Tackling the Impossible

Writer Annie Lamott, in her wise and entertaining book Bird by Bird, has some of the best advice I’ve ever seen for tackling a project that seems impossibly big or complex:

“…thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he’d had three months to write, which was due the next day….He was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, “Bird by bird, buddy, just take it bird by bird.”

Whether you’re sitting down to write your masterpiece, launching your business, or taking your business to the next level, you have a lot at stake. If anxiety takes over, it can hijack the whole process, giving you even less access to the quality thinking and clear action that would ordinarily keep you moving along.

Here are some thoughts about how to tackle whatever impossible task is on your desk, bird by bird:

  • Pause and Center. Because pausing creates more space for clarity and guidance, pausing now and then can actually be more efficient that running flat out 24/7. One way to pause and center: feel your feet on the ground or your seat in the chair, and find the sensation of your breath in your body. Anytime Grounding is a 2.5 minute meditation that walks you through this process.
  • Get Specific. After you’ve paused, ask yourself: What is the next action I need to take? What absolutely has to be done today, tomorrow, or this week? If you’re working on a long-term project, what’s the next reasonable bite that you can take out of it? These questions help you to identify your individual birds. Once you’ve tackled one bird, celebrate your progress (one of my clients calls this her “ta-da!” list, to balance out her “to-do” list) and tee up the next one.
  • Talk it Through. Sometimes you need to break through whatever destructive loop is playing in your head – you know, the one that has a lot of extraneous, emotional garbage designed to keep you in the same place (Lamott calls this loop radio station KFKD. I’ll let you use your imagination about what that stands for). Getting your thoughts out of your own head is really helpful, preferably by talking to another person. Second choice: have a dialogue with yourself on paper. Write down a question or make a statement about where you are right now, and then respond in writing as if you were a second, objective person listening carefully to what’s being said.

Keep plugging away, bird by bird. Before you know it, the thing that you thought was impossible is done.

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