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Can’t keep up? This one thing will simplify your life. Really.


I sat looking at my desk, a sense of incapacitation growing inside me, applying pressure on my ribcage from the inside out.Can't keep up. Young woman dropping things out of her briefcase.

I had too much to do.

And it was all spread out on my desk. I was looking at it and it was looking back at me shouting, “You need to do something with us! We’ve been sitting here for days!”

So I did what I usually do when overwhelm sets in.

I froze.

I couldn’t decide what to do first, what was most important, what order I should do things in so I sat there, incapacitated.

And this was not the first time this scenario had played itself out. I am a chronic avoider so I unfortunately find myself sitting at a desk with various notes stuck here and there, each with a reminder to complete some task.

You’d think I’d learn.

And, for some reason, this time I did.

I don’t know if it was echoes of reading David Allen’s Getting Things Done many years ago, reading some kick-ass productivity blogs lately, or remembering the motto of my last boss: “Never let anything pass over your desk more than once,” but somehow it came to me.

Just do the thing in front of you.

A cautious trickle of relief started to thaw my frozen state.

Could it be that simple?

I picked up the note that was closest to me. My usual inner protests kicked in.

“It’s not most efficient to do this one first! You should prioritize!”

I did it anyway.

It felt great! I had accomplished a task, even if it was out of order.

I threw the first note away and picked up the next one that was in front of me.

I finished that task, too.

You know the rest of the story.

After awhile, my desk was clear save for a few notes with tasks that could only be completed at a future date.


Making it through by doing what’s in front of you

Just do the thing in front of you.

Now that my desk was clear, I had some time to ponder this simple idea a little more.

I had recently sent out an email to followers of Bounce and asked them how I could best help them. What did they struggle with most?

I received a glut of responses that had the same theme: I’ve got too much on my plate! What do I do?

From Laurie who found that her well-ordered daily to-do list soon was in shambles due to the crises that arose during the day to Lynda who was in danger of losing her housing, was in debt, and had recently decided to leave her husband.

From Cathie who, facing retirement, has suddenly found that she doesn’t know who she is without work as her identity to Leslie who has lost several loved ones to death recently and then faced an IRS audit on top of it all.

I could hear the same question coming from all of these people.

What do I do first? How can I bounce back from this?

So I wondered – is doing the thing in front of you the answer in these situations as well?

I think it is.

I’ll give you a personal example to explain.

Perhaps I knew about this principle a long time ago, but just didn’t recognize it then.

You see, I lost my partner to breast cancer in 2004. I had never lost anyone close to me and we were extremely close.

Even though I knew she would die of cancer, I was in no way prepared for the grief that followed.

It was excruciating.

I sometimes found myself on hands and knees on the floor, sobbing, wondering how I got there only to remember that a powerful gust of grief had just buckled my knees and caused me to collapse.

I didn’t know when the pain was going to stop and I couldn’t imagine getting through days like this let alone weeks and months.

And then, blessedly, the thought came to me, “Just get through the next hour.” Then, quickly, “No, just get through the next five minutes.”

And I did get through those five minutes. And the five minutes after that. And the next five, too.

Did it take my grief away? No.

Did it make me feel better? No.

But I made it.

In my next post, I’m going to talk more about that time, but for now the important lesson is that I just did what was in front of me. I took the next five minutes and got through them.

So when I look at the crises facing Laurie and Lynda and Cathie and Leslie, I see that, while this isn’t going to make the sky open up and a chorus of angels sing, just doing what is in front of you will get them through their circumstances as well.


How to do what is in front of you

This idea is actually a very active version of mindfulness.

It requires you to notice what is in front of you, have no judgment about it, and just do it in the present moment without thinking about the past or future.

Maybe we can break it down a bit further.

1. Look at what is in front of you.

Maybe it is a tangle of material things like the notes on my desk.

Or maybe you’re looking at a series of life changes that caught you off-guard and completely surprised.

2. Pick the thing closest to you.

If it’s a to-do list, choose the first item.

If you’re staring at a closet that needs to be re-organized, grab the thing nearest to you.

If you’re trying to decide whether to leave your husband or stay with him, choose that to work on.

3. Do something with it.

Complete the task on the to-do list, even if it’s more efficient to do three other things first. I don’t care. Do the thing in front of you.

When you grab the thing out of the disorganized closet, do something with it. Don’t just set it down, make a decision: keep, throw away, or donate.

When you choose to make a decision about your relationship, do something about it. Go see a therapist. Talk to your spouse. Write in your journal to organize your thoughts.

4. Rinse. Repeat.

As you accomplish tasks or start making your way through a life crisis, keep this process going.

You’ll still get overwhelmed sometimes.

You’ll find yourself on your hands and knees now and again.

It’s okay.

Just take a breath and do the thing in front of you.


What’s in front of you right now? Let me know in the comments below.



