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making lists

Doing the impossible

Every so often you run into a project that is just horrible, stressful all out of proportion to its actual importance (usually); something that must be done, but you just can’t do. Here’s my strategy for tacking intractable problems, for what it’s worth:

1. Get out a pen and paper.
2. Title at top: To-Do List
3. Add first item: make to-do list. (DON’T skip this step!)
4. Break the horrid worrisome task into its smallest possible component pieces. I’m serious – if the very first step is “Move books from floor to desk” then write that down. Don’t think big, think small. Don’t ever put something down like, “Do the research for this paper”. The list should all be easily-achievable tasks, like “Look for relevant quotes in chapter 2 of this book”.
5. Continue until you’ve made a decent list.
6. Cross off the first item, since you’ve now done it. See? You’ve already accomplished your first task of the day, which is getting organized.

If it’s a really awful task, the kind that keeps you up at night and you can’t bear to even think about, you might need to break it into even tinier tasks, with time limits. This is a good trick too. Something like “Spend 10 minutes listing all the files for the project” or whatever. Put a small time limit on it – not what it will take to finish the project, but enough to make a start. You can do anything for 10 minutes, right? Set a timer, and when it goes off stand up, stretch, get a drink of water, then tackle the next 10-minute chunk. (I would say coffee, but overuse of this trick can lead to excessive caffeination!)

If it’s a really, REALLY overwhelming project, make sure also to put things on your to-do list that are easy. “Take tea break”, “Go to lunch”, “Water plants” – whatever. In extra-bad cases, I even add a few things I’ve already done, just so there can be some crossed-off items on the page (besides the crucial #1): “Come to work”, perhaps.