573. Bit by Bit

There’s a simple truth that can make teaching, learning, and the rest of life much more possible, even when they’re starting to seem just about out of the question: if a job is too big, it often helps to break it up into smaller parts. We don’t have to get overwhelmed and give up. We can do one of the smaller parts. For some tasks and some people, it’s best not to even think of the other parts yet to be tackled; success at that one part should be allowed to feel like the success it is.
I’ve known that, off and on, for a long time. When I forget it – especially now that my physical endurance is not as good as it used to be – I get worn out and frustrated. I feel like giving up, and sometimes I do. That’s why my home has been so messy for so long. It used to be that I either put things away as I was done with them or put away everything about once a week. Either way, I enjoyed the resulting neatness; it made things easier to find, and just made me feel good.
But last week, I had some friends over, and I wanted to make my living room presentable. They were good friends, and they ended up helping me make it look okay. Before they left, they did the dishes and put away whatever they and I had used. And my living room, which had looked like a garbage dump (by my standards), looked and felt pleasant. I know that part of the exhilaration I felt had to do with the time I’d just spent with my friends, but I’m sure that another part of it had to do with the way my living room looked and felt.
Now for the bad news: the way I’d gotten my living room to start to look good was by moving lots of my junk into my bedroom. Just one corner of my bedroom, mind you, but that one corner gave me that feeling I was telling you about – the feeling that the job was just too big, and could never be done. I didn’t want to do what I used to do – look at the whole mess and say to myself, “I’m gonna clean this up, no matter what it takes!” “No matter what it takes” is no longer a phrase I use much.
Instead, I looked at one box that wasn’t where it should have been, and I thought of that box as my challenge for the day. I was going to look in the box and see whether there was anything in it that I’d need before warm weather returned (this happened in November, so there would be plenty of time before spring came). There wasn’t, so I decided to put the box way back in my bedroom closet. Examining the box and moving it into the closet took about twenty minutes. If I’d thought about the number of boxes to examine and move, and multiplied that number by twenty, I would have been overwhelmed. Instead, I took a break, and mentally celebrated having successfully dealt with that box. And later the same day, I examined and moved another box. And so on.
Many people know all about this approach, and live their lives that way. But many are prone to being overwhelmed. I, who felt overwhelmed at first, am writing this essay in my neat bedroom. And it feels good.

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