Do Small Things

You have an aunt, or a sibling, or a bezzie don’t you, who you love to pieces but is basically an anal douchebag? You know, the one that, when they walk into your house, tries to conceal palpable distaste at the general disorder and disarray. Like they’re suppressing the mental gag-reflex. You kinda don’t want them to come round, and actively avoid the situation if possible, but they keep inviting themselves because apparently they delight in bringing to your attention the physical manifestation of your chaotic ADHD mind – stuff in places where it has no right to be; evidence of daily/weekly chores procrastinated and postponed into festering piles and dusty sheens; the general sense that, while there is clearly a place for everything, that place is EVERYWHERE. This person thinks that they hide their disdain while making cheerfully wistful comments about the “shabby chic” of your “charmingly lived in” house, perching on the edge of sofa like it might swallow them up, and surreptitiously tidying things away to places from which they may never emerge.

You don’t want to live like this, but there is so much to do, and you have that assignment to do for the qualification you decided to take on a whim, and you need to buy some cheese making equipment because, you know, cheese making, and then there’s that short story to finish writing, all those magazine you bought at the weekend that won’t read themselves and, and, and, and…


You know all these boring chores need doing. You don’t need Lord/Lady Meticulous to project this down their nose at you. It’s like telling a homeless person to get off their lazy arse and get a job – patronising, ignorant and superfluous. Now, no one knows more than you that sorting out the kitchen would make your life so much easier (you have to wash a bowl and spoon EVERY MORNING just to be able to eat breakfast) but it is a BIG JOB. Clearing and thinning down that bookshelf really needs doing (books keep falling off onto your head) but it will TAKE AGES and risks making even more mess when you inevitably fail to finish the job. And then there’s the house work. Don’t mention the housework. It never ends. Every time you get some done more turns up! It’s best to just leave it and do it all as one BIG JOB once a week and then it’s out the way. But that’s such a bloody CHORE.

I hate chores (even the word is tiresome, boring and a bit grotty, like verruca or nasal). They suck. But I also don’t like living in squalor, regardless of how it might have appeared for most of my life. But how do you get round to doing all these BIG JOBS? The answer is actually quite simple – don’t. Don’t do the BIG things, just do small things.

You just thought “ah I see, you’re just another one of those patronising smart-arses like my mum/sister/cat”, didn’t you? But bear with me, I’ll rejoin you in the seething resentment in a short while. But first, here’s something you need to understand.

Stop lumping all the vaguely related tasks into giant unwieldy categories like CHORES, or SH*T THAT I DON’T WANT TO DO. By bundling all the small things into BIG CATEGORIES you conflate them and increase their collective intensity. Wasps are pretty much just annoying on their own, but if you’ve got a swarm of them, THEY WILL STING YOU TO DEATH. It may seem sensible to batch things up into tidy categories, and less stuff is always tidier right? That may be so from comfortable perspective of observing these categories from the outside, but once you delve into any one of them all you’ll find is a assemblage of vaguely related junk that’s gaining entropy and somehow breeding. It’s a bit like that drawer in the the kitchen that’s used to store “stuff”, there’s some things in there you’re certain you never owned in the first place. From whence came they?

Take a simple task – Cleaning a kitchen surface. Cleaning a kitchen surface is just that, purging a worktop of debris and grime. It is not the same as “make all the kitchen clean”. You may claim that “if I just clean that surface, then it’ll look weird and I JUST MUST clean the rest, so best not to start at all.” This is a valid objection, especially for an ADHDer. Not a lot of people know this, but ADHDers are perfectionists, it’s why they never get stuff finished, they set their sights too high. But in this scenario you need to take control of your inner obsessive and calm the voice that screams “I MUST CLEANING ALL THE KITCHEN WITH UNHINGED INTENSITY!” and instead, paradoxically, think about all the other stuff you’d rather be doing. The key here is that cleaning the kitchen surface is easy. It’s small. You can handle small things, right? Don’t conflate it with other small things unless you have reason to. Ask yourself instead, “why must I clean the kitchen surface?” and the answer you will find is “because I didn’t clear it down when I made that BIG SANDWICH earlier”. The small “kitchen surface” task is not related to the big MUST CLEANING KITCHEN task, it’s related to the MUST EATING BIG SANDWICH task from earlier. If you’d cleaned up after yourself you wouldn’t have this task getting in the way of whatever wacky adventure you’re on right now (probably just making dinner). “Ah!” you’re now screaming at your tablet/laptop/phone/cucumber, “you’re telling me to stay on top of stuff, no sh*t Sherlock, but I still MUST CLEANING ALL THE KITCHEN, before I can get myself into the position of staying on top of that task.” This is indeed an astute observation, and so we need some defining principles to get past this apparent impasse. Here’s what you need to do, and do habitually for the rest of your life (seriously, as long as you live. It’s not that big a deal though, keep reading, pleeeease):

