My Secret to Keeping it Together: Dream Big, Act Small

Now that I’ve taken some time to recover from the horror that was taking two upper-level summer classes simultaneously, I think it’s time to talk about an important skill.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had people ask me: “How do you manage to get everything done?” It’s a fair question. I don’t seem to have the ability or the desire that other people do when it comes to saying “no.” Nine times out of ten, if someone presents an opportunity to me, I take it despite the fact that I know my plate is already pretty damn full. Given the fact that I have serious issues regulating anxiety in even the most tranquil of situations, this seems ridiculous. And yet, I tend to manage just fine.

Why is that? Because I know that if something is intimidating, I’m just not thinking small enough.

Take my last week of classes as an example; finishing four essays and film screenings, one half-hour presentation, and studying for a final in just five days seemed impossible to me when I first considered it. Then, I broke it down. For this particular situation it made the most sense to take an index card and break it into the number of days I had left. Once that was done I filled in all of the social commitments and distractions that I already knew about. Based on how much time was left in each day I set myself goals like: two hours working on Powerpoint or screen Norma Rae and outline paper with a small box next to it to be checked off when I was done.

I taped this list in my mirror and constantly reminded myself to focus on just one day at a time.

Five days of fun and work later and I was done (and ready to be lazy for the full week that I had between classes and returning to work).

My wonderful to-do list for the past week. (via Spongebob!)

This simple “trick” of breaking things down works for everything.

Getting from being a [fill in your undergraduate] major to being a [dream job] can seem intimidating as anything, unless you break it down. Figure out what classes you need to take, what graduate programs (if any) you need to get into, what entry level jobs you need to try, who you need to meet, and so on… just break down all of the steps between you and your goal and then focus, one step at a time.

Achieving [that huge project that you’ve been dreaming of for ages] can seem impossible, unless you break it down. Write out your idea, then figure out what you are missing that is keeping you from having achieved that idea. Break it down into small steps that go from where you are now to where you want to be. It’s okay if some of the steps are missing when you start out, after all you may still need to do some research (a step!) to give yourself direction.

Getting through [those awful chores that you hate] can seem much less crummy if you break things down into smaller steps and give yourself plenty of little rewards each time you get one done!

I think you get the point.

The beauty of this trick is that it works for everyone because you can tailor it to fit your exact needs! (Different sized steps, lists on paper or computer, etc.)

Miscellaneous Tips

  1. You can go as small as you want, but I find that I feel best when I break things into steps that I can accomplish the same day I start. That way I feel like I have achieved something at the end of each day!
  2. Scheduling in small breaks (a cup of tea, a trip to the movies, a chapter in a fun book, etc.) in between steps can help to keep you feeling sane, especially if you are operating on a packed schedule for an extended period of time.
  3. Don’t be afraid to be flexible. “Life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans” is a popular saying for a reason. A well broken-down list of steps can be helpful to keep you moving towards your goals, but don’t ever be afraid to cross something out (or throw the whole thing out all together!) if life starts to lead you in a new direction.
  4. If you are easily prone to stress, consider blocking each day out on its own sheet of paper. This way you only have to look at today.

What are your tips for dealing with stress?

3 replies on “My Secret to Keeping it Together: Dream Big, Act Small”

This is good basic advice. I suffer from a double whammy of anxiety and ADHD Inattentive type. Personally I do NOT schedule the little breaks because I tend to overindulge, but the rest of the tips you’ve given work well.

Chunking the work–breaking tasks into chunks–is the key. It’s very true that if my anxiety is flaring it’s mostly because I have set too large a chunk for myself.

The best advice I received from a tumblr friend was: address (the task) like eating an elephant. Take one bite at a time .

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