Giving each other thinking space starts right as you walk in the door. This has nothing to do with the time of day or whether it’s a weekday or the weekend. If someone has just come in from somewhere, even a quick walk to the mailbox, this is when it starts.
Don’t say anything except “hi” for the next five minutes.
That’s it. If you only have one rule, let it be that one.
Five minutes is enough to start if anyone in the household ever feels burned out, frustrated, distracted, sad, angry, ill... really any other feeling than ‘elated’ or ‘enthused.’
Not everyone does this. It actually boggles my mind all the time, how I might be hanging out with someone in their home, and someone else comes in, only to be immediately barraged with a tidal wave of news and complaints and task assignments.
Whoa! I think. Do you people do this to each other all the time?
The answer is always yes. A household that doesn’t understand or respect transitions probably has no idea how it feels, or that there’s another way to do things.
Why is this important?
When we first see each other after an absence, even a brief one, we have no idea what the other person has been doing. We have no information on their state of mind or their physical sensations, and vice versa. It’s a bit like a poker game. Your news update might well be a four of a kind, but theirs might well be a royal flush.
I don’t know about everyone else, but when I walk in my front door, I usually have a lot going on. I have my keys in one hand, a dog leash in the other, a bag over my shoulder (and sometimes two), I’m listening to something on my headphones, and I probably have to pee. Anyone who is trying to get my attention is simply going to have to wait while I:
Unclip the dog
Turn off my audio
Put my keys in my bag
Set my bag down
And only THEN leave the room for ninety seconds.
Can’t you wait for two minutes??
That’s on a normal day. I may also need to turn around and leave for another appointment and have barely 20 minutes to get ready. It’s not that you’re not fully entitled to my attention, it’s just that I can’t give it to you. Not yet. I have none to give.
What we need is a buffer, a way to pause between one phase of the day and another. We need to make a mental and emotional transition, not just a physical one where we move from one location to another. Just because my body is in the room does not mean my attention is!
A five-minute pause is respectful. It says (without saying): I acknowledge you and your day. You have obligations other than me. You have the perfect and absolute right to collect your thoughts, put your stuff down, make a quick phone call, listen to the end of a song, take an aspirin, sort the mail, tap dance, get mud off your pants, or whatever else you need to do in order to feel ready to interact with me.
The reward for this natural pause is that your friend is now able to give you their full focus and attention. (Child? Roommate? Spouse? I hope you’re friends, in any case).
This pause may not always be reciprocated, because the other person may not realize you’re doing it. It can take time. You may have to spell it out, say, “Give me a minute,” and then explain why you were distracted. Like several hundred times. Eventually, gradually, anyone can be taught. Even pets.
Our rat terrier used to jump up on everyone, as a puppy and a young dog. After much practice, he started crouching next to someone instead. He could then avoid getting in trouble and simultaneously invite a nice rubdown. It’s pretty similar with people. If you start giving them a few moments to shake off the day, when they come in, it gives them time to want to come over for a hug.
There are a few other guidelines for giving and getting more thinking space. None of these are universal by any means.
One, no yelling from room to room. If you want to talk to someone, go to the room that they’re in. I don’t know about you, but if I’m in the next room, I can’t even hear or understand what someone else is trying to say. Raised voices are pointless. It’s worse when the person you’re calling turns out not to be there at all, or they’re on the phone with someone from work.
We avoid raised voices partly because we have both a parrot and a dog, and it tends to give both of them the wrong idea. She’s internalized this idea that there is a Quiet Time and a Noisy Time, so if you’re quiet then she’s quiet, too. But if you’re trying to watch a movie or talk on the phone then that is obviously Noisy Time. A free-for-all. She starts running through her full discography of electronic sounds, and then he stands underneath her and starts howling.
You think your house is loud...
Two, set aside your administrative discussions and do them all in bulk. This eliminates so, so much tedious daily choremastering. A lot of this can be done without discussion at all. For instance, I bought a four-way dishwasher magnet and we haven’t had to ask each other whether the dishes were clean or dirty ever since. (Clean/dirty/running/empty). We also have a shared grocery list on our phones. We do a status meeting every week to go over finances, travel plans, etc.
The idea here is that most of your conversations should be interesting, fun, relaxing... something other than vexing, boring, or infuriating. The time that was formerly taken up by discussions about the dishwasher or what to have for dinner is then freed up. Everyone can finally have a moment to think. This is how we build space in our lives for daydreaming and peace of mind.
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.
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