Like many writers, I’m an inveterate list-maker. Right now I am staring at my to-do list for May, with 151 items on the list. But – and here is the tie-in to this month’s theme on how to get through tough times – the items on this list are, every single one of them, very, very small. Whenever I am overwhelmed with the magnitude of whatever it is I need to face in my life (that is to say, all of the time), my strategy for proceeding is to break down what I need to face into the smallest possible units that I can stand facing.
For example, one of my terrifying tasks right now is editing a scholarly volume of essays on ethics and children’s literature. How could an avoidance-specialist like me tackle a task so daunting? So, on my to-do list I have these items:
1. Print out the twelve papers to be edited.
2. Make yourself look at the first one.
3. Read the first one.
4. Send off comments on the first one.
Friends tease me when they see me giving myself extravagant credit for having crossed off “Print out the papers to be edited.” That is hardly worthy of a red check mark made with a self-congratulatory flourish, they say. Ah, but it is. Just as I thought the project was going to have to be abandoned as impossible, along comes a task on the list that I can actually do, in fact a task that can practically do itself as I sit at the computer simply clicking “File – Print” over and over again. As the nice pile of pages emerges from the printer, I already have a little glow of satisfaction that can carry over to the next, far scarier task on the list: “Make yourself look at the first one.” Indeed, I have sometimes given myself credit for task 1a: “Staple the papers you have printed.” Believe me, when times are tough enough, stapling twelve entire papers is a huge accomplishment.
The brilliant, wise, wonderful self-help guru Barbara Sher (Wishcraft, Live the Life You Love, It’s Only Too Late If You Don’t Start Now) endorses my small-steps strategy. Maybe I even stole it from her on first reading her books decades ago. Sher explains that it’s only natural that we experience resistance born of fear when encountering major work and life tasks, especially those that matter most to us (so that our failing to do them should not be taken as a sign that we don’t really want to do them, but as a sign that we want to do them too much). The only force great enough to drive out fear is love. So what we need to do, she tells us, is to find a portion of the major work/life task small and nonthreatening enough not to trigger that resistance. Take that one timid, tiny step. And then let yourself fall in love with the sheer doing of it.
So today I’m going to staple these papers I’ve just printed, I am, I am! And I’ll take one shy peek at the first one. Tomorrow I may actually read the first one – well, maybe not read the whole thing, that might be too intense and scary, but read the first page of the first one. And then maybe the next page. And maybe the page after that. My prediction: this entire huge hard task will be done a month from today, and done with ease. And how will I do it? One teensy-weensy step at a time.