My Own Secret of Adulthood – Not Everything Needs Doing

I really appreciate Gretchen Rubin. I’ve read all her books. I listen to her podcast. I follow her blog. I’ve signed up for her newsletter. I’ve been a Gretchen Rubin groupie for almost a decade now, with no signs of waning.

One of my favourite parts of the first book I read – her bestselling The Happiness Project – was her section titled Secrets of Adulthood. Here she lists a number of things that, on first glance, appear startlingly obvious. Things like:

  • Turning the computer on and off a few times often fixes a glitch.
  • What you do every day matters more than what you do once in a while.
  • Bring a sweater.
  • Soap and water remove most stains.
  • The days are long, but the years are short.
  • You can choose what you do; you can’t choose what you like to do.
  • Most decisions don’t require extensive research.
  • No deposit, no return.
  • You can’t profoundly change your children’s natures by nagging them or signing them up for classes.
  • By doing a little bit each day, you can get a lot accomplished.

Sometimes obvious things only become obvious (or relevant) with life experience. I think that’s one of the things about Gretchen Rubin’s list. While they seem obvious (and are) you can only properly internalize the messages once you’ve had a chance to live them.

We learn the hard way that wearing cute shoes is not worth the blisters. We learn through trial and error that going to bed early is almost always the best decision.

Maybe that’s why it’s so frustrating to be a parent? Some of the decisions our children make are so obviously illogical, doomed to failure, or strike us as being downright ridiculous. But they’re not adults yet and having that “Aha” moment can’t be forced down someone’s throat – it has to be lived.


Last week, still mulling over the various nuggets of wisdom from Oliver Burkeman’s Four Thousand Weeks, I thought to myself on a particularly overwhelming day: “I cannot get it all done.” Burkeman has assured me of that.

And then, I thought, “It does not all have to get done.

I cannot get it all done. It does not all have to get done.

There are a lot of things I want to do, many things I should do and a nearly infinite array of things I could do. But I cannot do them all. And they do not all need doing.

I was only rearranging in my own mind something I already know and have discussed but still – it felt like an “aha” moment.

My own little secret of adulthood. Now to remember and apply this wisdom. Now that’s the tricky part.

And, for the record, Gretchen is right. Soap and water do remove most stains.

What about you? Any “Secrets of Adulthood” you’re willing to share?

8 thoughts on “My Own Secret of Adulthood – Not Everything Needs Doing”

  1. One thing that comes to mind that I was reminded of when I read an Atlantic article is “No One Cares.” That probably sounds rude, but it’s a mantra of one of my college friends. Her point was that we spend a lot of time thinking about what others will think if we do X – or at least I have/do, but really, people care/notice less than we think they do. And why am I giving weight to others opinions when I am thinking through something and making a decision that is best for me/my family? I don’t make rash decisions – I put a lot of thought into things for the most part, so I really shouldn’t worry about what others things. And yet, I do because it’s in my nature as a people pleaser. I did work through this in therapy last fall when I was struggling with what my family think/said about the choices we made to protect our family from getting covid. She helped me work on setting up boundaries and separating what they said/what I imagined they were thinking. It was really useful because I knew we were making the right choices and even if there was some fallout from those choices, I was following the science so did not need to feel bad or worry if it was upsetting family. (back story: we were/are very conservative since I’m immune compromised and I was pregnant/then had a newborn – and my family was more of the “I won’t live in fear” mindset… it was HARD).

    1. I read that Atlantic article too and need to be reminded that “no one cares” – which might be better translated that, most of the time, “no one is judging me.” I definitely read in to situations A LOT further than I should; I few weeks ago I was convinced I had offended someone. After a whole weekend of feeling sick about it, I reached out to arrange a phone call to discuss. Turns out an email I sent had been marked “read” when she hadn’t actually read it. She was totally fine with me and how I had handled the situation. All my worry about offending her was completely off base. But it is where my mind instinctively goes. I really dislike to disappoint people (my Obliger tendancies).

