too much time on the to dos

Too Much Time on the To Dos

“Real life” is back into full swing after a summer that felt closer to “normal” than we’ve had in a while.  Although it’s comforting getting back to a routine, I’m finding that our family’s early mornings and jam-packed schedules are pushing me back into a bad habit. I’m spending too much time on the to dos of life and too little on what’s really important.

Conversations that used to be about taking a walk to the pier or our favorite flavor of ice cream have been replaced with phrases that seem to be on auto-repeat. “Have you done X?”  “Don’t forget Y!”  “You better make sure you Z.”  I know from experience that this constant barrage of ‘helpful’ reminders and questions will lead us down a road of contention and negativity.

Too Much Time on the “To Dos”

When my older son, Alex, was about 10 years old, our relationship had spiraled into a constant struggle.  He complained that I only focused on what he needed to do or how he could do things better.  I was frustrated that when I tried to talk to him, he only barked back a reply or made a snide remark.  We couldn’t have a civil conversation.  Sound familiar? 

How did we break the cycle of negativity? 

By watching TV together.  Spring Break rolled around, and we had a staycation.  With no homework to do in the evening, we started to watch the show, Heroes, together.  We were immediately hooked – discussing plot twists and characters and trying to guess what would happen next.  Suddenly, we weren’t at each other’s throats.  We were having fun.  We broke the cycle of negativity. 

This respite was an opportunity for us to have a civil conversation, discuss expectations and express our feelings.  I was more aware of the tone of my questions and comments. He tried to be more forthcoming and patient.  Spring Break and Heroes ended but the new version of our relationship remained.

Positivity Ratio

There’s a concept in positive psychology that explains why our relationship was able to improve – positivity ratio. It claims that if a person is exposed to more positive experiences than negative, that person has a greater chance of flourishing.   Sounds logical, right?  What’s interesting is that research has shown that exposure to positivity can be a predictor of successful and thriving relationships, marriages and even businesses.

The first research on positivity ratio was conducted by John Gottman, who predicted the viability of marriages by analyzing how couples argued.  Marcial Losada furthered the idea by applying the study to predict success in businesses.  Barbara Fredrickson propelled it to a mainstream concept with her research and book, Positivity: Top Notch Research Reveals the 3 to 1 Ratio that Will Change Your Life.

A Flaw in the Math

Researchers claimed that there was a specific number, an ideal ratio, of positive to negative affect that results in flourishing.  Fredrickson was most blatant about it, as you can tell from the title of her book above. The concept came under intense scrutiny.  The mathematics behind the research has since been debunked, but the concept is still considered solid.  I agree – my experience with Alex demonstrated just how important positive interactions are to the health of a relationship.

“For a system to be in a positive state, a significant amount of positivity is required to balance against the over-weighted power of negativity.”

-Steve Scott

Repeating the Same Mistakes

Fast forward many years and I find myself making the same mistakes – just with a different son.  But this time, I am able to recognize the pitfalls more quickly, and I know how to approach the problem. 

Here’s how I’m trying to build more positivity into my relationships.

1. Make a conscious decision to change.

The first step is identifying the problem.  As my mom always says, “It takes two to tango.”  But, I know there are improvements I can make in my own behavior to spark change.

2. Express your desire to improve your relationship.

I think it’s beneficial to share ideas for my own improvement with the other person it affects. In my experience, the other person (even my 15-year-old son) will be more willing to consider making changes as well.

3. Track positivity.

To ensure your interactions are more positive than negative – track what you’re saying and doing.  In the mornings, I’m trying to replace my instinctual first questions. “What time did you go to bed?” is what I really want to know. But this is usually a trigger for an argument.  Now, I try to start with something more positive like, “Thanks for loading your dishes into the dishwasher last night.” 

3. Build in reminders to identify unwanted behaviors.

My son, Max, and I use a special word when one of us says something snarky to each other. “Zing!”  There’s no need to explain when an unfair negative comment enters our conversation.  We just say the magic word, and all is understood.

4. Practice kindness.

I find that spending a little time each day thinking or reading about kindness increases my awareness of my own actions and how they may be perceived by others.  Obviously, I’m far from perfect, but a small, daily dose of kindness helps keep it at the forefront of my mind.

There’s nothing worse than feeling you’re constantly at odds with someone else, whether it be your middle school aged child, spouse, or colleague at work.  Injecting more positivity and just having some fun in your relationship is a great way to set it back on the right track. 


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