Stopping to smell the roses: A practical guide

August 20, 2009 | 34 comments

The other day I was picking up my children from my mom’s house, and just as I was about to have them all in the car my four-year-old and three-year-old broke away and dashed into the neighbor’s yard. I told them to come back, but they were enchanted with some dazzlingly colorful new flowers the neighbors put in their flowerbed.

“Why do flowers smell good?” my son asked. “What is this flower called?” my daughter wanted to know as I struggled to get my other two children in the car.

“No idea, ” I called over my shoulder. “Get in the car, please!”

They persisted with their questions about the flowers, and finally I had to go get them from the neighbor’s yard and make them get in their carseats. I would have loved to have been able to settle down into the grass and have a leisurely chat about flowers, but we just didn’t have time. I needed to get home to make an important phone call, I was late getting started on a crockpot recipe for that evening’s dinner, and we had to hurry and get to a friend’s house for a lunch playdate.

Later that night I forwarded an email to some family members that ended with the admonition, “Don’t forget to stop and smell the roses!” I sat back and asked myself: Do I ever do that? Do I ever really stop to smell the roses on the path of life, or do I just forward emails about it?

The obvious example of dragging my children off when they had literally stopped to smell some flowers was the first thing that came to mind, but I thought of countless other examples as well. In the past few days alone I had brushed off an opportunity to let my children help me cook dinner, bristled when my husband wanted to take the long way home from Mass to drive through a lovely historic neighborhood, politely declined when the neighbor girls asked me if I wanted to watch some bicycle tricks they’d perfected — and those were just a few examples that I thought of off the top of my head!

I realized that I want to have the kind of life where I stop to smell the roses, where I embrace the opportunity to take unexpected detours and savor those special spontaneous moments with loved ones…but I hardly ever do it. In fact, to be totally honest, I’m sometimes annoyed when those kind of situations arise.

I’ve spent the past few days thinking about what I need to change to make this something I actually do rather than something I just forward emails about, and here’s what I’ve come up with:

Buffer, buffer, buffer

I think that the biggest problem I have in this department is lack of buffer in my daily schedule. When you’re trying to cram 15 hours of work into an eight-hour period, you really don’t have time to stop and smell the roses.

To use my example from above, I don’t think it was a mistake to rush my children into the car. I barely had enough time to start that recipe and make that phone call before we had to be at our friend’s house; a few minutes meandering through the neighbor’s yard was a few minutes we didn’t have. The mistake I made wasn’t when I told the kids to hurry, but when I decided to cook, make an important phone call, have the kids visit my mom and go to a friend’s house all in the same morning.

I’ve written about this many times before — like when I realized that I couldn’t even do half of the things I wanted to do and that I am more tempted to commit certain types of sins when I am overbooked — but I never cease to be amazed at how easy it is to slide into getting overloaded. When I look at my calendar and see that I only have “go to grocery store” penciled in for the next day, it’s so tempting to think that I can do more than that. I have a huge tendency to forget about the invisible to-do list items of preparing and cleaning up after three meals, diaper changes, naptime routines, potty help sessions, a little down time for me, and all the work involved in just keeping the house at a level that I wouldn’t be arrested if someone from the Health Department were to unexpectedly stop by. When I actually stop and take a look at all the things I have to do that aren’t written down on the calendar, it becomes glaringly obvious that I really can’t expect to do more than just go to the grocery store.

It’s also worth noting that this kind of thinking can be a problem in any state of life. In fact, I was probably more tempted to let myself get overbooked before I had children because I thought of myself as having so much more free time than I actually did.


I talked about this more in my post about surviving the baby/toddler years, but I’ve learned the hard way to be very wary of any commitments that involve deadlines or hard schedules. For example, if I have to take one of the kids to the doctor at 2:00 and be at a prayer meeting at 7:00 and have an article to an editor by 8:00 tomorrow morning, my opportunities for rose smelling are severely limited. Of course some of that is unavoidable (like doctors appointments), and some of it might be worth it (like getting paid to write about something I enjoy), but I’ve found it important to acknowledge that every hard deadline I commit to adds a significant amount of stress to my life, and evaluate the tradeoffs accordingly.

