10 not-so-obvious ways we’re making life harder than it needs to be

A few weekends ago my husband and I took our kids on a day trip to a national park. The drive out there was going to take more than an hour and my son asked if he could take his iPad. My husband said ‘No, we never had iPads in our day. Look out the window and enjoy the scenery.’

Mmm.

I think we all know how this played out.

After 30 minutes of driving the kids were bored and proceeded to bicker the rest of the way to our destination. Bickering that was punctuated only by hissing threats from me.

Despite arriving at our destination somewhat shitty at each other, we all had a wonderful time climbing rocks, looking at waterfalls and appreciating the joys of nature. Everyone was lovely and tired when it came time to drive home.

Unfortunately, my four-year-old is a perpetual noise-making machine, only quiet when she sleeps, while my eight-year-old is a textbook introvert who needs space and quiet to recharge. By the time we got home, M had been quietly humming to herself in her chair for a solid 30 minutes while J, who could ordinarily create a cone of silence for himself with an iPad and some headphones, was pressed into the furthest corner of the back seat from her, rocking slowly back and forward whimpering ‘Make her stop, make her stop’.

Good times, my friends. Good times.

Regardless of where you sit on iPads and the like, the above is an obvious example of people (my husband) making life harder than it needs to be for everyone.

There are less-obvious things we’re all doing on a daily basis however, that are doing the same.

Here are ten of them:

1. Saying ‘Yes’ or ‘Maybe’ when we should say ‘No’

Most of us are people pleasers. We like to be liked and from an early age we learned the fastest path to being liked was to say Yes to people when they asked something of us. That’s an extremely hard behaviour pattern to break. The problem with all the Yeses – be they to our kids, partner, workmates or friends – is they lead to us horribly over-committing ourselves. Before we know it, our days are scheduled down to the last minute and the tiniest thing going wrong can set off a domino effect that takes a week to recover from. It’s not a fun way to live and the resentment it causes (from the zero time we suddenly have for doing things we love) is an insidious cancer that eats away our insides and erodes relationships.

The suggestion most people make here is to simply become someone who’s able to say No to things they don’t have time for, or don’t want to do. But, as a serial people pleaser myself, I know this is asking too much. So, say ‘Let me get back to you’ instead. It removes you from the immediacy of the situation, allows you to go away and remind yourself if you’re saying Yes to this thing, then you’re saying No to something else (probably something you’d much rather be doing). As Brene Brown says, it’s better in these moments to choose the discomfort of saying No over the resentment of saying Yes.

It’s also worth remembering you don’t say No because you are busy. You say No because you don’t want to be busy.

2. Making too many decisions

Your alarm goes off and you lie there debating whether to get up now or hit snooze. You decide to get up. As you wander into the kitchen you debate whether you should put a load of laundry on before allowing yourself to scroll through Instagram for five minutes. Instagram wins. The main reason you got up is to go for a walk before work, but you know a heaving inbox will be waiting when you get there so ponder whether you should tackle those emails instead. It’s cold outside so the inbox does look more appealing right now. As you check your emails you’re thinking about breakfast. Smoothie or eggs? A smoothie is quicker to make so you decide to have that. What clothes are you going to wear today? Will you take the bus to work or drive? Will you pack a lunch or just grab something from the cafe next door?

It’s not even 7.30am and you’ve already made 15 decisions for the day. By the time you get to the office you’re shattered and have no idea why. It’s because you’re suffering from decision fatigue. Every decision we make over the course of a day fatigues us mentally and impairs our ability to make the next decision a good one. It’s why we’re more likely to eat something healthy for breakfast and pizza for dinner.

Is there a way to avoid all the micro-decisions we seem to need to make before we even leave the house in the morning? Yes, the answer is routines. Get up at the same time each day, do the same things in the same order each morning when you wake up. Lay out your clothes for work the night before. Have the same thing for breakfast each day. When it comes to exercise, it’s easier to mandate it’s something you do every day rather than ‘four days a week’.

3. Not testing assumptions

You assume you know how someone is going to respond to a request, so you don’t ask. You assume you’re going to fail at something, so you don’t try. You assume because ‘everyone does it that way’, that way is the best way to do something.

When we test our assumptions, sometimes we find out we’re right. More often, however, we’re surprised.

The person we never thought would mentor us says ‘Sure’. The client we thought was out of our league isn’t. The 5km we never thought we could run without stopping turns out to be hard, but totally do-able.

The beautiful thing about testing assumptions is how much easier it makes everything. Instead of overthinking something for three weeks and trying to read people’s minds, you shortcut the whole process by simply asking. If they say ‘Yes’, then hooray. If they say ‘No’, then hooray. Certainty beats uncertainty every day of the week. And every bit of certainty in life makes it easier.

