Monday, November 19, 2018

Self-Help Pushback (Because These Were Not Written for Moms Like Me)

My work as a freelance writer often takes me down interesting research rabbit holes. Lately, I've been spending a lot of time reading and listening to some of the top self-help books in the fields of productivity, motivation, and time management.

This genre has always fascinated me, and even before I took on this particular project, I was a frequent listener of the podcast Simplify, which interviews different authors of books about how to live your life better and then pulls out some of the key ideas. (My favorite was this one with David Allen, and I really did get some great tips from him!) 

I think the reason I am so interested in the self-help genre is that it does so much more than just give advice. It also highlights our collective values and assumptions about what success looks like. Because no matter how much an individual self-help book might couch itself as edgy or subversive, at their core, these books operate on a very normative definition of success, and it's typically one built on accumulating wealth, minimizing the amount of effort put into the daily tasks of employment, and getting to pursue individual activities of pleasure. 

I'm not knocking any of those things. (In fact, I'd take those. Who's got some to spare?) But I am kind of side eyeing the entire self-help genre at the moment. 

After getting eyeballs deep into dozens of self-help adages and "systems," I'm feeling pretty left out. See, the advice from these gurus tends to pivot in a pretty small circle around a stable pillar of accepted truths. Sure, different experts might dress it up in different flavors to make it more palatable to a particular audience, but, all in all, the advice stays about the same. 

And none of it is applicable to my life right now. 

If I said that to any of these gurus, I know what they'd say. "You're making excuses." "You're keeping yourself stuck." "That's your faulty life script trying to keep you from reaching your potential." They'd tell me to believe in what I can achieve and push through those boundaries.

That sounds motivational and all, and I know why they have to say that, but it doesn't change the fact that most of their advice has very little to do with the life that I live, and it's not because I don't want (or deserve!) riches, leisure time, and world travel.

It's because my time is not my own, and self-help too often ignores that a lot of us are carrying the emotional, physical, and logistical labor of more than one self. 

Let's take a closer look at what I mean. 

Advice Pillar #1: Do Not Multitask 

Where You've Heard It: Everywhere. (No, really. It's everywhere. Like, everywhere.)

The Basic Scoop: Ambitious people often have a lot of responsibilities. Naturally, they want to find a way to tackle these responsibilities more effectively. They'll turn to multitasking to try to maximize their time, but psychology shows that multitasking doesn't actually exist. We may feel like we're doing more than one thing at a time, but what we're really doing is rapidly shifting our attention from task to task, and the end result is a scattered brain, a lack of focus, poorer work, and no time savings.

Why It Doesn't Apply to Me: No, I'm not going to argue that my brain defies psychological realities. I'm absolutely sure that my attempts to grade papers while watching Gilmore Girls and responding to messages in my Facebook chat group are bad ideas that make me do all three of those things more poorly than I would if I just picked one and did it until it was done.

But what I am going to tell you is that I multitask every single day, and I do it well. Because here's the thing about all of those self-help gurus' demonization of multitasking: they're assuming that all of the tasks you do require your mental focus. Guess what? I do a lot of shit every day that requires no or virtually no thinking, and I do a lot of tasks that are partially automated. 

If I put in a load of laundry before I sit down to grade a batch of papers, then by the time I am ready for a break, it will be time to put the clothes in the dryer. Then I can return to the papers and finish them up. When I'm done, the clothes are ready to fold. I can fold them while watching Parks and Rec for the fiftieth time, which is a necessary unwinding after grading all those papers. 

If I didn't put the laundry in until after I finished the papers, though, my whole day is going to get wrecked. This automated task can easily be happening while I am doing something else, but it requires conscious multitasking on my part to get done. 

Some other things I multitask throughout the day? I braid my daughter's hair while we talk about the book we're reading together for her homeschool literature class. I listen to podcasts while I clean the counters in the kitchen. I feed the cats while my son's oatmeal is heating up in the microwave. 

The advice to stop multitasking annoys me because it ignores the fact that not all tasks are intellectually equal tasks, but that doesn't make them any less necessary or any less difficult to fit into my day. 

Advice Pillar #2: Take Control of Your Mornings

Where You've Heard It: Hal Elrod's Morning Miracle and Morning Miracle Millionaires; Tim Ferriss; articles like this one

The Basic Scoop: The specifics of the system might vary from source to source, but the general idea is that taking control of your morning sets up your whole day. The advice that I've read usually tells you to do some combination of meditation, exercise, eating a healthy breakfast, and goal setting while avoiding social media, email, and really any distractions from the outside world. 

The idea is that by being able to intentionally take charge of your time in the morning, you set the tone for the day as a whole, and you can choose where you put your energy throughout the day instead of careening from crisis to crisis without any say in what you do next. 

