Baby Steps to Not Drowning

My mom loves to use the following piece of advice:

“How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.”

There’s a few variations on this point with different metaphors. One I’ve also heard is:

“Even the longest journey starts with a single step.”

My therapist said something to me the other day that I know I knew this logically to be true before. In fact, if you’d phrased it like a true/false question, I would of course said it was true. But I either used to have a grasp of it and forgot it or I never really truly understood it before. She said:

“Even baby steps count towards your destination.”

I don’t know why that resonated with me more than the two formers sayings, but something clicked. You see, I get depressed sometimes. And one thing that really cuts my psyche to the core the most is feeling like I’m so far behind on my to do list that I’ll never catch up. I’ve never had interest-accruing financial debt, but I imagine that I would feel as nervous/agitated about that as I do with interest-accruing time debt. I feel like every day I need to complete x amount of tasks. At least I need to have an average of x. Some days I don’t get anything done, because I’m working an all day gig or on vacation (rare) or hanging with friends or something. Regardless, when my average drops I get depressed. I feel claustrophobic. I feel like a failure. I have things I want to do and when I’m not doing anything to accomplish those goals and I’m also not doing enough to take care of my day to day then I get really depressed.

What’s the cure for this? Get stuff done. Start crossing things off. How do I do this?

That’s the rub. Sometimes (rarely now a days) I get a burst of focus and drive and I jump into a task for upwards of 2 or more hours. This zone that I can occasionally jump into is like the Speed Force that the Flash taps into. But unlike the Flash I feel like I can’t tap into it at will. Rather it’s like I’m running around chasing storm clouds with a lightning rod in hand. Maybe I’ll get struck, but it’s less my choice and more a happenstance of mother nature that I can assert a very slight amount of influence.

Tonight, I got into that zone. I had 1147 emails in the inbox of my primary email account as of 11:45PM Friday night. Now, it’s 3:30AM and that same inbox has only 227 emails in it. It feels indescribably good that I finally took a chunk out of that massive elephant. I understand that not everyone feels the same way about their inbox. Some people have a cluttered inbox and never put forth the effort or in many cases even think of the need to unclutter it. And I don’t judge them. I kinda envy them. But that’s not how I operate. I hesitate to use the figurative term ‘OCD,’ because I understand the severity to which true sufferers feel that syndrome, but I will say that I highly prefer cleanliness with my communications and tasks. Is that a mild form of OCD? I do not know, but it’s debilitating whatever it’s called.

I feel like tasks represent gallons of water. And x number only brings the water up to my knees. That’s what I’d like to keep it at. But y number of tasks bring it up to my rib cage. It’s not the worst, but it’s not great. Well, most of my adult life (at least 75% of it) I feel like the water has been over my head or at least right above my eyes. I get panic attacks sometimes because it feels like in a way I’m drowning in stress.

I have a pattern I’ve noticed. I wish I had taken care to document all the times I got the energy/willingness to go in and clean up my to do list. It’s happened a number of times. But even after these bouts of productivity, I can say that there are several items that have never been crossed off. Finish the rough draft of a novel is one of those. I started my first novel in 2003. Since then I’ve started four more. Never finished a one. I know it’s difficult and I’m by no means the only living person who wishes they had already finished their novel, but it bothers me. When I was in high school I never had these things. When I wanted to do something (like make a really bad home movie with my friends for a social studies project in 6th grade) I did it. I didn’t get nervous about how much work it would take. I just did it. I was fearless less because I looked at fear and outstared it, but more because I didn’t even see the fear so I never had to summon any courage.

I want to get back to that. I want to see my life through the eyes of my younger naiver self. I don’t want to think about the potential implications of failing to finish a project or worse yet finishing a project and realizing it’s a failure. Because logically that’s the best thing to do.

I have failed to do so many things because of fear. And let’s say hypothetically I would have done these things in my past and they turned out to suck. So, what? I’d much rather look at a finished piece of crap than an unfinished unknown for years and years.

It’s my hope that whatever happened to me tonight to get me into the workhorse mindset will visit me more often. If it was something I did then I want to repeat it. One thing I noticed was what I said to myself. I was awake at my computer. CJ had just gone to bed. And I said to myself, “Let’s take ten minutes and try to cut the inbox down by 100 emails.” And I reluctantly agreed to my own suggestion. “Fine,” I thought. “I’ll take ten minutes, but I won’t like it.”

Then what happened? About ten minutes later I realized that I had cut out nearly 300 emails. And I got excited. I was better than my projection. So, it became a game. With the next ten minutes how many could I get rid of? The second go round I only eliminated another 120. But the average was still pretty good. 420 emails in twenty minutes seemed pretty good. And who cares if it’s a ‘good’ pace or not. I know that one day I’m going to take the time to clean this thing out. Why not spend more time on it now?

So, I kept at it. And after a while I got the equivalent of a runner’s high (I was also medicated from some California herb which I know helped me focus) and just kept going. And then I realized that I wanted to make a graph of my workouts for the past twelve months. Why? Cause I’m a nerd and analyzing the data is the only way to learn from it.

So, I made a deal with myself. Ten minutes would be spent on emails and ten minutes would be spent on graphs. Well, I didn’t actually time myself. Instead I just did one until I felt I was losing steam and would switch to the other thing. Simply changing tasks reenergized me every time. After I finished the graphs I checked the number of emails and I was down to 506. I’d cut down my inbox by more than half. I decided to post it on FB as a way of making it feel like an official milestone. Social media helps me often with accountability.

At that point I was gonna go to bed, but I got a second wind and decided to keep going until I was absolutely done. I stopped with 227 emails in the inbox. I filed/read/deleted 920 emails. I feel damn good about that.

My hope is that I can 1. Not feel so afraid and overwhelmed by doing stuff like this in the future 2. Keep up with my inboxes and other daily tasks well enough to prevent them from piling up so high again and 3. Not beat myself up if that number goes back up before it goes further down.

I’m 33 and I’m sick of feeling like I’m drowning all the time. I make it a goal of mine to be the kind of taskmaster I was as an adolescent again now as an adult.

Thanks, y’all!

Rich

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