Dear ones –
The writer Anne Lamott has a book called Bird by Bird. It’s about writing, about doing a school project on bird taxonomy and the answer to “How am I going to do this whole project?!” being “Bird by bird, son. Bird by bird.” It’s about doing one thing at a time, but doing something when it’s hard to do anything.
There is one place in my life where this comes up most often.
Hm… I guess that’s more than one thing. But they all have something in common.
They all involve looking at a complex visual field.
And have you noticed how when you’re getting ready to move and you start putting things in piles for Goodwill-food bank-Friends of the Library that the visual field gets more and more complicated?
Yeah, so. Complex visual fields. For example, just this week, while I was going through some boxes of things from my grandmother and great-grandmother, precious things, things I treasure, I needed to make piles, or at least gather some things together.
Like with like, or so I’ve been told by people who know how to do these things.
Then I looked at the Piles. (They had grown a capital “P.”)
All I could see was a giant knot of Things. Piles and Piles of Things. All together laughing at me. (It was from Madeleine L’Engle that I first learned about “the animosity of inanimate objects, though I think she was quoting someone else.) They laugh, I swear they do.
It’s been this way all my life. Trying to organize bookshelves. Trying to clean my room–my mother could never understand why it could take me all day, or longer, to clean my room. She also didn’t know how it was possible for a tween to move so slowly through a seemingly easy task like emptying the dishwasher. For me, though, the dishwasher emptying was not only boring AF, but it involved discerning what to do with what when, and it was physically painful to stand there and figure it out.
So back to our Piles. I sat there, looking at my desk, now covered by The Things to be Organized and Packed.
I threw in the towel:
“Honey!” I called out desperately to my wife. “Honey! Help! I’m stuck!”
“Pick up one thing!” she called back.
But which thing, I wondered. Which thing?
And then I remembered the rest of this lesson she’s so patiently taught me over and over and over again, year after year: It doesn’t matter what the Thing in the Pile is. Just pick one.
Pick one Thing and focus on that one Thing. What does it need? Where should it go? (But I can’t ask too many questions, or I’ll get stuck in Piles of Questions instead of Piles of Things!)
For now, let’s say I picked up the Ziplock bag of lipstick. (Don’t judge!) I’d already gathered all the lipsticks together. (Go, team me!) Now they just needed to do something to get them off my desk.
A brilliant thought: They need to go into a box! And if I have my bearings right, all these other Ziplock bags of makeup (I said, don’t judge!) could go into that box. Like with like! Yessiree, now we’re cooking with gas.
So I put my makeup into a box, taped it up, labeled it with location and contents, and was set for the moment.
As you can imagine, there are plenty more Things in Piles on my desk, but I conquered one set, at least.
And I conquered it by choosing One Thing. It didn’t matter which thing or what kind of thing (though choosing something that was already packaged with like objects was a stroke of genius on my part, I have to say!); I just needed to choose One Thing.
I’ve lost some of you, I know. Some of you are thinking, yeah, no kidding, smartypants, that’s how you do it.
But understand this: Not everyone knows how to do it.
When I was 39 years old. Yes, thirty-nine, I watched my four-year-old nephew put away his toys. His mother had asked him to clear a space in the living room by putting away his toys. I watched with stunned fascination as my nephew picked up one toy off the floor, walked over to his bins, chose a bin, and put the toy into it. Then he walked back, chose another toy, went to a bin, and put the toy in there.
Then, he cleaned up his LEGOS!
Understand, Dear Reader, (and thanks, if you’ve read this far), that I could not IMAGINE being able to do that task with equanimity at the age of 39, much less at 4. I just couldn’t.
I need help when it comes to organizing, cleaning, and Goddess knows, with packing to move.
I need help.
Sometimes that help is just the reminder, “Choose One Thing,” and then the rest falls into place. I might get stuck again and need to be reminded again, “It doesn’t matter what it is, honey, just Choose One Thing.”
Why have I told you this story?
In part, because it’s what I’m up to. (There’s a lot of Choosing One Thing going on at our house right now.) And part of what my writing is about is sharing lessons I’m learning from everyday life.
But I’m also sharing it for two sets of you:
One, I’m sharing it for those of you to whom all this stuff is second nature, and who probably don’t understand why it’s so damn hard for your person–of whatever significant relationship–to just pick up their damn stuff! Trust me, just trust me, it’s hard.
Your person may not have, as I do have, a diagnosis of Attention Deficit Disorder, or they might. They may just struggle and feel stupid, lazy, or crazy because of it. Chances are, they feel really bad about it one way or another. And as much as it probably makes you feel crazy, try to be gentle with us?
Two, I’m sharing it for those of you who, like me, need a sign on our desk that says, “Choose One Thing.” We need reminders. We need help. Sometimes the sign will be enough. Sometimes we have to ask someone else what to do, and sometimes we need a “body double” to help us through a task, just someone to hang out while we do the choosing and the homing and the packing.
And finally, I want to add that Choosing One Thing can apply when it comes to life things like an appointment you don’t want to make, a conversation you don’t want to have, or a task you don’t want to do.
Just choose the first Thing. The first Thing that needs to happen. As my friend and coach, Steve Mattus, said in his love missive of this past week, if you have a hard phone call to make, just pick up the phone or look up the number. Remind yourself you don’t have to do the next Thing unless you choose to. If you do the First Thing, it’s a win.
You can do Choose One Thing. You can. No matter how overwhelming the whole Pile it is, you can Choose One Thing!
All the blessings, and good luck!