Let it be easy

By Ingrid Fetell Lee

We love to work on things, don’t we?

One friend is working on a journaling practice. Another is working on being less judgmental. Another is working on a 1000-piece jigsaw puzzle. “Working on” something shows we take it seriously. We’re putting in the effort and we’re committed to reaching a goal. We work on new year’s resolutions, old cars, and home renovation projects. We work on our bodies and we work on our marriages.

The American obsession with work is a topic of much discussion lately, but perhaps more interesting is the way we turn everything else into our lives into work too. (“Still working on that?” the waiter says, eyeing our half-full plates. Even our pleasures can be work.) Our culture tells us that if we want something, we must work for it. Work isn’t just how we earn things in a capitalist society. It’s how we become entitled to them. We pay for our success, our leisure, and our joy with struggle or sacrifice. Otherwise we feel lazy, or unworthy of them.

Personal development is steeped in this language of work. We work on our bad habits through discipline and rigor, and we work toward our goals through diligence and practice. One source of this idea was the finding, popularized by Sonya Lyubomirsky’s The How of Happiness, which says that roughly 50% of happiness is determined by a genetic set point, and only 10% relates to an individual’s life circumstances, leaving 40% up to an individual’s actions. (See here for a good breakdown of the concept.)

Leaving aside my skepticism about that 10% number, which purportedly includes income, life experiences, and demographic differences, and therefore all of the grotesque consequences of living in a structurally racist, sexist, and unequal society, the prevailing takeaway from this model is that there’s quite a lot of happiness up for grabs, if only we’re willing to work for it. Rather than focusing on making more money, psychologists tell us that happiness lies in mindfulness and gratitude practices, in maintaining high quality relationships and getting regular exercise. Thus happiness became a goal, and reaching it subject to various forms of labor.

No wonder we’re all so F’ing tired.

We turn from burnout at work to feeling like we need to work on ourselves. If rest doesn’t come naturally to us (raises hand), we have to work at that too. And now the holidays are here, a time that can also bring more work — after all, the holiday magic doesn’t make itself. (Santa has an army of elves, the epitome of cheerful workers who never get tired and never seem to need breaks, even to pee. But here on Earth, there are lights to hang and dinners to make.) And soon, the new year will be upon us, with its resolutions and commitments to work harder at being who we really want to be.

But what if it could be easy?

This little voice has been popping up in my head lately. I’m sure it’s been there a long time, but I’ve only recently started to listen. After pushing myself so hard through these pandemic years, most of it with no childcare, juggling a career and a tiny human, I’ve reached a point where I wonder if there might be an easier way to do things. And while the old me would have recoiled at the idea of easy, which would seem lazy, or mediocre, or like I was settling for less than I could have done, I now find myself curious why I was so convinced the hard way was the only way.

I think of these opening lines from the Mary Oliver poem Wild Geese:

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.

What happens when we allow things to happen, rather than push our way through them? What happens when we soften into an experience, rather than hardening ourselves to work on it? I am only just beginning to find out, but what I’m learning is that ease can be a conduit to joy.

Do less

This might mean simply doing less. Perhaps this holiday you don’t need to make both pies from scratch. Perhaps you don’t need to make your own wreath, or hand write the place cards. This year I’ve gone bigger on the decorations than I’ve ever done, and I’m excited about the garlands and lights and bows. And then I was thinking it would also be fun to decorate a gingerbread house with Graham, and then, not seeing any kits I liked, I started to go full Martha, looking at gingerbread house plans, and I found a gorgeous delicate gingerbread greenhouse with translucent gelatin windows, and just as I was on the point of printing out the directions I stopped myself and said, “Let it be easy.” I remembered how old Graham is, and how busy we are, and I thought, maybe some gingerbread people would be just as fun and about ten times easier. Or maybe I will buy them from a bakery in town. I’m breathing easier now just thinking about how relieved I am that I did not take that on.

Go slow

Or it might mean going slower. Over the past month, readers who are on Instagram have watched as I’ve painted the trim in my home office and very slowly added wallpaper to the walls. I have a lot of home projects I’ve wanted to do this year, but almost no spare time to do them, and for a long time they have just been sitting on my to do list, making me feel guilty. But doing a couple of wallpaper panels each week is a way to make progress without having to push myself so hard through the project. As a result, the process has been more fun, and more serendipitous. For example, for weeks, I’d been trying to decide on a fabric color for the daybed that will go in this room. I kept putting off the decision and feeling badly about it. One day I noticed the contrast of the red ladder with the wallpaper and I loved it! I was reminded how Dorothy Draper used to love light blue and cherry red as a color combination, and it inspired me. Rather than taking the hard path of forcing myself to make a decision, the easy route of taking my time and letting a solution surface has yielded a surprising new direction.

