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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.

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.