Slowly — but painlessly!

This beautiful stairway in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico (March 2004) reminds me to enjoy the climb!

“By taking steps so tiny that they seem trivial or even laughable, you’ll sail calmly past obstacles that have defeated you before. Slowly – but painlessly! – you’ll cultivate an appetite for continued success and lay down a permanent new route to change.” Robert Maurer

Often despair is the result of feeling totally overwhelmed by misfortune.  Or, less dramatically, procrastination is the result of feeling overwhelmed by a task.  I’ve found it helps tremendously to apply a process that Matt’s occupational therapists used to call “task analysis.”  Basically, it means breaking a task or situation down into very small, almost unnoticeable steps and pinpointing where difficulties arise, working on them one by one.

When I was in graduate school full time, I had to juggle the meal preparation, housework and other demands of caring for two kids in grade school, along with all the medical and educational needs of our younger son.  Every semester when I would attend the first day of classes and get the syllabus for each class, I would panic and think there was absolutely no way on earth I would get through this semester.  Then I would come home, print out four month-at-a-glance calendar pages on my dot matrix printer (that’s how long ago this was) and take every assignment in each syllabus and break it down into tiny steps, penciling them in on each month’s page.  I would then plan my menus for the next four months according to what I had to do that day for school, and then fit in Matt’s special education meetings, cardiology appointments and so on.

There was something reassuring about proving to myself on paper that it really wasn’t impossible to get through the coming weeks.  In fact, it was fairly painless and I ended up enjoying school as much as I’ve ever enjoyed anything that demanding.  I learned to anticipate the feeling of panic at the beginning of each semester and accept that some anxiety was an inevitable part of the process.  Then I’d just print out my blank calendar pages and break it all down.  Having the steps clearly plotted, I was able to relax and enjoy life in Hawaii despite all the challenges.

When we are not so overwhelmed, we can see the beauty of the staircase and even enjoy the climb.  If you are feeling overwhelmed by life, I hope you will be able to take a deep  breath and design your own steps, going at your own pace and enjoying as much as you can along the way.


  1. This is a really valuable post!! I agree completely. I nearly walked out on a class one time as a college freshman because of being overwhelmed. When I told the professor I was thinking of dropping the class he very patiently explained to me that everything would be broken down into tiny steps and the work would be done before I even realized it! I stayed and he was right!

    • Carla, it’s so easy for me to get “in a tizzy” when I feel overwhelmed, and it becomes a vicious cycle. I think that’s one reason why it’s so helpful to focus on DOING something, taking even a small step in the right direction. It’s like the old saying, “Yard by yard, life is hard. Inch by inch, it’s a cinch!” Thanks for being here so bright and early this morning!

  2. Karen Hamilton

    Thank you today’s thoughts on the stairway was just what I needed to read. Have a blessed day.

    • Thank you, I am so happy it was helpful! I have to remind myself every day. I appreciate your visits here.

  3. Kathy

    Wow, this has lifted my spirits and given me back a better perspective. Thanks Julia.

    • Thanks, Kathy! I’m so happy you found it helpful.

      • Carolyn

        I enjoyed reading your blog today. Last year was a rough one for me, but going up the stairway into a new year has been good. I just take day by day and hope the road ahead will be smooth.

        • Carolyn, I am so happy that you are doing well. Jeff and I have learned not to look too far ahead, and are thankful for each day’s blessings. Keep us posted and we will keep you in prayers. Love from all 3 of us.

  4. Michael Bertoglio

    I really need to hear this message right now about taking the baby steps, when some tasks seem insurmountable. Thanks Julia.

    • You’re welcome, Mike. I get overwhelmed pretty easily and I find that breaking things down into small steps takes some of the pressure off. I used to confuse my own procrastination with laziness, but eventually I realized it had more to do with feeling confused to the point of hopelessness. I think it’s a common problem in our increasingly complex world. Thanks for being here.

