But What Will It Get You? Two Kinds of Problems that Waste Our Time
My goal: to get my email inbox to zero. I was gonna spend all weekend doing it, if necessary, and I told my husband so.
He looked at me blankly and asked me a very good question: “What will that get you?”
I was like, “Well…”
The truth was, I couldn’t answer the question.
At first, I was like, “I’ll be able to find my emails much more easily!”
But that wasn’t actually true…. I’m great about filing things, and there’s a search function if I needed.
Another attempt: “I want to save my important emails before they are deleted due to storage capacity!”
But the truth was when was the last time I re-read an old, sentimental email? Um, never. Beyond printing out and saving the romantic emails from the first few months of my husband and I’s long-distance relationship, I keep a few emails in my “smile” folder. That’s it.
I didn’t have an answer. Why the hell was I giving up my weekend for something when I didn’t even know what I was getting out of it?
Then I realized: it was an identity problem.
There was some weird overachiever part of me that felt somehow I had “won” if I was at email inbox zero. It felt like tangible proof I was more organized and efficient than the average bear, and that I had my shit together.
But would it make me better at my job? Nope.
Would it deepen any of my relationships? Nope
Would it make me more efficient so I got some time or ease back? Nope.
Would it somehow move me forward on my path to enlightenment? ????????♀️ Nope.
Would it make me healthier, wealthier, or wise? Nope, nope, nope.
You get the idea.
It was just one of those “should” ideas I picked up somewhere along the way that felt like it would give me a mental gold star while, in reality, doing nothing for my life overall. It was a solution to a problem, but the reality was, there wasn’t a real problem there in the first place!
I know it’s not just me either. I’ve noticed that my clients (which include a few recovering achievement junkies like myself) spend time finding solutions to problems that don’t actually need to be solved. So, while I often come to you with solutions to problems, today, I come to you with two types of problems that actually DON’T need to be solved.
In our modern life, filled with online articles about what you SHOULD be doing, the BEST way to do something, or a list of things you’re doing all wrong, it’s easy to get ideas in our heads about what our life should look like – little status symbols for the modern area that show we’ve arrived.
My email felt like that to me. The very large many-digit red number on my inbox, the dozens of email campaigns never opened, the scores of emails I’d never need again. Somewhere along the way, I heard about someone with an absolutely clean inbox. When an email came in, they either filed it or deleted it. Inbox at zero at all times. Doesn’t that sound so efficient and sophisticated?
That’s just it – it SOUNDS efficient and sophisticated. In reality, my email is there to serve as a communication tool and a bit of record-keeping for a few important pieces of correspondence.
As long as I filed these and could find them through the search function if I needed them, it just didn’t matter. My inbox is not a symbol of my worthiness as a person. My inbox in its current state doesn’t cause me any trouble! It’s fine the way it is!
How often do we spend time on “problems” because, to the over-achieving perfectionist in us, it feels like an unfinished, untidy thing when the reality is, if it changed tomorrow, it would have ZERO impact on our lives?
So, when you’re looking at a problem that feels like it needs to be solved, stop and ask yourself, “What will this get me?” You may find, like my email inbox, that you are solving a problem that doesn’t need to be solved at all. Or you may be solving a problem around your problem, close to your problem, but not actually the problem you have.
I just started working with a new coach (shout out to the incredible Wendy Donner) and in my initial session we laid out what I wanted to work on.
For each of the three goals/outcomes I had, she had me journal ahead of time and answer the question “How would your life be different if this result was realized?
As I sat and asked myself this, I realized that the goal I had set wasn’t actually what I wanted to achieve. When I looked at it in terms of what it would get me, I realized that I needed to adjust my target.
As I get older and understand myself better, I realize I’ve spent too much time on goals that didn’t actually make an impact on my life. I thought they would say something about who I am, my identity (“Behold, I am the type of person with inbox zero!”) which is how I wanted others to see me or how I wanted to see myself. But it didn’t actually make my life better, and it sucked away my time. No more.