Detachment from plans

If you’re a control freak who has a tendency to get fixated on the way you want things to go, stopping to smell the roses is actually pretty annoying. I know this from personal experience. That day that the neighbor girls wanted to show me their new bike tricks, for example, the problem wasn’t that I was overbooked (for once); it was simply that I was set on the idea of using that time to do something else, and I didn’t want to change. When they asked me to come outside my mind flashed to what I’d planned to do during that block of time and I got that NO WAY THE WORLD WILL STOP SPINNING ON ITS AXIS feeling I often get when I contemplate not being able to do something I wanted to do, and I ended up missing an opportunity to share something special with my little neighbors.

An attitude of gratitude

In order to stop and smell the roses, you have to see them first; and if you’re focused on problems and discomforts, you’re probably going to walk right past a lot of little roses that God puts in your path. I was hit over the head with this lesson the night that I was trying to get dinner on the table and my children were underfoot. It had been a long day, I was tired, I was preoccupied with worries about some medical bills, and I ended up shooing them out of the kitchen in irritation. Later I realized that I had passed up the opportunity to let them join me in the cooking — the type of thing that life’s most precious memories are made of — all because I was too focused on the negatives in my life to see that a beautiful moment was right in front of me. (If you need some inspiration for appreciating all the little gifts of daily life, Ann Voskamp always has some wonderful thoughts on that subject.)

That completes my “good ideas that I am horrible about implementing in my own life” list of tips for how to really stop and smell the roses every day. If anyone else has struggled with this, I’d love to hear about it. How do you make sure you appreciate life’s little unexpected joys on a daily basis?

photo by nickwheeleroz


  1. Elizabeth Mahlou

    Attitude can be habit, too. For me, stopping to smell the roses, especially with my kids (they have unique and fresh perspectives), frequently led to making it a bit. Scheduling (oh, I am a scheduler!) time for it on a regular basis — same time and place is also helpful — reinforced the behavior until it became unalterable habit. Of course, it helped that I am married to a forester, who loves the outdoors, and transmitted that to our children. (That is about the physical roses. As for the mataphorical ones, it has been a little more difficult to find the time for them, but I refuse to pass them on or move them from my email box (or coffee table) until I enjoy them, which means that when the pile gets big enough, I HAVE to stop and smell the roses.

  2. Sarah

    You are so right!
    Thank you for your words…

  3. Daniel Cox

    You know, at the end of the day, stuff still needs to get done. It's one thing to lament the lack of "flower smelling", but how would you feel if the dinner didn't get cooked, your child missed their checkup or you didn't earn enough because the article didn't get written?

    Sometimes, it's simply more troublesome to stop and literally smell the flowers. Sometimes, you have to say "I've got a minute…let's check out the flowers now." Of course, you may miss 'opportunities' that are fleeting. And you choose in the moment to grasp it or not.

    For myself, at the end of the day, I embrace with gratitude that I lived. And that, more than anything else, is enough.


  4. Marie

    Jen, I hear what you're saying! My favorite slogan is, "Have as many picnics as possible!"

    When my 6 kids were little (just a few years ago), my husband and I agreed on 2 rules:

    NO VOLUNTEERING FOR ME. No Sunday school teaching, no typing newsletters, no working at fundraisers, no cooking for potlucks (we always brought several bags of chips).

    Volunteering always seemed innocent, but it would upset our daily schedule and I'd be rude and crabby trying to get out the door. Then I'd be "wiped-out" when I got home.

    Now that the kids are getting older and can stay home alone, I volunteer quite a bit and sometimes take a few kids along to "shadow" me as I volunteer.

    ONLY 2 EXTRA EVENTS PER WEEK. The busy-ness of taking care of several children was so time consuming that I was physically and emotionally drained each night. How wonderful it was to hear my husband say over the phone, "Sorry, we can't come to your daughter's B-day party. We already have a ballet recital and a church picnic this week, and that does it for us."

