This post originally appeared in a slightly different form a little over three years ago, on the old blog page. I reworked and updated it – looking forward to hearing from some new readers in the comments!
I have a little story to start us out here today – stay with me…
Imagine going to a picnic this 4th of July weekend. Your friends have put out quite the spread, you’re starving, and you know you’re good at eating. The only issue is, you like LOTS of things. So you pick up a large paper plate and start heaping it with all your favorites: potato salad, watermelon, chips, corn on the cob, coleslaw, pasta salad, and oh, wait… there’s a little more room on the side to squeeze some cornbread muffins in before you top it all off with a hot dog and some ribs. And hey, there’s some key lime pie too! Why wait until later to go back? Just add it on right there next to the fried green tomatoes.
You take your “full plate” to a table, settle in with your napkin, and maybe a glass of tea. You resolve to eat the whole thing in one bite. You’re supposed to clean the plate, right? Not waste anything, be efficient? Show your hosts that you enjoy and appreciate what they offer?
Your mouth is not quite up to the task of inhaling it all (much as you would like), so you examine your plate from all angles and try picking everything up with your fork. Quickly ascertaining that a fork is a totally lame tool for the task, you think perhaps acquiring a small shovel would do the trick. With the wonders of same-day delivery, a small shovel is procured (at a cost, because it is a holiday weekend after all), and yet still you can’t figure out how to cram everything down. Maybe you could start with a whole muffin or a handful of chips, but then what about the rest?
All the other guests seem to be managing their plates well enough. Some seem to be already headed over to the fireworks (how’d they choke it down so fast??), although admittedly, you haven’t been watching closely. You’re pretty preoccupied with the task before you. Maybe getting a friend to help would work.
You glance around. Hey, there’s Bob. Over here, Bob!
Bob is happy to assist, but it still all won’t fit even with his own small shovel. He could just eat everything for you, but he confesses it would have to be one bite at a time (slacker), and since he’s a vegetarian, he’ll have to skip the dog and the ribs (his plate of choices looks very different from yours). Mission still not accomplished – you will not be able to eat this meal in one bite. Even if you broke it down, where should you start? You need to finish it all! ! No one can help, and it’s all your fault for even coming to this stupid picnic in the first place.
Disgusted, discouraged, and still starving, you push the plate away and say, “forget it.” If you can’t eat everything, you won’t eat anything. It’s all or nothing.
Of course, the story is ridiculous, but isn’t this kind of what we try to do sometimes with our tasks, responsibilities, and stuff? Every time I hear someone say, “I have so much on my plate!” I brace myself for what tends to follow – a recounting of all of the things that need to get done but are impossible to get done because they all have to get done. If you choose to start one thing, then you can’t do the other 14 things – and what about those?!
And what about organizing a space? If you start on the file drawer or the top of the desk, you turn around and there’s the pile of books and collectibles that never got arranged on the shelves, and also there’s shredding to be taken out, and…and…and… so you just give up and shut down the whole situation. What’s the point?
The point is, by entertaining an all-or-nothing philosophy, staying stuck is pretty certain. I sometimes call this Putting It Off By Piling It On Procrastination (P Cubed), and it’s an excellent way to starve your productivity. If you mentally scurry from task to task or room to room attempting to somehow figure out a way that it will all magically happen and put you out of your misery, you’re doing the exact thing that you so desperately don’t want to do (which is nothing).
So what are some other ways to look at that picnic plate? Well, there’s the obvious idea of eating it a little at a time. I know that method requires patience and diligence (and those are such boring concepts). But what have you got to lose? You’re less hungry, and there’s less on the plate. It’s a step in the right direction. What are some other alternatives?
Here are a few:
- try several large bites on the front end, then take a little break to digest it before a few more (do the big priorities, but pace yourself);
- take some of the food back (maybe you didn’t need that obligation in the first place);
- or give it to someone else who’s hungry (delegation – learning a lesson from friend Bob);
- mix it up a little to keep it interesting – a bite of veggies, then a cookie, then fried chicken (break some rules by bouncing around your spaces a bit);
- wrap most of it up and take it home for later (do the minimum until you can finish at a better time or place); and of course
- you could (gasp) trash some of it – maybe the coleslaw that seems like it’s been left out just a little too long (irrelevant or stale tasks)?
There are options for the way we go about tackling “all the things”, if we can open up to them. Will you choose something, or go home empty?