How to Tackle an Impossibly Massive To-Do List

Construction is a great metaphor for life: things always take longer than you think, people you rely on can be irresponsible, sloppy or forgetful, and it is marvelously easy to get overwhelmed. In the past couple of months, while renovating a glorious little fixer-upper, my husband and I took turns getting anxiety attacks when weekends came and we confronted the vastness of what needed to be done.

We both have jobs and some serious side projects, as well as an ancient stubborn doggy… so looking at the 8-tab spreadsheet of tasks like patching, sanding, priming, painting, ordering, returning and keeping on top of the contractors…I started what I call diluting myself. Everything suddenly started seeming painfully slow (one weekend, it took me close to 12 hours to not finish two bathroom mirrors) and the to-do list just kept growing.

The sense of inefficiency and exasperation quickly started moving to other areas of my life: writing, work, social life…. And so, what was I to do when I start spinning myself into this muddy vicious circle but go on vacation? A week off in a charming town in Mexico, and lapping waves and a great novel reestablished sanity (by the way, always take vacation when it most seems you cannot). The reset helped me open my eyes to the very obvious solution for tackling the massive list.

It was as simple as this: finish one small thing.

It doesn’t seem like completing the smallest of projects will somehow take care of all your convoluted endeavors, but here is the thing: it does. It is the equivalent of jump starting the engine: everything else starts warming up, humming, getting ready for motion. That first “check!” creates such a great sense of satisfaction that all else starts seeming doable, even easy. You might even feel a little joyful sense of spite as I did, ignoring all this annoying big stuff and putting my intention and attention on that one small thing.

on finishing things

Then again, the small thing might turn out not to be that small. In my case, it was an article I had started in January (!!!) that I thought needed major improvements or possibly a complete redo. But, looking at it with fresh rested eyes, I decided to not let perfect get in the way of good. I took an hour to do a minor polish and, yep, hit “publish”. I got over 400 readers on Medium and some great feedback from my colleagues. Plus, I think I might have a consulting gig brewing that I suspect had a lot to do with it…not bad!

Over at the house, we started focusing on one room – sometimes even just one wall – at a time. Primed. Painted. (Note: separate smaller tasks!) Bought all missing lights in 45 minutes (cheapos at Home Depot – but you know what? It’s done! And now we can prowl antique shops at leisure). On the career front, I revamped my LinkedIn profile with a cool career graphic, got some recommendations going, etc. etc.

Not bragging here (OK, maybe just a bit – I love that graphic!), just showing evidence of how finishing something seemingly inconsequential in the grand scheme of things can start a torrent of simplification and completion. Sooo…without psychoanalyzing this… here is what I say to you, friend.

If there is any area of life where you feel overwhelmed – say, that career change? – go ahead and finish one small thing. Perhaps it’s just a 15 minute improvement of your LinkedIn profile. Not the grand makeover you’ve been putting off for years, but perhaps finding someone in your profession with a spectacular profile and using it as inspiration. Or, write one silly draft cover letter for your dream job – a letter you may not send, but something in front of you to work on over time. Make a list of companies you’d really like to work for…you catch my drift.

Happy finishing!

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