Switch off your autopilot and live in the moment

The parenting journey walks a fine line between helpful routines and morale-challenging treadmill mileage. Gretchen Carroll explores ways to get out of a rut.

Routine is important in a child’s life. It provides a sense of security and can help children to sleep and eat well. However, when routine becomes overwhelming and it starts to feel like you’re in Groundhog Day, it’s time to get off the treadmill. Just as there is value in routine, there is value in breaking it for both parents and children.

Humans are creatures of habit and we can easily get trapped in behaviour and thinking patterns. By doing something different, you can truly appreciate the moment. When days blur into one and we start parenting on autopilot, injecting fun and variety into the day can work wonders. 

In the moment
Even tiny changes to the way we live our lives can bring more happiness. This is a big part of mindfulness; the practice of finding ways to live in the now. Mark Williams and Danny Penman state in their book Mindfulness: a practical guide to finding peace in a frantic world that breaking habits can be as simple as taking an alternative route to your destination; sitting somewhere different to where you would usually or turning all screens off for a while.

Slowing down in general helps you appreciate things you wouldn’t otherwise. Our local park is in walking distance and I used to always pop our preschooler into the stroller and walk there quickly. Recently we’ve both been going on foot – at his pace. This slower stride means we’ve discovered 'treasures' along the way.

Williams and Penman talk about aiming to exist more in 'being' mode and less in 'doing'. Of course stuff has to get done, and that’s when autopilot mode comes in handy. If we had to think hard about completing even straightforward tasks, we would get paralysed by the minutiae. But getting trapped in a mind-set of doing means we can miss the present moment. We end up driving, working and parenting without actually being present. Mindfulness allows us to become fully conscious of life again.

When we become stuck in the doing mode, we also find ourselves continually thinking of what we have to do next. Of course, thinking ahead as a parent is inevitable (and to a degree, essential).

Yet by trying to minimise this pre-planning, and moving our thoughts back to the now, we feel calmer. 

Mix it up
By introducing a fresh perspective, you can bring yourself back to the moment. This can be achieved with small changes, but we can also try bigger things to make special moments. In her book Happier at Home, Gretchen Rubin talks about instigating a weekly adventure with one of her children. Each week Rubin and her daughter would visit a place in their city that they didn’t go to often, and spend an afternoon there. It made for a special time for both of them.

Another idea would be to try a different holiday destination. Many families have a favourite spot or extended family they frequent for holidays. We do this too; my in-laws live in another town and it’s lovely to know we’ll have a comfy place to stay and nice company to help out. We always enjoy it, but we've been so often it's lost that special feeling of 'getting away'. So recently we stayed in a motel (a first with our son) in a place we hadn’t been to for years. Sure it wasn’t as easy, but it was fun and made for a holiday to remember.

With a preschooler, we often find ourselves stuck at home battling the latest virus, particularly in winter. I’ve come to appreciate the days when my son is well and we can get out for new adventures.  And even when we are at home and sick, little changes can make the day easier.

Sometimes weighing up whether to try an activity or change your routine, especially with a young child, can be a cause of anxiety. You might start thinking it will end in disaster (or more accurately, a meltdown). Therefore, understandably, it’s easy to stick to the norm. When this thought pattern happens to me, I try to turn it around and think that maybe instead of going badly, it will go well, or somewhere in between. This defuses the worry. When I do try something different, and it’s a success, everyone’s happy and I wonder why we didn’t do it sooner. Of course there has been the odd failure too, although nothing catastrophic!

During the past year, I have set myself the goal of going somewhere new or trying a novel activity, with and without our child, every week. Having this set in my mind means it’s more likely to happen, rather than it be just vague intention. Reintroducing an activity you used to do before having children can also help make you a happier, more engaged parent overall.

Williams and Penman say “When mood is low, motivation follows action rather than the other way around”. Often when you feel tired or stressed, which – let’s face it – can be frequently as a parent, waiting until you feel motivated to branch out may mean action never eventuates. On the other hand, taking action can make you feel more energised.

Of course there are going to be times when sticking to routine is the best course, such as when you are rundown or getting through a tough time. That’s okay. Just try a little change and see if it helps your stress levels. I like to remember a quote from author Paulo Coelho: “If you think adventure is dangerous, try routine – it’s lethal”. 

Novel ideas

■  Have a picnic lunch or dinner at a park or beach, or even in your own garden.

■   Go on an adventure with your child. This can be close to home or further afield; the main idea is that it’s not a regular destination or activity.

■   Simply sit or play with the kids somewhere different to where you usually do at home. This allows you to appreciate other views, smells, light etc.

■   Whether you go out to work, or are the primary carer for your children, it’s easy to slip into a 'uniform'. Wear a piece of clothing or jewellery you haven’t worn for a while, and notice how you feel.

■   Think up new creative or physical activities for your children to do at home, and get involved at whatever level you think is appropriate. Go online for ideas (there are plenty at or check out some library books.

■   Let the kids stay up later or wake them up earlier to do something special occasionally, for example watching the sunset and stars, or have a sunrise breakfast outdoors.

■   Try preparing new dishes and get the whole family involved in making the meal, if possible.

■   Do an activity you used to enjoy pre-kids and haven’t done for a while; be it an exercise class, movie (why not just turn up and take pot luck?), theatre, or dancing. This can be with your partner, friends or by yourself – ideally a mix of all three and as regularly as possible.

■   Take the bus or train, or walk somewhere you would usually drive. Sometimes the journey is more fun for children than the destination.

■   Look out for family-friendly events at the weekend, especially ones you haven’t been to before.

■   Have a day, half a day, or whatever time is available, when your child chooses an activity to do with you. And if it’s within reason, do it!


Gretchen Carroll lives in Auckland with her husband and son. She works as a freelance writer, allowing more time for adventures with her preschooler. 


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