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.

This post was originally published seven years ago today. The original post, comments and photo are linked, along with two other related posts, below. These links to related posts, and their thumbnail photos, do not appear in the blog feed; they are only visible when viewing the individual posts by clicking on each one. I have no idea why, nor do I know how they choose the related posts. That’s just the way WordPress does things.


  1. Good morning, Julia!
    Thank you for this concept of Task Analysis. The key may be in formatting the analysis into something that works for that overwhelmed person. Several years ago, I made a Gantt chart type plan for home repairs, so that Patrick might have a clear vision of what projects needed to be done when he wasn’t working. It didn’t work at all. I held off on trying the calendar method, since missed tasks wouldn’t necessarily be easy to find, but would be necessary prior to upcoming tasks. I’ll need to sit down with him and figure out what might work, as he is currently not working again.

    • Susan, for me it works best when I used what Matt’s therapists called “acute task analysis” – teensy, weensy steps. Sometimes we don’t realize how complex, neurologically speaking, some “simple” tasks really are, because for some, they are easy and second nature. Not so for others. But often, what task analysis accomplishes is a form of negotiating us into doing something we simply don’t want to do. With anything I don’t love doing, I pretty much have to give myself permission to do just a little at at time– e.g., vacuum only one room, or just a few steps, and come back to it later. This is especially valuable when it’s a boring chore that makes too much noise to be able to listen to a book on tape while doing it! 🙂 I saw a really funny COVID meme that said something to the effect of “being shut in showed me that being too busy to do housework wasn’t really the reason why I wasn’t doing it.” 😀 😀 😀

  2. Susan

    Julia, that’s impressive, and encouraging! I like variety and have a short attention span (adult ADD), so I prefer to do a little bit of a lot of things through a day, unlike my husband, who likes to focus and do fewer things more in-depth for a longer period at a time. My challenge is to keep at each item daily so that things don’t drag out too long. (And I saw that housework meme too and laughed out loud!)

    • Your husband sounds like Jeff. His ability to focus and get things done always amazed me. He could shut out exterior noises (and presumably interior ones too) and give single-minded attention to what needed to be done. I often said that if they had used such diagnostic labels when I was a child, I probably would have been called ADD. I once heard a useful distinction from a professional who helped me with Matt. He said there was a difference between having a short or no attention span, vs. being easily distracted. He said the first tends to pay little attention to anything for very long, whereas the second paid attention to EVERYTHING and had a hard time staying focused because the distractions were so hard to ignore. I think I would fall into the latter category, since almost everything interests me. The reason I have to take things in small bites is sometimes due to my having so many other things competing for my attention and time. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it. 😀 😀 😀 .

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