Because uncertainty is the rule, not the exception.
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Eliminating distractions and cutting the word “busy” from your vocabulary in order to focus on yourself and your family — the important things — is a noble but wholly unpractical pursuit. Schedules get overbooked. Work inboxes (and bills, and grocery lists) pile up. The latest “productivity hacks” might help, but the truth is, in life as in parenting, uncertainty is the rule, not the exception. Accepting that things are constantly in flux is the first step towards mindfulness and can help you alleviate the many pressures clouding your head to simply focus — far more than any hack could.
So says Harvard psychologist and author Dr. Ellen Langer. Better known as the Mother of Mindfulness, Langer has studied, lectured, and written about mindfulness for 35 years and promises no meditation practice is required to achieve it. With a few simple tips, she says it’s possible to clear your head of daily stressors and distractions and focus on family. Which, by the way, benefits your kids, too. “When adults are mindful, their kids are more relaxed, happier, and even more helpful to other people,” Langer says. So get your mind(fulness) right and your kid just might help you tackle the ole’ to-do list.
The only certainty is uncertainty.
Mindfulness, says Langer, is simply the process of actively noticing new things — realizing that things constantly change and look different from different perspectives. That sounds distracting, but recognizing different elements or interpretations of things you thought you knew actually forces you to live in the present.
“Once you think you know something, there’s no reason to pay any attention to it. That’s when distraction happens,” she says. “When you don’t think you know, you pay attention. Everything becomes interesting.”
Langer’s favorite example: one and one isn’t always two. For instance, as all parents know, one pile of laundry plus one pile of laundry equals one giant, stinking pile of laundry.
“If you bring up a child in a more conditional world — ‘It could be this,’ or, ‘You might want to see it in this way’ — the child will be mindful. By teaching the child, the adult becomes more mindful.” Which means you and your kids live in the present, focused squarely on each other.
Outcomes are choices, not fate.
Making time for mindfulness sounds nice, but what about when you head home from the office already stressed about the next day’s deadlines? Langer says the key lies in recognizing that there’s choice in everything you do.
“Stress follows from two things: first, the belief that something is absolutely going to happen, and, second, that when it happens it’s going to be awful. We need to question both of those.”
To the first point, Langer suggests considering three to five reasons why the stressful outcome might actually not happen. That leap from “Definitely” to “Maybe” instantly reduces pressure. To the second, Langer says to ask how the seemingly inevitable outcome might be a positive thing. “Outcomes are in our heads, not in the things we’re evaluating. Good or bad is up to us.”
Admit you’ll never know everything.
The instant availability of infinite information means people now believe they’re supposed to know everything. “Some people today are more stressed because they think — mindlessly — that there’s so much to know in order to succeed and they’re never going to be able to do it all,” Langer says. “Yet there’s really no evidence that knowing more leads to better outcomes.”
Take that last bit to heart and, instead, live in the present. “It sounds like a greeting card but it’s true: life only consists of moments. If you make the moment matter, then your life matters,” Langer says. So forget the reading list or podcast queue and be totally engaged in whatever game you’re playing, book you’re reading, or conversation you’re having.
Build purposeful routines.
Routines provide structures that help kids and families function better, but Langer urges parents to remember that every routine is a decision. “We often act as if our routines were handed down from the heavens. Come hell or high water, we’re following them. You want to recognize there’s uncertainty and create mindful routines so that when circumstances suggest there’s a better way, you can take advantage of opportunities in the present you’d otherwise be blind to.”
Blind adherence to rules and routines is a hallmark of authoritarian parenting, which leads to problems for kids later in life. Mindfulness means recognizing that, in some contexts, rules and routines make no sense. If your kid usually goes to bed at 8:00 but you’re just about to get to the best part of the story at 7:59, you don’t say, “Screw it, we’ll finish tomorrow.” Have routines, but question every part of them. If something doesn’t help you achieve your goal of quality time with your family, then change it.
Stop judging yourself. (Start not judging others.)
Parents often report feeling judged, pressured, and stressed by outside actors — teachers, neighbors, co-workers, or society at large. They wonder if they’re doing the best they can, fret over their kids’ milestones, and have their spouses preview Instagram posts to ensure perfection. Langer says understanding other people’s behaviors with an open mind can actually alleviate self-imposed stress. “Behavior makes sense from the actor’s perspective, or else the actor wouldn’t do it,” she says. “When you see me as gullible or inconsistent, if you mindfully took my perspective, you’d recognize that I was being trusting or flexible.”
Judging others less leads to judging oneself less, “and you grow up a happier person,” Langer concludes. In the context of parenting, that means eliminating needlessly stressful self-criticism. Everyone’s trying their best and no one has all the answers — not even that mom on Instagram. Once you get past that, it’s just you and your kids. And when you’re able to focus solely on enjoying those moments, everyone grows up happier.
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