by Susan McCarthy
Everyday practice: Tiny actions still count as action, particularly when you're struggling.
I knew that I’d need to rest and recuperate after surgery*. In my mind, I thought that would mean sitting at the dining room table or on the couch with lots of time to write. I didn’t think that small tasks – wiping down the kitchen counter, reading and answering emails, folding my laundry – would leave me so tired.
Ninety-minute nap tired. Cranky-toddler tired when I’d push myself to do one more thing … thinking it would just take a minute, no big deal.
One of the things that was (is) driving me crazy was that no matter how drained I felt, a corner of my brain kept jabbering at me, reminding me of tasks I didn’t get to before my surgery or that I thought I’d have the energy to work on after the surgery.
I remembered a productivity tip that suggested writing down tasks sort of settles the brain because now it knows you’ve acknowledged the task.
1. Do a Brain Dump – Write down everything you must do. Yes, even small tasks, like making a phone call. You can also write down the fun things you want to do, like go out for coffee with a friend. Don’t be surprised if this takes you an hour to do … and then you keep adding to the list over the next few days.
If there is a deadline attached to an action, note it next to the task. Yes, this is a mega to-do list. List things you want to do around the house as well as things you need to do at work.
2. List the Steps Necessary to Do a Task – Okay, if I want to catch up on some podcasts, I’m not going to list steps like, ‘sit at computer, put on headphones, click play button…’ but I will list each individual podcast I want to listen to. If I see “catch up on podcasts” on my to-do list, I’m left with a vague sense of overwhelm because it isn’t clear how many episodes or how many hours will be involved in getting that one item off my list.
If I list the five episodes individually, when I listen to one, I can remove it from the list and feel a sense of accomplishment. If I want to meet with my boss, the first thing I need to do is schedule that meeting, which means a phone call or email is a task that needs to go on my list.
3. Break Down Actions into Turtle Steps – Author and life coach, Martha Beck, often talks about breaking tasks down into tiny turtle steps. So, when I think I’ll sit down and write for two hours and find myself stopping after two sentences, I call that a fail and get upset with my post-surgery lethargy.
Beck suggests breaking a goal in half and checking your body for any tension in connection to accomplishing the task. So, If I think I should be able to write for one hour, I feel some anxiety because I know I haven’t had much luck focusing for that length of time either. Thirty minutes? Hmmm. I decide that 20-to-30 minutes is doable.
4. Give Yourself a Treat – If you’re like me, you’ll want to expand that turtle step because it doesn’t seem as if it will allow you time to accomplish anything. However, writing for 20 minutes is more productive than me deciding that if I don’t write for two hours then I just shouldn’t bother.
To acknowledge that you’ve taken a step toward completing a task or reaching a goal, give yourself a treat. This treat could be stepping away from the computer to get a glass of water. Or, treating yourself to a bottle of sparkling water that usually seems like an unnecessary indulgence. Your treat could be rubbing your hands with hand cream, putting on a favorite song, stepping outside for two minutes, doing a few stretches, writing a gratitude list, writing a brief email to a friend, etc.
The treat isn’t extravagant, but you should give it to yourself right after you’ve completed your turtle step of a task. If you’ve completed several turtle steps to wrap up a project, you could give yourself a slightly larger reward – watch a couple episodes of a favorite television show or go out for coffee or an inexpensive meal.
So, with all this in mind, I pulled out a stack of 1-1/2”x2” Post-It Notes and wrote a single 30-minute task on each piece of paper. Okay, some tasks are an hour (those podcasts) and writing and posting a blog post contains numerous steps (that I have listed on a master checklist instead of a dozen Post-It Notes).
I’ve already felt some satisfaction after peeling a few Post-It Notes from the back pages of my planner and crumpling them into recycling.
*So, surgery. My apologies as this is probably too much information, but I haven’t yet figured out how to simplify all this. I’d had a pelvic ultrasound in December to locate my IUD, which had shifted. The ultrasound also located what appeared to be an ovarian cyst. This kicked off a series steps: bloodwork for ovarian cancer (negative), an MRI, a second ultrasound, three more blood tests for cancer (negative), and, finally, surgery. It turns out that I had a fibroid on the uterus that was nearly as large as the uterus and so was in front of the ovary, causing the unusual appearance. Or, at least, this is my non-medical interpretation of the situation. I went into surgery thinking I’d likely be getting an ovary removed; instead I ended up with a hysterectomy and a much longer recovery.
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The Organized Squirrel, Susan, shows you how acorns (small habits) can grow into oak trees (a better life).