Overwhelmed by Something Big? Try this.


The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.  – Lao Tzu

We’ve all heard that one before, right? And we know it’s true but, when your journey consists of a thousand tasks, each of which require at least a thousand steps all to be taken immediately, it feels a little too vague.

Some people are natural step-by-step takers. The rest of us could use a little help.

Lately, as the trees begin to bud out and this endless winter seems like it might actually yield to warmth, I’ve found myself reading a lot about time management, habits, and mindfulness. I don’t think it’s a random association of interests, but an attempt to understand how we make sense of this busy, hectic, ever-faster world around us. After this preparation for a sort of spring-cleaning, I’ve decided to tackle the big projects first.

Why the big ones? Because those are the ones that weigh heavily on my mind. I can churn through a check-list but if I know there are long-term tasks out there on the horizon, my sense of unease is not quieted.

Some are big projects at work, some are big projects at home (kitchen cupboards – shudder!) and some are years and years past due (old home movies on Hi8 tapes).

Amid all the good advice, I’ve honed in on two steps that help, and they’re rather simple.

1. Make one list

I’m a compulsive list-maker and have been ever since I got my first day-planner in high school. Unfortunately, this habit has managed to spread itself around my life. Until recently, I tried to keep a work list, a home list, a grocery list, a weekend list, a random list – you name it. The Post-it folks and I were getting a little too cozy. I now have a single list – in one notebook – that has everything in it. There are apps for this, but for me, the act of writing it down is a lot faster than pulling out my phone in the middle of a meeting, creating the list, and then remembering to look at it later.

For you, electronic may be the way to go. For me, paper creates a sense that I’ve got it.

Now that the list is in one place (and yes, I do stick post-it notes in my list-notebook but hey, nobody’s perfect), I am learning to expand the list.

Instead of writing “clean the house” on it, I write “sort all the books” then I write “donate the books in the car” (because that’s where they’ll end up).

This works at the office too. I had a project that required several conversations, multiple written products, and communication by a certain deadline. I wrote each of those steps down on my list, which forced me to do two things:

  • acknowledge all the pieces of work that would be required
  • get a better sense of how long these pieces would take

As an incurable optimist, I tend to think I can probably accomplish things in “two minutes” or “twenty minutes” when they’re more likely to take an hour or two. Focusing on the real demands of a project helps me see the steps in a more realistic way which leads nicely to the next step:

2. Put everything from the list on the calendar

That’s right, everything. With an accurate amount of time.

That doctor’s appointment that I’ve been meaning to schedule for three weeks? Still not done. Why? Because I called once, spent twenty minutes trying to figure out if i was in the new medical records system or not, then I wasn’t and needed to get a referral. Referral? Scheduled and done. But then I just carried around my list that said “make appointment”. Of course, I always had something better/more important/more pressing to do.

Now, I have a time set next week for 20 minutes, when I will make that call. And the number for the office is in the appointment.

This has been working well for projects, broken down into realistic chunks of work, and other tasks at home.

I’ve known people to block “work time” on their calendars, but without committing to what they will spend that time on, they tend to either schedule over that time with meetings or flail about, trying to decide what to do and ultimately feeling like they didn’t use that time well after all.

By getting specific about what I need to do and committing the time to it, I find I am more likely to keep my appointments with my work and to make progress.

What about those little things that really do only take a minute or two?

Schedule a 15 minute slot of your day for “quick tasks” – or whatever you want to call it – and spend that time plugging through your list. (Beware the internet!). This is the same method I’m using to tackle my gargantuan inbox. 15 minutes a day.

The key to making this work is finding the way that fits your personality best.

If you’re a morning person, you may make your list first thing and tackle a few items before leaving the house. You probably won’t make progress if you’re trying to set aside time after everyone’s gone to bed to work on something important.

If you’re an evening person, you may carve out some time later in the day to work without interruption on a long-term project. Getting up at 5a.m. to try something new might not be best for you.

Regardless of your personality, knowing what needs to be done and when you will do it is key.

I’d love to hear from you if you have techniques you’ve used to get out from under big projects – or if you’ve tried these approaches and they didn’t work.


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