The Stabilizing Power of Small, Completable Tasks

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When I was in high school, the school-provided agenda books had little sayings and “study tips” along the pages where we would write our assignments.  One of them suggested that you rank your to-do list from largest task to smallest task.  Then, the suggestion read, start with the largest, most important task instead of getting distracted by the small tasks.  I’ve remembered that suggestion because it’s actually the opposite of what usually works for me… it was then, and it is now.  I feel much better if I get a few little tasks out of the way, then have the time and space to focus on the “main” task.  (Ironically, it’s what I’m doing right now–writing this blog post before getting back to work on my ideas for a book).

Even though this post isn’t actually about prioritizing tasks, I share that story because I know the agenda book’s years-old suggestion might work for some people, even if it doesn’t work for me… and, in the same way, the topic of this post may or may not be helpful to you.  So, take it how you will.  Mainly, this post is about something that helps me when I’m overwhelmed or feeling anxious: to do something simple I know I can do well and that I can start and finish within a short amount of time.

Sometimes, these small tasks are something already on my to-do list.  For me, it’s usually best if what I do is unrelated to whatever the main source of my anxiety happens to be.  So, the task could be anything from washing the dishes, to sorting the mail, to exercising (even if it’s just going on a walk or stretching for 15-20 minutes).  It helps if it’s something that makes me move or use my hands, but the key is I can start the task and have the satisfaction of seeing it through to completion.  If I can literally “see” the completion (like the dishes being washed), it’s even better.

My favorite small, completable tasks, however, are ones that aren’t on my to-do list.  I think these types of tasks especially help because they make me feel a certain sense of freedom from the other pressures I’m feeling.  These tasks usually involve putting something together (again, so I can see the completion).  For the past few years, for me, my “go-to” task has been baking.  I usually have enough ingredients on hand to make something, and it’s both comforting and therapeutic to put into motion the fairly quick transformation from a bunch of otherwise boring and unappetizing-by-themselves ingredients into something edible and hopefully tasty.  (Of course, this baking can be self-defeating if I feel like stress-eating… but if I manage to dodge that temptation, I take most of what I make to a neighbor or into work or just somewhere else where other people can enjoy it.  That way, in addition to doing something satisfying, I’ve also made a connection).

Hopefully, you’ve noticed a few themes in these brief descriptions.  These tasks I’m talking about are satisfying because I can see them through to completion.  They are also affirming because I know I can do them and do them relatively well.  Those characteristics are important because they stand in contrast to those anxious periods when I perceive life’s pressures as unending while at the same time percieving my own abilities as unable to meet the expectations those pressures present.  Engaging in a task like I’m talking about doesn’t change the nature of my life or of my own abilities, but it does help to change my perception of them.  At the same time, it frees me a bit from their anxiety-inflicting power.

As I said before… this idea may help you, and it may not.  It certainly doesn’t always help me, and at times it’s more helpful and other times not as much.  But it’s an idea, and I hope just considering it helps you to reflect on what is helpful to you.

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