Many of us use task lists to keep track of all the things we need to do. But while that’s a good thing as far as it goes, I’ve started asking myself a different question at the beginning of each day. Instead of asking what I need to do that day, I ask, “What has to happen for today to be a successful day?”

This question is different, because while we may check off a lot of things on our to-do list, those things may or may not keep us moving forward towards our goals. Too often, we choose the easiest things to tackle first, leaving no time for the most critical tasks. At the end of the day, we feel like we were busy all day, but accomplished very little.

But even when we are working on critical tasks, we may not feel like we’ve accomplished much, because we can’t put that coveted check mark in front of the task; it’s too big to complete in one day, so it sits on the task list day after day.

Asking what needs to happen for the day to be successful addresses both of these problems. First, it requires that we prioritize and focus on the things that are most important (which, to paraphrase Goethe, should never be at the mercy of things which matter least), instead of those that are easiest. Second, it reminds us that even when we don’t complete something, working on the project on a daily or weekly basis is important to its ultimate success.

Additionally, this question is broader than just work. And it is here where it can sometimes have the greatest impact on the lives of parents who have had their children removed, especially due to a substance use disorder. It recognizes that some days, “success” will mean something as basic as getting to work on time. Going to an NA/AA meeting. Complying with a no contact order.

In her book Option B (co-authored with Adam Grant), Sheryl Sandberg writes of her grief over the unexpected death of her husband. She shares that she began a journaling practice that was focused on one specific question: What did I do well today? She notes that at first, she was skeptical; her moments of success included things like, “got dressed today.” But that was a “small win” that research says is significant. In one study, people who spent just 5-10 minutes a day writing about things that went well and why had reduced stress levels, mental and physical health complaints within three weeks.

Grant also notes that this is different from a gratitude journal. His research found that gratitude, perhaps in part because it is passive, does not make us happier or more confident. But recognizing our contributions does. It is active; we have done something to contribute. To me, this is why it is more effective than positive affirmations like, I’m a great person. Simply saying something doesn’t make it so; if my self-confidence is in the tank, it’s because I don’t think I’m a great person. Saying that I am feels like a lie—there’s no “evidence” to support it. But recognizing and acknowledging the things I’ve done provides that missing evidence (and may help your attorney advocate for you more effectively).

If you are a parent who is involved with the juvenile court system, whether your child has been removed or not, here are some possible things to put on your “What has to happen for today to be a success” list (and ultimately your “What I did well today”):

  • I will be “clean and sober” today[1]
  • I will be on time for my hearing.
  • If I have visitation, I will (play on the playground with my child, read a book to my child, feed my child a healthy meal and talk to my child while we eat, etc.)
  • If permitted, I will call my child before s/he goes to bed and read him/her a story.
  • I will attend conferences for my child.
  • I will go to my therapy appointment.
  • I promptly returned calls to FSRP and DHS, even if I’ve relapsed. They can help me get back on track.
  • I will apply for one job.
  • I will ask my friends/family/FSRP worker for help when I need it.
  • I will learn something new.
  • I will go for a walk.

These are just a few examples, and they aren’t designed to create overnight change, of course. But they can create the small wins that keep people moving forward towards those big goals.

You are worthy of parenting your child; but you have to believe that and do everything in your power to demonstrate that to the people who are making decisions about your children (e.g., DHS and the court). Although it may not feel like it sometimes, they want you to be successful, too. However, their ultimate goal is to protect your child.

So go do the work, acknowledge each small success, forgive yourself for past mistakes, ask for help when you need it, and keep moving forward.

[1] Some in this area are suggesting that we get away from using the word “clean,” suggesting that it has a negative implication connected to the person. However, “clean” in this context means a clean drug screen—not whether the person is clean or dirty.

What Did I Do Well Today?
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