Taking one step at a time

Don’t be overwhelmed by the size of the monster you are facing. If it looks ginormous, try to start by looking at its feet only. And if you ever get so cornered that the monster ends up eating you, remember that you can always tickle it from inside its belly.

That’s one of the sweetest advice I have received. It came from my fiancé when comforting me during one of those stress periods.

This post is about making the whole organizational process a means to help us deal with things one step at a time. (This extends on one of the ideas presented in my previous Time Management post.)

Everything, from taking the first steps in the Ph.D. to preparing the dissertation has a process to follow.  All the efforts toward finding appropriate organizational gadgets, apps and mechanisms have one important goal behind: relief us from stress and help us take even the most difficult task one step at a time. It is of course important to look at the whole picture, to be aware of our final destination; however, we do not get to that place on one jump. There are many small steps that we will have to take, and of course, these steps will take us through many milestones. So, why don’t we design a plan to reach for those milestones, one by one, instead of only worrying about how the final picture will look like?

Going back to the “monster advice”,  by looking first at its feet, we focus on something that is within our reach. That does not mean it will be easy; however it will not seem as overwhelming as trying to tackle this gigantic creature from head to toe (assuming every monster has a head and toes). That being said, there is the possibility that we won’t succeed at the first attempt. Nevertheless, we can certainly learn from the positive and negative outcomes.  From the negative, we would know which direction not to go, thus narrowing down our forthcoming options. From the positive outcomes, we can definitely use the feeling of accomplishment that success brings to keep us pushing further and keep working.

Personally, having these clear intermediate milestones has helped me to relieve much of the anxiety of not knowing.  Oftentimes, when starting to work on a new project, I feel like I am entering an entirely dark room, as intimidating as this sounds. However, as I take the small steps, it feels like I am finding switches to lights that lead the way toward more switches and I finally get the feeling that the room will eventually light up completely.  Then I realize that it was not so scary after all.

Now, we can certainly find an organizational process that is “small step” friendly.

I previously mentioned how my calendar was useful to schedule all my activities and keep track of my day-by-day productivity, but my tasks don’t go to the calendar just randomly. Before turning my calendar into a rainbow of color-coded activities, I start by breaking down my projects and assignments into subtasks and sub-subtasks and then assign them the priority that will lead them to a particular day in my calendar. In this process, my notebook and my whiteboard keep being my faithful companions. I use them to sketch, draw and jot down all the process I want to follow to reach particular goals. Since there will be times when I don’t have them at hand, I use an online project management tool (e.g., asana) to create a project and add the sub-tasks and deadlines. In this way I have a back up and I can access my projects while using my computer or through the app on my phone. (The backing-up step is for ubiquity and fear-of-losing-my-notebook purposes. It is not the core of the process).

Summing up, taking smalls steps can be useful for relieving anxiety, providing feedback for improving our current practices and using the feeling of accomplishment as a reward and motivation for what comes next. I am positive that this can be applied to almost any project we embark on, from the Ph.D. process to entering in a fitness regime. I think that what is key here is that we do not lose the perspective of where we want these small steps to take us, and most importantly, that we do not forget to enjoy each one of them.


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