A few weeks ago, Joe and I were sitting on the porch swing out front, talking.
Actually I was talking. And crying. He was listening. (Wise man.)
At some point in my “I’m overwhelmed by life” tirade, I had a moment of sudden clarity.
“I think I know what’s really the problem here,” I said. “The problem is that I feel like all of this — everything that is our life, our family, our house, parenting, kids, education, your work, my work — I feel like it’s my responsibility to make it all work. And so it’s all my fault if it doesn’t.”
“Hmmm,” he said.
“But the thing is,” I continued, “it isn’t ALL my responsibility. We’re all in this together. This is all of us — you, me, and the kids — and we all need to make it work. Not just me.”
As a couple, we have to work together to do what is needed.
To Survive or To Thrive
As new parents, there’s usually one key goal, one focus: to survive. (The secondary goal is to sleep.)
We launch into this adult life/parenting thing without much real skill or understanding. We learn by trial and error. We muddle our way into some sort of normal. We develop routines and systems to support the goal of survival.
There’s just one problem. What helps us survive does not always help us thrive.
In fact, sometimes those habits we develop in order to survive will hurt us when we keep them as a long-term way of life.
How to Move From Surviving to Thriving
There will always be times in life when we focus on surviving: a loss, a crisis, a big change. We don’t want to stay in survival mode, though.
The key to moving from survive to thrive is not trying to do it alone.
Trying to do it alone, and dragging everybody along with you, is a certain recipe for failure. (Comes with side helpings of burnout, guilt, frustration, and resentment.)
Don’t try this alone. Your kids, as well as your spouse/partner, need productive rituals just as much as you do. Maybe more than you do.
There are three phases to developing productive rituals as a family, so let’s take a look.
Phase 1: Motivation and Identity
Phase 1 Objectives:
- Develop a Team Identity
- Define What Thrive Looks Like for Your Family
- Set the Family Ground Rules
- Complete Your Family Branding and Design
Phase 1 Keys to Success: Simplicity and Repetition
Develop a Team Identity
We’re all in this together.
My kids have chores not because I like to make them do unpleasant things, but because I need their help.
They know this. They know because I tell them. “I need your help,” I might say, or “You’re an important part of this family,” and “I couldn’t do this without you,” and “That was really helpful,” or “Thank you.”
We have a family motto: “We’re a team, and we rock!” My husband started saying this, and now he’ll say the first half and the kids will shout “AND WE ROCK!” at the tops of their lungs. It’s changed how we do things and how we see each other. It’s also fun to scream out of open car windows. Not that I would know. Just a guess.
Define What Thrive Looks Like for Your Family
You don’t know how many assumptions you have until you get them out in the open.
How you were raised has put an image, for better or worse, of what “family” looks like. Of what work is and isn’t. Of what it means to be happy and successful.
If you don’t consciously and clearly define what thriving is for your family, you might be pursuing those unconscious images that you picked up along the way, and they might not be at all what you really want.
Have a conversation with your partner about this. If your kids are old enough (and they’re old enough before you think they are), include them. They have ideas and insight. They’re invested in this, too. Let everyone be part of the discussion, and come up with some key aspects of what thriving means for your family.
Set the Family Ground Rules
You don’t need many, but you want to define a few rules that apply to everyone in the family.
A set of ground rules helps you avoid micromanagement as a parent. Micromanaging is an equal-opportunity killer: it will take down a business or a family. Or both.
A set of ground rules helps everyone know what to expect from each other. Our ground rules let my kids know what I expect from them and what they can expect from me. Sometimes they call me out on (not) being kind or leaving out a mess. It works both ways.
Our rules, in case you’re interested, are as follows:
1. Do what’s right, right away.
2. Always be grateful.
3. Always be kind.
4. Never lie.
5. Clean up your messes.
6. No licking people.*
(*Not an original rule, but particular tendencies of a particular, um, child necessitated this additional rule. Fortunately he’s grown out of it now…)
Complete Your Family Branding and Design
Family branding? Eh, what?
Just like we each need to know and own our personal identities, we need to know and own a family identity. Family can be a steadying, grounding, and equipping force. Or it can be confusing, chaotic, and full of mixed messages.
Be deliberate about your family. Have goals. Set priorities.
