Five Pieces a Day


I owe a debt to two of my teachers about how to get myself to do things I don’t find very appealing.  My mother was a compulsive ironer. It wasn’t that she liked ironing, she just had it in her head that everything needed ironing, even my brother’s boxer shorts.  So she set a goal of ironing five pieces every day.  It was apparently enough to stay abreast of the ironing basket.

My friend Fran, with whom I taught a course and wrote a book  about decluttering, had a similar way of overcoming resistance.  She recommended that we set the timer for 15 minutes and do whatever we can in that time, whether it is cleaning our kitchen drawers or bringing order to the garage.  If you don’t finish the task, you can either continue or not when the timer dings. Even if your choice is “not,” the next iteration of the task will be less daunting tomorrow.

Learning from these two teachers,  I have been mulching my flower beds with weeding, newspaper, and putting down mulch as a natural weed control strategy.  My simple rule is not five pieces, not 15 minutes but one bag of mulch a day.  I weed a good stretch, lay down four layers of newspapers, open a bag of mulch, and spread it over the newspapers. My ability to estimate the amount of newspaper I can cover with one bag has improved as I work my way around my flower beds, and the task is now at the point where I can envision the end.

Before applying this good principle to the yard, I had long used it to manage my work on writing and other tasks that stretched over long periods of time.  Five hundred words a day on the sermon, blog, or chapter. File papers or clean out one paper file and eliminate 100 emails and 10 documents form my computer.  It’s a very simple strategy, but it reduces a daunting task to manageable daily goals.

I also have used this approach to develop exercise habits.  I like segments, so I commit to three 20-minute daily exercise routines, usually one on the exercycle, one for Jazzercise, and one dog walk, although it may vary.  And all before about 2 pm, because my urge to exercise declines after that time. It has worked so well that I resent days that don’t lend themselves to my full exercise routine.  The defined commitment of time or task is a great way to develop good habits and feel good about having done what you have committed to do. I manage my day as best I can to get my three segments in.  The dog is particularly unforgiving if her turn is neglected.

So, where are the backlogs in your life? Cleaning the pantry and bookshelves? Decluttering? Yard work? Writing? Balancing the checkbook?  Take the daunting overall goal, especially when the task will continue to pile up—ironing, weeding, deleting emails, cleaning files—and make a limited commitment to address it on a recurring basis, daily or weekly, for a finite time or a finite amount of task completed.

Give it a try!  You have nothing to lose but frustration, guilt,  and chaos.


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