      The COVID scenario you describe sounds very challenging – and would absolutely cause anxiety. It is hard to disagree with family on most matters, but even harder when a global pandemic is raging and there are such divergent views on safe practices.

  2. Oh, I just found your blog, and I’m so excited to read more! Definitely subscribing right now!

    I’m a Gretchen Rubin fan too, and I love your little riff off of her secrets of adulthood. I only had the “have to get it all done” about certain things (like work) and not others (housework), but I’m finding that I’m much happier if I only allocate my time to what is most important and what I prioritize, and I try to simplify the rest. For example, I know we need clean clothes and clean dishes, so I can’t stop doing laundry or running the dishwasher daily, but one thing that drastically cuts down on housework is simply owning way less stuff. Thanks to our kids, our house is still in a state of semi-chaos much of the time, but because we’ve limited the “less important” things, they don’t take nearly as much of my time to deal with, if that makes sense.

    Thanks for a thought-provoking post!

    1. Hello! Sounds like we have a lot in common – always nice to find another Gretchen Rubin groupie! Since you’re new here, I’ll link to a few relevant posts that tie in to your great comment.

      I couldn’t agree more about having less stuff – Cleaning Hack: Have Less Stuff! Along with having less stuff, I also feel like even though our house is often a mess, it’s not cluttered. By that I mean that Clutter Hack: Everything Has a Place, and within an hour or so the house can go from chaos to relatively tidy because we a) have are constantly paring down our stuff and b) everything has a place to go. While I love Christmas, I will admit I get a bit panicky when I realize I now have to make space for more things. That’s why I try to focus on things that are consumable or have a very obvious use (Here’s A Thought: Evaluate Your Cart Before You Check Out), while still keeping things whimsical/festive. We’ll see tomorrow how I managed to balance it all!

      It feels like you would enjoy the content from the Lazy Genius as well; I read her book and sometimes listen to her podcast. She talks about selecting the things that really matter and letting the rest slide (be a genius about the things that matter and lazy about the things that don’t). Obviously, priorities vary widely between different individuals, but it helps to put it into perspective and give ourselves permission to “fail” (or Why It Might Be Smart to Fail On Purpose)!

  3. I love this. This aha-moment that frees you of obsessive thoughts or obligations.

    I think one thing I am trying to internalize and apply is that I don’t owe anyone an explanation. I used to justify and explain anything and everything to people (because I thought for some inexplicable reason that people had to understand my way of decision-making), but the truth is, a simple yes or no is sufficient in most situations. It goes hand in hand with this “No one cares” article that Lisa referenced. I have that bookmarked.

    1. That “No One Cares” article was really excellent. I think we all “know” this, but it’s so hard to internalize the message and not feel like everyone actually does care and is secretly passing judgement.

      And how true – a simple yes or no is almost always all that is required; I definitely fall into the trap of giving way too much information and think a lot of the time I make it unnecessarily complicated. I can just say “no” much of the time without explaining (or, in true Canadian fashion, apologizing)!

  4. I loved that Atlantic article (I think San linked it at some point, too) and very much agree with the perspective. For me, it’s manifested more in losing the need to apologize for the way I dress, the way I work, and the way I live.

    I’ve done better with that lesson, but this one? Of things not needing to get done? That sometimes an item on a list makes the list because it *seems* important but really, it isn’t.

    My big challenge is not putting too much on my daily to do list. I always – ALWAYS – list too much, then get frustrated when I don’t accomplish it all. Of course, it’s enough for 3 days, usually. Sigh.

    1. This is me, too. I feel the need to always be productive and when I’m “resting” my mind is churning about all the other things I could/should be doing.
      I’m not quite sure where this stems from – I was very good about setting aside leisure time before I got married/had children. I think some of it is because when I was in university there were very specific goals and outside of those ruberics, the rest of time felt like it was my own.
      Now, there is now final goal with parenting, for example. There is always more love to give, more service to provide…and so I never feel like I earn or can get to a place of feeling finished. This is a work in progress!

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