Our motto is part of our “branding”: we’re a team. We’re about being a team.
Our purpose is part of our branding, too: we help people. That’s what we do. I talk to my kids about what I do (writing) and relate it to helping people. My husband talks about what he does (sales) and how he helps people through his job.
Family design — which doesn’t mean, in this instance, family planning — refers to how you structure family life so that it fits your family identity. When you design your family life, you deliberately choose habits, friendships, activities, and involvements that support and benefit your family identity. And you deliberately eliminate things that work against the family identity you’ve chosen to build.
Phase 1 Keys to Success: Simplicity and Repetition
If it’s simple enough to repeat as a motto — to memorize easily — then you’re good. If it’s so complicated you have to make a spreadsheet about it, simplify.
Repetition has power. Repetition trains your brain. Repetition tells you what to focus on. Use repetition to help you, your partner, and your kid(s) focus on what you’ve decided to be about as a family.
Phase 2: Gaps and Rituals
Phase 2 Objectives:
- Identify the Biggest Gaps
- Clarify New/Improved Rituals to Bridge Gaps
- Design a Habit Loop for Top 2–3 Rituals
- Set Up a Complete System for the First New Ritual
Phase 2 Keys to Success: Focus and Thoroughness
Identify the Biggest Gaps
You can do anything, says David Allen, but not everything. Likewise, you can establish any habit as a family, and over time you can establish many habits. But you cannot tackle all the habits at one time.
This is a common failure point in attempts to improve family life: we want to improve it all right now.
Focus on a few key areas. Identify the biggest gaps between what your life looks like on an average day and what you want it to look like. What an average thriving day would look like. Gaps can exist in many areas: relationships, time management, physical organization, health, fitness, togetherness, priorities, or finances. Choose one or two gaps, and leave the rest for later.
Clarify New/Improved Rituals to Bridge Gaps
Once you’ve identified the one or two gaps you’re going to close, think about exactly what needs to change.
What habits are in place right now? Do they need to be eliminated or adjusted?
What new rituals do you need to establish?
Some gaps might need several changes. That doesn’t mean you should tackle them all at once. If, for example, you’re tired of chaotic weekends, you’ll need to eliminate some old habits (saying yes too often, ignoring the family calendar) and establish some new rituals (a family planning session to compare calendars, designated family time on weekends).
For the gaps you want to bridge, make a list of habits to remove or adjust and new rituals to establish.
Design Habit Loop for Top 2–3 Rituals
Next you’ll choose the top two to three rituals and focus on these. Focus is your friend.
Don’t scattering your energies over a big list of new rituals. You need to be able to focus your attention and energy on one or two new rituals; three at the most.
Choose the ones that are the most appealing, that generate the most excitement, or provide the biggest immediate reward. Then design the habit loop for each new ritual: a trigger, the step-by-step desired behavior, and the reward.
Set Up a Complete System for the First Ritual
A complete system involves the space, schedule, and supplies needed to complete a habit loop. Set up the whole system before you start trying to establish this new ritual.
Trust me, this is much easier than flying blind.
If you decide that a healthy family breakfast together is going to be the new ritual, then stock up on healthy breakfast supplies, choose a space to store them, set a designated time for breakfast, create a week’s menu of healthy breakfasts, and do as much food preparation ahead of time as you can.
You don’t have to maintain the same degree of preparation. When you’re first establishing a new ritual, however, make it as easy as possible.
Phase 2 Keys to Success: Focus and Thoroughness
The key to establishing new family habits is focus.
Focus on one or two big gaps (such as the gap between unhealthy eating — current default — and the healthy lifestyle you want to have as a family).
Then narrow your focus to a few key rituals that will give your family some significant progress in bridging the gap.
Then narrow your focus even more: to a single ritual that you’ll all work to establish right now.
Be as thorough as possible in your preparation for that one ritual. Plan the complete habit loop and set up a system that covers the space, schedule, and supplies for the ritual.
Phase 3: Training
Phase 3 Objectives:
- Set a Timeline for Training in the First New Ritual
- Train All Involved People in the New Ritual
- Troubleshoot and Tweak
- Reinforce, Support, Encourage, and Reward
Phase 3 Keys to Success: Patience and Acceptance
Set a Timeline for Training in the First New Ritual
How long does it take to establish a new habit?
