Is the road to hell actually paved with good intentions? Who knows? But sometimes—just sometimes—meaning well does not lead to doing the right thing. Experts explain how to make matters better, not worse.

By Emily Hsieh
Updated June 02, 2015
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Illustration: woman sitting on huge pile of clothes in front of closet
Credit: Peter Oumanski
Illustration: Woman covering son's mouth
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Jumping in to answer for your kids when an adult asks them a question.

“Even if it creates a moment of social awkwardness, resist the urge,” says Kristen Race, Ph.D., the author of Mindful Parenting. “You want to create a habit where kids answer for themselves—even the shy ones. They learn that their parents don’t solve all their problems for them. Start small. When you go to a restaurant, tell young kids that you will order for them, but that they have to let the server know if they want milk or water.”

Saying, “Let me know if there’s anything I can do,” when a friend is in crisis…

“It’s a lovely sentiment, but it puts the onus on her to ask for help,” says Andrea Bonior, a clinical psychologist and the author of The Friendship Fix. You feel good—you offered!—and she feels too overwhelmed to remember that you did. If you have a friend dealing with a death in the family, a bedbug infestation, or even something joyful but hard—triplets!—take action. “Be specific, so they can simply say yes or no,” says Bonior.

For example:
• Drop off dinner.
• Pick up her kids from school or let older ones come for a sleepover.
• Tell her you would like to send your cleaning service over—and is there an afternoon she’ll be out that’s convenient?
• If family needs to come in from out of town and not all of them can afford hotels, organize friends who can offer a guest room. People need to fly on a moment’s notice? Maybe your circle of friends have miles they can pool and offer.

Saying “This will pass” or “The worst is over.”

How do you know? Instead say that you wish you knew what to say—and be there to listen.

Saying “You’re sooo much better off without him.”

People get back together! Also, “Sayings like these imply that the person shouldn’t be upset, which is just annoying,” says psychologist Guy Winch, the author of Emotional First Aid. Instead try, “I know it’s upsetting. It must be hard to start over again.” (Other phrases to avoid: “I never liked him” and “He was the worst!”)

Saying “Have you tried yoga? Goji berries?”

Unless it’s a bum knee (in which case goji berries still probably won’t work), leave all manner of treatment discussions regarding her or her family to her doctor. Just say, “It stinks. I’m here for you.” Jillian Lauren, the author of Everything You Ever Wanted and the mother of a special-needs son, adds: “Don’t tell the parent whose kid is having a giant tantrum in the middle of the grocery store that she should see a homeopath. You never know what someone else’s situation is.”

Saying “When the timing is right, it’ll happen.”

Infertility issues are touchy. “I dealt with infertility for years before my son was born, and I’m dealing with it again in our hopes to have a second. It’s a minefield to talk about, but that phrase is the worst,” says Natalie Holbrook, a blogger and the author of Hey Natalie Jean. “It’s not comforting! It’s like telling hungry, emotional toddlers that they’ll get a cookie—at some point, if they can figure out how to operate the oven. Chances are ‘That is not fair’ is all she wants to hear.”


It’s easy to listen to a friend vent and say, “I know how you feel!” But you may not. “If someone is upset about an off-the-charts colicky baby and you say, ‘I know how you feel,’ then share about your only slightly fussy baby, you sound like a nincompoop,” says Bonior. “Don’t make it about you. Say, ‘I can imagine how you feel.’ ”

Illustration: woman scolding writing child
Credit: Peter Oumanski

Giving misbehaving kids immediate consequences.

Don’t worry—your child won’t miss the lesson if you don’t hammer home the point at the playground. “When children are upset, the part of the brain that is receptive to learning is completely inhibited,” says Race. “revisit the incident once everyone—you, included—calms down. Your kids will be more tuned in to what you’re saying.”

Illustration: Woman talking to new mom about sleep
Credit: Peter Oumanski

Asking a new mom how the baby is sleeping.

“‘How is he sleeping?’ can feel loaded, like you’re asking how good that mom is at implementing routine,” says Holbrook. Make this small change: “How are you sleeping?”

Saying “You look great for your age.”

“For your age” = “You don’t just look great, full stop.”

Asking “Have you lost weight?”

(Because you needed to.) “It makes people feel like they were unattractive or overweight before. Tell them they look so happy and healthy—two things every person wants to be,” say Heidi and Chris Powell, the transformation pros for ABC’s Extreme Weight Loss.

Saying “Looks like you got some sleep last night.”

As opposed to normally, when you look like a zombie.

Illustration: woman telling friend she looks like a celebrity
Credit: Peter Oumanski

Asking “Do you get [insert celebrity name here] a lot? You look just like her.”

Not every famous face is universally admired. This will turn on you when the friend grimaces and says, “Eww, you think so?”

Illustration: woman cutting hair on her birthday
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Chopping off your hair at age 40.

