By Susan Caba
Are you waiting for the right time, the big move, appropriate motivation? Quit procrastinating. Simplify and clarify your life, step by step.
Max and I finished hanging ceiling tiles yesterday, and it gave us the time to continue our conversation about goals and getting things done. As often happens, the theme of our conversation followed our activity.
To recap our previous efforts, we were trying to replace some missing panels in the dropped ceiling in my basement. I’d already purchased the replacement panels and attempted to do the job myself, but the panels are awkward, the existing framework is old and somewhat droopy, and the wires that hold the framework to the ceiling got in the way. So, I enlisted my son Max to help me. Alright, I conscripted him.
Yesterday’s session proceeded more smoothly than the previous day, despite the fact Max arrived none-too-enthusiastic about the chore. However, as he told me later, he motivated himself by saying, “Okay, let’s just go down to the basement and see what needs to be done.” Then, once down there, “Okay, just hold up this panel and see how it needs to fit.” And then, “Okay, let me just see how easy it will be to get this one panel in place.”
We call it the “do as little as humanly possible rule and see what happens.” What usually happens is that we find ourselves unexpectedly engrossed in the project and willing to do much more than the minimum. The author Annie Lamott offered similar advice in Bird by Bird, a book on overcoming writer’s block. She suggested that the blocked writer commit to writing just one paragraph, or just an inch of copy. More often than not, once started, the writer continues past the minimum.
My mother once had a twice-a-month cleaning lady named Mary. She would arrive at our house to find that the combination of seven days and six kids under the age of eight resulted in a predictable chaos. There would be dishes in the sink, laundry unfolded, toys in the family room. My mother would take this opportunity to escape the house. When she returned, everything would be in its place, the laundry folded, dishes clean. I distinctly remember my mother once asking her, “Mary, how do you do it?”
“Honey, I just start,” she replied–an answer I have relied on many times in the decades since passed.
How often have you conceived a grand project, then decided it was too big to tackle? That used to happen to me with magazine articles–I would imagine them complete and complex and, of course, highly lauded. Naturally, that made them harder to get started. The best example of this syndrome is people who say they are waiting for “the right time” to start a family. Baby, there is no ideal time to start a baby–you just have to dive in. If you don’t, you most likely will remain childless (unless the birth control fails).
I found a philosophy similar to mine called “Starting Before You’re Ready,” on ModernBenjamin’s Blog.
“Over-thinking could be as detrimental to action as having no strategy at all. If you’re thinking of every word that should come out of your mouth before you introduce yourself to that beautiful girl, then you’re over analyzing it already. If you’re tinkering over who’s going to do your accounting once you sell a million t- shirts, yet you haven’t put out any designs and you’re letting the summer months get away from your seasonal business, then you’re efforts are misguided. … Sometimes you need to just jump into your new lifestyle or begin paddling in the shallow end before you can navigate the deeper end of the pool. Do this before you think you’re ready.”
I used to be someone who waited for the big, winner-take-all opportunity, or insisted on instant gratification, or kept “planning” and never actualizing. I’ve finally accepted that, in most cases, I’m probably more likely to get where I’m going if I’m willing to proceed inch-by-inch. But I won’t get there at all if I don’t start–sometimes, as Benjamin advises, before I’m ready.
So that’s the approach I’m taking on simplifying and clarifying my life. I have big goals. And, when a big opportunity arises, I’ll jump on it. But I’m not waiting around for that once-in-a-lifetime chance–I’m taking Mary’s advice and “just starting,” ready or not. That’s how the basement ceiling gets done and, I’m willing to bet, it will be how the rest of the basement gets painted and the house sold.
Have you achieved a goal in a series of incremental steps? Are you stalled, because you’re waiting for “the right time” or the “right opportunity” or until you’re “ready?” What could you do this week to get started? I’d love to hear from you.