Research is inconclusive. It depends on how difficult the habit is, who is involved, personalities, and all sorts of random variables that will change from one family to another.
Don’t worry about an arbitrary number like 21 days or 66 days. Pick a timeline that makes sense to you. How long do you and your family want to focus on this new ritual? Two weeks, a month, six weeks, a quarter?
Here’s a rule of thumb: the more chaotic life seems or the more stressed you are, the more time you should allow to establish a new ritual.
Train All Involved People in the New Ritual
There are two training methods.
The first is the direct training method. In this instance, everyone knows what the ritual is, and you — or someone else in the family — will give direct instruction on how to complete the ritual. You all know the trigger for the ritual, and you can help each other by pointing it out. You can remind each other of the steps and the importance of the ritual. This is how we usually teach our kids things like how to brush your teeth.
The second training method is the sneaky, I mean, um, indirect training method. Indirect training can be more effective than direct instructions. For example, I might decide that I’d like us to clean out the car every Saturday. I can call a family meeting, tell everyone my plan, and get varying degrees of interest. It will be mostly non-interest.
Or, I can design a habit loop, build the system, and not bother explaining it to anyone else. At the designated time (or whatever the trigger is), I’ll call the kids to help me with cleaning out the car. I’ll ask my husband if he can bring the vacuum out. We’ll all get to work. It won’t be an official ritual (to them) but if I repeat this process every Saturday for the next six weeks or so, it will become a definite ritual for all of us.
Test out what works best for your family. It depends on the ages and personalities involved and on each particular ritual. If one method doesn’t work, give the other method a go.
Troubleshoot and Tweak
As you go through your new ritual, you’ll have some little rough patches. Some of those are simply due to the discomfort of unfamiliarity.
Other are due to poor design, and should be changed. Your official designated time may be too early or too late. Maybe everybody hates the breakfast muesli. Tweak. Troubleshoot. Streamline. But stick to the basics — we’re having a healthy breakfast together — and don’t lose sight of the goal.
Reinforce, Support, Encourage, and Reward
Work this new ritual into family identity when you can. Talk about it as a matter of fact. “Oh, we really choose to go low-key on our weekends and spend time together.” It’s okay if you’re still learning how to do that.
Support positive efforts from yourself and your family. It’s not going to be a 100% success. 100% is not even the goal. What you’re trying to do is establish a habit that is the default; that is, it’s your normal approach or behavior most of the time. That means that there will be exceptions. That’s okay, too.
Encourage your family and yourself by noticing progress. Celebrate accomplishments: “We ate a healthy breakfast together four days this week!” (It’s also okay if your family thinks you are a little cheesy.)
Plan in rewards and enjoy them. Don’t skip the rewards. Even small rewards create a positive connection with the new ritual.
Phase 3 Keys to Success: Patience and Acceptance
Establishing a new ritual for an entire family takes time.
Be easy on yourself, most of all, because if you’re the one leading the charge to a better life, you’ll feel the most responsibility. You’ll also feel the biggest sense of failure and frustration when no one else seems to try as hard or do as much.
Remember: you’re not alone, but you also have to accept the efforts that others put forward even if they don’t match your ideal. Have faith in the effect of ongoing encouragement and ritual-building. It’s better to take a longer time and establish good rituals through positive efforts than to bully your family into a new behavior just to appease you.
It’s the slow-and-steady (and positive) approach that will lead to lasting changes.
Make This Process a Ritual
The process of identifying needed productive rituals and then incorporating them into family life is itself a productive ritual.
The long-term reward is a smoother, easier life and a less-stressed, thriving family. (You can add other, measurable/concrete rewards, too. Why not? It makes it more fun and motivating.)
Create a trigger for yourself by putting a reminder on your calendar. Every month or quarter, choose a new productive family ritual to establish. The step-by-step behavior is to go through Phase 2 and Phase 3, above, in order to identify, develop, and master new rituals — one at a time.
It seems slow at first, because it is slow at first. But the good effects of positive, productive family rituals snowball over time. When you focus on one ritual at a time, you make each ritual more effective. And that effectiveness will spread, without any additional effort, into improvements across all areas of your family life.
What productive rituals will help your family move from surviving to thriving? Share in the comments; we can all learn from each other here!
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