  1. Do exactly one more action than you need to achieve any given task, every time you do a task
  2. Break down BIG JOBS into small tasks and only concern yourself with these tiddlers
  3. Make a specific time that is free to do stuff you don’t want to do, and work through your small tasks at that time
  4. Make a specific time to is free to do the stuff you do want to do, and use it frivolously, with impunity and without guilt

Continued after this short digression from my brain

Chronicles of an ADHD Brain Part 1

Let’s break those down a little shall we?

Item 1: Do something extra

Using the scenario stated above you would

  1. Clear/clean the surface
  2. Make the tasty treat
  3. Clear up after yourself

See what happened there? You got a task for FREE! Where you would usually only do 2 tasks (clean and make food) you now did three. So what happens next time you need a BIG SANDWICH? Regard:

  1. Make the tasty treat (since the surface is already clear)
  2. Clear up after yourself
  3. Put the dirty item you just used in the dishwasher

There, another job done – filling the dishwasher! Here’s some other examples of “buy one get one free” productivity magic.

  • Take the rubbish out to the bin when you take the dog for a walk
  • When you read an email, file it or delete it
  • Clear your desk while you’re on a boring conference call
  • When you make dinner, fill a sink of hot soapy water, and wash up as you finish using stuff

Now, you may be tempted to do a cheeky few extra tasks for each main task, and that’s cool, but be careful you don’t accidentally slip into “MUST DO BIG JOB WITH UNHINGED INTENSITY” mode. There will be plenty of other opportunities for claiming your free extra things, no need to gobble them all at once. Patience is needed. Stay calm. Mind like water. Etc.

Once you get into the swing of things, you’ll find that everything is done all the time and you’ll be free to explore the vagueries of crochet. Except, hold on…

Item 2: Make small numbers of monolithic BIG JOBS into a proliferation of small jobs

But what about those jobs that don’t sit snugly around daily routine, like clearing out the garage or, god forbid, THE GARDEN (shivvers cascade down spine). This is what item #2 is for. You’re never going to get around to the BIG JOBS, at least not until forced to (in a moment of weak will and unbridled enthusiasm you invited most of the office around for a dinner party, and now you have to purge the dining table of last year’s Warhammer obsession, not to mention that your attempt at a Banksy style mural on the adjacent wall looks like the faecal smears of a deranged, captive chimpanzee). Assuming this isn’t the case (you don’t really own a chimpanzee do you?) then you’re better off not attempting the doomed project all at once, but instead break it down into lots and lots of quick little tasks of which you can do a couple of a day. It’s like breaking down a big immovable iceberg into cute little ice cubes that you can pop into your vodka and Diet Coke. Do this for ALL of your big projects. Let’s use the dining room situation as an example. The way you could break it may look something like this (do one a day):

  • Buy some sort of storage for your Plague Orcs and Blurgg Marines
  • Put half the little models in said storage (the ones you got around to painting)
  • Put the other half of the little models in said storage (the ones you will NEVER get around to painting)
  • Clear away all the manuals, boards and 19 sided dice and stuff
  • Buy a poster depicting an actual Banksy mural
  • Put said poster on top of chimpanzee scrawl

Write all this down as a list before you attempt doing any of it. Make a plan for doing each item, and then do them sequentially. Merge this list in with the equivalent ones for all your BIG JOBS. Make some time every day to do a few of these tasks. Which brings me swiftly onto items 3 and 4, which I’ll tackle together, since they’re intrinsically related.

