Instagram Planners and the Protestant Work Ethic

This one comes to us from Holly Genovese.  I love my Emily Ley Simplified® planner. […]

Guest Contributor / 6.28.19

This one comes to us from Holly Genovese. 

I love my Emily Ley Simplified® planner. It’s full of notes, lists, and proof of a busy year. It’s my fourth Simplified® planner, and I have one waiting patiently on my desk for August 1. The planner is well made, the paper is beautiful. It has room for class schedules, reading lists, and freelance deadlines. It also costs 58 dollars, more if you include the bundle of cute accessories I somehow convince myself I need every year: mini notebooks, page markers, pilot precise pens, stretchy bands. I’ve read her books, Grace, Not Perfection and A Simplified Life, after stumbling across them in Target. And I follow along on Insta as she makes time for her family and friends and posts cute layouts of planners. I’ve done the Simplified Challenge and followed along through launch weeks and set up workshops. I know the names of her staff as if they were my friends: I follow along with them as they live and create, learning their babies’ names and their art styles and their planning methods. Like many of Ley’s fans, I know that her mom makes the best Lasagna (the recipe is found in A Simplified Life), that her three kids are 4 and 8 and adorable, and that she likes Lilly Pulitzer, the beach, and stripes.

I am of course not alone. Following #SimplifiedPlanner leads to beautiful photos of planners, of commitments to “grace, not perfection,” and of women seamlessly combining their evangelical faith with their attempts at organization. Emily Ley is Christian, and though much of her product line can and is used by non-Christian women (and men), Emily Ley is vocal about her religion. She talks about God and faith in her books and her Facebook posts, as she uses her planner to prioritize her business and her family life.

Ley has an official Facebook group, and there are other unofficial ones, too, like “The Simplified Planner Fans,” filled with debates over weekly planners versus daily planners, cases, pens, and ways to plan efficiently. Simplified® users aren’t as into decorating as Erin Condren LifePlanner™ fans, not as businessy as the all black-and-white Day Designer fans. But beyond “planning”—that amorphous hobby that social media has given a new life—Emily Ley has given women a community to discuss their lives, their millennial burnout, their religion, and their attempts to prioritize other women. For a segment of the population, however small, the message that we need to put away our phones and our work and spend time with the people we love is transformative.

But why is Christianity being invoked in this way, not simply to help sell planners, but to sell a lifestyle unattainable to many of the women following along with Emily? She’s a successful business owner, a mother of three, who lives on the beach and who’s house looks like a movie set. In her most recent book, a scripture journal, photos of her own family, house, and lifestyle are interspersed between journal pages. These pictures make sense in her book about home decor, but not in a journal focused on engagement with scripture and spirituality. But that’s the point, isn’t it? If you buy this planner, this book, this upper-middle-class lifestyle, then you can operate within this feminine brand of Christianity.

Her upcoming book, When Less Becomes More, perfectly articulates contradictions. Part appropriation from people like Marie Kondo, part self-help guide for Christian women, When Less Becomes More is designed to help people embrace simplicity. In her Instagram post announcing the new book, Ley wrote that the book is a “memoir to my girl, an anthem for those of us sick and tired of this epidemic of burn out, and a commitment to delivering myself from the emptiness of so MUCH. Noise. Information. Commitments. Belongings. Fears. Distractions.”

Emily Ley is of course not the only one. A lot of her mantra is reminiscent of books like Rachel Hollis’s Girl, Wash Your Face, the somewhat vacuous guide to embracing “hustle,” productivity, joy, and faith. Other Christian companies, like Cultivate What Matters by Lara Casey, also argue that planning (and, by extension, purchasing) can help one get closer to God. Products like Cultivate’s PowerSheets® and Write the Word journals are an explicit combination of Christian rhetoric, inspiration, and planning. The logic here goes that when you plan, you need to make time for what matters: God, family, friends, and little joyful moments–joyful moments that can only exist for wealthy women who have control over their schedules and their lives. Schedule in your work of course, but schedule in time to play with kids, cook healthy meals, work in your garden, and go swimming. There isn’t much discussion of women who don’t get to schedule their own work lives, who don’t have time to cook healthy meals, who live in food deserts without pools. The ability to embrace this carefully controlled messiness only applies to those whose lives have already been shaped and controlled by their wealth, their white privilege, and the freedom to schedule their lives as they choose.

On the Cultivate What Matters website, the About page reads,

With an ever-growing list of to-dos, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the tasks on your plate, and disappointed you’re not spending enough time doing the things you love and caring for the people you love.

We want to press the reset button! We believe your time can be spent intentionally, and that your to-do lists can be simplified by uncovering meaningful goals and taking action on them little by little. In doing this, we learn to celebrate progress, not perfection.

The messiness of life is a common theme among these writers: embrace the messy, the imperfection, the temper tantrums! Of course, this idea of messiness is eating pizza on a perfectly cleaned floor, craft supplies spilling out of organized bins, and lateness as a frivolous choice rather than something that could cost you your job.

The Simplified® Planner home page reads, “We believe simple is best. In a world that’s constantly frantic, Simplified® stands on the idea that there is more to life than overwhelm.” But these mission statements frame overwhelm as a choice, something all women can step away from, with little directed at those women who cannot get away from the stress of their work, their families, or their student loans. For these women, scripture is often invoked like an inspirational quote, a guide to their busy lives, something they can adapt for “all seasons.” For the women who follow them it’s essential. But for everyone else, it makes Christianity, scripture, and inspiration just one more thing they cannot afford.

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