  1. Jennifer says:

    I am looking at piles and piles of student work that needs to graded in order to do report cards. I made a “to do” list as I thought of things and am actually doing things in a kind of random order. You are right, it does work. This blog was a good reminder to take one thing at a time. I am sick with bronchitis and feeling very run-down. I am trying to check in before I do the next thing. Can I do this? If not, I’m picking something I can do. Yes, moment by moment we walk not around but through.

  2. Bobbi Emel says:

    “We walk not around, but through.” I like that, Jennifer.

    I hope you are feeling better soon!

  3. Juliette says:

    My problem is trying to get in touch with my emotionally enabled husband. This is his 3rd marriage but 6th live in partner. I hope you get what I mean there.
    I feel like I am paying for all his past lovers mistakes. Which to me isn’t fare. He lives like a pig, and I live so organized it drives him around the bend. I love your e-book, “Bounce Back!But I can not get him to read anything I learn from. So my life’s ups and downs usually go down fast around him.
    What do you suggest?

    • Bobbi says:

      Juliette, it sounds like you have a multitude of circumstances that probably can’t be solved by one comment! The only thing I can say is that it sounds like you may be trying to get him to change when the only person you TRULY have control over is yourself. Perhaps you could contact a life coach or therapist who can help you see what part of your unhappiness is his responsibility and which is yours. Good luck and let me know how it goes.

  4. Gary Korisko says:

    Very true, Bobbi. Just do SOMETHING. Move the pile.

    On a semi-related note, Pat Flynn suggested that instead of one big to-do list, people should use project to-do lists. It sounds simple, but the extra organizational element really does help.

    I know I’ve said this before, but all of your posts are so easy and enjoyable to read. Clarity is a strength of yours. I’ve sure learned a thing or two from your work.

  5. Priska says:

    Thank for giving me permission to make it through whats in front of you.
    I might just do that instead of being caught up in prioritizing and the whether I am doing easy stuff to avoid difficult stuff.
    I have been so focused on the difficult stuff, the easy stuff is piling up.

    • Bobbi says:

      I know how it is, Priska. Sometimes I waste an incredible amount of time prioritizing and making lists when, if I had just started, I probably would have been done already!

  6. Juliette says:

    Thank you for you quick response Bobbi. I know I can only change myself, and believe you me I have been working on myself for some time now, with big improvements. As my family doctor say, “My husband will never change!” and my Councillor is still trying to think of something that will make him click. Everything I try to get to help “us”, he quits. I find him very selfish.

  7. ingrid says:

    Thanks for this reminder I am trying to consolidate two former offices into one room. Your advice is timely and appreciated right now. I just found your blog and I will continue to read your posts.

  8. ingrid says:


  9. Amazing how important “simple” advice can be, isn’t it, Bobbi?
    I’ve lived the scene you describe in your first paragraph many times. As a homeowner, business owner and writer, I cannot recall a time when I’ve had less than 3 To-Do lists with anything less than 3 “must do” items on each list.
    Sometimes that’s almost too much to shoulder, and I feel completely overwhelmed.
    Thinking back to times when it’s worked, your advice is a perfect tonic. “Pick one thing, even if it’s not “the right thing” to get done, and just do it, for heaven’s sake!” (I can hear that voice in my head, and it’s my own.)
    On that note, I’d better go take out the garbage. Thanks for more words to live by, Bobbi!

    • Bobbi says:

      Yes, it is simple, isn’t it, Jim? But I can make it so complicated!

      But now, while you’re taking out the trash, I better go make dinner! 😉

  10. Great advice, Bobbi. And it actually works! The key is to become mindful about doing what is in front of us! We keep coming back to mindfulness, don’t we?

  11. Love it, so simple! and easy to do! Might be time to clean my desk!

  12. Recently I did take the time to take all those sticky notes and put them on a list in Evernote. And to me, that felt satisfying it was DOING something with it. I took a bit of time to set up a system so I wouldn’t lose those To-Do’s, and now that I set it up I’m finding it so much easier to just pick one and DO IT. (And then move on to the next!)

    The thing that is helping that happen is to break up each task into tinier steps (when necessary). I realized that the reason some of those sticky notes remained stuck to my desk for days or weeks was because they contained too big a task to accomplish with one swoop. Needed to be broken down.

    Just do one baby step at a time, that’s my new mantra!

    • Bobbi says:

      Sarah, I just can’t get the hang of Evernote yet. I think it’s because I’m one of those people who have to see what I need to do in front of me at all times or else I forget it.

      Baby steps are good!

  13. Patti says:

    Ohhhh … I know the feeling of too much to do all too well. Your advice to just begin with what is in front of you is very well heeded. In fact, I’m going to try it right now! I hope that it helps me to get my desk cleaned off, too. Thanks!