  5. Sheila

    Julia, as I looked at the staircase and then read your words, I thought, “And so is life; steps with a landing, makes it so much easier to continue the climb.” I think that we’re on a landing, of sorts. We’ll take deep breaths and the next flight is going to be easier. Sheila

    • That’s a great point about the landing, Sheila. I had not thought of it that way but it’s so true. The weeks after all the devastating diagnoses November and December were a real time of respite for us; it was so much easier to keep going when we didn’t get more bad news every day. Gearing up for another big climb now! Thanks so much for being here and sharing comments that are sometimes lighthearted, sometimes very deep!

  6. Wow you are a go getter Julia. Congratulations on such an immense accomplishment all while managing needs at home. I’m big on making lists, especially since I think my memory is getting really bad. It really does feel good crossing things off. Baby steps, bite size pieces….I am a big fan of that theory. I give you extra credit for being able to stick to a plan in beautiful Hawaii, that would have been extra hard.

    • I wish I could tell you that the memory getting bad is a temporary thing, but for me, it keeps getting worse as I get older. Writing things down is a big help but now I have to work on making sure I go back READ what I write down! I am very bad about using little scraps of paper to jot quick notes on and soon I am buried in little scraps of paper!!! Small steps are very necessary to people whose minds run in many directions; we can often dream the end result we are looking for, but don’t always know how to get there. One of my favorite quotes from my friend Ashleigh Brilliant says: “Change enough of the little pictures, and you’ll find you’ve changed the big picture.” I have kept that as a reminder to myself, especially when actively advocating for Matt and other people with disabilities. Thanks for being here!

      • ah yes, the little scraps of paper…tee hee, you and Mr B are alike with that. I actually write it all in my day planner, it’s a mess! Mr Brilliant (love that name) seems very witty too. Thanks for sharing his site. You can see the simplicity and common sense in his messages and art work, I like that.

        • Maybe I will eventually get the hang of putting it all in a book! Ashleigh is a really special person (and yes, “Brilliant” is his real last name – in one of his books he even included a copy of his birth certificate to prove it!) I feel lucky to have been in touch with him all these years since first meeting him in 1991 while we lived on the central coast where his cartoons were in the local paper. A lot of famous lines originated with him, although most people don’t know it. He’s almost 80 now and has lived a very interesting life.

  7. Nancy

    Definitely beneficial! I do it now with all the boys’ activities just to keep up and oft times find myself fighting the feeling of becoming overwhelmed. Fortunately, school ends in 5 weeks! I’ll have multiple degrees by the time they all graduate!

    • Nancy, I am so grateful to you for giving your sons a loving home and a “forever family.” I cannot imagine how busy you must be, but you have always been a hard worker and you know how to balance work with fun. Thanks so much for being here! And give our love to your handsome young men!

  8. Wow! You’re amazing. So many could learn from you. Slow and steady wins the race…a cliche that’s true. As an organizer, I meet a lot of people who are feeling overwhelmed. They struggle finding a place to start, or start and quickly give up. It’s gratifying helping people with that process.

    You’re an amazing woman, Julia.

    • Thanks so much for your kind words, Alys. I do think that many problems with organization are basically the result of our being overwhelmed with things, often good things that are hard to part with. Your profession is sorely needed in the world today! I am glad you were “born to organize!” Thanks for your visits here!

  9. Susan

    I needed that, as I prepare my taxes and negotiate my unexpected increase in rent.

    • Susan, you just pinpointed two areas that are so super important to take in small steps. If I had one piece of financial advice to offer the world at large, it would be to realize the cumulative power of seemingly insignificant amounts of money, both for giving (even a little bit can benefit others) and saving (it adds up to more than it seems like it will). That’s hard to believe when those rent increases hit us so ferociously, but once the shock subsides we can sit down and plan things out and realize it’s possible. One great thing that happened to us early on in Jeff’s career is when we were transferred to California the first time and had to go from a big, nice, new home to a old tiny one – I was convinced I would be unhappy because of that but before one week in our old tiny base house I was happier than I’d ever been. It sounds corny, but the things that make us happiest really have nothing to do with the stuff commercials tell us we MUST have. Good luck with your upcoming challenges! I’m mostly through with taxes but I have bit more to go, too.


  1. Coaxed downstairs | Defeat Despair

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