By Barbara Pierce
“We are the champions, my friends. We’ll keep on fighting to the end; we are the champions of the world…”
I sing along with Queen’s classic hit as I carefully wedge another book into the cardboard box.
I’m moving. And I’m determined not to get stressed out and overwhelmed. Though I do get that feeling of anxiety in the pit of my stomach when I think of this huge task I’m doing and doing completely by myself. I’ve vowed to keep that feeling from overwhelming me.
I’m keeping my anxiety under control by breaking the job down into small parts. Into box by box.
Right now, I’m emptying my bookcase into a couple of boxes. Then I’ll do something enjoyable like reading a chapter in the latest Elizabeth George’s murder mystery. Or go for a walk, to get re-energized by being outside. Later, I’ll pack another box or two.
Now I focus on filling two boxes with books. I don’t think about all the other boxes I will need to pack up. Right now, my goal is only to box up my books.
This isn’t as unpleasant as I imagined. In fact, it’s a good feeling to watch the big black garbage bag growing full with stuff I’ll take to the Salvation Army. And the other bag, full of trash. You know how it’s supposed to go: you weed out as much as you can, to throw away or give to an organization that will recycle it.
As long as I zero in on the current box, instead of thinking about the dozens of boxes I have yet to fill, I feel OK about this. Whenever my mind starts to drift and I start to feel overwhelmed, I say to myself: “Just this box. All I’m doing is just packing this one box. It’s not a big deal.”
I’m saying this to myself because there is a big difference between packing one box and packing up a whole apartment. Packing one box is a small, easily accomplished task. Packing a whole apartment is overwhelming.
Of course, the difference is only in my mind. But what’s in my mind does matter. It matters a great deal, because it sets the stage for how I feel. If I look at the whole picture of all I have to accomplish, I’d be completely overwhelmed from the start, thinking I’m doing a huge, exhausting job. If I tell myself I’ve only got only these one or two boxes to fill with books, that feels manageable.
“One can change things by the manner in which one looks at them.” I’m a firm believer in this quote from author Tom Robbins. We do create real emotional pain for ourselves with our thoughts.
Experts advise us to break a big job down to 15-minute increments. They advise us to focus on small steps; accomplish small, manageable steps at a time. When you look at small, individual steps, the larger task doesn’t seem as intimidating.
Another fact of life is that work expands to fit the time allotted to it. For example, if you give yourself an hour to get a certain task done, it will usually take you an hour to do it.
When you work in small increments of time, you will work more effectively as you race against a deadline. You can stay focused for 15 minutes.
You can accomplish more than you imagine during a 15-minute time span. We tend to under estimate how much we can get done in a short burst of time. I’ve found it does take me about that long to pack up one box.
If 15 minutes feels like too much for the task you are doing, shorten the time period for whatever works best for you and this task.
Experts also suggest delegating any aspects of the task that you can delegate. That will also free your time to focus on what you do best. Going through my stuff with the goal of discarding as much of it as possible is something I have to do myself. However, I do intend to delegate the task of carrying boxes into the truck and into my new apartment to my grandkids.
Now I’m singing along: “Lay, lady, lay. Lay across my big brass bed.” I love Bob Dylan — the words and music energize me as I sort through stuff in my desk.
I’ll continue this process, sorting through all the stuff I’ve collected, loading it into boxes and bags, one box at a time, until I get to the end. I’m not having a bad time at all. The expected overwhelming exhaustion, which could so easily have been a part of this process, should never arrive.
Barbara Pierce is a retired licensed clinical social worker with many years of experience helping people. If you would like to purchase a copy of her book, “When You Come to the Edge: Aging” or if you have questions for her, contact her at email@example.com.