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The problem within the problem
Actually Okay Advice #5
Welcome to the series of occasional posts I’m calling Actually Okay Advice, where I share a piece of advice I’ve come across that I think is pretty useful. These are things I’ve tried myself, and for the most part, continue to use. As always, YMMV. Check out previous AOAs here and here and here.
What’s a task you really hate or just straight-up resent doing? Is there a part of your day that you’ve come to dread? And that dread seems disproportionate to the actual burden of the task at hand?
For me, the thing is dinner. Just thinking about dinner can set off an inner tantrum that sends me spiraling into the bad place. I know I’m not alone: there’s an almost existential quality to the despair that accompanies this seemingly straightforward part of life.
But here’s the thing: I don’t actually mind cooking, even if I end up doing the majority of it. After a day where I’m mostly sitting on my butt and staring at a computer, it feels good to get up and move around the kitchen. It’s nice to switch out of work mode and just be in the moment, chopping a few things, throwing stuff in a saucepan, digging out plates and cutlery. My partner always cleans up, so that part of dinner is definitely not the issue (not for me, anyways).
So what’s my problem? It’s not dinner per se; it’s meal planning and/or figuring out what’s for dinner that night that makes we want to black out. This one aspect of the bigger job called “dinner” is my personal bugbear.And once I figured out this problem (meal planning) within the problem (dinner), it got way easier to figure out how to solve it.
Today’s Actually Okay Advice is this: figure out the problem within the problem.
I credit Gretchen Rubin for introducing me to this idea.The principle is that most of life’s annoying tasks are actually a whole series of things that have many different components. Homing in on the element that truly makes it unpleasant can point you toward the simplest possible way to address the worst part of the task, making it much less annoying overall.
When it came to my dinner problem, I first had to recognize that “dinner” is made of a lot of different pieces. You have weekly planning, shopping, day-of planning, chopping, mixing, cooking, serving, eating, cleaning up… and probably many more micro-tasks that comprise the whole. Add in children or picky eaters or a tight schedule and the whole thing is even more complicated.
In my case, there’s really just one or two bits that lead to my resentment, weekly meal planning and the daily question, “What do you want for dinner?” Planning is a relentless chore that takes up way too much mental space. For me, it raises a whole mess of old resentments from a marriage with a very unequal split of household chores. Despite being in a very different relationship now, this baggage makes planning much more fraught and even, dare I say, triggering.
Narrowing the issue down to these specific elements makes it possible to generate solutions. For us, ordering a weekly meal kit took several days of planning out of the weekly equation. These somewhat “fancier” than usual meals also eliminated some of the pressure to come up with interesting ideas for the rest of the week. And the menu cards sitting on the counter meant that no one was in charge of knowing or remembering the dinner options; we just had to look at the menus.
If you think about your personal task of greatest despair, can you figure out what, specifically, bothers you about it?
Do you hate doing the dishes, or do you hate getting your hands wet washing the dishes? Would gloves fix the issue?
Do you hate vacuuming or do you hate the noise? Could you wear noise cancelling headphones and listen to some music?
Do you hate filling out a certain report at work or do you hate having to re-enter or update fields like dates each time? Could you create a macro or template to do this for you? Or delegate this to an assistant?
In my opinion, finding the problem within the problem isn’t about optimizing the task or becoming more productive. Nor does it have to mean that you should now enjoy the thing or look forward to it. I think it’s about identifying the real pain point, minimizing it or removing it, and then being able to deal with the thing with a lot less stress and irritation.
For any pain point, there are likely a range of solutions, from simple, cheap DIY-type hacks to specialized, more-costly products and services. You could:
Just stop doing the thing/alternate the task with someone else
Block out the annoying aspect (a sound, smell, sensory feeling that bugs you)
Automate the task (design templates, put things on auto-pay, auto-order groceries)
Pay for a service that does the part you hate (e.g. laundry service that folds all the cloths)
Find a product that makes the thing way easier (I hate moving things while vacuuming, so I have a little handheld vac to get into the tight areas and around stuff)
The degree to which a task is negatively affecting your life can dictate how much energy or money you put toward the solution. Ultimately, if something is so awful that it’s causing conflict at home, making you resent other people, or creating even bigger problems (anxiety, anger, unsafe situations) then it’s worth considering whether it can be outsourced altogether. Sometimes hacking the smaller problem just isn’t going to cut it.
Still, it might be worthwhile to explore the problem in more detail before jumping to an expensive solution. Break it down into the elements that you like/dislike the most, and the things you can/can’t control.
For example, you realize you hate folding and putting away the kids’ laundry. But you legitimately can’t get a two-year old to fold or sort clothes. You could hire someone to come in and do laundry. Or, what if you figure out how to bypass the part you hate? Maybe the clean clothes stay unfolded (gasp! the horror!) in three easily accessed baskets, one for tops, one for bottoms, one for socks and underwear.
Sometimes finding the solution means letting go of ideas about how things should be done. Clothes should be in the drawers! A good mom would always fold those tiny undies! That voice, those expectations, will keep you from finding things that work for you. A lot of stuff in life IS super-annoying, but there’s no virtue in keeping it super-annoying if there’s another way to do it, even if that way doesn’t look “perfect.” To that end, ignoring any social media post that starts with “Stop doing this!” or “Why you’re doing x wrong” is crucial.
Looking for the problem within the problem has been really helpful for me in minimizing household conflict and lightening the sense of burdensome-ness of much of life’s day-to-day load. It helps me feel more in control when I can identify specific issues, instead of feeling helpless under the weight of hating a seemingly-unavoidable part of life. It’s simple, yet it can have a big impact.
So, what’s your problem (within your problem)?
What I’m watching: Making the most of my temporarily-cheap subscription to BritBox with season one of Unforgotten, a crime drama about a 50-year old murder. Somehow what I’m thriving on is the way the bosses keep telling everyone they’re doing a really great job.
What I’m reading: Brandon Taylor’s The Late Americans. Just finished the first chapter, which starts in a poetry seminar… the critique of what critique looks like today was so accurate it hurt.
Your mileage may vary.
Decided to google the definition of bugbear and it can mean both a hobgoblin that frightens children and a “source of continuing irritation.”
I can’t remember which of her books (or maybe podcast? blog post) this was in.