helping hand
Ever had a conversation with your brother about how he feels like he never seems to get anything done beyond checking his email? Or talked to your mother about her difficulties finishing a project?

Have you ever tried to help them set up a system — make their lives a little simpler or a little more productive? And had that attempt blow up in your face?

My experiences with helping my family (and many friends, as well) — even when they ask for the help — seem guaranteed to blow up in my face. If I’m lucky, I get a shrug and a ‘This just isn’t working for me.’ If I’m not lucky, at the next family get-together, I’m in for some serious snubbing.

Why is it so hard to help someone else become more productive?

At least in family situations, we all generally seem to assume that we have one another’s best interests at heart. I want my father to read a book on productivity or my cousin to filter her email because I think these actions will make their lives easier. And, fairly routinely, relatives ask for some sort of help. Every family get-together seems to focus on some new project: someone’s building a deck or planning a party or otherwise needs help. So, why is helping a friend or a family member out with productivity problems so much harder than pounding a couple of nails into what will eventually be a front porch?

I’ve got a theory: there’s a right way of hammering a nail. Try pounding a nail upside down and you’ll see how many variations you can really come up with. But with productivity, or even simply making a person’s life a little bit easier, there are thousands of different options. And the options that work perfectly in my life just aren’t going to work as well in anyone else’s — where I need to focus on handling my email addiction, my father needs to deal with an overflowing voice mail box. The techniques that get me through the day don’t translate into his lifestyle.

What is the solution?

We don’t want to leave our friends and family struggling in a situation where we think we might be able to help. But it can be hard to introduce techniques to other people: we can be very excited about a new trick or tip that they may not be able to use, or they may be resistant to changing their system, or a half dozen other difficulties. If you want to share the system you have developed, or even just a small trick that you think another person will find useful, there are ways to go about it that won’t get you kicked out of the next family reunion.

From my experiences, the most important step is to be okay with people not only ignoring your suggestions but flat out telling you that you’re wrong. Remember, you like these people, or you wouldn’t be offing your help. Pushiness won’t help anyone. So take a deep breath and let it go. Arguing about it will only lead to trouble: my attempts at making my mother’s life easier only got her to threaten to swap me for a grateful child. And, yes, I freely admit that if I hadn’t gotten so emotionally involved with her incoming email, I would have been safe from all such threats. Remember, it’s just email or shopping lists or whatever. The people are the important thing: if their system works for them, leave it alone.

You should also keep in mind that different people work well with different systems. Many people consider ‘Getting Things Done’ ideal for their lives, but just as many have decided that, while it’s a great framework, there are plenty of detail that need tweaking — and even more that just don’t like the way they would need to adapt GTD to their lives, or their lives to GTD. Rather than pointing people towards your perfect system, you can often provide more help by pointing them towards the resources they need to find their own niche. While it might be a shameless plug, I think a site like LifeHack is going to be more valuable to someone you want to introduce to the concept of productivity than just handing them a copy of ‘Getting Things Done’ and expecting them to read it. For one thing, the posts here are a heck of a lot shorter than a book — which means that your friend or relative doesn’t need to make a big time commitment to start. For another, there are lots of options and lots of explanations of the pros and cons of those options.

I won’t argue that there is value in reading ‘Getting Things Done’ or a half dozen other productivity books, but most books aren’t primers: they aren’t a good starting place for someone who doesn’t know that there are options beyond overflowing inboxes and packed schedules. They’re generally written for someone who’s already taken a step or two in the direction of making life a little easier.

Where to start?

Rather than sending off books or lists of links, I’ve been able to help my friends and family by narrowing my focus. I’ll email a link to one specific article that directly addresses what problem they’re currently facing. And I don’t offer to walk them through it — I leave it up them to ask if and when they decided they need help. Sure, it’s rare that anyone actually uses the information you pass along in exactly the way you expect, but they often will be able to find some sort of use for it.

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