Bird by Bird: On Taking Small Action

Health & Wellness

Taking Small Action
Photo by @danist07 on Unsplash

As previously seen on Wit & Delight

Editor’s Note: Many of us (myself included) have learned from personal experience that overwhelm can often lead to paralysis and inaction, whether in regard to work or personal to-do lists or civic duty. Today we’re sharing an article originally penned by mental health counselor Tala Ciatti in 2016. In it, Tala writes about the important impact small practices and small actions can make in our lives. We hope you find it helpful. And we hope you’re taking care and staying safe this weekend folks.

From Kate: I’ve written about my own struggles with mental illness, from a completely personal and admittedly nonprofessional point of view. It is an issue that is incredibly important to me, and I wanted to partner with a professional to provide some expertise on the subject. Tala, our mental health professional, and I plan to get on the phone each month and talk through the things I’m curious about. I hope you find the topics timely, interesting, and helpful. We’d love to hear what you’re interested in regarding this topic, so please feel free to chime in!

This article is dedicated to finding ways to make small changes to everyday life that improve overall well-being. I do believe everyone can benefit from making small improvements to the way they approach daily tasks. For some of us, small changes are easy. For others, these small changes are harder than solving complex strategic problems. I fall into the latter group. For whatever reason, laundry is a bigger hurdle than my consulting work, thanks to living with the always colorful ADHD diagnosis! I can attest that while not easy, making small tweaks to my workflow has been just as impactful as a prescription. And making them part of my rituals? Well, that feels as rewarding as any accolade I’ve received. Here’s Tala on the subject of small change.

I have this thing with the lists I write. I always shelve old planners and brainstorming sheets, rediscovering the stacks when my husband gets sick of the clutter or when I’m packing for the next move. I can while away an afternoon reading through dream lists, weekly logs, and months-at-a-glance before I take it all to recycling. There is usually a wayward Pilot Precise V-5 rolling ball pen tucked in the pile, used to make my handwriting look more elegant.

I remember the travel and work, grocery lists and big purchases, gatherings, coffees, and road races. I have laughed at my college self and her very busy schedule. Relationships were written between the lines of an hour-by-hour schedule or the gift lists I kept. I sheepishly page through the calendar weeks where I put tasks off, scratched through them on multiple pages until it was just too late or I finally got them done. I see the time I was so overwhelmed by sadness that I didn’t even care to keep up appearances by completing Shakespeare homework, or when I was so in love that I woke up extra early each morning, sans alarm, to make a real breakfast, exercise, read, write a friend, and text incessantly before a day of work. I read the bullet points and remember what it felt like to be groggy from late-night cram sessions or blog binges, overwhelmed by deadlines, exhausted or excited by the idea of “beginning again” in a new place and a new role.

One small practice shows up in those pages that I am only beginning to appreciate. Every other week or so, a task would be written in bold, with a marquee border or a series of related doodles, and a note saying, “If you only do one thing…” Sometimes they were the most urgent, or the most difficult. Sometimes they were just the most important to me. I honestly thought my little Irish grandmother had coined the phrase “Do the damn thing,” and I made this my motto to complete these tasks.

There are significant psychological benefits to cultivating a habit of taking manageable, meaningful action. For some, it’s a “get yourself out of bed and just try something” technique, a starting place when you are stuck, and a step away from despair, gloom, self-doubt, or hate. Checking an item off gives you good evidence that you CAN accomplish tasks, you WILL succeed sometimes, and you SHOULD get out of bed. For others, this practice is a reminder to slow the frenzied pace, focus on one task at a time, and move on when the job is done. I need the reminder to say no to all of the things that hinder progress and wellbeing, detach from nitpicky perfectionism, and look to the next right thing.

Whether I’m in a fog and don’t feel like starting anything, or my brain is buzzing unchecked and I want to conquer all of the things, the practice of taking small action and pausing to note what I’ve accomplished exercises my executive functioning skills in good times and in bad.

Psychological stressors deal a blow to our executive functioning—those brain processes that help us to record, file away, recall, and implement information in the right situations. Whether I’m in a fog and don’t feel like starting anything, or my brain is buzzing unchecked and I want to conquer all of the things, the practice of taking small action and pausing to note what I’ve accomplished exercises my executive functioning skills in good times and in bad.

The concept is manifested in a million ways.

Anne Lamott describes a childhood memory of her brother, overwhelmed by a big report on birds that he was trying to write at the last minute. Her father’s advice: “Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.” It draws on the time-honored spiritual practice and trending mental health topic of mindfulness.

Some begin their day with a “heroic minute” and tackle the first task of the day—getting out of bed—without stuffing into the pillow for more sleep.

Others thoughtfully savor each bite of a meal to reflect on the total experience of eating.

NPR recently showcased an online treatment for depression with a component of taking on issues that participants considered manageable.

Gary Keller calls it The One Thing. David Allen calls it Getting Things Done. Designer Paolo Cardini, just one TED speaker to challenge the myth of multitasking, proposes monotasking. Management tool Trello writes about the dopamine rush we are rewarded with after small successes, and the Harvard Business Review has detailed the way that emotions, motivations, and perceptions are positively influenced through “The Power of Small Wins.

So I write it on the mirror with a dry erase marker (because lipstick is harder to remove). I set a cell phone alarm. I ask what Future Tala will thank Present Tala for completing. I talk about these things with the people I trust before the going gets too tough. What about you? How do you take intentional action?

Here’s my shortlist of tangible (and tasteful) reminders:
Orange Rhodia // Weekly Schedule Notepad // “I will do one thing today” 

BY Tala Ciatti - May 30, 2020


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Thank you for being here. For being open to enjoying life’s simple pleasures and looking inward to understand yourself, your neighbors, and your fellow humans! I’m looking forward to chatting with you.

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