This essay originally appeared in our monthly newsletter for The Mom Hour podcast. To get our emails, subscribe here. –Meagan
As I write this, I’m taking a break from the frenzy of packing for a 6-day road trip with my kids, my Special Man Friend™ Eric, and his daughter.
It’s been a good long while since I last traveled any distance, especially with a bunch of kids. I’ve never gone on an extended mixed-family trip with a significant other. And this all happens to coincide with the busiest my work life has been in a very long time, thanks both to The Mom Hour and other projects I have going on (more about one them a little lower down in this very newsletter–keep reading!).
Despite having a helpful boyfriend, a gaggle of good-natured kids who can (mostly) pack their own bags now, and the world’s best business partner in Sarah, I’m feeling a little frazzled.
This morning, when I sat contemplating a daily to-do list that included picking up a rental car an hour away, packing clothes and gear for myself and food for a group, making last-minute chore lists for the kids, preparing Easter baskets since my family wasn’t home yesterday, making sure the pets are cared for and shutting down the house for the trip – not to mention, you know, writing this email – I started wondering how I was going to do it all…and a feeling I know all too well came over me: one of scattered, frenetic, yet not-particularly-productive energy.
The phrase “spinning your wheels” so accurately describes those moods, doesn’t it? It FEELS like you’re doing something, and sure, you’re burning energy. But you can’t get traction. And the more desperately you spin, the more stuck in the mud you get.
When I’m in a wheel-spinning state, I find a reminder popping into my head: “Do the next thing.” As in, don’t jump 20 steps down the line, or start catastrophizing about what will happen if you don’t finish everything in time. Just do the next thing, and when that’s done, move on to the next next thing. (I believe that advice can be credited to David Allen’s book Getting Things Done, but I’m not 100% sure, since one of the things I have yet to “get done” is reading that book.)
Every time I reframe a frenetic moment in time with that tactic, I find almost immediate relief as I realize that no matter how many disparate projects and goals may be occupying my mind, I can almost always identify an obvious and often simple “next thing.”
Juggling multiple to-dos is simplified when I realize that each task I knock off my list frees up energy and time for others. I find that my focus narrows and my clarity grows. I may not perfectly pull off my entire to-do list in the time I’d like, but if i just do the next thing, and the next, and the next, I can be pretty well guaranteed that relatively soon I’ll be pulling out of my driveway in the rental car with all the people I intend to bring and the things we absolutely need to have.
Even if you aren’t particularly busy with work or planning a road trip right now, my guess is that as life “opens back up” you may wind up feeling a bit wheel-spinny, too. Sarah and I have joked quite a bit on the show about how the pandemic year has altered our tolerance for mental loads. Having multiple things on the calendar at once can be stressful when you’re used to hardly anything. Planning a trip, or heading back into the office, or arranging a playdate can all seem overwhelming when you’re out of practice.
So when you start to feel yourself spinning your wheels, try the same reminder that’s been so helpful to me. Just do the next thing.
Locate that rarely-used computer bag. Remember that laptop sleeve you used to use when your laptop actually left the house? Maybe finding it is your “next thing.” Look back at the plans you cancelled last spring. Are there any credits waiting for you? Maybe doing an audit of where you stand with points and returns and refunds could be your “next thing.” I like to scroll wayyyy back through my texts to remind myself of the conversations I’ve left hanging. Can you pick one back up again? Perhaps reinstating a conversation that’s gone temporarily dark could be your “next thing.”
I know what my “next thing” is, friends: picking up the rental minivan that will be my home-on-wheels for the next several days. So, I’m off – but I’d love to hear from you. What ‘next thing’ could you do today that would help your mental load feel a bit less taxing, or just give you an exciting direction in which to steer your ship? Hit “reply” and let me know.