One Thing and Three Things

[adapted from a post to a discussion board when our son Nicholas was 19 months old]

When I was a young adult, having trouble adjusting to working full-time on a fixed schedule with a commute instead of being in the more flexible environment of college, and also was having some other problems that led me to therapy, my therapist suggested this approach to managing my time at home:

Every night on the way home, decide Three Things you’re going to do that evening (in addition to the most basic stuff like eating and brushing teeth).  Every time you start to fret about all the things that need to get done, focus yourself back on the Three Things. When the Three Things are done, give yourself permission to go to bed or otherwise relax. You can do more things if you really feel like it, but those three are all you “have” to do.

That worked wonders for me! I’d been feeling very overwhelmed by many many things I “should” be doing, and often I’d stay up late rushing around doing as much as possible . . . and then I’d feel so wiped out the next day that I’d promise myself some relaxing fun that evening, but a “few” tasks would catch my attention first, and then I’d wind up staying up late to relax!! I still have this tendency.

When I became a mother and life got even more hectic (I went back to work 25 hours a week when Nicholas was 12 weeks old), I adopted a modified strategy that works well (when I remember to apply it!), the rule of One Thing and Three Things:

On the way home, choose the One Thing you’re going to do that evening. You will do your basic everyday things, you will do the One Thing, and you will do two other Things that present themselves, for a total of Three. (Another change I made with new motherhood was to broaden my definition of Things to include activities that are fun but benefit my kid more than myself, such as taking him to the playground.) Start to work on the One Thing. When your child’s needs are incompatible with the One Thing, find something else that you can do right now, and return to the One Thing whenever you get the chance. When you finish the One Thing, odds are you will have completed a total of Three Things along the way, so now you can go to sleep!


The One Thing is chopping two pounds of spinach from our farm share and bagging it for the freezer.

We get home, unpack lunch bags and diaper bag, change diaper, make and eat dinner (basic everyday things). Nicholas finishes eating before I do and starts playing with his abacus.

I put the spinach in the colander and start rinsing. He comes to see what I’m doing. I pull his highchair over to the sink and have him kneel in it and explain how we break the stems off the spinach and drop them into the sink. Nicholas picks up the stems and puts them back into the colander, then starts taking dirty dishes from the other half of the sink and piling them on the spinach. Okay . . . I put the colander of spinach into the fridge, and we start washing dishes.

Toward the end of the dishes, Nicholas gets bored, I put him down on the floor, and he heads into the living room to look at books. I finish dishes, finish cleaning the spinach, and start chopping.

Nicholas starts whining, wanting me to be with him. I try to convince him that he could bring the books into the kitchen, but he insists that we hang out in the living room, which I notice is dusty. I dust while talking with him about the pictures in his books.

Then we pick up the books and toys and put them away, except for one book that he keeps taking out of the box and waving at me. Great! That will be the bedtime story. We go upstairs, get ready for bed, read the story, nurse, read another story, get another drink of water, discuss the fact that it is not dancing time, read another story, nurse, and finally he’s asleep.

I finish chopping the spinach, bag it, and freeze it. Now I’ve done the One Thing:
1. Freeze the spinach.
and a total of Three Things:
2. Wash the dishes.
3. Clean the living room.

Now I can go to bed guilt-free!

4 thoughts on “One Thing and Three Things

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