Do I Have To or Do I Get To?

A man sitting on the ground, looking frustrated.
Photo by Ahmad Gunnaivi on Unsplash

COVID-19 lockdowns have messed with everyone’s schedule. For parents of young children, it’s meant that there’s much more to do than usual, and less time to do it.

These days I often find myself feeling completely exhausted and overwhelmed by four o’clock in the afternoon. And our kids don’t go to bed until eight. If we’re lucky.

But I’ve found something that helps me. It’s simple. It’s the change of a single word.

Instead of saying “I have to…” I’m trying to prefix tasks that need to be done with the words “I get to…”

Instead of “I have to spend my afternoon supervising kids in the playground because the school is closed” I’m trying: “I get to spend my afternoon…”

Once I get started on that track, it’s easy to change the slant of the rest of the sentence into something like: “I get to have some fresh air and build my relationship with my children.”

Instead of “I have to continually watch for things that are unsafe for my kids” I’m trying: “I get to create a safe environment for my kids to play and learn in.”

A small disclaimer for the sake of anyone who hasn’t yet experienced the delights and challenges of parenthood. It’s possible to both love and like your children while being extremely frustrated and unhappy with their current behaviour.

It’s possible to want to be deeply involved in your kids’ lives while still craving fewer chores and more peaceful moments for yourself.

When I’m in the middle of a difficult, boring or unpleasant chore, I try to remember that nothing worthwhile comes for free. You can’t have an interesting and challenging job without regularly feeling stumped or frustrated.

You don’t get the real experience of parenthood without a huge shift in the way you spend your time.

This technique might be a subtle difference from platitudes like “always look on the bright side” or “attitude is everything.” Of course, I can remind myself to “have a good attitude” but that isn’t anywhere near as practical or straight forward as switching from “I have to…” to “I get to…”

This is a tool that we can directly insert into our challenging situations.

Does it always work?

No. But when it does, it helps me get through a few minutes. And sometimes with challenging and stressful situations we need to take things minute by minute.

When there are four hours left until bedtime and you just want to curl up in a ball on the couch, the only way through is by handling the next minute, and then the one after that.

When our five-year-old wakes me up early by walking into our room screaming and then says he doesn’t want to talk to me because he wanted Mama to wake up… oh, this one’s hard...

But it’s a bit easier if instead of “I have to somehow calm him down without screaming at him” we substitute something like: “I get to figure out this challenging puzzle of calming a child down when he won’t tell me what’s wrong.”

Other applications:

“I get to handle this difficult situation because I’m one of the best people at dealing with troublesome customers.”

“I get to do this disagreeable task so that my partner, whom I love, doesn’t have to do it.”

“I get to help our currently overburdened health-care system by staying in so that I don’t catch Covid.”

“I get to mop the floor the way I want it to be mopped.”

As Epictetus said almost 2000 years ago: “It isn’t the things themselves that disturb people, but the judgements that they form about them.”

This isn’t to say that if you hate your job or the path you’re on at the moment you shouldn’t try to change it.

But for this next minute and the one after that, let’s try to appreciate what we get to do next.

Further Inspiration

I’m certainly not the first person to write or talk about this concept. Here are some great examples of putting this and similar techniques into practice:

Self-help author Jon Gordon



I like helping people to discover their own potential. He/him. Full-time parent & software developer, part-time teacher & musician.

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Stuart McLean

I like helping people to discover their own potential. He/him. Full-time parent & software developer, part-time teacher & musician.