Add music — or a friend

“Let it be easy” sometimes means adding a component that makes the task feel lighter. For example, in our post last year on ways to make chores more joyful, many readers talked about how adding music, dance, or podcasts to a chore made the time seem to go more quickly — and even made them look forward to the experience. Sometimes we make a task easy by making it more social, not just because we share the work, but because (and research bears this out) most activities are more enjoyable when we do them with someone else. (This principle explains the appeal of sewing circles and quilting bees.) Even if doing a task socially ends up slowing you down, it may still make the task feel easier.

Adjust your expectations

Letting it be easy is also about changing our expectations of an experience. I often find that I get very anxious about writing certain kinds of emails. I put them off, and then I draft them and come back to them, agonizing about every word choice. But when I ask myself, “How could this be easy?” I find I settle into a more natural way of writing, and the words flow. It’s as if my expectation that writing something will be hard work makes it more work, while coming with the expectation that it will be easy puts me in a mindset that makes it easier.

Embrace curiosity over will

With writing, it often helps if I come to the task in a spirit of curiosity, rather than one of work. When I show up to the page feeling like have to muscle a piece out of my brain and onto the page, I feel anxious and tense. But when I arrive curious to discover what I have to say on a topic, then there is an excitement that makes writing a joy.

Curiosity puts us in an exploratory mindset, which opens up our perspective. This is why the notion of “letting it be easy” was so important to me when creating the Joy Jumpstart. There’s so much work involved in self-help that it can sometimes feel like we are dragging ourselves along the road of personal development. I wondered if rather than push ourselves through that process, we might instead have fun with it. Along the lines of the post I wrote on joy and transformation a few months back, what if transformation could be easy, rather than hard? What if we let joy lead our process of growth? The idea was to create exercises that were playful, to inspire you to think about meaningful changes in your life but in ways that feel light, exploratory, and fun.

Ultimately, there will always be hard things in life, and there will always be things that are worth working for. But the reflexive urge to make everything into work can leave us vulnerable to burnout and leave us with less energy for the things we really want to do in life. “Let it be easy” doesn’t mean drop your standards and settle for less. It doesn’t mean that you never push yourself or rise to a challenge. Rather, it means acknowledging that easy doesn’t mean lazy or weak or half-assed. It’s not a compromise. It’s a gentle surrender that trades control for presence. By allowing ourselves to participate in an experience without orchestrating it, to let it happen rather than forcing it, we find a more easeful way of being in the world, one that channels our energy in creative new ways.

Image: Yoori Koo via Unsplash

December 4th, 2021

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    Discussion (14 Comments)

  1. CHRISTINE ADAMS on December 4, 2021

    Wow! This popped into my inbox at THE most serendipitous time possible. THANK YOU!

    Reply
  2. Pamela Perrault on December 4, 2021

    Thank you!  At a moment when I was struggling, some clarity and affirmation.  Thank you so, so much!  xx

    Reply
  3. Sarah Copeland on December 4, 2021

    The perfect post at the perfect moment. I needed this so much and as usual I’m so grateful for you and your wisdom, perspective and spark. You are a gift. xx

    Reply
  4. Ruthie on December 4, 2021

    An easier way to build a gingerbread house (or village!), one that does away with the frustrating aspects, and focuses on the fun of decoration, is the milk-carton-and-graham-cracker house. These employ 1- or 2-cup milk or cream cartons as an underlying structure. Graham crackers are the cladding for the sides and roof. They fit as though made for the purpose! Store-bought icing holds the crackers on the cartons. After the icing has hardened and the house has “set,” decorate as you would with a larger gingerbread kit. This is easy for children to handle, and VERY easy for a parent to make multiple houses for their children to decorate.

    Reply
  5. Ruthie on December 4, 2021

    P.S. – As I recall, if you start by attaching a graham cracker to the bottom of the carton, the sides of the carton will match the size of a graham cracker even better.

