When Liz and I moved from the Bay Area to Montana, we left behind our jobs, church, gym, friends, and many of our possessions. Much of what we left behind we did so consciously to try out a different pace of life in a different location. We wanted to escape the chronic busyness and rush of the Bay Area and slow our lives down during this period of reflection and introspection. Along the way we’ve discovered other things we’d left behind, whose significance we could only appreciate by their absence. The one which has been on our minds most recently, and the one we’re currently wrestling with, is structure.
In the Bay we experienced structure in our lives in many forms: daily jobs, scheduled workouts twice a week, sunday church, and regular social engagements. There are other ways as well, but those four (professional, physical, spiritual, and social) are the structures we are most affected by having given up.
It takes time, in our case about five or so months, to realize the effects of a lack of structure in your life. An easy test of whether or not your level of structure is working for you, is to look at the last several months of your life and see if you’ve been making progress in all the areas that are important to you. If you have, then it’s likely you’ve got the right structures in place already. If you haven’t, the way we hadn’t, then it’s time to start investigating. A lack of progress on your goals can often mean a lack of effort, and a lack of effort usually means that you don’t recognize the many small opportunities to make progress.
Many of our most important goals aren’t things that can be accomplished in a day, a week, or even a month. They are things that take months or years to realize, and can often be life-long goals, such as overall fitness or relational goals; they require sustained effort over long periods of time. Conversely the same momentum that carries them forward also masks any detrimental changes for a while. If you’re in shape you can eat poorly for a while before it starts to catch up to you. If you’ve attended church regularly you can go for a while without it before you are affected by that lack of community.
After 7 months of our having left much of our structure, the momentum I had in many of those areas has worn out, and I am finding myself with the results of this lack of structure. I have lost strength from not having worked out consistently, I have lost a sense of accomplishment from not having a regular job to go to, I’ve lost some meaningfulness with my relationship with God from not interacting with his children, and I’ve lost enjoyment from not having friends around to grow me and spend time with. I have a large enough body of evidence to show me that the lack of structure in these areas isn’t life-giving for me.
Structure is a two-edge sword however. It’s like money in many ways, it’s very easy become a servant to it, instead of it serving you. I don’t regret throwing off structure for a time because it has allowed me to see which aspects of it are really beneficial and which I don’t function well without.
The gift Liz and I have given ourselves with this time, even though it can be painful, is that we get to consciously choose into what structure we want in our lives. My life before had become a slow accumulation of structure over the years, most of it unconscious. I had to work 40 hours a week (usually more) because that is what most people did and what my job demanded. I went to church every Sunday because that’s what I had always done. There were always tons of social activities to go to, so I filled my time with them.
In casting off these structures, I can now intentionally introduce several of them back into my life. I miss connecting with my church community, especially my men’s group, but I don’t miss going to church every Sunday. I miss being rewarded for work and I miss the purpose it gave me, but I don’t miss having a structured 9-5 x 5 day schedule and only getting 4 weeks off a year. I miss the availability of social engagements, but I realized that I really just miss a small group of folks that I wish I could spent more time with.
Liz and I have slowly begun to make changes in our lives to impose structure on ourselves. Small things at first that we hope over time will yield larger results. A few examples are:
- Doing something physically active at least 3 times a week
- Working on our personal projects at least 2 hours a day, 5 days a week
- Spending quality and focused time on our relationship at least every two days
We’ve picked these three to address the bigger areas we noticed we weren’t feeling fulfilled in. Over time we may modify and add to these (notice that there is no spiritual goal in here yet), but we thought this was a good set to start with. Some of the goals we’d like to add (church and social related) we don't feel we can successfully address where we are currently living (in Ennis, Montana population 830), so we are looking to move away for this winter and try living somewhere else (the current frontrunner is Missoula, Montana population 60,000).
I’m VERY curious to see the payoff of this new structure in the next several weeks/months and will report back the results when I have some!