, rest time, supper…although school schedules for my two oldest would figure into that as well.

  6. This delicate balance is my constant struggle. I am a recovering perfectionist, and I am just now finding out what that even means and how it has negatively impacted my family and my life. Before, I found myself swinging from one extreme to the other….I was either highly structured with no room for flexibility, or I let it all go and found myself living in chaos. I love the way you have explained it. The balance that you just wrote about is the place that I am slowly coming to. I think my fence posts are almost exactly like yours, and I also have implemented some loose weekly fence posts. Since I homeschool, the fence posts have become a little more challenging. I found myself trying to fit too much into a day which resulted in not being present with my children. So I have learned to scale down a little to leave room for the unexpected and the unstructured. I could go on all day about this topic, because it is very near and dear to my heart right now. (I’ve also had 2 cups of coffee, which makes me ramble one more….ha!) Thank you for this. (as a side note, I have had to really scale down on blog reading lately, but yours is one that I am hanging onto. it has been sooo helpful to me!)

  7. Thanks so much for this! I was really regretting my day, feeling overwhelmed with all I have to do. This made it all seem a little more doable. Well worth taking the time to read it. Thanks again!

  8. @Kika– I love the idea of time blocks– they are great ways to “chunck” up a day…I can imagine homeschooling would require another level of organization all together!
    @Keri– love the concept of weekly fence posts too…I’m going to give that more thought in my life, ways to anchor out the week. Fantastic.
    @Terri- I’m so glad you took the time to read this! Glad it was helpful 🙂

  9. I have a 4 month old baby and will be at home until she’s 1 – or even longer. I found that the transition to working outside to staying at home quite challenging and I have been trying to organize myself like you said. It feels really great to have accomplished the goals for the day. Before, I had huge projects to take care of, now my own home is my big project. It took me a while to face things this way. I had a few months of just wandering in the house and thinking what I should be doing that day. I ended up doing nothing and felt so frustrated at the end of the day. When I started making to-do lists, even small items, and I did those, I felt really good. They may seem trivial – compared to the goals I had to meet when working outside – but this is what makes a home. I’m really glad that I’m finding more balance.

    PS: Came here from Simple Mom and am subscribing right NOW! 🙂 Thanks for the inspiration!

  10. Ana- Welcome! I know the transition you are talking about oooh so well! I think I am still in it, though it does shift and change as you work through reestablishing what your priorities, responsibilities and goals are now…so different than in the “working” world. Even how we think about what we do now (as somehow less important) all needs to get re-examined!

  11. […] became very clear to me once I began staying at home with young children.  I wrote before about finding a rhythm to my day.  Another effective technique I use is called […]

  12. Mandy Avatar

    Just now seeing this post over a year later because I am so lost as to find that balance you’re talking about…I simply put into my search “mom needs structure” and your blog came up. I appreciated reading your thoughts. I have told myself for so long that “I’ll figure it out” but, honestly, I think I’m starting to feel defeated – which is a hard feeling because I’m used to feeling pretty good at things. But you hit the nail on the head – my laid-back, spontaneous, creative self NEEDS more structure, too. (We do have structure – just not enough for me to feel like things are running as smoothly as they could.) Just figuring out how to create that extra structure is my problem. It’s almost like it has to come from outside – so thanks for the fence post idea. I already do some of these things but having the analogy helps – and just having you put words to the particular stress that I feel at times was also helpful. Thank you.

  13. […] I can’t for the life of me figure out which one it was) that contained an exercise based on Lisa’s fence post approach to structuring days, which I found completely […]

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