What a kid can teach you about all the productivity lies you tell yourself
A few years ago, I came across a mental practice that saved my sanity, my consulting firm, and my relationship with my kid – no joke.
It’s pretty simple: look at whatever complex or complicated thing you’re doing or building, or, hell, just the list of shit you have to get done in a day, and ask: what would this look like if it were easy?
Sounds easy (ha! see what I did there?), but actually, I found that it opened up new ways of looking at hot messes. As a single mom who was running a consulting firm, working full-time, and taking the first semester of a PhD program all at the same time that year, I needed all the hot mess help I could get.
This approach has helped me figure out which small tweak to a system or project will help the rest fall into place, whether it’s finding a helper, building a no-code system to automate something, or rearranging data in my head to make the final product better. A few times, it’s helped me leave things that I realize are not going to be easy, ever (goodbye, PhD, bad relationships, and my complete lack of boundaries).
The phrase ‘What if this was easy?’ has stayed on an index card by my desk for the years since then. I use it when I’m overwhelmed by a project or a life change or a situation that feels unresolvable. But recently, one of my partner’s kids, in love with reading everything and halfway through third grade, looked at my bulletin board, read that index card, and left me one in return: “Well, it’s not. Sorry. Love, Ari.”
I’m not gonna lie – reading that note when I sat down with coffee the next day for work was like being kicked in the stomach. At first I wanted to laugh; then I wanted to cry; then I wanted to scream.
It’s such a sad world sometimes, when our nine-year-olds know that it’s never easy, when our kids can point out to us that all our fancy mind tricks aside, it is pure unwillingness to quit that keeps us going, through all the hustle and grind required to provide for your people and take care of your basic needs.
It’s a sad world when your average third grader sees through the bullshit we use to keep going every day, working jobs we hate, writing about shit that sells rather than what our hearts sing for, selling our labor to someone else for the 5% chance we’ll make it another month without a crisis or disaster to set us right back where we started from.
It’s also, in the end, a good world, and it would be even better if we adults realized what we were doing and were as honest with each other as this kid.
“How are you?” They’d say at work when we walked in, and we’d say back, “Somewhere between completely overwhelmed and utter existential despair, secure in the knowledge that nothing I do, produce, or create today will be truly mine, authentic, or purposeful.”
“What’s your next move?” your friends would ask while you looked for work. “Another gig where I pretend to care about this niche thing no one cares about while I wait tables on the side and try to convince myself that this is really all there is,” you’d say back.
We’d be more honest about the trauma we’re working through collectively and completely alone. We’d figure out that if we were honest, we might actually see things be easy – it’s always less complicated when you’re not alone.
Now, my index card sits pinned next to hers. Every day I see these two reminders:
You’re doing a lot of hard shit and there’s probably an easier way to do the thing that’s making you crazy.
And also, the big stuff isn’t gonna get easier, because capitalism sets you up to fail and it’s not your fault when you do. All you can do is the stuff that makes your own personal hot mess easier, and maybe spend some of the time you gain back loving on the next generation. They’re gonna have it harder than we ever did.
So let’s all be a little more honest with each other, with our kids, with our friends.
Ask for help when it’s not easy. Change or walk away from shit that doesn’t work for you.
If it’s a hot mess, decide if you actually want it, and if you do, what the terms are for it to stay in your life.
Take control of the things you can, while you can, so that maybe the next generation gets at least a little extra love along the way.