How to simplify your parenting & cooking life with one question

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As we walked down the steep country road, passing by Christmas wreaths, pygmy goats making gentle “baaaa” sounds, and a decked out crèche with twinkling lights, we performed our annual review. Alex and I agreed that, while life was great and we were happy, we had many areas of inefficiencies. Now that the first half of 2023 has flown by, I can feel the year has unfolded smoothly compared to most of 2022. Was it because the Little King is older? Nah—parenting hasn’t gotten easier as he’s older, just different. What changed was my commitment to implement new systems.

We chose to change three big things: we tried out grocery pickup,  jiggered our routines to eat dinner at 6 p.m., and I looked for more childcare. These experiments not only added new systems but forced us to cut off things that weren’t working. It opened our eyes to a new framework for making choices: requirements versus priorities. Let’s dive into two examples so you can see how this framework could apply to you and how you can ask yourself one question to drastically simplify your life while getting more done.

An illustration of a big number one with the word "thing"Pin

The life-changing experiment of finding childcare

Our old childcare strategy involved me watching the Little King full-time and a drop-in daycare once or twice a week for about 1-3 hours. The daycare provided socialization but didn’t give me much of a break because I couldn’t leave the building per their licensing restrictions. My kid always wanted me within sight anyway.

I drove 20 minutes one way to get there, which made it impractical to go everyday. I knew we could do better. I desperately needed someone who could take my kid to the park so I could get quiet work done—alone. He needed someone consistent and dependable so he could feel secure rather than the unpredictable nature of a drop-in daycare where the teachers and kids differ everyday.

When I started this hunt in February, I began with a lot of requirements. Wouldn’t it be nice if the Little King’s babysitter could speak to him in Cantonese? Wouldn’t it be great if they could go to story time at the library together? I’d love it if they ran around so much that he was so exhausted at the end that he’d nap for 3 hours. I wanted a few hours of care every other day, less than 10 hours per week. The more I built up these requirements, the higher the cost of finding this person became. My dad told me these requirements don’t matter at this age. I need to find someone who’s kind and loves kids.

With a reality check, I realized my requirement was to find a babysitter. These other desires were priorities, not requirements. Soon after this mindset shift, I found a terrific person who worked out well during the three months she was available. Did I lower my standards? I don’t believe so because I got the outcome I wanted. I felt more productive, rested, and the Little King loved going to the park with her. Another benefit to focusing on one requirement rather than many priorities was it saved me a lot of search time. Once you eliminate people who didn’t fit your requirement, you can find someone much sooner, with less work.

Check out my course on finding a babysitter to escape your cooking nightmare.

The waisting-slimming experiment of earlier dinner

When we visited my parents back home for the new year, they encouraged us to get in the habit of eating dinner earlier. Alex and I admitted we slipped into late routines where we ate dinner closer to 7 to 8 p.m. (ahem, even as late as 9 p.m on haywire days). Eating late leads to knock-on effects including going to bed later, feeling full close to bedtime, and snacking around 5 p.m. because we were hungry. I know it seems illogical: if you’re hungry at 5 p.m., why not eat dinner rather than snacking at 5 and eating at 8 p.m.? Disorganized, I was often running errands or going on a walk at 5:30 p.m. Since I hadn’t cooked yet, there was no dinner to eat at 5 p.m.

Once we committed to this requirement of eating dinner at 6 p.m. every night, it forced structure. To meet this deadline, I had to finish errands and walks before 6 p.m. I abandoned the requirement of eating a homemade meal every day, which dramatically cut down on my time in front of the cooktop.

Chaotic days still happened—that’s when dinner became a sandwich, salad, or instant noodles. A few times after blowing through the deadline, I realized how easily I lost track of time. I set up a recurring alarm on my phone at 5:45 p.m. (new system) to remind me to start cooking.