    Over the years, we have increased it slowly to 3, then 4, and now we can handle about 5 or 6 extra events per week before we start spinning out of control. It helps to have older children who can cook, do laundry, run errands, etc. (I taught them well!)

  5. Amy

    If you're a control freak who has a tendency to get fixated on the way you want things to go, stopping to smell the roses is actually pretty annoying.

    Man, does this describe me. With both my kids in school, I have plenty of time to smell the roses. Time is absolutely not an issue for me 90% of the time. The other 10% is only an issue because of my own poor planning (procrastinating until I can't any longer). It's definitely that I have other ideas of what I want to do with my time, and I don't like changing them.

    What do I do to help remind myself? Hmm. Not enough, apparently. Probably what I could do is get better organized, so I would be less inclined to procrastinate. And oddly enough, the more time I have free (during the school year, which just started, and why I noticed), the more I tend to procrastinate. I think I'm too flexible in that area of my life, and I need more structure. I'm like a toddler that way:-)

    I used to do a gratitude list on my blog–five things I was grateful for each day. Maybe I will start that up again. Thanks for the reminder.

  6. Anonymous

    Jennifer, as I read your post, it was like you were writing about me! So, while I don't have any suggestions to offer, I am interested in others ideas on how to stop and smell the roses as I too need a lot of help in this area.

  7. lizardcat

    Some great suggestions about not overscheduling. I tend to think of overscheduling as packing tasks into every spare minute, but you're right–with young kids it may mean more than just one activity a day!

    I'm a like-minded control freak who doesn't like switching gears. What helps me stop for the roses (occasionally–wish we did it more) is my memories of the times we have done so. For instance, about a year ago the kids wanted to go for a long walk in the rain. So we went, with me hiding my reluctance. I don't even recall enjoying the experience very much at the time. However–it has become a very special memory for all of us. And I'm so glad I put aside my tasks that afternoon (which couldn't have been that important, since I can't remember them now).

    Coincidentally, last night I read about the famous Washington Post article in which an anonymous-looking Joshua Bell played in the Metro to thousands of commuters who rushed by without a glance. According to the author, *every single child* who heard Bell's violin stopped to listen…and was dragged away by the parent. That hit me pretty hard. I wondered what other once-in-a-lifetime experiences my children have missed because we always "have" to be somewhere else.

  8. Sarah Reinhard

    Jen, my husband once suggested to me, quite seriously, that I plan for spontaneity. That helps me quite a bit. It also helps to realize that there will always be more opportunities to smell the roses — turning it into a stress "MUST DO" type of thing can be just as stress-inducing (thereby undermining the joy of it) as having too many things on the to-do list. (At least for me)

  9. Lucy

    I can really relate to this. I am currently very overbooked which makes even the time when I'm not booked feel stressful. I always have a huge list of things that I should be doing. I have learned (painfully) that I simply cannot go-go-go all the time and maintain sanity.

    I love Maria's suggestions. We have rules that are very similar to that. I do limited volunteering now that my youngest is a preschooler (the school my kids are at requires it) and we try to not have activities two nights in a row.

    I also find that doing as much preparation as possible the night before helps tremendously. If I know that I can just grab the kids' backpacks without needing to check them, life is much easier. I (or my husband) set the coffee maker at night, run the dishwasher, etc.

    One last thought (sorry this is so long!): I keep a "rule of six" posted in various places in my kitchen to remind me of my priorities (I got it from this blog: This rule of six includes things like Good Books, Encounters with Beauty, Prayer, etc. This helps keep me focused on what really matters. And helps me make sure that my kids and I have all had good experiences that day, no matter what else happens.

