I’m writing this as summer officially comes to a close. For as long as I can remember, this particular milestone on the calendar has been a perpetual catalyst for leaving loose schedules and lazy days behind. We trade the easy ebb and flow of pool outings and camping under the stars, for the hustle and bustle of back-to-school, ramped up speaking schedules, and one looming deadline after another. While I’ve never been one to scorn a trip to the store for new clothes and supplies for the season, I have to admit the buttoned-down schedule was a source of anxiety for me for far too many years.
If you know me, you know I’ve got a personality which both thrives on and cultivates spontaneity. This doesn’t mean I’m opposed to structure. I actually believe most of us function best when we strike a healthy balance of both structure and spontaneity in our life and in each day. My love of spontaneity, however, doesn’t mean I can eschew structure altogether.
Both structure and spontaneity work. One is not better than the other. But, your personality functions better with one than with the other, and that’s okay. When we try to make our personality fit into a way of doing things that is counterintuitive, we invite frustration, disappointment, and fatigue into our days.
Freedom Inside the Frame
Of course, we don’t all have the luxury of demanding our employers or family members create an environment based on our spontaneous personalities. We’ve often got to figure out how to thrive in contexts that don’t necessarily cater to our preference. In an article for Fast Company, Laura Vanderkam quotes Julie Morgenstern, the organizational expert and author of Never Check E-mail in the Morning:
Spontaneous sorts “work really well once they’re up against a deadline,” [Morgenstern] says. “Creating some structure can fuel their creativity. They just have to create the right amount.” Somebody who hates to plan can create a broad rhythm for her days. Mornings are devoted to quiet work. The middle of the day is devoted to getting back to people. Afternoons are devoted to business development.
In that same vein, you can create time blocks for “important things that don’t get done,” says Morgenstern, like the “administrivia” that burdens everyone. Try giving yourself two hours for administrative work on Tuesdays from 1p.m. to 3 p.m. Don’t say “I will file my expense reports at 1 p.m. Tuesday” because that makes any good spontaneous sort want to rebel. But creating a time bucket in which you can work on administrative tasks in whatever order you like preserves some feeling of spontaneity. “You’ve got to have some freedom inside the frame,” says Morgenstern.
There it is right there. The one thing to help spontaneous types thrive in this new season: “You’ve got to have some freedom inside the frame.”
That one sentence is the key to thriving as a spontaneous person in an environment which requires structure. Our jobs, our children’s schedule of activities, our responsibilities in the community, and our mortgage lender all require us to live within a certain frame of expectation and commitment. Often, our ability to complete a task on time and within certain guidelines impacts an entire team, family, or community. Living as if there is no frame can be unfair to those who depend on us. So, go ahead and recognize the frame, but find your freedom within it.
Keeping It Real
For such a long time, I thought I had to follow all of the detailed examples of my very structured friends and colleagues in order to thrive. Boy, was I wrong. I’ve found I can make it, inside the frame, while still honoring the person God created me to be. Here are a few tried and true strategies I employ to stay true to me, every day:
- Keep your to-do list manageable. In general, I limit my list to three broad tasks each day—a lot like the time blocking suggested above. Some projects or seasons require a longer or shorter list, but on an average day, three is my guideline. Three keeps me on track, without feeling overwhelmed. Three also allows for “interruptions” and spontaneous (some might call them, unplanned) issues which pop up and require my attention.
- Embrace your need for breathing room. Failing to take breaks throughout the day can backfire on those of us who like spontaneity. If we continually ignore the gentle nudge to stop for a minute and look out the window, or go to the kitchen for a glass of water, or take a quick walk around the block, we burn ourselves out and we are no good to anyone. In the middle of an intense project, I set the kitchen timer to go off every hour. The short walk from my office to the kitchen is often the moment I need to reset my creativity and find a fresh batch of inspiration.
- Celebrate your accomplishments. At the end of the day, when I’ve checked each item off my to-do list, and written my list for the next day, I cue up some music and do dance around my house. Or, I go outside and practice my cartwheels. Or, I turn on Netflix and set my mind free. Whatever feels like celebration to you, do it.
While much of the world thrives on structure and churns within the frame, those of us who fly by the seat of our pants (I know, I just made my structured friends cringe) have a lot to contribute as well. With summer giving way to autumn’s Trapper Keepers and deadlines, let’s not get lost in the tight lines of squares on the calendar. Let’s find our freedom in the frame, be true to the people God made us to be, and celebrate our accomplishments with gusto.
Some questions for you: Are you more structured, or spontaneous? How do you find your freedom in the frame?