Items 2 & 3: Make special times to be productive and frivolous

Here’s the thing, as an ADHDer, you’re actually good at making time for stuff, and you’re frequently weirdly effective at planning and using your time to get obscene amounts of stuff achieved. It’s just that that version of you turns up unpredictably, and only if you’re immersed in one of your focus fits. But here’s the good news, you actually posses those magical delivery skills ALL OF THE TIME. Seriously, you do. You just have to accept the fact that you can only engage them for short periods in situations where you’re not interested in the task at hand. That’s cool, because you only really need to engage them to short periods, but you need to do it consistently, habitually, quasi-religiously. Every. Single. Bloody. Day. Find thirty to sixty minutes a day to do the snoresville tasks. What I don’t mean by that is ‘allocate’ thirty minutes at 9 pm when you usually ‘waste’ your time watching Stranger Things and thus will probably continue to exactly that. I mean carve out that time at a point in the day that you’re likely to be available to do some boring stuff, in the location where it needs to be done, and when nothing else is expected of you. This is not necessarily an easy task in itself, but it’s important. There will be trade-offs and compromises, but believe me, it will be worth it. Find the time, make sure you will not be distracted (thrust some Taylor Swift or Morbid Angel or Kenny G through your earphones) and get cranking through the stuff that needs doing. Start with the routine stuff, then chip off a couple of the ice cubes you carved out of those big icebergs.

And here’s the reward, go through the same exercise to carve out some time for doing ALL THE OTHER FUN STUFF. I know what you’re thinking right now. I do. You’re thinking “but as it is right now, I can use ALL my time to work of all that tasty shiny fun sh*t”. This may well be the case, but how is that working for you eh? Do you really feel relaxed and guilt free? You’re sure you’re not feeling a little torn, guilty, shameful, lest I say it, inadequate, at not having done the stuff that you think you’re actually supposed to be doing? The stuff that needs doing? If you do what I say, you can get on with building that aquarium complex GUILT FREE, knowing that you’ve done exactly enough of ALL OF THAT OTHER BORING CRAP to relieve yourself of the nagging burden of inadequacy. Make the time to do both the fun and the frustrating. Make more time to do the fun. You can do that, it’s OK. It really is. Set yourself free. I DARE YOU.

Here’s what it boils down to: if you’re forcing yourself to constantly trade-off BIG JOBS, you’re having to make BIG DECISIONS which is stressful and tiring and you’re unlikely do the “overhaul the kitchen” project and instead do the much shinier “learn how to make cheese” project (which is actually going to make the kitchen project even more arduous). Do both projects, do all your projects, but for the kitchen project (and its never ending multitude of interbreeding siblings), break them up, divide and conquer, habitualise them into submission.

Back to the unencumbered spite and contempt I promised earlier. Unfortunately, all those annoying adages proffered by those annoying, self-satisfied, meticulous douchebags gain a little credence at this point – “a stitch in time” and “if you look after the pennies, the pounds will look after themselves”, blah, fecking, blah. As with most metaphorical memes, despite the fact that they’re trite, over-worn and generally lame, there’s almost always a grain of reality in there, no matter how irritatingly phrased and asserted. Consequently your sister/vicar/gimp was at least in part correct. If you find her/him/it’s whiny voice echoing around your skull reciting these pithy one-liners and saying “I told you so!” daring you to tell him/her/it to p*ss off, then simply do that. Go on, DO IT. Tell those voices where they can stick their condescending dribble. It will feel good. Then get on with what you need to do because, quite frankly, actually getting your sh*t done is a much bigger smite-to-the-cobblers to people like that than continuing the disarray that they derive so much perverse titillation from deriding you about. Your success is their pain, remember that. INFLICT THE PAIN.

So in summary. Break stuff apart, make time to gratify yourself, inflict pain. Goddit? “When you put it like that,” you’re saying out loud, “what’s not to like?!” And you are correct.

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