  10. Love2Learn Mom

    Great post! I remember having a bunch of little ones (probably 5 at the time, ages 8 and under, must have had a babe-in-arms) and taking them to the post office to drop off a bunch of big padded envelopes for shipping. I arrived at the post office and was completely overwhelmed for a moment, trying to think of how I could get all five kids and a big stack of packages in and out without losing my mind. Fortunately the right answer came to me in a short amount of time, though it makes me laugh to think that it wasn't immediately obvious. I handed each of the kids a package to carry which not only freed up my hands (well, at least one of them!), but completely gained their cooperation as well. 🙂

  11. Gina

    Your post today reminded me of something a priest said once: "The devil is tricky–if he can't get you to renounce your faith, he'll make you so busy that you can't practice it properly."

  12. brian

    Thanks Jennifer. I really needed to read this-

  13. christine

    I think that mental attitude is key in this. (You can still be tired, cranky, rushed, hungry, etc. and still be intellectually & spiritually available)'Roses' surround us continually/infinitely in daily life. The majority don't cause huge insufferable breaks in the time/space continuum… When we open our eyes to the volume of joys and learn to create them for others, we are able to be more discerning about when to detour off the schedule.

    Become proactive. Plant your own roses daily & see them as such: a sweet comment to a stranger, a big hug and kiss to your unsuspecting child, a surprise playdate or treat for kids or daddy… on a day when you do have time, let the kids make the worlds biggest mess.

    Learn to thank God immediately when the feeling hits. Be vocal (and age appropriate) about it so your children can learn to recognize/appreciate/have gratitude/pass on joy in all it's many forms. Beautiful skies & scenery, acts of kindness or courage, a choice your kid made that knocked your socks off, a beautifully written sentence or picture… it's not always about 'stopping'.

    Once you start seeing/feeling lil bits of joy everywhere, you learn how to create them more proactively in ways that make time management irrelevant. It's great to be flexible & spontaneous, but it's not necessary to drop everything either…

  14. Babz

    Well put.

    One thing I did that has allowed myself more time for rose-smelling is I stopped chatting on the phone so much. Instead, I try to find time for playdates or mom's time out with my girlfriends. It's much more pleasant to visit in person. I found that yakking it away with my friends on the phone meant I was spending too much emotional energy on them instead of my husband and kids, who really need the best of me.

  15. Anonymous

    You're right about trying to fit in to many things with small children to take care of. I have a 2 year old a 16 month old and my 3rd is due in 2 weeks. I have so many nights where I look at my "to-do" list from the day and wail about how I only crossed off one thing. But if I really think about it, I may have only crossed off fold laundry, but how many other things did I get done that day that weren't on the list? Sometimes I think I should make my to-do list as I do things! Instead of trying to plan a bunch of unrealistic extras. Mine would look something like:
    Made, served and cleaned up all three meals and several snacks.
    Changed 14 diapers and helped with 9 potty breaks.
    Made it through one tantrum and several time-outs.
    Read 11 different kids books 4 times in a row.
    Colored pictures together.
    Cleaned up paper and crayon scraps from coloring.
    Picked up toys (with the "help" of toddlers)3 times.
    Washed a load of cloth daipers.
    Kissed my hubby when he got home.
    Relaxed with nacho's and a movie with my hubby after the kids got baths and put to bed.

    It adds up fast if you really think about it!

  16. Anonymous

    I went to volunteer at my church when my kids were young; wisely the volunteer coordinator said 'no, your ministry is with your children.' So true and gave me the time to be late making dinner because we were having so much fun throwing the ball after baseball practice, etc. Kids grow up fast – cherish every moment – take them out of school one day and go to the zoo. You won't regret it.

  17. Chef Penny

    Jen, we've all been there. I do wish that I had stopped to smell the roses more when my kids were younger and still relied on me for most things. They grow so fast that I have done it more now that they are bigger.

  18. Kaycee

    I'm an "overplanner" too and get really annoyed if someone tries to interfere. I hate that I'm not more flexible because, if I'm being honest, most of my plans just aren't that important.

    When I'm in the right frame of mind I can stop and smell the roses and be just as spontaneous as the next person. For me the trick is focusing on really being present and engaged in the events that are happening around me, not just my inane ideas about what I want to happen because ultimately what I want doesn't usually matter. It's hard to be that present though and can be incredibly draining for me.

