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Overwhelmed? Do 5 Things.

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At this time of year, feeling out-of-control busy is the status quo for just about everyone I talk to. The piles get bigger and the lists get longer. To quote Steve Martin in the movie Parenthood, “My whole life is have to.”

So I thought I’d share a little trick I use to ease that feeling that there’s just too much and I’ll never get to it all and I just want to crawl in bed and never come out again.

I call it Do 5 Things.

When I start to feel paralyzed by all the the crap I need to do, the crap that I’ve neglected, and the crap I never should have said yes to in the first place, I tell myself to just do five things, five really easy things, and that’s it. I don’t have to tackle the whole of it — just do five things that will make a tiny dent, then stop. Knowing I only have to do a little bit calms me down, because I’m giving myself permission to do almost nothing. I’m basically telling myself, You want to stay on the couch and watch House Hunters and hope it will all go away? Great. Do that. But before you do, just take care of five small things.

Here’s a quick illustration. Last night, the counter to the right of my kitchen sink looked like this:

 

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This particular counter is a pretty good barometer of my state of mind. If it’s clear, things are great. If it looks like this, I’m starting to fall apart. I have been avoiding this counter for weeks. That leopard water bottle? It has literally been in that exact spot for almost a month. It was left behind after my daughter’s soccer game and we never figured out who it belonged to, so it just sits there. I don’t know what it’s waiting for. And see that rubber band hanging out of the little wooden drawer? I could tuck it in and close the drawer properly, but it’s too much effort.

It’s funny, because looking at it now, I can’t imagine what’s so hard. I know where most of that stuff goes, but that’s the thing about being overwhelmed: It makes you stupid. When I get in this paralyzed state, I can’t think straight. I look at tasks that in theory are pretty easy, and I just can’t. I can’t do it. Any of it.

Okay, so I attacked that counter with my “Do 5 Things” technique. Now the key with this strategy is that the five things have to be very, very small. Take that fruit, for example. I buy it, then ideally, I wash it and put the clean fruit in a basket for eating. But “wash fruit” cannot be one of the five things, because “wash fruit” actually involves taking it out of the bags, peeling off all the stickers, washing it, drying it, and putting it over in the basket. That’s too many steps for an overwhelmed person. Which is why some weeks, the fruit just sits there in bags, slowly molding in its own sweaty condensation. In “Do 5 Things” mode, taking the fruit out of the bags counts as just one thing.

So here are the five things I did:

(1) Put the dry erase marker in the drawer (which is just under this counter…I wasn’t kidding when I said think small).

(2) Recycled the UNICEF letter.

(3) Put the UNICEF boxes all together in one of the wine cubbies so they’d be ready for Halloween night (three of these came home from school today).

(4) Took the new scissors out of the package and put them into that same drawer.

(5) Took the fruit out of the bags.

Voila. Better already, see?

 

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What’s that? You say it looks like more than five things have been taken away? Yes, indeedy, since I was already on a roll, I also (6) Put the coffee cup in the dishwasher, and (7) Put the leopard bottle in the Goodwill pile. (I don’t like that metallic taste.)

See, this is where the real magic of Do 5 Things reveals itself. By the time you get to item number 5, you’re already on a roll. Almost every time I use it, I end up doing more than five things. Sometimes way more. Gladly. Because breaking that inertia is all I really need. The small bits of progress motivate me to keep going. And this time was no different. I put away the three barrettes, the sunglasses, the Skylander cards. The more I did, the faster I moved. And within 15 minutes, it was all done, with nothing left but a pair of reading glasses and an envelope full of coupons I’ll probably never use:

 

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This strategy works with just about anything. If your email inbox is packed, just tell yourself you’re going to delete five emails. If you have 120 essays to grade, do five of them. If you have a presentation to give and you haven’t even started, just open up a new PowerPoint and make five really rough slides.

In some cases, you’ll only get the five things done and find you still want that couch. That’s fine. You should never use Do 5 Things with the intention of making yourself do more. You have to be nonchalant about it, otherwise your overwhelmed self will get suspicious. Maybe after an hour of couch time, you’ll be ready for five more things. Put enough little dents in a big block of marble, sooner or later you’ll have something that looks like a sculpture.

The rest of my kitchen is still kind of a train wreck, but that counter is now a thing of beauty. And sometimes two square feet of open space is all we need to start feeling a little more in control. ♥

 

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37 Comments

  1. MargieW says:

    I know this post is several months old, but I just discovered it and wanted to say a big thank you. “Just do 5 things” is an even simpler variation of something I’ve been trying and, goodness knows, I need all the tricks I can find to make dents in things that need doing. This will be a big help. Thanks again.

