This is part of my series on How To Be A Good Person.
Mom was wrong.
The secret to getting along with others is not by being nice or by being helpful.
The secret to getting along is the separation of tasks1, wherein you focus on your life-tasks and not interfere in others’ life-tasks.
Sounds too simple to be true, right?
Let’s break this down.
What is The Separation of Tasks?
In a nutshell, the separation of tasks is an approach to life where you focus on the problems in your life and accept that others must solve their problems. When you respect these boundaries, you create a feeling of respect and mutual-trust with other people.
When you insist on solving other peoples’ problems, you communicate, You can’t handle this. I must barge in and tell you what to do. I will be your savior. This kind of behavior violates their autonomy, erodes their self-confidence, and decreases their desire to solve their problems. Eventually, they will lose the capability to manage their life and become utterly dependent on others.
In addition, solving others’ problems is a distraction from the hard work of fixing your own issues.
Don’t try to solve other peoples’ problems unless they ask for help. And push back when people try to solve the problems in your life.
Focus on your tasks and trust other folks to handle theirs. You are the captain of your ship. So, be the captain.
- What are your tasks?
- What are other adults’ tasks?
- What about your dependents?
- Why you shouldn’t intervene in others’ tasks
- Real-life Applications
- Mistakes from Stewie’s life
What are your tasks?
Your tasks include everything you need to live your life and fall into two realms:
1. Physical tasks — You need food, shelter, etc. And your tasks include everything required to meet those needs, e.g., selecting a vocation, getting trained, and keeping a job.
You will have physical ailments, and you will need to resolve these. Options include seeking medical advice and assistance, reading books, or talking to folks who face similar challenges. Your task will be to decide what course of action is best. In some cases, you may choose to do nothing, and that’s valid.
2. Emotional tasks — You need positive connections with family members, friends, and romantic partners. And your tasks include building and maintaining these relationships.
You may search for fulfillment, meaning, and purpose. And your task is to figure this stuff out, whether it’s studying philosophy, reading books, investigating religions, talking to people you trust, praying, meditation, etc.
What are other adults’ tasks?
Other adults have the same tasks as you. They must find food and shelter, love and belonging, good health, and well-being. They also have a slew of personal tasks that you know nothing about.
This will be hard for you to accept, but it’s not up to you to take care of their needs. They are responsible for meeting their own needs, just as you are responsible for meeting yours.
Life is radically simpler when you accept this.
What about your dependents?
Dependents may include your children or other family members that you take care of.
A newborn baby is entirely dependent on their parents for meeting all of their physical and emotional needs. On the other hand, an 18-year-old ideally is capable of meeting all of their physical, emotional, and existential needs. (There are limits to this.)
Nine-year-olds fit in between. They ought to be capable of solving some of their problems and meeting a good portion of their needs. They should be able to get dressed, clean their room, get themselves breakfast, complete household chores, and navigate friendships with moderate assistance and oversight.
The ultimate goal of a parent is to help their children to acquire the skills and experience necessary for them to handle their tasks and meet their needs when they become an adult.
You’ll likely find yourself in a situation where you care for a disabled parent or family member. They’ll need assisstance with certain tasks but you must only help them with things they cannot reasonably do. And they must handle the tasks that they are capable of managing.
For example, say your father has his leg amputated and has to use a wheelchair. He needs help with certain physical activities. But outside of those activities, he needs to manage his tasks, like, deciding how to spend his time, what to eat, whom to associate with, etc. Put another way, just because someone needs help with a few of life’s tasks, doesn’t give you license to interfere with their other tasks.
Why we shouldn’t intervene in others’ tasks
It’s is a distraction
When you insert yourself into other peoples’ issues or give unsolicited advice, you avoid the hard work of solving the problems in your life. Telling other people what to do feels good, requires no effort, and carries zero risks. And it’s a massive distraction from your tasks.
Do not meddle in others’ lives. And beware of folks that spend a lot of time telling you how to run your life.
Millions of folks have the potential to be magnificent artists, musicians, and writers. But they never realize their potential because they fear rejection.
This fear leads them to procrastinate, invent “things to do,” and hunt for “problems to solve.” And the easiest way to fill time, and often the most interesting, is to solve other peoples’ problems and take on their tasks.
Don’t do this. Acknowledge your fear of rejection and push through it. Ignore others and work toward mastering your craft.
Lack of Context
You offer advice based on the context you have. But you seldom have enough sufficient context to give useful advice. For example, say a friend is having a difficult time in a romantic relationship. You may be tempted to proclaim, Chocolate and flowers are always the answer! But they’re not.
The harsh truth is that you rarely have enough context to give good advice.
When making decisions about your own life, you take all the risk. If you follow someone’s advice and things turn out poorly, you suffer the consequences, not them.
So, be cautious about unsolicited advice, however well-intentioned the person is.
All of this may sound fine and dandy in theory, but let’s apply it to real-life situations.