  19. Ann Voskamp @Holy Experience

    So true, Jen: 'You'll have to *see* them first'…

    Most of the time… that's where I am at… praying for the Holy Vision just to *see*….

    And as C. S. Lewis said in The Great Divorce, “Looking comes first"…

    Deep Seeing is a real art.

    You bless, Jen…

    All's grace,

  20. Brendan

    Wonderful post. You always bring up situations that you have in your life and look at them in such a different and great way. I almost always can take what you write about and try to apply it to my life, that is what I love about your posts. Thanks for sharing!

    God Bless,


  21. Kat L

    Good reminder for those of us with multiple small children! I always know I'm trying to do too much when I don't have time to tickle my babies as I'm changing their diapers.

  22. Lauren

    The first grade teacher in me keeps me in touch with my childlike innocense. I choose to get excited about little things. It makes life so much more fun!

  23. Marcy K.

    I agree with everything you said. I think that what helps is under-scheduling your time and trying to stick with a schedule if possible. I remember when you discussed "A Mother's Rule of Life" and the schedule of Mother Teresa's nuns and you were surprised at the simplicity of their daily schedule. I think this is the key.

    I become very annoyed when someone interrupts what I'm doing. I'm in a certain groove and here comes someone wanting to talk to me, or want me see another somersault AGAIN! I just sat down to do something and here they are again. My internal dialog is "GO AWAY and leave me alone!" but I try to be pleasant and remove my hands from the keyboard and try to look at them, but it is VERY hard to do.

    And why? because it is "all about me." It is all about my self-centeredness. When I completely let go and release any pre-conceived plans in my head and go with the flow I do better. Of course, you have to temper that with actually getting things done, but our vocation is motherhood and we are supposed to be loving and caring. So, darn it, be loving and caring! At least that is what I tell myself 🙂

  24. Christian H

    A Buddhist tale:

    A man was walking through a mountian pass when he encountered a tiger. It began to chase him, so he ran. Suddenly he found himself at the edge of a steep cliff, with the tiger on the path behind him. He saw a vine hanging from the cliff face, so he climbed down it to hide from the tiger. As he saw the tiger look down over the cliff's edge at him, two small mice ran up to the vine and began to chew on it. If he climbed back up, the tiger would get him. If he waited, the mice would chew through the vine and he would fall.
    He noticed some wild strawberries growing in a crevice in the cliff face. They were within reach, so he picked one, ate it, and enjoyed it.

  25. Kate J

    We have 8 kiddos, from 6-25 yrs old, and I have to say that every Sept. and every May, there have been schedule changes to adapt to. No year has been like another year! After the one year I burned myself out, running kids to jobs and activities for several hours each day after school (it was a circuit), literally tossing the kids a sandwich in the back of the van for dinner sometimes, I realized how insane that was and thereafter tried to find ways to avoid or otherwise conquer the over-scheduling. It is hard, and I often say that thinking thru the day's (or week's or school year's) schedule is the hardest thing I do. I try to find creative solutions like Love2Learn Mom at the P.O. Loved that story! To me, that is success.

  26. Pharmgirl

    Daniel: as someone who always has a lot to do, I understand what you mean! Often it is important to stop all your mystical ponderings and do whatever's in front of you!

    At the same time, a person needs to learn when to say no, and I think that's what Jen was getting at. Here's an example from my job. This afternoon, I had a chance to work on my presentation for next week's meeting with the big shots (which I only have one opportunity to do and will impact future patient care). And then, one of the other pharmacists offered to show me how to calculate the dose of a chemo drug (which is important, but there will be other chances for me to learn this).

    I could have just done one or attempted to do both when I was already exhausted from working a late shift yesterday. The latter wouldn't work; both these projects need my full attention. My priorities were with the presentation, so I told the other pharmacist, "Sorry, I'm tied up right now, but let me know when this comes up again."

    Yeah, it's important to get Junior to the doctor, make dinner, and write the article. Try to do too much at once and you may miss what the doc says, burn dinner and/or write a bad article – all of which could affect your future.

