It’s a common maxim: ‘if it looks too big to tackle, break it down into small chunks.’ We’ve all heard it, and if you’re like me, often forget it! I think the clue is in the first part – ‘if it looks too big’. Somehow we assume that this is some objective measurement, that it only applies when everyone would say that it was too big to deal with in one go. Yet in my experience, this is about personal perception, not what someone else might think. In fact, it doesn’t even stay constant in our own perception, because that changes depending on our mood, our energy levels, our thinking about it.
I used to disappoint myself a lot more, when I assessed the size of something I had to do by some external measure. I would tell myself that I should be able to do whatever it was in the time I had, and that I needed to just get on with it. And of course, I often adopted avoidance procedures, or put it off till I was forced to do it by deadlines, or failed to get it completed, if there were no deadlines to meet.
Eventually, I began to realise that if I perceived something as daunting or overwhelming, it would elicit these non- useful behaviours in me, or at the very least, leave me exhausted by the end of it, even if it were only a small thing to do objectively. Furthermore, this was doing the opposite of what I intended: it was resulting in negative results and negative feelings, instead of positive energy and a sense of achievement.
So I began to experiment with different ways of approaching the things I have to do.
Firstly, accept that it feels daunting to you. It doesn’t matter if this is because it’s a big job, or because you don’t really like doing this sort of thing, or just because you’re not in the mood for it. If that sinking feeling is there, then it’s valid, and it’s time to break the task down.
I’m an expert on this – I can break down even the smallest jobs! There are two ways to break down a job into smaller pieces: time you spend on it, and amount of it you do. For example, I might say I’ll clear 10 emails, or that I’ll spend 20 minutes clearing some emails. Or I might choose to clear one flowerbed of weeds, or spend half an hour doing some weeding in the garden. It is important to keep the amount you set yourself small and easily achievable, so that it has the opposite effect of the original job – it is going to be easy to feel you’ve achieved something.
It is also important to let go of ‘in the right order’. Often a task looks daunting because of what we think we have to do first, so do something else that will contribute to the overall, but looks easier. For example, rather than starting by deciding how you want to organise that messy garage of yours, or by taking everything out on to the lawn – that commits you to doing a lot of it! – why not just take a black bag in there and wander around putting the obvious rubbish in it. Doing some of the smaller steps involved in the job means that you can cumulatively reduce the size of the job overall, and it becomes less daunting.
Now doing this breakdown into small, bite-sized chunks, has several neat tricks built into it:
- It’s easy to find 10 or 20 minute slots, and you can even reward yourself afterwards by doing something you like doing!
- You’re more motivated to do a bit more, on another day – the next chunk – and the overall job reduces to a manageable size remarkably quickly.
- You often find that, once you start, you can easily do more than you have set yourself originally, so you feel an extra sense of achievement!
- Because it’s easy, each chunk energises you rather than leaving you feeling tired and resentful.
I know you all know this really, but I also know that we all tend to save the technique for those officially big projects we have to do occasionally, the ones where we feel we can justify taking small steps towards it. What nonsense is that! If it’s something I can’t face doing, then I need the technique of breaking it down – it’s a simple emotional equation. Otherwise we are forcing ourselves against our natural flow, and that is a terrible waste of energy.
Eat your ‘elephant’ in bite-sized chunks of course, but eat your ‘tiny mouse’ in the same way and give yourself permission to make your life easier!