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  • Writer's pictureJulie Love

Step by Step

From the Archive: April 2021

How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.

Bet that joke seemed a lot funnier before it felt like the world was always trying to force-feed us herds of elephants, huh? When there is objectively too much to do, and you’re drowning in a tsunami of tasks and responsibilities, it’s natural to feel overwhelmed. That’s kind of what the word was invented for.

And the typical response is to react to that tidal wave with a host of unhelpful emotions: Anger and resentment over facing a challenge that is unfair, fear of the negative consequences of failing to do it (or doing it badly), guilt and self-criticism for being unable to do it (and/or for letting it grow this big through neglect), sorrow over the prospect of never being able to ever do anything fun or relaxing again in your entire life because you will be working on this forever. And if the impossible task you face is something everyone else seems to do easily, because they aren’t dealing with ADHD, Anxiety, Depression, etc., all these feelings are intensified. Heck, they pile up on you – now you’re also angry over the unfairness of having ADHD/Anxiety/Depression, you beat yourself up for being too “broken” to do this “simple” thing, and with symptoms interfering with every aspect of life, you face coping with them, forever, which is so unfair, and you hate yourself for it, forever…. It’s a matryoshka doll of painful feelings.

Whether facing your own elephant, or helping your students, colleagues and family deal with theirs, start with compassion. It might actually be unfair that you have to do the thing, it might not – that’s usually not helpful in getting it done. Accepting responsibility to do something does not mean you agree that you deserve it, or are to blame for it needing to be done. The fear and guilt spurred by the task usually relate to comparing your current ability to the WHOLE task – it’s like deciding to try jogging, and then basing your worth as a human being on being able to do a full marathon right now.

Of course you can’t do the whole thing practically before you’ve even started. Break it into smaller pieces, look at the first few steps, and hide the other steps.

Or at least stop staring at them. Just do the first step. And then, once you did it, do the second one. Maybe take a break first. That’s not being lazy, any more than a car is being “lazy” for taking time off the highway to fill up the gas tank. Celebrate each step as you finish it, take a breath, and then approach the next step. Appreciate your laurels, but don’t rest on them too long.

Things that look impossible from lower down can be a lot more approachable once you’ve made some progress, so don’t keep looking at the currently impossible future tasks. For some, glancing at the ultimate goal is inspiring, for others, it’s paralyzing, so do what’s best for you. And through it all, be kind to yourself, and to the others also struggling.

One step at a time. One bite at a time. Pick your metaphor and start.

How to slice up your mountain

There are various approaches to breaking an overwhelming prospect into more manageable pieces. Which is best for you depends on you, the kind of mountain you face, and the kind of day you’re having.

“I have a Big Goal, and can’t seem to get started because it’s so daunting.”

Use the Step Plan.

Your goal is the top step, and you fill in the steps that get you there. It’s okay if you don’t know all of them, or list “ask someone” as a step. If any are still too big, break them down in to even smaller steps.


Fear of driving

Drive to Dunkins, get a reward!

Drive around the block during busier time

Drive around the block (when streets are empty)

Turn it on, back out of the driveway, then pull back in

Sit in the car, don’t even bring the keys

Major Essay to write

Start writing.

Explain it to someone, just telling them about it.

Choose an option, look up information.

Read the assignment out loud, list 3 possible approaches

Clear the desk/table, get set up (drink, music, etc.)

“There’s just always so many things to do, everywhere – the accumulation of so many competing responsibilities. I feel like I’ll never catch up.”

Use the To-Do Menu

*Make a list of the things you do, as well as the ones you feel like you should be doing.

* Any time you have a to-do list, before berating yourself for having little to cross off, be sure to write in the things you actually did, and then promptly cross them off. They count.

* Sort them. Make a sheet with three columns, or write them on color-coded cards.

* Simple Tasks (you can finish in less than 15 min. – basically, a trained monkey could do it)

* Medium Jobs (Can get done in one go, but it will take a good bit of time and energy)

* Major projects (ongoing things that you want to make progress on, but no one could do all at once). Note: a specific next step of a project might fit on one of the other lists.

* Consider adding notes – how long it will take, deadlines, type of activity (outdoor/indoor, mindless/concentration needed, solo/team effort).

* Then decide each day what you have an appetite for. Some days you might be able to chip away at the Project, others you really can’t, but you can at least empty the dishwasher. Some days you have plenty of energy, but less focus – rather than tying yourself to one task, appreciate the impact of ricocheting around and doing a dozen of the little things that never get dealt with. Some days even choosing is impossible, so toss the cards in a bag and draw one.

* This system can also be used for groups, such a s family chores.

* You can also expand it to include categories such as Self Care, Creativity, or Fun.

Start by doing what’s necessary; then do what’s possible; and suddenly you are doing the impossible.

– St. Francis of Assisi

“I dive in enthusiastically, but then it fades.”

Use SMART goals. Enthusiasm rides grand dreams, but dies when it can’t tell if it’s getting anywhere.


Narrow the focus, make it more tangible, less idealistic.

“Run a 5K race” rather than “get in shape.”


Have an exact measure of success. Also helps you realize that you deserve credit even if you don’t do 100 % of something.

“Eat vegetarian for 3 meals this week” rather than “eat healthy.”


Actually possible. Be sure it’s something YOU control, that your success doesn’t rest on another doing a certain thing.

“Send out ten applications” rather than “Get a job”


If someone asks you Why, have an answer you care about.

Getting better grades makes my parents happy… but I’d feel better to not fail that test, too.


Set a specific time to achieve it by.

Smaller steps sooner is better – “Lose 5 lb this month” is better than “Lose 60 lb this year.”

“I just can’t even get started.”

Use the Pomodoro Technique

· Set a timer, for just 10 or 15 minutes.

· Go do the thing, for just 10 or 15 min.

· When the timer rings, STOP.

· Repeat. (Once a day, once a week, maybe repeatedly in one day, with breaks. Depends on the job – but do it regularly.)

This is especially good for the Big Jobs that don’t require set up/clean up or continuity of concentration – things like filing a pile of papers, cleaning out a closet, etc. Also for those that are hard to start because it feels like you’ll be doing them forever. You can stand anything for10-15 min.

“I quit trying when I fail. Also when I succeed.”

And finally: The Nursing Process (just to give some of you flashbacks on care plan homework).

Goal: the Smart Goal format is good. Measurable and Timely especially.

Intervention: list the specific acts you will do that move you towards the goal.

Assessment: At the listed time, check how it went, and then what to do next.

Goal Achieved

First celebrate, then decide:

All done, stop now. (Paper got written)

Continue interventions, to maintain the Goal. (Have new healthy habit, want to keep it)

Revise the goal/interventions – raise the bar. (Okay, now let’s run two miles every day….)

Goal not achieved

Decide on the reason:

Underestimated the time it would take. Continue interventions, revise deadline.

Need to do more/different actions. Revise interventions.

This is harder than expected. Revise the Goal (lower the bar, or break into smaller steps).

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