I was exhausted from four months of nonstop backpacking in Asia with my three children and husband when I first entertained the idea of getting my priorities down on paper. We were a third of the way into our long-planned family project of circumnavigating the globe for a school year. Both our jobs allowed for location independence and we homeschooled our young children, and we had a hunch this freedom wouldn’t last indefinitely. We wanted to take advantage of our unique situation.
After five years of saving and strategizing, we left Texas for China on a humid September afternoon, long-haul and puddle-jump flights booked through the end of the calendar year. We’d travel through Asia during the fall, land in Australia for the holidays (where we’d lined up a housesitting gig for another family, who were traveling through North America at the time), then evaluate whether we wanted to keep going. December would be its own chapter in a Choose Your Own Adventure novel: we’d either cross back over the Pacific and return home, disappointed that we didn’t follow the full width of the earth but still earning a badge of honor, or we’d continue westbound, onward to Africa. In booking only our first third of our travels the summer before, we gave our future selves the permission to make choices with more wisdom and experience than we could possibly yet have.
By December, I was road-weary and desperate for a breather. My husband, Kyle, and I had long loved travel, having met in Eastern Europe and later lived the early years of raising babies in Turkey. Even so, the unique challenges of living nomadically out of backpacks with three children under age nine didn’t come easily. There were constant difficulties, from finding food palatable to picky eaters, to handwashing clothes in bathroom sinks (hoping they would dry fast enough to pack up for the next day’s travels), to deciding how to best budget our funds; we wanted to take advantage of our probably-never-again proximity to historic and cultural landmarks without blowing money on everything just because it was there. There was jet lag from time-zone hopping, slow internet to battle for work and school, and throngs of crowded metros, city squares, and market lines to fight in the noble pursuit of keeping track of our children—all while maneuvering language barriers.
Never before was I so grateful for the simple invitation to park for a few weeks at a family home with a backyard trampoline in an English-speaking country. At home in this Sydney suburb, we’d shop for tiny trinkets in the neighborhood mall for Christmas, bake cookies, and let the kids sprawl wide in a house with toys, books, and backyard chickens. Kyle and I would get some much-needed time to catch up on work, delight in a washer and dryer, and enjoy not going anywhere but the back deck to revel in a summertime Christmas.
Asking the Deeper Questions
It took a full week of decompression for me to find the wherewithal to do more than sleep, answer email, and meet my children’s basic needs. Once I stopped feeling like life had run me over, the seed of a thought initially nurtured back in our first few weeks in China began to sprout. What was our primary purpose for our year of travel? What did I hope to gain from backpack vagabonding? And how might this affect who we’ll become once we’ve finished?
Naturally, Kyle and I had already talked about these general ideas countless times over several years before taking the leap. I already knew the benefits of what we were doing: seeing the world, family bonding, fostering a sense of adventure in our children. But as I confronted surprising bouts of sensory overload not two weeks into our year, I realized I’d failed to ask a crucial question: Who was I, anyway?
What sort of person am I, deep down? How does who I am affect how I interpret my day? How does knowing the real me affect my confidence to say no to the good-but-not-best that life offers me daily? How does saying no to almost everything provide the freedom to say yes to what’s truly best for me? And as a wife and mother, how does all this play in tandem with my clan members who also have their own desires, needs, and dreams?
It took four months of stripping away my default familiar culture and folding up the safety net of a home base with my own towels and plates and a mailing address to realize how crucial these questions were. And it took the invitation to sip Australian wine under a summer sky with my journal and a few weeks with nothing on the agenda to realize how cardinally necessary it is to know the answer to these questions—and not just when we were on an adventure. In fact, it was probably in the ordinary sundry of life that I needed that rooted confidence most of all.
St. Benedict and the Rule of Life
I didn’t know it yet, but asking myself those personal questions was the impetus for what ultimately became a fascination with an ancient practice called a Rule of Life. Our most well-known example comes from St. Benedict, a monastic leader from the fifth century whose communal Rule of Life still serves as a model for us today. In fact, he is known as the father of Western monasticism largely because his concept of a Rule became standard practice for monastic living. Benedict started his religious life as a hermit but eventually felt deeply the difficulties and spiritual dangers of a solitary life. Establishing his like-minded community forever shaped future religious vocational practices. That community ultimately thrived because of a written Rule of Life that Pope Gregory called “remarkable for its discretion and lucid in its language.”
By writing down the details of what it meant to live in community, St. Benedict established both inwardly reflective and outwardly practical guidelines for daily life. His ancient text included the gamut of ideas, from why one should pray and what should be one’s motive for serving others, to when and how to serve in kitchen duty and the establishment of a shift rotation for someone to check in guests at the front door. In other words, it was both intrinsically spiritual and extrinsically pragmatic.