“Where did this idea come from? It’s like an urban myth. Just because you’re 40 doesn’t mean short hair will look good on you,” says Michelle Snyder, the owner of Barrow Salon, in San Francisco. Plus, it isn’t always lower maintenance (moms). You need more frequent trims and can’t throw it into a topknot. If you do want to go short, try soft layers that are a bit longer on top, like Robin Wright. Or a layered bob that hits around the collarbone. “Remember, though, Louise Brooks had hair down to her waist late in her life and looked beautiful,” says Snyder.

Spending more money to get free shipping.

“Paying $15 in shipping is nothing compared with an $80 top you don’t need or love,” says Laurie Trott, the fashion director of Check with a sister or a friend to see if she is eyeing something from the same site. Maybe you can combine your orders instead of buying unnecessary extras.

Getting manicures to stop biting your nails.

“As a person who has been a lifelong nail biter, I can assure you, a manicure won’t make you stop. It comes down to a mental commitment,” says Gretta Monahan, the owner of the Grettacole salons, in Boston, and the host of TLC’s Brides Gone Styled.

Illustration: woman pulling tiny dress out of box
Credit: Peter Oumanski

Indulging in wishful wardrobing.

“That’s when you buy clothes for the life you aspire to instead of the life you have,” says Bridgette Raes, a stylist in New York City and the author of Style Rx. Stay-at-home mom? Wedges and cool sneakers will make you feel better than a closet full of stilettos.

Packing the special-occasion dress for vacation—the one you never wear.

Guess what? You probably won’t wear it on vacation, either. “It’s taking up valuable suitcase real estate, plus time spent pondering how to make it work,” says Monahan. Pack the cotton maxi you live in all summer.

Changing into flip-flops when your feet hurt.

Your aching feet need arch support and structured soles with shock absorption (like sneakers) to recover fully, says podiatrist James Christina, the director of scientific affairs for the American Podiatric Medical Association.

Shopping where you’re always a small.

So, you’re a size 4—in this one store’s chinos. Don’t let vanity—or the lift that you get from seeing 8 instead of 10—limit your options. It’s the same body, regardless of the dressing room. (And, honestly, no one is looking at your tags.) You could be missing out on new, more flattering styles somewhere else.

Wearing something shapeless when you feel blah only makes it worse.

“Doing this often makes you look bigger than you are. Put on something fitted and tailored. It makes you stand up straighter, which perpetuates a better mood,” says Trott.

Illustration: too many things in a pot
Credit: Peter Oumanski

Not waiting for the water to boil fully.

“I see bubbles! In goes the pasta!” No. The waiting time between little bubbles (a simmer) and big bubbles (a full boil) is less than the extra minutes that you’ll need for the water to come to a boil and your food to cook fully if you toss in the pasta too early. Just sit tight.

Smushing all the pork chops into the pan.

Crowding makes meat steam, not sear, and the extra bodies, so to speak, will take as long to cook as two batches.

Hacking vegetables into hunks.

Big chunks take longer to soften while cooking. Spend a few more minutes and dice.

Illustration: woman buying cans in bulk
Credit: Peter Oumanski

Buying in bulk.

You’re not saving money on the gallon jar of mayo unless you use it before it goes bad, says organizing expert Jeffrey Phillip: “Don’t let excitement over a good deal overtake logic.” If you have limited storage, stick to bargains you deplete quickly, like toilet paper or diapers, not 24 cans of oatmeal.

Trying to make everything from scratch.

Buy the carbs—piecrusts, rolls, even the cookies for the ice cream sandwiches. Those are labor-intensive items where store-bought works just as well. (And tastes fine, too.)

Looking at calories instead of sugar.

When you eat a lower-fat or nonfat food (think yogurt or ice cream), often the sugar content is the same, even though the calories are slightly less. “So there is proportionally more sugar and less fat. And the main component of food that distorts your appetite is sugar,” says nutritionist Kelly Dorfman, the author of Cure Your Child With Food. “It triggers your internal reward system, and that makes you want to eat more.” A low-fat meal with substantial sugar will probably make you hungrier, says Dorfman: “At least fat has satiation value.”

Illustration: woman shopping for entire week
Credit: Peter Oumanski

“I will plan a full week of meals and shop once, so help me God.”

Something to strive for? Maybe. But if you are someone juggling a busy schedule (hi, all of you), “try buying two or three days’ worth instead,” says Joy Cho, a blogger, a mother of two, and the author of Oh Joy! 60 Ways to Create & Give Joy. “There’s always something unexpected that happens, and a lot of food can end up unused. I find two to three meals is the right amount to feel prepared without any waste.”

Doubling a recipe to freeze half for later.

