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'We Always Make the Decisions That Make Our Lives Harder'

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Over the weekend, my wife and I spent time with some new friends. The fit is good: Like us, they have two young kids, and like us, they've been trying to figure out where they'll move in the fall. Their choice came down to Houston or Madison, Wisconsin, and at the last minute, they surprised themselves with their decision.

They explained their thinking over coffee. At first, they were sure they were going to Houston. The city seemed to offer a great mix of easy neighborhood living with the amenities of one of the biggest cities in the country. They could imagine an easy life for themselves in Houston, but they were afraid it wasn't the one they'd end up having there.

"We always seem to make decisions that make our lives harder," the wife said, to explain why Houston just wasn't going to work.

In Houston, she feared they'd choose to live in an expensive neighborhood and incur a mortgage that would require her to continue on the intense career track she was eager to exit. And they knew that even at that address, they'd have a 20-minute drive to bring their son to the preschool they wanted him to attend (even though there would have been other preschools closer by). In short, while life in Houston seemed like it could be nice, they worried they'd get drawn into a situation where their overall quality of life was less than the sum of its parts.

And so they chose Madison as a way to force themselves into living less complicated lives. The lower cost of living meant they could make career choices that were less based on salary considerations, and the smaller range of choices in everything from preschools to restaurants meant they'd be less compelled to reach for things that would have the unintended consequence of making their lives harder.

Their way of thinking resonated with me. What I liked in particular was the wife's comment that despite what they want for their lives overall, in each individual decision they face, they often end up making the choice that makes their lives harder.

It's strange to think that we'd ever choose to make our lives harder, but course we do it all the time. This is true when it comes to big decisions like where to live, what kind of house to buy, and where to send our kids to school. It's also true on a smaller level.

This past January, my wife, Caroline, and I completed a "purge" of stuff from our house. It was our third time doing this since our first son was born four years ago. Overall, we prefer to feel less hemmed in by our possessions but we find that our individual purchasing decisions often cut against that general preference. Do we need a nonstick saucepan? (It sure would be nice for making scrambled eggs.) Did we need a bouncy seat when the boys were infants? Or a second sleepsack for our younger son who often throws up on the one we have? The answer to each of these questions would seem to be, "yes," but if we keep answering that way, we end up with the cluttered house that we don't want. It's just one example of how it can be hard to align broad goals with day-to-day decision-making.

Keeping life simple is probably my highest practical priority. I think about the things we could prioritize in life -- professional success, money, living in exactly the place we want to live, getting the boys into the best schools. None of them come close to affecting my sense of happiness and satisfaction as much as having the space each day to breathe and to enjoy life together with my wife and our kids.

Put that way, of course, who wouldn't choose to have space to breathe and to enjoy the company of the people they love? But even if it's an obvious priority, it's tremendously hard to preserve in the weeds of everyday life. And sometimes you need to take drastic steps like moving to frigid Wisconsin to force yourself to live the way you want to.