One thing to change when it feels like everything is falling apart

Sometimes I have weeks when it feels like I've forgotten how to do this whole parenting thing completely – I start thinking Nothing works! I don't know how to do this! I have to change everything! But thankfully when I catch myself thinking that way I now realize what it's actually telling me, and it's not everything must change.

What to focus on when parenting feels like a mess


Keeping family routines working feels impossible on the days where nothing goes right. I'm tempted to throw everything out and start from scratch, but after years of experiences as both a stay at home mom and working mom I've realized that if I try to change everything, (I'll become a shiny new me and always get the dishes done and never misplace my keys and always fold laundry promptly from now on!) it will only lead to overwhelm and failure.

A book I read recently holds the key to these situations.  In The ONE Thing, by Gary Keller (amazon link) he tells us to ask the focusing question, which is this: “What's the ONE Thing I can do such that by doing it everything else will be easier or unnecessary?”

So, when things feel topsy turvy I look for the one thing causing me the most misery. What is the routine or issue causing the worst frustration?

I find my one thing by looking for my main pain point. If I can dive into that instead of making sweeping change, things will shift.

If I pick the part of the day causing the most difficulty and put structure and routine around that part of the day (or that discipline issue) it tends to solve other problems as well, or atleast make them easier.

What's the ONE thing I can do such that by doing it everything else will be easier or unnecessary? – Gary Keller

Example – When Lunch Time Was Full of Tears

When the kids were little, lunch used to be terrible; everyone would be goofing off or grumpy, they wouldn't eat well and then they'd ask for snacks all day afterwards. My afternoons were filled with frustration and tears and I finally decided lunch time was the culprit.

This is how we revised the routine and improved the flow of our day by just changing this one part of the day.

1. Find the Pain Point – Lunch Time. Kids were grumpy, not coming to the table, or bouncing off before eating. This ruined our afternoons and evenings because they were worn out and underfed during the afternoon.

2. Investigate – Why is this happening?

  • People were hungry so their impulse control was low and they were more likely to be grumpy.
  • Lunchtime was happening each day, but it was pretty loosey-goosey, kids didn't really know what to expect.
  • Since it was a crummy part of the day I was wanting to space out, not be real present during that time. I might creep off and get on the computer or be otherwise absent after putting out food.

3. Plan – Make a plan for how to tackle this ONE problem. Write it down.
In this instance my plan was to put a focus on Lunchtime: Get them playing outside or doing something absorbing before hand so I could have some peace while I made the lunch (giving myself a bit of downtime, sort of). Make a beginning and an ending to the meal in order to give it a feeling of structure. Here's what I tried (Don't kid yourself that this went perfectly, or that it lasted forever. This was just a plan to try.)

Example Lunch Routine

It often took a while to get them to stop playing and come sit, we'd eat the something thrilling like lunch meat roll-ups and apple slices, and in order to read the story I often had to put one or two kids on my lap.  Perfect or not, we got through it most days and if I didn't start the routine, they began to ask for it, “Can I light the candle?  Aren't you going to read a story?”

The kids appreciated the regularity and rhythm of having a lunchtime routine. They were interested in lighting the candle so they came pretty willingly to the table, and I felt good that was reading to them. By making this as a way-point in our day, it gave a new beginning to the afternoon, making the end of our day go better as well.

4. Revise – The final part of this is knowing that, of course, routines change over time. A few years later and lunch looks quite different than this – we don't need all of the routine around it in order to make our day go well (though as I read through it I remember the sweetness of lunch time stories and miss it.)

There's no need to force a routine to go on if it no longer serves you; it's natural to revise. Here are my favorite tips on starting new routines.

A recent pain-point around here with my now bigger kids (they're 5, 8 and nearly 11 at the time of writing this) was the mix of getting schoolwork done and media privileges. Last week I was feeling the “Everything is bad!” feeling. Once I realized I was in that thought mode I looked for my main pain point and decided we needed to work on our media rules. We focused in on that routine this week, and sure enough, tweaking our rules, writing down the new ones and sticking with them this week is making everything feel better, not just schoolwork. It's always a revision process.

Do your family routines need some fine tuning right now?  Which one do you need help with? 

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