4. Self-sabotage

You’re trying to create the habit of waking at 5.30am every morning … but you continue to watch TV on the couch until midnight.

You’re trying to eat more healthily, but your pantry and fridge are chock full of chocolate and ice-cream.

You’re trying to create a morning exercise habit, but your kids are terrible sleepers.

Forming good habits is hard enough as it is. By doing the above, you’re asking willpower to do all the heavy lifting and when you ‘slip up’ your immediate conclusion is ‘I just don’t have the necessary willpower for this’. The thing is, no one does. People who are successful in forming these habits, they don’t have more willpower than you. They succeed because they make it easier for themselves to do so.

They go to bed at 10pm, not midnight.

They know if something’s not in the house, they can’t eat it.

They realise that forming a morning exercise habit with kids who are up three times a night is too much to ask of themselves – so they aim to go for a walk every afternoon instead.

5. Being friends with the wrong people

Some people specialise in passive-aggressive digs that slowly erode your self-worth.

Some people come to you when they need something, but disappear when you need help.

Some people are relentlessly negative and drain your energy.

Those people aren’t ‘bad’ people. They’re just not good for you.

Life gets easier when you decide: ‘Hey, you don’t make me feel good about myself so, if you don’t mind, I’m going to spend my time with people who do.’

6. Letting your kids do too much stuff

Somewhere along the way, we decided if our kids displayed an interest in something, then we were honour-bound to let them have a go.

This sees our weeknights and weekends spent tag teaming with our partner as we taxi the kids from piano lessons to basketball, from drama to gymnastics, from tennis to ballet. We’re answering emails during swim class while fending off whines of ‘I’m bored’ from the non-participating sibling.

Evening routines are disrupted, weekend downtime is non-existent and we’re all permanently frazzled.

Overscheduled kids are overtired kids. Overtired kids aren’t loving life and neither are their parents (you!)

Put a firm ceiling on the number of activities your kids are allowed to do. (For example, one sporting activity and one non-sporting activity per season.) If they want to do more, they have to pay for it themselves and find their own way there.

7. Not getting household help

If you love spending your weekend hours scrubbing the grout in your bathrooms, mowing the lawn or doing little maintenance jobs around the house, then, great! If coming home from a long day at work and spending an hour in the kitchen preparing dinner is your idea of relaxation, brilliant. If you thrive on squeezing eight hours of work into a five-hour window so you can be at school pick-up every day, magnificent!

If, on the other hand, these things are wearing you down and causing you to drag your feet through life, and if you have the means to employ people to do them … then why wouldn’t you?

I know so many business owners who happily outsource stuff in their business because it makes their life at work easier, but won’t outsource things in their home (even though they can afford it) because ‘there’s no return on investment’. I think sanity, time to breathe and the ability to spend time ‘being’ rather than ‘doing’ is a pretty significant return on any investment in household help!

8. Multi-tasking

Many of us pride ourselves on being able to do several things at once but it’s been proven quite conclusively that multi-tasking is making our lives harder.

Most multi-tasking is actually ‘task-switching’ (going back and forth between two things as opposed to simultaneously working on two things) and studies have shown it takes us longer to complete those tasks than it would if we did one to completion, then the other.

The only kind of multi-tasking that’s effective is combining something that requires no active thought (like walking) with an easy cognitive task (like listening to a podcast). But, even then, when you have to cross a road or step out of the way of an oncoming cyclist, that’s task-switching. And if you’ve ever walked into something while listening to a podcast – you’ll have experienced just how poor we humans are at it.

9. Taking on too much information

Before we book the Bali hotel we first read all 200 of its Trip Advisor reviews.

The stomach pain our child is complaining about leads us to Dr Google, parenting forums and at least 30 explanations for what could be causing the pain.

We jump on Facebook for ‘five minutes’ and 40 minutes later we’re still there having fallen down the rabbit hole of everything from Kim Kardashian’s bum to the Large Hadron Collider.

All this information paralyses us into inaction. And, because the human brain is more tuned into fear-based information than any other, it can make us feel like things are worse than they are.

The easiest cure for this? Put a hard ceiling on the amount of information we allow ourselves to take in. We also need to understand that when we’ve crossed the line between being informed, and being confused, we can’t research our way out of it. It’s both easier and more time-efficient to seek out an expert than interrogate the information ourselves.

10. Letting the perfect be the enemy of the good

Despite knowing perfection is impossible to achieve, we shoot for it anyway. We want to be perfect parents, partners, employees, service providers, friends, experts, advisers … the list, it goes on.

Or, we tell ourselves we’re not so silly as to strive for perfection, but fail to realise the stupidly high standards we’re setting for ourselves are just as unachievable.