    • I’m glad to hear it! Sometimes I’ve thought I need to write a follow-up post called “Really really overwhelmed? Do ONE thing.” Because some days are like that.

      • Rhonda Braddy says:

        This article changed my weather from gloomy & cloudy to sunny. I totally needed some inspiration.

  2. This is great. Both your honesty and your advice are very encouraging to all of us out here who get overwhelmed. Thank you for sharing.

  3. Birgit Laser says:

    Dear Jennifer,
    thanks for this wonderful post (and for publishing somewhat “embarrassing” photos of a kitchen counter that could well be mine)! This is really helpful. Lately, I’ve realized that every time I do a tiny thing that I’ve been postponing for too long, that makes me feel especially well. I’ll start with your “do 5 things” right away. Keep up the good work!

    • Hey Birgit! I hope it helps! I had to use it just yesterday to dig out of my desk. Works every time. Thanks for taking the time to comment. 🙂

  4. shelby says:

    If we take care of everyday things at work, we’re good to put them off! This needs to be taken care ofNOW! And.like a minute later, the daily announcment that gripes about “What does he is desk say about you?!”. In other words, do the real work on our own time and out our fires during their time.
    At home, it’ just a matter of getting started. I have ADD and struggle to stay on task and motivated. If I actually clean house, someone has to make comments about how sloppy it is. Okay, point taken makes me never want to have company. It is so oooooooo hard to be motivated.

  5. shelby says:

    Sorry for typos!

  6. Oh! I thought I was the only disorganised teacher ever in the world…as I scrolled down I saw how it matched to my life perfectly..the fruit bags..you know. Now, at least I know I’m not the only one. Plus I got a perfect way to avoid it. Thank you very much!

  7. Tracey McCartney says:

    Thank you so much for this post! Now that I’m on holiday break, I have been reflecting and just today was wondering why the simplest act seems insurmountable when I’m working. Thanks for the just do 5 idea, & timely tips you give. They’re a lifeline! 🙂

  8. Patty says:

    The funny thing is that I am reading this in bed while avoiding my to do list! OK, here I go, number one is Get Out of Bed!

    • Mel says:

      🙂 this makes me smile cos I’m currently sitting on my bed doing exactly the same thing

  9. Tabitha says:

    Thank you for being so honest! I am totally overwhelmed right now and needed your encouragement.

  10. Amy Pento says:

    My number is 7. 🙂

  11. Love this idea! The big picture can be overwhelming but small sections are doable. When I wrote my dissertation I started using the pomodroido app for this same kind of thing. The idea of researching or writing for hours wad overwhelming, but with the app I worked for 25 minutes and then got a break. Quite often I would work through two or three breaks because I was on a roll.

    • Lisa says:

      I did the same thing with my dissertation and often had a similar experience of working through the breaks. I was skeptical that it would work but it really did! I still use the pomodoro.

  12. Kristen O. says:

    Omg, that photo of your counter looks like it was taken at my house! That is one of my ceaseless battles, and since it’s 3 against 1, my family’s odds and ends always end up taking over my freshly cleaned kitchen counter. I love the idea of miniature to-do lists. I make long lists and then easily feel overwhelmed. I’m tweaking this strategy a bit to balance home and school, so I’m breaking my 5 things down as: grade one assignment, prep one lesson, do one load of laundry, clean one thing in the house, and do one thing for myself only. Teacher moms tend to list themselves at the bottom of the to-do list (if we even make it on), so I’m committing to being selfish once a day – even if it’s for only 5 minutes. Thanks for this post – I know I’m late to the game in commenting, but it was really inspiring!

    • Kaitlyn says:

      I know this is a late response but I like to label one list “Brain Dump” where I write everything that’s in there and then from there make an actual to do list. Helps me to not forget all of the things but reduces the anxiety of what actually needs to get done.

  13. Anne LK says:

    I try to say to myself “why not now?” every time I say oh I’ll do that later. Also “all the way” for when I do something part way (like leaving something at the top of the stairs that needs to go down) It helps me not let as many things build up. But I still have that kitchen counter 😂

  14. Donna says:

    Thank you for this. When I am reading about everything you and others are doing in your classroom it is both inspiring and a bit intimidating. Lately, the blogs that I have really enjoyed are the ones that show model educators are not perfect they are just human. They get overwhelmed and messy counters too. I recently read a blog where a teacher super star was having classroom management problems. I so appreciated that. I can be a great educator and have classroom problems sometimes. What a relief! At ISTE (couldn’t get there) part of a panel discussed push back. I was so relieved to know that it wasn’t me doing something wrong that even the teacher rockstars get pushback from students, parents and administrators when they are blending instruction. We need to hear more of this! Thank you so much for posting this!