I’m currently reading THIS book [Designing Your New Work Life] and this quote about a marriage researcher and something he called “perpetual problems” struck me:
“70 percent of the problems that couples wrestle with are unsolvable. He calls these ‘perpetual problems.’ But that is not necessarily a bad thing. His conclusion is that the couples that stay together for life, what he calls ‘Master Couples,’ accept that many of their problems are like this and develop workarounds. They do not let these problems end up destroying their happiness. They seek a ‘good enough’ resolution of these perpetual problems and move on.”
This may sound ridiculous, but this idea blew my mind.
A “good enough” solution that just accomplishes what I need to be happy? What?!?
I would never have given myself “permission” for this kind of solution in the past. To me, if I don’t SOLVE “the” problem, I’ve failed.
It’s the all-or-nothing thinking that’s common in ambitious, overachievers who have worked on problems and solved them their whole life by controlling the circumstances, the sheer force of will, and not giving up until they “figure it out.”
But “perpetual problems” can eat up a lot of time and energy with this approach, without really getting us anywhere.
We can let these kinds of problems suck up our time, trying to find a permanent solution, or we can decide they are “perpetual problems.” and find a “good enough” solution to meet our needs.
Instead of trying to change another person or alter unchangeable circumstances, we can figure out what it is we actually need. Then we can decide to let it go, find a workaround, or solve the thing underneath the problem that is actually bothering us.
Random example of a perpetual problem: my husband drops his crap on the kitchen table when he comes inside. Wallet, keys, wedding ring, receipts, mask. You name it. This drove me NUTS. For YEARS.
I tried all kinds of things to get him to stop doing this. I’m going, to be honest, I saw him as the problem! I needed to find a way for him to stop doing this and take his crap where it belonged in the house (like the lovely tray I had placed on this bedside table).
It’s a perpetual problem because it bothered me every single day, and despite my attempts to control my husband’s behavior (I know, I know, I’m working on myself too), I literally have no actual control over another person’s habits.
Eventually, I realized the essence of the problem for me: I like my physical environment to feel peaceful, and for me, that means without clutter.
Once I realized this is what I needed, I also realized that instead of trying to change his behavior, I could put something on the kitchen table to hold the crap he dropped when he came in. That way, it wouldn’t clutter up my environment visually and I could move it more easily.
I put a pretty bowl on the table.
He drops his stuff in it (literally zero habit change on his part – it isn’t a box with a lid because I thought even that would be too much), and it resolves the visual clutter that bothered me.
Even when he DOESN’T drop his crap in the bowl, I can easily sweep it in there and remind myself of his many, many wonderful qualities. ???? After all, if this is the worst of our marriage conflicts, I’m in a good place.
Once I changed my focus to what I actually wanted out of this situation (a more peaceful, clutter-free environment), and focused my energy on finding a solution I did have control over, (bowl I love seeing on the table), I could move on.
I stopped trying to solve the “perpetual problem” and found one I could solve.
Notice this would have looked different if I had realized that I felt my husband didn’t respect me and was deliberately throwing his stuff where I didn’t want it out of contempt. What I would have wanted out of that situation is a more respectful relationship, and that is an entirely different conversation.
Either way, the idea is to make sure we’re working on the right problem so we get the outcome we’re actually looking for to make our lives better.
So, as you reflect on your 2022 goals or look at what you’re looking to achieve this year, take a page out of my husband’s book. Ask yourself, “What will that get you?”
And if you don’t know, take a step back. Is this thing actually a problem in your life? Or is it just something you think you should achieve based on an idea of what would make you a good (productive, worthy, likable, sophisticated, modern) person?
And if it is a problem, particularly one that’s been plaguing you awhile, maybe it needs a different kind of solution altogether?
Maybe instead of trying to once-and-for-all solve it, you can find a “good enough” workaround that gets your needs met while not sucking up the time and energy you need for the real stuff you do want to achieve, that will make your life better.
Wishing you all the good things,
P.S. Need help deciding which goals are worth pursuing and which are inbox-zero-mirages that you can let go? Book a session with me, and we’ll work through it together. Want a little more info and different ways to work with me? Click HERE for my current offers.