“Mommy, I have a lot of stuff going on here,” my daughter complains, staring at the screen of her iPad during distance learning, a scene that’s become all too familiar in our house. Remnants from a full morning of schooling—papers, crayons, snack wrappers, a whiteboard—are scattered across her desk: a very literal visual of a lot of stuff going on over here. I wander over and watch as she stumbles over some of the longer words in an assignment’s written instructions.
I look at her screen, at the bevy of assignments related to sight words and skip counting and something called fact families. I swipe down on the screen to view the directions.
“You can listen to the instructions,” I tell her. The first-grade teachers have prepared for the exact situation, of their still-young readers being overwhelmed by large blocks of text, “Remember? Press play right here. It will tell you exactly what to do next.”
I tiptoe away so I don’t interrupt her brother’s voice recording. I sit down at my own computer screen in the kitchen, far enough away I can’t see them, but close enough to be interrupted if they need me, which is approximately every 2.65 minutes. I look at my own screen with six tabs too many open and find similar words bouncing around my own brain.
What was I doing?
Where was I?
I’ve got a lot of stuff going on here.
Unlike my daughter, I don’t have an older, wiser person nearby to help me figure it all out. There’s no one around to check that I’ve done my work, for me to interrupt every couple of minutes to ask what I need to do next. Also, I’m 33 years old. In the language of the millennial memes I see around me, it’s my job to get this adulting done on my own.
But adulting is frequently the actual last thing I want to do. At my worst, when I’m feeling anxious and lazy and anything but capable, this devolves into a social media doomscroll on my phone. Or I wander around, half-completing tasks, as I wait out the minute or two or five I have before the inevitable interruption that is distance learning with three kids.
When I’m my better self—which isn’t to say I’m necessarily feeling less anxious or more capable—but when I’m feeling all of these things and am able to resist the urge of my phone, when I pull myself away to re-heat my cup of coffee and make a plan in my head during the thirty seconds my mug is in the microwave, I make better choices.
What I do then is maybe overly simplistic. It even sounds kind of silly. But I set myself back in front of my computer (or whatever the task is at hand) and just…tell myself what to do next. In a stern voice. But like, a kind stern voice. Like the best version of Minerva McGonagall stern.
Just do A, I tell myself in my head, And then move on to B. Sometimes A is a grocery order. Other times it’s an essay. Sometimes it’s replying to a committee email and other times it’s reading a news article. It could be putting laundry in the washer or switching it over to the dryer or removing the breakfast dishes from the sink.
It’s centering. Sometimes these mini to-do lists become like mantras in my head. Order the groceries, send the email, fold the laundry. When life feels overly complicated, when I have a dozen tabs open on my computer and 17 more open in my brain, when my anxiety spirals and coils up so tight it feels like I can’t get anything done, it’s reassuring when I can repeat to myself a to-do list liturgy. Order the groceries, send the email, fold the laundry.
Anna was right, in Frozen II, as she sang about “the next right thing.”
“But break it down to this next breath, this next step,
This next choice is one that I can make.”
I’ve found that, like many things in life, the more often I do this: the more I make the choice and take the step to just tell myself what to do, the easier it gets. The less inclined I am to waste another minute on social media, to do a task now that I can put off to later, to fill myself with busywork instead of doing the actual work.
In the morning, its own type of chaos (especially for this incredibly non-morning person), I lay in bed and remind myself what day it is. On the days when I want nothing more than to stay there, to burrow in the warm sheets, I tell myself, “Just sit up. Put your feet on the floor. Today we need to do X. Brew your coffee.” I get downstairs and think, “Just make yourself a piece of toast. It’s that simple.”
In the middle of the day, facing a computer that allows me access to all the things, I tell myself, “Just write that email. Then order that gift. Then work on that essay.”
Back in the days (ahem, nights) of newborns, when I was pulled from sleep by a baby wailing in their crib, it was a refrain of, “Just get up. Throw the covers off and put your feet on the floor.”
As I write this, on a warmer-than-usual December morning with the sun streaming in my window, I tell myself I just need to finish this post. Then I can make our pizza dough for dinner. Then I should take a walk around the neighborhood.
We’re in month 10 of the pandemic, on the cusp of all things holiday, and, in the words of my daughter, we’ve got a lot of stuff going on here. We just need to do the next, well, anything. I just need to make our meal plan. I just need to unload the dishwasher. I just need to reply to that message. I just need to walk a child through a school assignment. And sometimes? It’s the reminder that we just need to take a break. To sit down. To read that book. To watch an episode of Schitt’s Creek. Here’s to just doing our next things. To putting our feet on the floor. To tackle all the stuff we have going on. And stepping one foot in front of the other.