    Reply
  6. elaine174 on December 5, 2021

    Great post, thanks

    Reply
  7. Latoya J. Willians on December 6, 2021

    Easy and ease have become two of my favorite words! Reading this post reminded me of a post on TED that I read last year, “Nothing New for Now, maybe you saw it too?
    https://ideas.ted.com/let-this-be-your-mantra-nothing-new-for-now/

    Nothing new for now was an important reminder and mantra last year. And, I know that I needed to be reminded to let it be easy, right now. Thank you. 😌
    PS: I saw the little bird land in your hand for seeds in the video on Insta. That was so cool!

    Reply
  8. Latoya J. Willians on December 6, 2021

    Also, your example about how a waiter will as us, “Are you still working on that?” reminded me once again about the vital importance of the language that we use in our lives!
    Recently, I learned about Priya Parker’s book, The Art of Gathering and started following her on Insta. She posted about Brené Brown’s most recent book. So, I conducted a quick YouTube search about Brené’s book. And, I watched this short 6 -7 minute clip of a discussion that she had with Oprah that I thought you might appreciate too: https://youtu.be/eSz401kjHis

    Reply
  9. Jude on December 6, 2021

    I loved this post , especially your ditching of the gingerbread house! Good call! The ‘ease, easy’ notion resonates so much. I almost used the ‘I’m cutting corners’ phrase, and  I’m doing anything but, I’m looking after my energy and putting it to better use. Why fuss visiting 10 shops or websites for a shade of blue! Why fuss making 3 courses for friends, when we only choose 2 at the most if we eat out. I’d rather save the energy to enjoy a gathering rather than spend the whole day busy busy busy. Thank you for your great input 

    Reply
  10. Hinda Bodinger on December 10, 2021

    I only just got around to reading this – thank you for expressing these thoughts so eloquently. A dear friend, who knows me well, has said to me, “You can make it as simple or as complicated as you like.” I frequently hear her (loving) voice in my head when I am deciding just how elaborate I want to get and it is extremely freeing. It is always, always about the gathering, not about the decor (as much fun as that can be for me). And I agree, I am all about outsourcing some of the more challenging parts of a meal if I find a decent alternative. Thank you and best wishes!!

    Reply
  11. Jennifer on December 13, 2021

    Make it easy and celebrate often, like you would for a baby learning to walk! Like fist pumping for yourself because you took the trash out when it was a rainy night , and thinking of it as a gift to your morning self:-) and language, attitude and perspective do matter a lot! 

    Reply
  12. Rachel on December 14, 2021

    This came at such a good time for me — I’ve been struggling to accomplish (such a work-loaded word!) even the things I love because as soon as they go on a to-do list or get scheduled on my calendar, they feel like work! I get such an intense feeling of avoidance and dread even for things like walking the dog or painting, and it’s much worse for things that I’ve given moral weight like exercise or a coaching course that I purchased. Hoping someone else here will have some thoughts or advice on this, but just relieved to read this in the meantime. Thank you <3

    Reply
  13. Jennifer on December 19, 2021

    Hi! What you’re describing happened to me a few years ago, right before CoVid. I was so burnt out by the busyness of being a mom and teacher that I started to feel numb, and too tired to do things I found enjoyable, which just made me feel worse!

    Through much soul searching, and some work with a therapist and an at-home mindfulness for depression program, I slowly came to realize I has being WAY too hard on myself. I learned to give myself grace and tenderness; during both the good times and the bad! And also, Ingrid, the introduction to your book that talks about finding joy in a tea cup, was enormously freeing. The current Pinterest message about home decor and fashion are often that these things are for show, and comparison. The message I internalized growing up in a family with roots in Plimoth Colony (talk about a community that gave moral weight to EVERYTHING) was that the way things look doesn’t matter. So I have found so much joy in Ingrid’s philosophy! 

    Reply
  14. Susan on March 27, 2022

    I just finished your book, Joyful. I have enjoyed it so much and gotten so much out of it. I appreciate many things about its deeply thought out, multi-disciplinary approach. As a person with a tendency to workaholism, but also for joy, I have been very grateful for the way you are helping me flip my tendencies. I started your book a few months ago. But recently, the situation in Ukraine has begun to swallow me up with sadness and fear, and I returned to your book. I was reminded of what is joyful and beautiful in the world and in people, and always will be, and this has been a comfort, and has helped me rebalance, and remember what I live for, rather than resting my thoughts on its opposite. And no matter what the time and the circumstances, that is always a valuable reminder. Many thanks, Susan

    Reply

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