Striving for these standards makes life hard because it means we’re eternally dissatisfied – always striving, never arriving. Or, worse, we don’t strive because if it can’t be perfect, why bother?

There are three ways to overcome this.

  1. Understand that trying and failing is better than not trying at all. (We learn heaps from failure; we learn nothing from not trying.)
  2. Test the assumptions we have about what people expect of us. More often than not, people expect less than we think.
  3. Practise self-compassion.

The third point there is the most important, but the hardest to do. Here’s how you get better at it.

Imagine what you’d tell a friend who was overthinking something out of fear of failure or rejection. Or frustrated because they’ve not managed to get that exercise habit happening. Or feeling completely overwhelmed.

You’d probably offer them kindness, understanding and encourage them to cut themselves some slack.

Self-compassion is simply extending that same level of kindness and understanding to ourselves.

Give it a go. You’ll be surprised to see how much life easier gets when you start talking to yourself in the same way you would a great friend.

Comments 24

  1. Hi Kelly, as usual, your words really resonate and these are great tips. I can SOOO relate to the car trip example and have been in this exact situation so many times. It is often hard to make these choices though, because (as a classic over thinker!) I worry that saying “yes” to the ipad today in the car will result in a longer term inability to deal with boring things. So is it short term pain for long term gain or just plain old short term pain?? I’m getting better at making choices in the moment though, and I think that is also one of the keys to stop making life to hard, by overthinking simple decisions, worrying about what they might do in the future. Do I want to have a nice quiet trip in the car where everyone feels satisfied…yes? well…then…that’s what we will do…and future me will just have to wear it.

    1. Claire – love you and yes pain now but gain later – kids do not need iphones or ipads!! New study shows that even having an iphone on your desk reduces cognition by 10% will post that on straight and curly chat.
      So go you!!

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      I think boredom at home is cool and leads to kids doing interesting things. I think boredom in the car is over-rated and if there is an easy fix for it … then I will use it. When the kids are older and can read long books on long car trips – then books it is. While they are young – I personally have no problem with screens.

  2. Ok I love you but sometimes you are so wrong!!
    As a special ed teacher I can tell you to set your kids up for success teach them to be bored and to listen and to be tolerant. Screen time for primary kids is not necessary at all – your life will be better without it and your kids will do better. I could go on forever…..
    So, no way Kelly – no ipads!!
    Your real problem is you have trained your child to be ipad dependent and now you have to untrain him – and the whole family. The car needs to be a technology free zone – instead listen to stories together for example Roald Dahl are great for kids, kids music is great too. Harder is sometimes actually better – so toughen up!! Parents need to be tougher and not take the easy way out – actually not sorry for the lecture!
    xx

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      We’re pretty tough on device use at home. And when our kids are both able to read chapter books we’ll preference those on long trips in the car. But, in the same way I wouldn’t refuse to let them use in-flight entertainment on a plane, I am happy for them to use in-car entertainment in the car 🙂

  3. I did love this article, especially the bits about not needing to be perfect etc. I do limit myself alot that way, thinking whatever I do won’t be good enough or I need more information etc…. and then no learning occurs and nothing happens! So, I’m taking that on.

    I agree with Cressida about kids not needing screens in the car, though. We regularly travel 5 hours to see my parents every few months and enjoy weekend day trips of 4 hours or so round trip, or 90 minutes to see my father-in-law in Sydney every few weekends.

    Our kids are now 12, 10 and 7 years old. My son was recently given a DS by a friend and so we have allowed him to use that recently on occasion but up till now we have used the radio, CD’s (their choice and ours) and audio books (The Shadow Keepers had all three transfixed from the Blue Mountains to Canberra and back recently). They also have pencils and drawing books in the car which they use often.

    We stop when we can and have a run around etc but they really are fabulous little travellers with no screens necessary. We emphasise the necessity of having time to daydream and look out the window and have their own headspace and i think it’s really important.

    So, I guess I’m saying it is possible and, I think, valuable to travel with kids without screens.

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      Oh it’s definitely possible to travel without screens – after all, we did it when we were kids right? But for my own sanity – screens make long drives easier. When both kids can read chapter books, I’ll take a harder line over screens. But for now – screens it is 🙂

  4. Wow! As is pretty much always the case when I’m drawn to your posts is how much it resonates for where I’m at. I can tick off 8/10 of these. :-I Me thinks I’m going to have to come back to this post many times. Thank you.

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  5. I admire and respect the thoughts and experiences that have led you to write such an awesome post – on every point. Offering your insights into the many ways we may be making life harder for ourselves makes us look inward to our own values regarding what’s helpful for ourselves and our families or unhelpful in the long run. I self sabotage A LOT! I don’t look at my behaviours or thought process in terms of wrong or right – I look at them in terms of helpful or unhelpful. Because we don’t need more self judgement in our lives to make life even harder, we need more ‘self compassion’ (as suggested).

