A favorite adage of my grandfather was- “inch by inch, life’s a cinch, yard by yard, life is hard”. He was filled with pearls of folksy wisdom that only make more sense to me with experience.
I shared an article recently with my students about "how top performers practice" which discussed taking things in small manageable tasks. The goal is necessary, but only part of the equation. An equally essential component was, "They are able to break down the process of meeting the goal into tiny, bite-sized pieces and then take pleasure in completing each part". Tasking out what’s manageable. One thing. If you can get one thing off the 'To Do' list it can lead to getting the ball rolling.
Breaking things down into small manageable bits - "inch by inch, life's a cinch..."
Even if you cannot see every step of the progression- you likely cannot, but remember you don’t need to, and instead... just need to do this one thing. Doing just one task fully allows for the next step to emerge that needs doing. When we're too focused on the goal (endgaining), we are not engaged fully with this one inch, or the next inch, or the next moment, which leads forward.
A while back I learned about to “The Pomodoro Method" which is designed to help with productivity. It’s basically a timer, 25 min on/ 5 min break. And then a longer break (15 min) after the 4th 'pomodoro'. It’s named from the adorable Italian kitchen timers that look like little tomatoes. You can use whatever you like (there are apps, and timers galore online), but the outside reminder is what is helpful.
I have been using it recently whenever I find myself overwhelmed with work, and not knowing how to begin, simply to begin. I can start the timer and begin knowing that in a few minutes I can stop if needed. In fact, the reward of the little break is two-fold. It is easier to sit down and work for 25 min than it is to say “oh I have to get THAT LOOMING PROJECT going". A byproduct of this productivity system seems to be it can also help with procrastination. People procrastinate for many reasons, but a common one, especially when working on a large project is "I don't even know how to begin"... with this you don't need to you know how, just start with the first inch. Start with one thing and do it until the timer goes off. When i first started this the main thing I realized is that I never really wanted the first break, because by then if felt like I was on a roll.
And secondly, when it comes to a sedentary task- like writing- you risk becoming fixed or immobile for stretches of time. The timer reminds you to connect to your whole self again. In those 5 minutes- it is the perfect time to shift your perspective, ‘change your mind’. I will often stand up, or go get some water, or check my phone which I’ve left across the room, look out the window for a moment, pet the cat, return an email... whatever. And after those 5 I’m ‘ready’ to get back to the task at hand. I haven’t lost focused, or lost my train of thought, or my place or any of that, and I’ve interrupted the effort that comes with long term focus.
Or with something more demanding, like gardening, or playing the violin it can remind you to check in with any holding, strain or effort that may be creeping in. Here, it may be useful to take 5 minutes lying on the floor in Constructive Rest, giving yourself the opportunity to interrupt the habit, let go of what isn't helping and refresh your focus. We can deceive ourselves into thinking that we 'just have to get it done' and 'push through to finish' - but have you ever ignored the feedback from your body until your back was aching and your legs were asleep? I know I have, and what I'm finding is I'm able to get it done more easily if I'm not fighting against that.
My friend who is a middle school math teacher in NYC told me that she introduced this method to her students, both in the classroom and to encourage them with homework and the response was overwhelming. They loved it. Of course, being Brooklyn, more than a few new of it already, but the best news was, it seemed to be a simple, effective, practice even for kids to help focus their learning and encourage self-motivation on their own. On the break, kids can stand and stretch, do jumping jacks in the back of the room, take a quick water break, or chat quietly with a friend. They then return to work quietly and more focused during the 'on' times having had a moment for themselves. Who wouldn't? It's a tiny reward for focused work which leads to yet more focused work.
It mIght be worth trying out. If you're having a hard time getting started, or if you've got a huge 'To Do' list, or even if you don't but just a have unstructured time and feel like you can't get anything done. 25 min on/ 5 off. Toggle between focus and unfocused, inch by inch, you might just begin to feel like 'life's a cinch'.