I didn’t necessarily feel the need for a written down play-by-play on how I should structure my bedtime routine or why my kids should embrace their chores, but I knew I needed to know, deep in my bones, my why for doing what I did. Why did I educate my children with a particular method? And in this particular instance, why would we next visit Africa? I knew that writing it down would give me something to reread when my motivation tanked.
Ninety Days at a Time
It would take several more years after those weeks in Australia for me to officially adopt the practice of writing a Rule of Life, but the seed of wanting to know my core motivation sprouted into a rhythmic routine of regular reflection. Specifically, I started asking myself questions about my past ninety days, my present-day self, and my future upcoming ninety days. I’d take a few hours once a quarter to evaluate how things were going, who I sensed I was becoming, and where I wanted to grow moving forward.
Why ninety days? Time divided quarterly is frequent enough to focus only on a short amount of time, backwards and forwards. Yet it isn’t so frequent that a session of journaling is impossible to schedule. For my inaugural session in Australia, this was enough time for me to evaluate our travels, both the previous few months of exploring and what was potentially ahead on our agenda.
I also tend to live in my head, mistaking the effort of planning for the endeavor of action. Quarterly evaluations would keep me from obsessively appraising our days and could become a permission slip to relax and enjoy our experience. I knew I’d reevaluate again soon enough.
My quarterly reflections eventually streamlined into a collection of only a few sparse questions, each one proving its mettle.
About the Previous Ninety Days
- What was the best thing about the past ninety days?
This could be an event, such participating in the lantern festival in Thailand or hitting a milestone at work, or an inward discovery, such as realizing a preferred method of socializing or reading a truly great book. It’s often difficult to choose only one thing, but this limitation provides freedom from the seduction of feeling like our life should be more than ordinary. Ordinary is divine, but we need regular reminders.
- What was the biggest challenge?
Sometimes this involves an interpersonal trial, such as parenting a particular child during a tumultuous life stage, or it’s more personal, like the revelation for guardrails to protect from a certain temptation. By choosing only one, however, we give ourselves merciful relief from overwhelming over-evaluation.
- How was life in the realms of work, relationships, money, health, community, and home?
These six areas make up almost the entirety of life, and it’s in reflecting on this question where we can unpack more details from the previous quarter.
About the Present
- What’s something, big or small, that brings pleasure in my life right now?
The answer to this is almost always something small, which provides a much-needed reminder that the common stuff of life composes the bulk of our delight: a good cup of coffee, a longstanding date night with our spouse, the unconditional love of a pet.
- What’s most valuable in my life right now?
This separates the wheat from the chaff so that we recognize what’s ultimately necessary to keep our life ticking. My answers have varied over the years, from my Bible to my laptop to an early bedtime.
- Is there anything that feels missing in my life right now?
This question is the linchpin of this entire evaluation, and finding its answer lays the stepping stone for assessing the next ninety days. It’s not an easy question to answer, but honest reflection provides what’s needed to make this routine ultimately helpful.
About the Upcoming Ninety Days
- How would I like things to be ninety days from now in the realms of work, relationships, money, health, community, and home?
Now it comes full circle, taking our answer from our past ninety-day evaluation and honestly considering how we might like things to change.
- How could I create one or two goals from these desires?
If we over-plan here, we hijack our good intentions with a performance-oriented posture about life—an exhausting way to live for anyone. But one or two goals, and goals for only the next ninety days, provide traction and motivation to make helpful changes, one doable step at a time. This brings us closer to who we want to be.
- Ninety days from now, how will I recognize or celebrate my life as it stands?
This final question reminds us to not orient our entire life around checklists and productivity, and that we’re worthy of rest and commemoration regardless of our performance.
This practice of intentional quarterly reflection—what I eventually coined as Think Days—became the foundation for eventually helping me create my first Rule of Life several years later. It’s in this Rule of Life where I now broaden my scope to include my hope for life three years from where I stand, where I recognize the needed ingredients in my soil to best help me flourish, and how to cultivate a garden of life so that each member of my family flourishes, too. My Rule of Life honors my current reality and my longing to contemplate a hope-filled future. And it’s divided into those six realms of life— work, relationships, money, health, community, and home—where I can flesh out what it means to thrive in each of those areas.
It’s been five years since I journaled on that back deck in the Sydney suburbs, and my children are considerably older. My daily life comprises teaching English, recording podcasts, sipping coffee with neighbors, and nightly story time with my kids (they’ll never be too old for that). Years after hanging up our backpacks in a new-to-us fixer-upper home in a new town, I still return to these questions every ninety days. I evaluate my Rule of Life annually, on my birthday.
I may not live in a monastic community like St. Benedict, but I live among others in my own sort of domestic monastery, and I am fully invested in these members’ flourishing. My Rule of Life helps me channel my greater good to our collective cultivation. And though I hadn’t yet fully written a Rule of Life, answering those questions several years ago in that Australian backyard about who I really was helped me unearth my true purpose for our year of travel. It gave me permission to rest deeply during our break Down Under—and it gave me the confidence to say yes to the rest of our adventure.