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  6. Hi Kelly. I see some commentators are missing the message of #10 (unless they’re indulging in exceptionally subtle irony, but a certain air of earnestness suggests not). I’m particularly curious about #2 and the notion of decision fatigue. It’s something I’ve observed empirically in myself, but would love to learn more. Do you have any sources for more info? Thanks for all your great material!

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  7. As a Mom of 4 (now grown-up) kids, I encourage you to continue to understand how each of your kids is uniquely designed, and treat them in the way that works best for them. Raising kids is NOT a one-size-fits-all activity. Gotta pace yourself for the long haul.

  8. I was unable to focus on the 10 items because I was distracted by your opening story. I thought it unkind of you to speak the way you did of your husband, “the above is an obvious example of people (my husband) making life harder than it needs to be for everyone.” You put the blame squarely on his shoulders. I thought to myself, “If this sentence shows the character of the person writing this article, maybe I don’t want to put much stake into what else is being written.”

    Secondly, I agreed with your husband’s stance anyway. I’m pretty sure I would have banned screen-time in that scenario as well. I felt you could have essentially said that *I* make life harder than it needs to be for everyone (my family). I whole-heartedly disagree.

    I’m not totally against screen-time, in the car or otherwise. But in this case, a short drive “more than an hour” to a national park is a great time to be together as a family. You’re already in such close quarters with each other – why not talk, and play games, and encourage family togetherness. Yes, you’ll do all of that once at the national park, but not in such close quarters – it’s different. Plus, I enjoy how I feel looking out the car window as we drive and I’d like to have my children learn to enjoy the same thing.

    I consider that one of my most important jobs, as a mother, is to teach my children tolerance and kindness. And frankly, you’re right about car rides sometimes being difficult! Ironically, that’s exactly why I like to discourage screen-time in the car for short rides (less than a couple of hours). It forces my children to learn how to get along with others.

    We’ve driven from one side of the US to the other, and back – twice. (Completed our goal to visit all 50 states as a family, yay!) We have six kids, now ages between 7 and 17. There were definitely moments of screen-time on those car rides. We still get a good laugh about the time I turned down the movie to say something to everyone and Dash, from the Incredibles, said a very timely, “whaaat?”

    There is no one way to parent. I don’t really care if you have screen-time in your car. What I would like to suggest is two things. First, just consider the way you spoke of your husband. Consider if it could have been unkind. You can decide that it wasn’t, (after all, it was one short sentence that in no way mirrors the rest of your relationship) just consider it for a moment.

    The second thing I would like to suggest is that you think about what I, and a few other commenters, have said about screen-time. You seem pretty quick to defend your position. You don’t need to defend your position with me! Truly. I’ve already admitted to occasional screen-time in the car! I’m just suggesting that when you get a quiet moment, you evaluate it a little more and think about the other side of the coin. Just consider if it maybe wasn’t solely your husband that made the car ride difficult. Consider what you could do, as a mother, to help your children get along in the car, without screen-time, for a drive of “more than an hour.”

    Now that I’ve got that off my chest, I think I will go read the rest of the article. I’m sure it’s wonderful! 🙂

    1. Hey Elizabeth – it was a gentle dig at my husband who’s allowed iPads in the car many times before, but inexplicably disallowed them for this particular trip. He loves when he gets a mention on my blog and laughed when I told him he got a mention in this context. So you can rest easy there 🙂

  9. Man you’ve gotten a lot of slack for trying to create an entry-point into your lovely article. We’re homeschoolers who rarely use screens (I’m also a cofounder of Circle with Disney) but my goodness – let’s support each other, ladies! She’s a mom just doing the best she can. We’re ALL doing the best we can. And it was one small moment in the vastness of eternal time…

    Now, as far as your article goes, I loved it and have already implemented many of the areas you discuss. Still working on getting up earlier but my youngest wakes up in the middle of the night. Giving myself some grace there. Regardless, everything is spot on. Found you through Simplicity Voices. Keep it up, mama. With Love.

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      Lol thank you Crystal – that’s exactly what it was, just a simple story (and a tiny snippet of a wider life) to introduce the wider concept of the article. But hey, I learned something. People are very passionate about the use of devices!

      Thanks so much for reading 🙂

    2. I never felt anything more than what I would if I sat down to a lunch chat with good friends. My good friends and I are all very different people. We find common ground. But it’s also fun to bounce opposing ideas off each other; I feel I’m better for it.

      You’re right though. Without an in-person conversation the body language, soft voice, and smile are all lost. It seems my comment was taken the wrong way – kind of like what I did to Kelly. Boom, I got served! 😉

      Good reminder, Crystal. 🙂

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