It isn’t always the savior of weeknight dinners. “There’s a limit. Frozen things can go bad within four months,” says Catherine McCord, the author of Weelicious. They also take a while to thaw. Monday’s meal isn’t done if the lasagna is still a block of ice at 6 p.m.

Shooing people out of the kitchen at a dinner party.

When friends ask to help, are you the host who says, “No, no, no, I’ve got it”? People like to do something. (hey, maybe the living-room chitchat is going stale.) And even if you really prefer to prep solo, a friend can save you 10 minutes by setting out napkins or filling water glasses.

Illustration: woman chopping vegetables while on the computer
Credit: Peter Oumanski

Checking e-mail constantly.

“Most of us don’t have jobs that require it—it’s a compulsive behavior,” says Christine Carter, a sociologist and the author of The Sweet Spot. “Schedule 20-minute blocks of time, three to five times per day, when you will get to e-mails—not just check, but respond or put them in a separate folder from your in-box for pending items. I also do a quick check of e-mail before I go into any deep work project, so I’m not tempted to break my focus.”

Working through lunch.

“If you don’t take a break during the day, you’ll take a fake one, like falling into a Twitter hole at 3 p.m.,” says Laura Vanderkam, the author of I Know How She Does It.

Trying to catch up on sleep on the weekend.

Because you stay up late during the week answering e-mails that could probably wait (time stamp: 12 a.m., thankyouverymuch). “Sleeping in more than two hours beyond your usual time can lead to increased risk of metabolic disorders, like diabetes and weight gain. Regularity is key. Most adults need an average of seven to eight hours of sleep per night,” says Phyllis Zee, M.D., a professor of neurology and the director of the Sleep Disorders Center at Northwestern University, in Chicago.


“Each time we go from one thing to the next, our brain has to go back three or four steps to reorganize before it can move forward. This is inefficient and stressful. We are much more effective when we focus on one thing at a time,” says Race.

Creating the world’s most comprehensive to-do list.

“We think the act of writing it down allows us to let it go, but your unconscious mind worries about unfinished tasks,” says Carter. Don’t spend precious time writing a long list only to fret over it. “Telling your brain when you are going to do something creates a sense of calm,” she says. Put chunks of time for specific work tasks or personal things, like meal planning, onto a calendar.

Apologizing for no reason (“I’m sorry the house is a mess.”)

“What on the surface seems overly polite is actually quite controlling, like saying, ‘You can’t have any resentful or negative feelings in regard to this interaction!’ ” says Darcy Lockman, Ph.D., a psychologist in New York City. “No one wants to be told how to feel, so the preemptive apology can be off-putting. If a person is upset, wait for her to tell you, then apologize.”

Using reply all.

Are you discussing what everyone is bringing to a potluck? Fine. “But if your boss asks for people’s availability for a meeting, e-mail only her,” says Carson Tate, a productivity consultant and the author of Work Simply. “Reply all, in that situation, is irritating. Also, you’re not showing discernment about who needs what information.”

Decluttering the least-used room first (Uh, the attic).

“People think that decision making will be easier in a less-frequented space,” says Julie Morgenstern, the author of Shed Your Stuff, Change Your Life. But tossing old term papers is never easy (or fast—four hours later you’re still reading). Worse, you spend a lot of energy on a space you rarely spend time in. Reap daily benefits by clearing well-used rooms first.

Letting guilt drag on.

It’s OK to feel guilty about something and trying to correct it, but then let go, says Christopher Germer, Ph.D., the author of The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion: “When guilt persists, it’s usually mixed with shame—not what you did, but who you are. Self-criticism is not helpful.”

Splurging first, organizing second.

You just picked up $400 worth of storage bins. Now what? “If you start with the product, you spend money on things that don’t quite fit your needs. Narrow down your belongings so you know what you need before you shop,” says Phillip.

Blindly following “Dry-Clean”

“More items than you think can—and should—be washed,” says Gwen Whiting, a cofounder of The Laundress line of detergent and cleaning products. “dry-cleaning wool and cashmere can actually dry out the yarns and crush the pile of the knits. Hand wash and lay flat. Same goes for silk. Hand wash and air-dry.” Exceptions: viscose (clean as directed) and rayon, which can be iffy.

Illustration: woman looking up at huge basket of laundry
Credit: Peter Oumanski

Designating a single day for laundry.

It takes forever, and then you’re facing a Kilimanjaro-size pile to fold after dinner. “Do sheets and towels one day, clothing on another,” says Whiting. “This will spare you from losing socks in your bedding, too.”

Illustration: woman sitting on huge pile of clothes in front of closet
Credit: Peter Oumanski

Organizing big (the entire contents of your closet!) instead of small (try your purse).

The micro level is always a better starting point—a drawer, one shelf. “Organizing a tiny space you use constantly, even your handbag, will motivate you to keep going,” says Morgenstern. In contrast, dragging everything from the garage out onto the driveway sets you up to fail.