High Water / by Michelle Cowan

It's stormy outside in Houston today. I was trying to get from a hair appointment to a frozen yogurt shop when I encountered a stretch of deep water.  I drive a tiny hatchback, and after seeing a Jeep and a Chevy Blazer struggle through the water, I knew I couldn't make it.  I stopped, threw on my reverse lights, and the person behind me backed up so that I could escape.  Immediately after that, I saw two or three cars just as small as mine try to make it through the water.  All three bailed out halfway through.  It was a near-disastrous mess.

As I watched a Nissan Versa chugging through water almost higher than its tires, I couldn't help but sympathize. Much of the time, I feel like a tiny car surrounded by water. I'm rolling farther and farther into the rising current, not knowing how deep it might get. Still, I roll forward, water splashing. The water is so impermanent but somehow also so powerful. Puddles that start small grow more quickly than I expect.

That's what my to-do list feels like sometimes. Maybe that's what my life feels like sometimes.  There's so much I want to do — an endless list of tasks that slowly rises up around me, sloshing up on my windows, slowing down my eager wheels.  I'm going through a music business coaching program right now, and ideas for what I need to do to grow my business and my brand are flowing. But my energy level doesn't flow at quite the same rate…

I don't have the energy to implement all these ideas.  It's not that I simply won't get to all of it now.  It's that I probably will never get to some of it.

That's where prioritization comes in.  Only prioritization can save me from the rising water.

I got quiet with myself today and decided on two things I could do this weekend. I can write this blog, and I can work on the paperwork to register my new songs with ASCAP. Two things.

This seemed brilliant.  But then I promptly sat down at the computer and chose to update the auto-responses to my contact forms and mailing list sign-ups instead. Sure, I accomplished something, but not what I set out to do.

I've decided that this is okay, and it simply means that I need to investigate what keeps me from doing the other two things on my list.

After some examination, the difference is in the perceived complexity of the tasks. Updating auto-responses involves more editing than writing (less pressure), and the dozen different auto-responses I need to edit are all short and fairly simple to update. The task as a whole is easily broken down into its component parts.

In contrast, I had done no work to break down the steps required to do my two higher-priority tasks. I knew I had to do a little more pre-work before I could tackle them.   

In reality, writing a blog entry is no big deal. I know how that goes:  I write it, leave it for a while, come back and edit it, post it, and then send out an email notice.  Pretty basic. I'm doing it now.  I'm clearly accomplishing at least the biggest part of that task: the writing.

The ASCAP publishing task, however, was more mysterious because it involved some research and many as yet undefined tasks.  I wasn't sure how long it would take me, so of course, I was avoiding it. I'm less familiar with publishing.  As a solution, I decided that I would work on it for a maximum of one hour.  I could set a timer.  One hour. 

With unclear tasks that I can't seem to start, this is a great strategy.  It's not that I have to finish the task.  I just need to work on it for a short while.

I believe in SARK's concept of the "micro movement."  Sometimes, full steps are too big.  We need to break them down to the micro-level.  I can get on the ASCAP website.  I can look at the tools.  I can fill out something, ANYTHING.  But I don't have to do it for more than an hour.  I can even limit my time to 20 minutes if I need to.  It's all about inventing ways to allow myself to start a task.  I clear the way instead of forcing myself to do it.

Now that I've given some actual thought to what I have to do instead of just writing line items on a to-do list without further thought, I feel like I can get these two tasks done.  I don't feel like a tiny car trying to muddle through high water anymore. I have choices.

Maybe some people learned these skills early in life.  Somehow, I missed them.  I have the "I must get everything done and get it done NOW" gene.  Part of recovery — and life — is about finding balance within that tendency.

If I ever feel this way again (which I can guarantee I will), I can do exactly what I did today: back up and go down a different street, a street with only an inch or two of water rather than a few feet. I back up, look at the tasks I have to do, and then I break it down into the smaller steps that can get me where I want to go.

Success! And no flooded engine.


Update: Between the time I wrote the first draft of this blog and when I published it, I completed my publishing tasks.  I'm totally done — for now.  There are a few more things I need to do to get set up, but this was a major step. It was so easy once I started getting into it.  I'm going to use the back-up and detour technique the next time I get stuck on a task I don't want to do.