There’s a secret to getting stuff done when things feel overwhelming: trick your brain.
In this post, I'll share two simple ways to do that using undersized actions.
Here are two miniature-but-mighty ways to trick your brain:
- Use microtasks; and
- Take small steps.
One way to get started (when something feels overwhelming) is to focus on the tiny component parts of an activity, rather than the whole task.
You may find that a series of tiny actions may be possible when the activity itself feels crushing.
Almost any job can be broken down into mini-actions, or microtasks.
Stuck. On the couch.
I started using microtasks a few years ago when I was so stressed I could barely function. I couldn't get off the couch. Even to do the things that would help me to feel less stressed.
Simple household tasks were daunting, but still needed to be done. So, rather than writing a normal list, I wrote down the little component actions:
- Walk into the kitchen
- Put the plug in the sink
- Put the soap in
- Turn on the hot water
- Fill the sink 3/4 full
Then I told myself that all I had to do was the first thing on my list.
I brought the list to the kitchen with me. I told myself I could sit on the kitchen floor in between steps, if need be. I could take as long as I needed to get from 1 to 5.
This strategy enabled me to do the dishes. Even though that felt impossible.
Once the dishes were done, I felt better. Life felt more… possible.
Microtasks became a permanent part of my repertoire after that. I now use them anytime I feel resistant or tired, but still need to do stuff.
I didn’t know why this strategy worked until I read One Small Step Can Change Your Life by Robert Maurer.
Now I understand that microtasks and small steps work for the same reason.
2. Small Steps
Small steps are like microtasks, but rather than tackling an ordinary project, like the dishes, small steps help us tackle life changes, like cultivating a new habit.
If you want to start meditating, but just can’t seem to get around to it, a 'small step' approach would be to concentrate on one inhale a day. Just one inhale each day, for a month.
Likewise, Robert Maurer recommends that people who want to start flossing just floss one tooth.
Spring cleaning? Clean one shelf. If a whole shelf feels intimidating, just dust one item on the shelf each day.
Weirdly, it doesn’t actually matter whether you accomplish anything when you are taking small steps, because all you are really trying to do is trick your brain.
The smallness of the step might seem silly, but there’s actually some compelling brain science behind it.
Enter the lizard-dragon
Microtasks and small steps work because they sneak by the ‘lizard’ brain.
The ancient lizard-y part of our brain doesn’t reason things out. It learns from experience and is inherently conservative.
It lets you to do the things that it knows (from experience) are pleasurable or non-threatening. It wants you to avoid things that might be harmful. That includes anything new.
New stuff is potentially threatening. So: don’t (says the lizard in your head).
Taking small steps gets the ever-wary lizard brain to re-categorize a new (and therefore potentially threatening) activity as 'known and nonthreatening', without it even noticing.
Small steps and microtasks let you tiptoe past the dragon-lizard (as it were), letting it sleep while you get on with the life you want to live.
How small does the step, or task, need to be? That’s easy: so small that you feel no threat.
If you feel threat (or resistance) that means the lizard-dragon is awake, watching your every move. Keep making the step, or task, smaller until the feeling of threat disappears. That means the dragon-lizard is slumbering again. You can proceed!
Why does an everyday chore feel threatening?
When you are feeling overwhelmed, your lizard brain, rather than your cortex (the creative, reasoning part of your brain) is hyper-alert. Sometimes it just takes over.
If you are sufficiently stressed and your lizard brain is running the show, it can start telling you that even small, everyday tasks are sinister. This is because they take energy.
The lizard is only interested in two uses for your energy: fighting off enemies and running away from danger. Doing the dishes? Irrelevant (says the lizard). When the lizard is in charge, doing the dishes can start to feel unmanageable.
But… walking into the kitchen might feel possible.
Thank the lizard
Of course, your lizard brain is just trying to protect you. It’s not too smart, but it has good intentions.
So, after you trick it, thank it.
I'm all for minimizing time in the kitchen, using any tricks I can think of. Microtasks, small steps and... my Instant Pot.
Sometimes it's hard to get around to doing the dishes. Or cooking dinner.
The Paleo AIP Instant Pot Cookbook gives you all the recipes you need. Heal, while keeping your time in the kitchen to a minimum.