  15. Megan says:

    I absolutely love this post! Your description of your ‘cluttered’ counter top made me laugh.

    I’m a first year special ed teacher that is taking over toward the end of the year for a previous teacher. I’ve been reading through various blogs and websites looking for helpful tips and information. This blog, Cult of Ped, is one of my favorites so far. I really enjoy reading the blog posts and watching the videos. Keep the interesting posts coming!

  16. Kennedy Willett says:

    Thank you for this post! I’m a current education student, wrapping up my second semester of my Masters program, and I cannot express how daunting the amount of tasks I have can be sometimes. Looking at the big picture and thinking about how far I have to go to reach completion can be incredibly overwhelming and make me not want to do any of it. “Just do 5 things” is a simple way to break my responsibilities down into manageable chunks. I especially resonate with your feelings of being on a role once you complete your five items. Sometimes you just need to start. I’m glad to have this method in my toolkit as I enter my teaching career.

  17. At the end of a 2 week PD, that started daily at 6 AM, I needed to see and read this. Then it was definitely a lol moment! Thanks for the tip. Have a great week.

  18. Laura H says:

    Love the Do 5 Things! I usually choose a time frame and then try to get as much done as I can in that time, but it often leads to more overwhelm if I don’t finish what I’ve planned! Rather than cross off 5 items on a checklist, I think this approach allows for greater freedom of choice which is itself empowering! Thanks for sharing.

  19. Oh, thank heavens for “The Cult.” I and my team of friends are so overwhelmed that we have weekly zoom meetings to support each other. We (my crew) are teaching summer classes on line and training for a new LMS. Plus all the faculty meetings that are now online. Throw in sick dogs, kids, partners, and COVID, and we have a recipe for disaster. Last week, I took a whole day off and read a book. This post gives me permission to just “be.” Now I need to make a list of just 5 things: 1. make the list! Thanks for sharing you “heart.”

  20. Debbie Schmidt says:

    THIS article is FREAKIN amazing for me! Didn’t think anyone else understood my procrastination (and really didn’t think someone at your level of expertise did!)! I’m so glad I read this! Wow, Thank you so so much for these practical ideas! Perfect for the perfectionism and level of dread I experience!
    Debbie

  21. Teresa Pimienta says:

    Great post! It’s so comforting to know we’re not alone – my counter has looked like that 🙂 And when I got to the part about the water bottle, I laughed out loud because we had my daughter’s friend’s metal water bottle on the counter for DAYS thinking that seeing it would remind us to give it back to her friend. It’s currently in our pantry and out of sight. THANKS for sharing.

  22. Thank you. I did this three times in the last 90 minutes. Like your email suggestion, it is also great for consuming/closing “to-do tabs” in my browser.

  23. Elissa says:

    Such a clear explanation, thank you! I have probably 20 unfinished lists around my house and now after 3 months of quarantine I don’t know where they are, what’s on them, why, what day it is, etc… looking at one of them, I see my tasks are much too big (“finish grading”, “book proposal” etc.). So doing 5 of something seems like a great place to re-start. Thanks!

  24. MCHill says:

    Thank you for the transparency! Your “messy” counter looks so much better than any 2 feet of space in my house! But your process is the same no matter how monumental the task. I am listening to a course on mindset, and she says its all about momentum, not motivation. Start with 5 things and see where it leads you! Love it! Thank you!

  25. Liz says:

    I love you for posting this. It is going to be a lifesaver for me! The best part: I can start using it right now! The pandemic and virtual learning have made me feel more overwhelmed than usual, and the scatterbrain effect is real. Thanks again!

  26. Samantha Alvarez says:

    This was exactly what I needed to see today. Thank you!

  27. Maura Fitzgerald says:

    Here I sit, the night before the new 2020-21 school year. Tomorrow I start teaching the A/B day students in school from home via Google Meet and start supporting my virtual students online, as well. Also, our grandson (10), who lives with us, is starting school as a virtual student tomorrow, and our granddaughter (8), who stays with her daddy (our other son who is living with us for now) four days a week at our house, is also starting distance learning. Talk about overwhelming!

    This article is just what I needed. Thank you. With COVID, personal craziness, and the beginning of the school year, my brain looks like your counter originally did. Here’s to doing just five things. Reading your blog was one of the five and this is the last of the five. Time for the couch and a couple of deep breaths!

    Good luck to you and all as we begin the adventure of teaching in the middle of a pandemic.

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