On calmer days, I prepared dinner at 4 p.m., rather than waiting until 6:30 p.m to come up with a dinner plan like our old ways. Since we finish dinner by 7 p.m., we get an hour of leisure every night. This new requirement gave us greater personal freedom, including adding a twice-per-week swim, which would’ve been unthinkable when we ate dinner at 7:30 p.m.

The key

What I realized from these two examples is that having too many requirements makes life more complicated because it’s hard to meet multiple requirements. At the same time, as with most things in life that benefit from balance, one governing requirement that created a goal or vision served as an organizing principle. We could direct all our efforts towards a vision—be it finding a babysitter or eating dinner by 6 p.m. So, the question becomes how do you decide on your vision or your overarching goal?

The guiding principle that pushed both choices comes from a famous book called The One Thing by Gary Keller and Jay Papasan. This book proposes a framework to help you make choices about how to spend your limited time and resources. To summarize this book, you can achieve extraordinary results if you discover what your “one thing” is. Knowing what the one thing is—notice not three, five, or thirty things—allows you to cut through distractions and eliminate extra tasks that don’t help you get closer to your “one thing”. The authors remind you to ask yourself the question every day: “What is the One Thing I can do such that by doing it everything else will be easier or unnecessary?”

Finding childcare that works for the Little King became my one thing (so that everything else in my life—writing, home renovations, cooking dinner—was easier). Eating dinner at 6 p.m. became our one thing once childcare was in place because I could reach for new goals. Asking myself how to eat by 6 p.m. forced me to postpone complex meals until the weekend, stock up on pre-made options without guilt, and dive into my semi-homemade repertoire.

If you’re often feeling like everything is urgent and important, it’s hard to get much done because you’re frazzled from task switching. If you haven’t read this book, I recommend it as it helped me beat back overwhelm. For busy parents who don’t have time to read a 240-page book, you can get 80% of the benefits by asking yourself the “one thing” question every day

“What is the one thing I can do such that by doing it everything else will be easier or unnecessary?”

The ONE Thing: The Surprisingly Simple Truth About Extraordinary Results by Gary Keller and Jay Papasan

NOTE: Answering this question is simple but it ain’t easy. It can be hard to discard things you’re emotionally tied to…even if you know they’re not leading you towards your one thing. Finding emotional support can help you commit to cutting out distractions, even if they’re painful to remove.

Once you know what your “one thing” is, you choose your requirement. Your requirements get you closer to achieving your one thing. Everything else serves as distractions. You can eliminate or push these things to your priorities. Priorities are nice-to-haves you can aim for when you achieve your one thing or bonuses you gain along the way.

This requirements versus priorities framework surprised me in the last 12 months. It led to tough decisions like choosing not to go on vacation this summer so we could focus on finishing our remodel. I canceled the drop-in childcare because, even though I love the people, it wasn’t working for us. I put my hobbies on the back burner because I want to focus on finishing our home renovations.

The one thing has changed for us too. It went from working on our kitchen to getting childcare to eating dinner at 6 p.m. to furnishing our home to cleaning the garage to (now) work on getting a fence built. What’s the one thing you can choose to focus on today so you can simplify your life and by doing so, everything else will be easier or unnecessary? 

Anna looking down chopping vegetables
About Anna Rider

Hi! I'm Anna, a food writer who documents kitchen experiments on with the help of my physicist and taste-testing husband, Alex. I have an insatiable appetite for noodles 🍜 and believe in "improv cooking".

1 thought on “How to simplify your parenting & cooking life with one question”

  1. Anna,
    You write really well. I enjoyed your article because I am in the same mindset. “Ok first I’ll do this. No, wait. I should be doing THIS. No. I’ll do the first thing I set out to do. All of the sudden: an hour has gone by. Maybe, 2 hours! I have accomplished nothing. I have the luxury of being retired and don’t have all the things you have to do including taking care of Little King. However, my new mantra is it (IT can be anything) will work out the way it is supposed to.


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