  14. This is more than just a method to get things done – it is a philosophy. Focus on what’s in front of you, get small things done and big things are accomplished. Saving money adds up, children grow into wonderful adults, your house gets paid off, the weeds disappear from the garden…
    Great post and I am inspired to tackle what’s in front of me. Thanks.
    Jane Robinson recently posted…Which Wolf Are You Feeding?My Profile

    • Bobbi says:

      Yes, it really is a philosophy, isn’t it, Jane? Thanks for pointing that out. I’m inspired to see what you tackle that’s in front of you because I’m hoping what’s in front of you is a canvas on easel with some paint nearby!

  15. Amit Amin says:

    There are moments to worry, plan, and strategerize, and moments to just do the thing in front of you. The problems come from mixing the two moments together.

    I guess David’s Get Things Done course is all about how to keep the two moments separate. But man is it hard. Especially when you’re suffering. This is one place where I think life experience comes in handy 😉
    Amit Amin recently posted…The Power and Vestigiality of Positive Emotion – What’s Your Happiness Ratio?My Profile

  16. Bobbi Emel says:

    You are wise beyond your years, Amit! 😉

    And you are very right about getting just the right mix of planning and doing what’s in front of you.I think doing what’s in front of you is a great strategy when you’re very stressed or in crisis mode.
    Bobbi Emel recently posted…Can’t keep up? This one thing will simplify your life. Really.My Profile

  17. There is a ton of truth behind this one Bobbi. And this is especially useful for people who aren’t planners and don’t have their day/week/month chunked out into nice blocks of time to accomplish specific tasks.

    Actually, I take that last part back. Even people who are master planners aren’t normally master DOers. In a way, planning that to-do list too aggressively is going to backfire when it comes time to do something your list/calendar says you should do…and you just…can’t…muster…the…motivation.

    That’s when everyone needs to reread this article, look for something right in front of them, and frickin’ do it!
    Joel Zaslofsky recently posted…Pulse Check – Monthly Report for October 2012My Profile

  18. Bobbi, I can’t imagine what it’s like to lose a partner the way you did. Thank you for sharing your story and this simple but powerful advice. Anything that helped you survive what you’ve been through is worth paying attention to. I know it works for me, too, in difficult times. I call it “hiding out in the moment.”

  19. Bobbi Emel says:

    Joel, great point about planning vs. doing. I’m certainly in favor of people being organized and planful but you’re right – sometimes you just have to DO.
    Bobbi Emel recently posted…Can’t keep up? This one thing will simplify your life. Really.My Profile

  20. Bobbi Emel says:

    Tina, thanks so much for your kind words. “Hiding out in the moment” is a good way to describe getting through what’s in front of you. Thanks!
    Bobbi Emel recently posted…Can’t keep up? This one thing will simplify your life. Really.My Profile

  21. Ciara Conlon says:

    A philosophy I run my life by! One of the things that really helped me conquer my clutter was the advice to put everything in the one place. All paperwork or anything on your desk should go into your in tray, then you tackle it one thing at a time. Following Barbara Hemphill’s FAT method, File Act or Trash. If it is actionable it goes into your calendar for date and time specific actions or your task manager in my case Evernote. So the trick is not necessarily do the work on each thing that you pick up but plan it.
    Ciara Conlon recently posted…Cashing in on Your ClutterMy Profile

  22. I like it Bobbi. It takes the thinking out of the process. It gets you from analysing to taking action right away. Just grab the first thing and off you go. Then with that momentum.. pretty soon you got everything done that you probably didn’t even expect to.

    I will be trying this one!
    Coach Comeback recently posted…23 Pictures That Say – Stop Complaining and Start CreatingMy Profile

  23. My life is in dire need of simplification and organization. This is a baby step I need to take.
    “Put one foot in front of the other/ And soon you’ll be walking ‘cross the floor/ Put one foot in front of the other/ And soon you’ll be walking out the door!” (Now tell me you didn’t sing along in your head! ;-))
    Rebecca Phillips recently posted…Lesson Learned 01/08/12My Profile

  24. Hi Bobbi,

    I have learned a thing from NLP which you can even share in your next article. When we look at people some of them will have a strong heart and a weak mind..They are called as feelings people..Some will have a weak heart and strong mind..Those are thinking people and they will not be attached to emotions.

    The crux is having a fine balance of your heart and mind..In our language we call it associated people and dissociated people..

    I have come to your blog through startofhappiness and have fallen in love with your writing and practical solutions..

    Would love to see you and talk to you sometime in the future. Have you ever been to India? If not, please plan your next vacation to God’s own country (Kerala) and we would be really pleased to have you as our guest..

    Speak to you soon, Bobbi.

    Inspiring Citizen Rafi recently posted…6 Secrets On How To Make Your Boss HappyMy Profile

  25. […] 21. Do what is in front of you. […]

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Bobbi Emel is a therapist who helps people in Los Altos, Palo Alto, Mountain View and the greater Bay Area manage their stress and develop their strengths.
She is effective in helping people dealing with anxiety, worry and grief; and also those who want to improve their effectiveness and performance.