Why It Doesn't Apply to Me: I really do believe this is great advice. I think that if I could take the first forty-five minutes of each day and exercise, meditate, and set my goals for the day, I would definitely get more done and feel better doing it, so I'm not actually criticizing this advice. If you can do this, you should do this, but I can't do this. 

Again, this isn't because I'm making excuses. It's not that I'm refusing to get up forty-five minutes earlier to make it happen. It's that I literally cannot do it.

Several experts tell me to make my bed first thing in the morning. I can't do that because, if I get up early enough to do all these other things, there are still people sleeping in it. Yes. People. Plural. My husband is probably still in bed for one. There's also a real good chance that my toddler has climbed in there at some point in the night, too. If I make my bed, they're waking up, and if the toddler is up, I can kiss that quiet meditation goodbye. 

In fact, I can probably just kiss that quiet meditation goodbye anyway. I can creep out of my bed as quietly as possible and maybe even manage to get out of the room and go somewhere else to try to meditate, but my absence will be felt. Kids have more than five senses, and the ability to tell that mom is getting close to peace is one of them. 

Even if everything went perfectly well, my morning isn't just about me. These "morning rituals" all seem to assume that the only person I am responsible for getting focused, meditated, and happy is myself. That is not the case. That is never the case. The cats are going to meow at me incessantly until I feed them. Then the dog is going to need to go outside. The kids need to eat. There are boots to find and coats to zip and diapers to change and spills to clean up. 

My mornings are not my own, and the only way to make them my own is through out and out neglect of the living beings who depend on me each day, and I can't do that because their mornings are important, too. (And, completely selfishly, if their mornings go badly, my day is going badly, too. I don't want to clean dog poop off the floor because I didn't let the dog out. I don't want to deal with a toddler who didn't get to eat breakfast. These things are important.) 

Advice Pillar #3: Work Uninterrupted 

Where You've Heard It: Francesco Cirillo's Pomodoro Technique; Donald Knuth (who refuses to answer email and suggests working in "batch mode"); Tim Ferriss (again); articles like this one 

The Basic Scoop: Say no to distractions like meetings or email. (In the extreme forms, some of these experts have literally stopped accepting requests for their time and deleted their email addresses to make themselves unreachable). The Medium article linked above even starts out by describing focused work as a "monastic" lifestyle of "near-total seclusion." The idea is that you should say no to the calls on your attention so that you can put your attention where you really want and need it to be focused. 

The Pomodoro Technique does this through setting a timer for 25 minutes before taking a 5-minute break. After four rounds of this, you get a 30-minute break. I downloaded a Pomodoro Technique app, and the default goal is to do 12 separate rounds. That's 5 hours of focused work with just short breaks in between each set. 

Why It Doesn't Apply to Me: Again, I'm not actually criticizing the heart of this advice. I use the Pomodoro Technique whenever I am alone and have a project to focus on. It works. You should give it a try. 

But if these experts are right that seclusion is necessary for success, then success will just stay out of my reach for at least the next 16 years or so. Parents don't get much seclusion. I know I'm not saying anything groundbreaking here. After all, Virginia Woolf knew the importance of a room of one's own quite some time ago. 

Maybe this is why this kind of focus is called "monastic." And people who are able to dedicate themselves to that kind of seclusion for the sake of reflection and purpose-seeking are certainly laudable. But I do think it's interesting that monks are known for their seclusion while nuns are known for their service to others (through teaching and nursing and being present in communities). 

The advice to say "no" more often is good advice that I am working on taking myself, but if I have to be secluded to win this game, I don't get to play. There are, as I've explored at length above, too many other living beings who I am beholden to for that to happen. I can't say "no" to these responsibilities. I can't tell my kids, "Sorry. Mommy deleted her email account. You don't get to request bedtime stories tonight because that's not serving my greater purpose." 

Also, can we just talk for a moment about the hidden supports making these success stories possible? Professor Knuth (the one who refused to take email) had his secretary printing out emails for him so that he could respond to them by hand at his leisure. So it wasn't that the task wasn't getting done. It was that it wasn't getting done by him. Similarly, Tim Ferriss has a whole section in his famous book The Four-Hour Workweek about finding your hourly value and then outsourcing tasks that cost less than that value. Again, this means that someone else is picking up all that labor. You didn't eliminate the labor by saying no to things that didn't matter. You shifted the labor onto someone else's shoulders. You got your own success by making someone else's success (if this is the definition of success we're using) further away. 


At the end of the day, I will probably keep dipping my toe into this genre because I do find it interesting and sometimes helpful and engaging. More and more, though, I am feeling excluded from not just the advice, but the conversation. I can't find myself in these discussions, and I don't think it's because I have written myself off from success. I don't think it's because there isn't advice that could help me and the people like me. I just think that no one is talking to us. 

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