We’ve all been there—that looming feeling in the back of your mind of that project you need to finish… and start. You keep putting it off because you think it’s going to take forever—time you just don’t have. The task may be something necessary like finding a new job, or something less urgent like decluttering an entire house.
As a marriage and family therapist, I know that such projects can cause real overwhelm and anxiety—even for a “trivial” project—and this can add to the growing stress in our lives. While working with clients to overcome their anxiety, I’ve helped them find ways to manage projects such as these along the way.
If you’re behind, don’t try to catch up—jump in now
Even for tasks that may not seem of high importance in the scheme of things, tasks that require a lot of time and effort can bring stress when they pile up. These may include writing thank-you notes, converting your paper files to digital, streamlining your phone’s photos, catching up on emails, completing baby book(s) for your child(ren), and so on. Many of these feel especially overwhelming because we feel so “behind” on them.
If I think about streamlining the thousands of photos on my phone, it feels scary because I know how long it will take. Often, we put off big, time-consuming tasks like these because they feel like too much, which only makes them take longer, which makes them more anxiety-provoking as the project looms in our mind—and the cycle continues.
To break the cycle of putting off non-urgent but time-consuming tasks, just jump in where you are. Haven’t written thank-you notes from Christmas and now your birthday has come and gone, too? Just start with your birthday. Need to start streamlining photos from the last five years? Tonight, delete the duplicates or bad shots from this week (or from today, depending on how many photos you take every day). Trying to convert all the loose paper files and documents in your home to a digital cloud? Start digitally filing any documents that you would save after today.
Even if it feels like you have to do the tasks chronologically, starting today and doing a little bit is better than never starting; you can always go back to whatever you missed. But by starting now, and doing a little bit at a time, whatever is in the past will eventually seem less overwhelming, because you will have more of the project done.
Don’t do everything—just start (small)
For other big projects that aren’t chronological—like purging clothes, redecorating your home, reorganizing your kitchen cabinets—a similar line of thinking can keep us from starting. The monstrosity of the project can feel overwhelming, so we just never start. Since it’s not urgent, there’s no consequence (at least no immediate or intense consequence) so we might keep on pushing it to the bottom of our to-do list.
To combat this, instead of thinking you have to do it all in one sitting, start small. If you’re purging toys, pick one basket or bucket to purge every day (or every time you have 10 minutes in the evening). If you need to hang photos or wall decor in every room of your home, pick one room each day or each week to address.
Realizing that you don’t actually have to do everything at once (even if doing it all would feel nice to check off your to-do list!) allows you to do it incrementally. Accept that getting it all done at once is probably unrealistic, or you would have done it all already. Adjust your mindset to celebrate the little victories and milestones of big projects rather than only being satisfied at completing the entire task.
To do this, you can change the way you write your to-do lists. Instead of writing “minimize wardrobe” try writing a specific, smaller step of the whole project, like “purge top drawer of dresser.” That way, you can literally check that item off your to-do list and feel like you completed something, while working toward the greater goal of minimizing your wardrobe. Continue chipping away at the project by writing smaller steps like this on your list each day or week (i.e. “purge second drawer” next, “purge summer dresses,” and so on).
If you know that you struggle with procrastination or getting started feels like the hardest step for you, make the first “milestone” of the larger project very small and doable. This may include putting a title on a paper you have to write, creating the new Excel or PowerPoint file for the project you need to complete, or updating your LinkedIn account as a first step of looking for a new job. Remember that you don’t have to do it all now. Sometimes the first step is the biggest mental hurdle even if it's the simplest actual task.
Replace or attach it
This idea is a convenient way to start chipping away at any digital task (such as catching up on loads of emails, streamlining photos, or even finding a new job). You can delete an unnecessary app (like Instagram) at least temporarily from your phone for a few days or weeks and for those few minutes you would have been on that app (between work calls, while standing in line at a store, or the first 10 minutes after you put the kids down) replace it with a specific task you can do on your phone. You’ll find you can chip away at your project by spending three to ten (sometimes more) minutes at a time several times a day—which adds up!
A similar trick you can try for non-virtual projects is to attach your task to a commercial or ad. While watching or streaming TV, assign a task you can do nearby or in front of your screen to do during ads or commercials. Maybe you bring boxes of stuff to declutter into your living room and work on that during the ads, or you run back into the kitchen for the minute or two of commercials to organize your kitchen cabinets.
25 minutes is a lot
If you think you can’t start because you only have a small amount of time, look at the Pomodoro Method. Put simply, the Pomodoro Method involves working for 25 minutes at a time, then taking a five minute break and repeating this cycle. While you might not have 30 minute cycles to work through for this given project, the Pomodoro method has taught me (and many others) how much can be accomplished in the short time frame of 25 focused minutes.
If you only have 25 minutes before picking the kids up from school or 25 minutes left of lunch before your next meeting, get going and see how much you do. You’ll be surprised how much you get done in what seems like a short time. The key here is actually working for 25 minutes—no social media, other tasks, or distractions. Only writing that paper or organizing those clothes!
Going forward, use the one-minute rule
For large tasks that are only going to continue to build up over time, follow the one-minute rule.
If something will only take a minute, do it rather immediately than contribute to the already large project. For example, instead of throwing clothes on the already massive pile of clean laundry that needs to be folded and put away, hang up the dress you wore today as soon as you take it off. If you know there are a ton of things that need to be decluttered in your house, dedicate a “donation box” and every time you come across an item that you no longer need, immediately throw it in the donation box.
As you adjust your mindset to check pieces of projects off to-do lists rather than entire tasks, you’ll find you can chip away at projects seamlessly. As you get more comfortable with having part of something completed and part of it unfinished, you’ll likely find the looming feeling of overwhelm attached to such large projects disappears—and you get more done along the way.