A mess of jigsaw puzzle pieces

How to get things done when you’re struggling: start with the easy parts

This isn’t the blog post I thought I was going to write today.

I have a whole thing started about asexuality and the simultaneous prevalence and absence of sex in Western society that I though I was going to finish. But when I woke up this morning, I knew it was going to be one of those days: my gut hurt (something bad I ate yesterday? Or just my old friend, referred stress?), and I had a long list of things I needed to get done hanging Damocles-style over my head.

I didn’t even want to get out of bed, let alone write something pithy and thought-provoking about how our society treats sex.

Do the hardest job first?

The strategy I grew up with for dealing with a long to-do list was: get the hard stuff out of the way first.

Tackle the hardest thing on your list, and after that the rest will be easy! Go on, eat that frog! It just makes sense… right?

It’s still a mindset I struggle to shake off, which is why I spent the first two hours of my day mooching around the house, vaguely trying to think writerly thoughts and mostly just feeling ill and useless. I picked up my knitting and put it down. I read a few emails without replying to them. I did the kind of small busywork that lets me pretend I have some kind of plan while doing exactly nothing to address what actually needed doing.

Why did that happen? Because I couldn’t find the energy or willpower to sit down and do the hard thing, but I was so focused on needing to do it (and feeling bad about not doing it) that I couldn’t focus on doing anything else either. So instead I was getting nothing done at all, while feeling worse and worse about it – and less and less able to start.

Maybe there are people in the world for whom “do the hardest thing first” is a great plan, rather than a recipe for disaster. I’m not one of them. If you’re not either, maybe you’ll like my alternative better.

Start with the easy stuff

Here’s the strategy I discovered later in life, and took to like a duck to a very messy pond: do the easy tasks first. To hell with the hard stuff.

It may seem counter-intuitive, but it’s secretly brilliant.

When I’m struggling with a to-do list (whether that’s a physical list or just in my head), half the fight is against the feeling of being overwhelmed, buried under to-do and not-done. A long list is a frightening list, even if the individual things on that list are mostly simple.

Tackling the easy jobs achieves so many good things: it shortens the list; it gets me moving and clears my head; it often creates a visible improvement in my surroundings to lift my mood; and it reminds me that I’m not useless – that I actually can achieve things.

In short: doing the easy things first makes doing the hard things easier.

Starting small, feeling good

Having gotten my brain in gear this morning, I finally managed to stop mooching around and did the following: I had a shower. I got dressed. I emptied the dishwasher. I loaded and ran the dishwasher. I cleaned the kitchen.

All of that took about an hour. By the end I was still feeling ill, but my mental to-do list was down to just two or three items, my urge to seek distractions and zone out was well reduced, and I had a clean, dish-free kitchen to look out over and feel good: I did that!

And as an added bonus, I had an idea for blog post that would let me put off a tricky subject for a day when I won’t be distracted by deadlines and stomach aches. 😉 But even if I had been required to stick to my original topic, I would have been able to approach it from a much more positive headspace.

So give yourself permission to start with the easy stuff – it’s a great way to practise some self-care while still doing what you gotta do.

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2 Replies to “How to get things done when you’re struggling: start with the easy parts”

  1. I love it and it’s soo true. A few small, easy wins puts me in a better place to attempt the hard stuff. I still may not be able to do that impossible task – but it won’t cause me to write-off a day due to all the guff and paralyzing brain weasels.

    1. Yes! I don’t know who these people are who can just get straight into the hard stuff every day, but their brains are clearly not my brain.

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