Early in our marriage we were confronted by a stark contrast in the way we viewed time. I, John, felt like my time was my own. All of it. Well, almost all. Julie felt that we should give more of that time away. She’d say yes to more things than I thought she should and over commit. If the calendar was open, she felt like she couldn’t say no. In contrast, I said not to almost everything – even things I probably should have been doing.
Who was right? I don’t know. But it caused tension. Because we weren’t on the same page about the use of our time.
Getting on the same page about how to use your time, especially early in marriage is really important. It gives you the freedom and confidence to say no. Even if you have space on the calendar. Even if you feel a massive guilt trip from someone. You can say no with confidence. And it allows you the focus to say yes to the best things. Because every yes is a no to something else. If you say yes to good things and fill up your calendar, you won’t be able to say yes to the “heck yeah!” things when they come along.
How you spend your time is a reflection of your values. And if your values aren’t clarified – especially your shared values – then it’s hard to make decisions about your time. And that’s where we were.
So back to us as newlyweds: Here we were at an impasse about how to spend our time. What did we do?
Around this time I heard about a couple that went away to do a “Family Planning” weekend. No that’s not code for making lots of whoopee (though that would be an appropriate extra-curricular activity). It was more like “strategic planning for our family.” So we did it too. We went away for a weekend and asked one simple question: What do we want to have been true of our lives 50 years from now? When we’re old (getting there) and gray (mostly there) and wrinkled (maybe some), and in rocking chairs on the front porch with iced tea and a crossword puzzle in hand (and maybe a copy of Plutarch nearby), and we start to reminisce, what do we want to be able to say was true of our lives? What happened? What did God do through us together?
Well in order for those answers to be a reality, we knew we had to take charge now. What follows is the process we went through at the time. I’d encourage every couple to go through something like this at least once in your marriage. But especially if you are newlywed. It will start you off on the right foot and help avoid some conflict and confusion. And it can lead to some exciting decisions about your life together. It’s even better if you can do it every year, or every fifth year.
Example: One of the things we wrote down on our first Family Planning getaway was living overseas for a season. We now have that opportunity after 18 years of marriage (In June 2018 we will live in Fiji for 6 months.) We’ve had to wait a while, but we both often reference how that’s always been a dream of ours, and it goes back to writing it down on that cabin wall in 2001.
So here’s the process:
Strategic Planning for the Family
Plan a weekend away. Preferably somewhere with limited distractions. Or, if you have no kids at home, plan to dedicate half a Saturday to this exercise.
Benefits: Get on the same page about your goals, priorities, and schedule.
Method: Start with the question “What do we want to be true of our marriage 50 years from now?” or “What do we want to be able to look back and see that happened in our time together on this earth?”
Stage 1: Start the morning with time to explore this question on your own. Probably a couple of hours. Write down things as they come to mind. Explore the scriptures and spend time in prayer.
Stage 2: Next you come together as a couple to discuss. But here’s how you’ll go about the discovery process: Begin by praying together. Pray for wisdom, a spirit of camaraderie.
Then, each person take a pad of sticky notes – a different color for each person. Write down your answers to the above question and stick it on the wall. Do as many as you want – don’t say no to anything. Do this quietly, side by side, at the same time, on the same wall, but don’t look at the other’s work or critique anything until you are finished.
When you are finished, each person should talk through your own results, explain what you wrote down and why. Take turns going back and forth. Again, don’t make judgments yet – don’t say anything like “you’re crazy – that could never happen” (even if you are thinking it). This is the explore stage.
As you go along, try to remove duplicate notes and group notes by category. You may end up with 3-5 big categories. Maybe more, maybe less.
Stage 3: Now take each of these categories and ask “If we want this to be true, what kind of things do we need to be doing?” Again, each person take a different color sticky note (different than first color) and put answers under each category – again, don’t critique or analyze while doing this (this is key to the process working). When you are done, group, discuss, reduce again.
Stage 4: Ask “Which of these should we make a priority this year?” Talk till you’ve settled on your top priorities.
Stage 5: Ask “What should we be doing to make these happen?” This is the “time” question. How should we be using our time toward these goals? Go back to the sticky notes again for this. New color if you have them. Put up ideas. Whittle them down – same process.
Stage 5: Finally, look at your calendar on a weekly basis and ask how these new priorities will affect your week. You may need to go back and reduce your “priorities for the year” based on the actual time you have available. Ask what you need to add and what you need to take away. You may need to step away from some good commitments. Things that no longer have the same significance in light of this exercise. Remember that good crowds out best.
Be sure to take time to schedule the big things you want to do that year (vacation, another family planning getaway, camping trips, etc.). I also made a list of things to discuss for the follow up to this exercise. (like a ‘critical issue’ list– or just random things we need to talk about).
This is the basic outline of the process. At the end you should come away with a list of dreams/goals, priorities, and activities that move you toward those goals. And you should have a good idea of what your weekly calendar looks like. Here’s a couple of other things to consider though.
KID FACTOR: for couples with kids, be sure to evaluate each child’s activities. Even one activity per child can be a significant strain on your schedule. Think about the time it takes to drive to and from practice. There’s also the games or performances that take up time (and money). Parents fall into the trap of saying yes thinking it won’t be that big of deal — forgetting about all the mandatory extras. There was one Friday recently that Julie spent 5 hours in the van, driving around town (I was out of town, and could have helped if I were in town, but being gone increased her travel time.) All of the things she drove to were good things. Yet when she said yes to them, she didn’t think about the drive time back and forth across town and cumulative strain it would cause.
Something to consider is location when saying yes to kid activities. Caroline walks across the street for piano lessons. Dance is two miles and no stop lights (we don’t make her walk there). We’re good with these two activities because they are so close to home. If either were further away we would reconsider.
THE VALUE OF MARGIN: Americans place very little value on margin. Busyness is king. But we’ve found that margin has a huge value for our family. In fact, many of our favorite times at home are born from boredom. The kids think of silly activities. Or we play family board games. Or wrestle. Or make cookies together. Anything that gives us real face time is a win. Especially if it means building a fire and reading books together in the living room. Without margin we all feel frazzled from the constant running. At the end of life, I don’t want said, “All they did was run aimlessly.”
IN SUMMARY: The greatest part for us about this exercise? Now we had a shared values filter for evaluating our time. So when an opportunity comes up, even a really good opportunity, we ask, “does this help move our vision forward?” This gives Julie the freedom to push me out of my reading chair and me the freedom to remind her to sit down and relax.
But if our vision isn’t moved forward by the opportunity, we feel the freedom to say no. Even if we have the space on our calendar. Even if we feel a massive guilt trip from someone. And we can say no with confidence. Because every “yes” is a “no” to something else. If you say yes to good things and fill up your calendar, you won’t be able to say yes to the “heck yeah!” things when they come along.
This was huge for us both. Now Julie can say no more often, and I can say yes more often, and we both know why.