How to face the big, the bad, and the overwhelming: Think small

People will say think big! I prefer to think small. I’m a huge fan of baby steps, because I’ve seen how breaking down big projects into smaller tasks not only helps you manage time and get things done, but it also boosts your confidence.

think small like a small lady bug on large rocks
Photo by Igor Kyryliuk

Big things overwhelm

When you’re feeling overwhelmed, it is likely because what you’re facing is too big. And, when I say big, that could mean:

  • New
  • Important
  • Problematic

A new endeavor has unfamiliar parts. An important project carries more weight in your mind. And problems are usually unexpected.

So, big things are overwhelming! They are, of course, stressful and anxiety-provoking.

Plus, there are things we dread

What makes things worse is that women are told to dream big and be bold in order to get ahead. Yet at the same time, we’re saddled with, and expected to do, much more that is not aligned with those big dreams. We have to take on tasks everyone dreads, whether doing office housework or getting the clicking noise in the heater to stop so the family can sleep.

Even returning from a lovely vacation can feel taxing if you’re the one who takes care of many behind-the-scenes details that others take for granted. Suppose you’re the one responsible for getting the next meal on the table, ensuring that everyone has clean underwear, and putting away those essential items so they can easily be found after unpacking. That means you have a lot more on your plate in addition to getting back to your routine tasks.

Life won’t stop putting down roadblocks on your path to loftier goals.

And such roadblocks can chip away at your confidence.

Feeling overwhelmed is normal

When you’re faced with big things along all the obstacles, you are going to feel overwhelmed. It is inevitable and it is natural.

Our brains cannot handle an overload of information. For example, it’s harder to access past experiences or memories that might help us in the present because our brains have a harder time seeing the patterns when faced with too many disparate pieces of data.

Moreover, we have a finite amount of willpower. So, the big things and what we dread can quickly eat up our daily allotment of it, leaving us feeling discouraged and defeated.

But, it’s really not our fault.

How to think small

Happily, thanks to working with my clients, I’ve learned a key lesson that I can share: when you are faced with something big, shrink it into smaller pieces then celebrate.

More specifically, here are two concrete steps:

  • Think of the first tiny baby step you need to take to move in the right direction. Using a typical post-vacation haze as an example, you can first focus on one part that seems pressing or important, like finding the easiest way to fill hungry stomachs. And, maybe that’s getting pizza delivery. Once people are satisfied, perhaps you can tackle unpacking–but again with small steps like, pulling out the dirty clothes from suitcases and putting them into the laundry basket.
  • After each baby step, celebrate the small win. Do this even if it seems silly to pat yourself on the back or exclaim, “Victory is mine!” after doing something as mundane as ordering pizza or putting clothes in the hamper.

Why baby steps and small wins work

Celebrating small wins is important because it reinforces the notion that you are someone who gets things done. I see this in my own life and observe it with my clients and students. Moreover, researchers suggest it too.

There are many ways to celebrate your small wins. Experiment or test out a variety to see what works for you. For example, I heard parent coach and temperament specialist Rona Renner, RN, say that she kisses the back of her hand to reward and nurture herself. I like keeping a got-done list alongside my to-do list as a way of keeping track of my small accomplishments.

To recap…

As you think small, I guarantee your sense of overwhelm will shrink and your sense of competence will grow. And as a result, you’ll not only manage your time and get unstuck, but you will build confidence, too.

Want more?

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This is a revised and updated version of an older article first published in January 2017.