On getting little things done
Little things I'm so glad to have done. Clockwise from top left: fixing a broken picture frame, organizing
my makeup, simplifying our key ring, hanging a jewelry organizer, installing a flagpole bracket.
Does fixing a broken photo frame have anything to do with overall happiness? I'm starting to think it might, at least for me.
Little to-do list items tend to clutter in my mind. I think this is a result of being a details person and from my love of efficiency. I notice the little things as I go about my day: I see that the door out to the garage desperately needs to be wiped down as we head out for school, or the boys' books falling down on the shelf need book ends, or the stack of important papers that we need to go through to figure out what we really need to keep. And I can't stand a situation that isn't operating in an efficient way: the washcloths and cleaning rags in the linen closet need an organization system, we need a doormat at our backdoor to the boys can wipe their feet when they come in, we need to go through the boys clothes for too-small and worn out items. These are things that aren't critical to our everyday lives and so they don't have to get done. But it's also hard (impossible?) for me to let these little things go once I notice a situation I want to improve.
I know I see to-do items where others would see nothing wrong; this is definitely a difference between Chris and me! I think this is actually a strength of our marriage. He can keep me grounded and remind me not to stress over the little things – they really don't matter after all – and I can find joy in taking care of little things – because sometimes little things can make a big difference. Although I might add more things to my to-do list than some people I don't think I'm just making work for myself. When I think about it there's actually a really important goal behind my to-do list. Ultimately my goal is to create an efficient, enjoyable living environment so that I can spend my time and mental energy on what is most important to me: my family and creating.
The problem with little to-dos is that they quickly feel overwhelming because there are just so many, at least for someone like me who tends to collect them. And sometimes something that appears little is actually kind of complicated. Take the broken picture frame, for example. We have a beautiful frame made of two blocks of glass with two wedding photos inside, gifted to us by a dear friend, that had come apart. The broken frame sat in a pile of to-be-dealt-with stuff for more than a year. Every time I saw it would think, "Ugh! We really need to get a replacement frame or figure out how to fix that one." Once or twice I tried searching online for a similar frame but could find nothing. Once I tried gluing the frame with the super glue we had but it left a visible squiggle of glue plus didn't actually hold it together. And so the frame sat and sat and seemed to taunt me every time I saw it until this past summer. There were several things like this around the house.
I made little things a big priority this past summer. I knew I wanted the beginning of the school year to be a clean slate for diving into creative work and I had a sense that wiping away as many little to-dos as possible would create that sense for me. So I made a giant list of things I wanted to get done and started checking them off on the days I had childcare. In hindsight it all seems very satisfying and enjoyable but I can remember feeling daunted at the beginning. And annoyed when things didn't get done easily. Like putting up curtains in our front room. "Hang curtains in front room" is a simple enough phrase but oh the work to check it off! I researched and purchased curtain rods. I measured and put in dry wall anchors and installed the curtain rods. I had to go buy curtains (Target didn't have simple white ones with grommets so I had to trek to Ikea). I washed and ironed the curtains (no small feat!) only to hang them and see they were a couple inches too long. And so off they all came. I tried to do a simple no-sew hem on one curtain but it looked sloppy. Off to a tailor's they went to be hemmed at $16/panel. They had to be ironed again when I got them back – so many feet of ironing! – until they were finally up and remain today.
I think it was during the summer that I complained to Chris that everywhere I looked in the house I just saw things to be done. I was in a "getting things done" mode and nothing escaped my scrutiny. But week by week, task by task, things were getting checked off. I got a new compost container and transferred our compost heap. I finally figured out how to fix that broken picture frame. I found buyers for nearly all my Craigslisted items and donated the couple that remained. I ended the summer with a big ta-da list to replace my old to-do list and felt a clean slate sensation when the boys started school.
I've realized that in removing Halloween stickers from the car window, taking old batteries to a hazardous waste collection, and resizing my engagement ring (and on and on) several things happened that add up to something significant. Significant enough that I'm still thinking about it months later and even think it worthy of a blog post! In doing all these little things I exercised my getting-things-done muscles making me more comfortable with the daunting feeling of not really knowing how to start but taking baby steps anyway. With each check on my list I experienced the reinforcing positive feeling of accomplishment which motivates me to take care of new to-do items. And I replaced "ugh!" aspects of our house with zings of happiness, efficiency, and gratitude.
Although I dream about it, I doubt my to-do list will ever have zero things on it. This is just my nature: I love to improve, to get things done, and to accomplish. I actually really like that about myself! If I'm being intentional with what I'm getting done this tendency brings me a lot of happiness. Honestly I think having an empty to-do list would be an indication of an unhealthy mental state for me.
What allowed me to get so much done this summer was not working full time, not having many obligations, and having some childcare. I am very aware that this is not a realistic scenario for most people. It's not a scenario I expect to experience often, or even again, myself. I'm not sure how much childcare I might have this summer plus I'm focused on book writing. But as I reflect on the power of getting little things done I am inspiring to think about how to prevent my list of little things from piling up again, and strategies that even full time working parents could use; I'll share a follow up post when I've collected my thoughts. For now I am appreciating the little things, like our formerly broken wedding photo displayed on a shelf and curtains of the right length hanging in the front room, and the overall big impact they make to me.