Raising my kids
My two kids are dependent on my wife and me for numerous things like food, shelter, and reasonable bedtimes. But they are responsible for several tasks.
They are responsible for cleaning their rooms, getting dressed in the morning, and some basic household chores. They are responsible for managing friendships with kids in the neighborhood. Unless someone is injured, we don’t intervene.
For the most part, we require them to do things that they can do themselves.
When they need help with something, we require them to ask for help instead of making demands or behaving in a passive-aggressive manner. For example, at lunch yesterday my daughter said, I don’t have any ketchup for my hotdog! To this, I responded, If you want something you know how to ask for it. Only after she asked me to get her the ketchup did I do so. This might sound mean or unreasonable, but when you need help, your task is to make a proper request of someone else.
Lastly, we work hard at letting our kids feel what they feel in the moment. We don’t discount how they feel or distract them from their feelings. For example, a few days ago, my wife went to a church activity in the evening. Our daughter cried because she didn’t get a goodbye-hug from mom. I sat on the couch with her, and we talked about how she felt sad. I acknowledged her feeling, but I didn’t tell her not to feel sad. I didn’t distract her with a toy or a screen. I just let her feel sad. After a few minutes, she felt better and asked that I play a game with her, which I was happy to do.
Look up “Extended Family” in the dictionary, and the first entry will be “Drama.” (OK, not really, but it should be!)
At any given moment, someone in your extended family faces serious health challenges, someone feels the weight of financial troubles, and a whole bunch of people are not talking to that one uncle. In each case, you’ll feel tempted to get involved, interfere, or intervene. Everyone wants to tell everyone else how to run their damn life!
Some folks will go so far as to recruit other family members and build a coalition of like-minded people to stage an intervention. They’ll defend their actions with, I’m just trying to help! But it’s not helpful.
For example, say your Aunt has type-two diabetes and consumes 400 fruit punch flavored Jolly Rancher’s daily. Should you say something to her? No, it’s not your task to tell to stop eating candy (she already knows!). And it’s not your task to take away her candy. Your relationship with her has nothing to do with this. And it’s wrong to say, I will avoid them because they keep eating candy.
Another example: your uncle has done something that royally pissed off a bunch of nieces and nephews, but it doesn’t involve you. Should you jump in and pick a side? Nope. Just because a bunch of people are mad at your uncle doesn’t mean that you have to give him the cold shoulder and never speak to him again.
When you have a beef with somebody in your family, you don’t want the rest of your family to take sides and gang up against you. So don’t take sides and gang up against others.
There’s an old saying: Good fences make good neighbors. While the word “fences” generally refers to a physical barrier between properties, it also refers to healthy boundaries between you and your neighbors.
- Eat and drink differently than you.
- Have different friends and social engagements.
- Go to bed and get up at different times than you.
- Have different rules for their kids.
And that’s OK. Neighbors have their own lives and their tasks. It’s not your job to tell them how to live their lives.
Mistakes from Stewie’s life
When I got married, I believed my job was to solve my wife’s problems. Big mistake. Whenever she had conflict with a family member or someone at work, I’d jump in, and with limited understanding, I’d lay out a plan detailing how she should fix things. Whenever she felt stress about an upcoming project or deadline, I would tell her exactly what to do.
My interference caused conflict because:
- I lacked context to give useful advice.
- She wanted to solve her problems.
- She wanted me to listen.
But I was more interested in coming up with solutions to her problems. Turns out, solving her problems was actually about me.
Early in my career, I told my boss how to do his job. I thought I knew best. I was always polite about it, but I believed I had some fantastic counsel to share with my boss. These conversations never ended well. It damaged my relationship with my boss and made him less likely to share information going forward, out of fear of being criticized. Eventually, he came to see me as a judgmental jerk. And he was right.
In retrospect, I didn’t have sufficient information to give good advice. Worrying about other people, their tasks, and what they were doing used up valuable time and emotional energy that I should’ve directed toward my work. As a consequence, my work suffered.
Nowadays, when my boss struggles, I say, You’ve got a lot going on—how can I help?
The Golden Rule says to treat people the way you want to be treated. The separation of tasks is the Golden Rule put into action. You don’t want other people interfering with your medical decisions, so don’t interfere with theirs. You don’t want other people interfering with whom you decide to marry and how to spend your life, so grant other people the same courtesy.
The separation of tasks means that you solve the problems in your own life and accept that others must solve the problems in their life. When we respect these boundaries, we create a feeling of respect and mutual-trust with other people.
When you insist on solving others’ problems, you communicate, I don’t trust you can handle this. When you insert yourself into other peoples’ tasks and give unsolicited advice, you avoid the hard work of solving your problems.
Don’t do that. Focus on your tasks and leave other people to work on their tasks.
1 “The Courage to be Disliked” by Fumitake Koga and Ichiro Kishimi is where I learned about the separation of tasks.