  27. Cheryl

    Great post! I was just thinking about this tonight. Well, not about smelling roses, but about having buffer time in my day. (I call it margin.) I'm always trying to do too much. You cracked me up with the detachment to plans idea. I can identify with that. My dh and I always joke about my plans getting ruined.

  28. Thistle Cove Farm

    Good points and very nicely put. Buffer time is important and it's also important to include time to ponder, to breath, to just BE. When I fill my days with a to-do list, my days are too short and I are too testy. When I fill my mind with radio and television, my soul can't hear God whispering to me on the wind, in the bird song, the bleating of the sheep, the nickering of the horses, the purr of the kittens or the worried voices of my dogs because they sense my stress. When my days are too filled with me and my importance, I'm simply not available and I lack room for God to fill my heart. Then, not only do I suffer but also the people around me and I become a woman 'not' after God's own heart. These days, I curb my to-do list and leave Sunday as Sabbath Keeping, filled with worship and family only. It helps keep me sane.

  29. Linda

    I have come to visit from Ann's. I always know that she is going to direct me to a place of great blessing.
    I have an empty nest – so you would think that I had time to smell the roses and then some. Truthfully I do, but I have found the culprit in my life is selfishness. I get upset if the plans for my day have to be upended because something unexpected had come up.
    I have come to realize that the "unexpecteds" are the very things the Lord has dropped into my day to bring me greater blessing than anything I could have planned to do. I'm working on it!!

  30. MaryLouise

    I had these problems,and all your comments about limiting one's committments are valid but I'm going to throw a hard learned monkey wrench into the pot.
    You said the kids wanted to have you join them in smellimg the flowers, the neighbor girls wanted to show you bike tricks, your husband wanted to take a drive.
    It is control issue, its bending to them,
    another aspect of abandoning to divine providence is responding to them without resentment and allowing God to give you the time and energy to do all the things on YOUR list.
    I heard Fr. Groschell on an EWTN vocations presentation tell a story about when he had been a religous for half his life and his responsibility included driving the sisters from the Missionaries of Charity around NY. He got lost, arrived late, was bad tembered and felt he was horrible at the task. He asked Mother Theresa, begged even, "Mother please, ask the Archbishop to assign you another driver, I'm no good at this."
    She looked at him and responded, "Jesus called you in his humility." Which for Fr. G. meant, Jesus called him to join his humility. And after that Fr. G was content doing a bad job at the job he was asked to do.
    I've learned; the stuff I want to do (need?) isn't as important as the things God presents to me through the inconvient desires of others.
    Sarah R.s comment scheduling time for spontaneity might help. And God realy does provide as we give his the opportunity.
    God Bless

    P.S. using a last itital helps those who don't remember or spell all that well, distinguish one S__ from another. But I don't thing that's why authors used to do it. (reference 7 Takes Friday)

  31. Karen

    I just found your blog and I can't tell you how happy am that I did!! Your words on this topic really summed up my own feelings. I am always filling every minute of my days with my children often leaving very little (if any) time to "stop and smell the roses" even though I know from plenty of experience that those are the moments that often bring the most joy. Thanks for your words, I plan to do a lot of back reading!

  32. G

    I once had a therapist ask me what I ever did that was 'frivolous'. I looked at him with a blank stare. As the oldest of five in a dysfunctional household, I can't ever remember a frivolous moment until I was 40…since then, I make sure to have at least one-a-day 🙂

  33. Lenetta @ Nettacow

    I linked to this on my weekly link roundup (post is here. What I took away: if I want to fit in more, I need to do less. Thanks!

  34. Cassandra @ Apple Pie

    Hi. I discovered your blog today. I have taught in seminars to homeschooling moms for years, and I have to say that you are writing about a hot topic. This need for margin in our lives is crucial, but so hard to arrange for, because we can always try to fit a few more things into the day. Your post is good advice, good perspective, for moms with little ones.

    I am posting a link to this article in my side bar, because I think it will be very good for other moms to read.

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