Small, controllable tasks

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Today I ran across three words that might be one of the best things people like me can do during a time like this. When I say “people like me,” I mean people who are anxious. Anxious about what, you ask? Well, nearly everything.

As I’ve said before in previous columns, I come from a long line of championship worriers. Give me any situation and, within minutes, my brain can conjure up the worst-case scenario of that situation. It’s not a skill I’m proud of, and it has cost me far too many hours of sleep over the years. Worst-case scenario syndrome creates worry lines that no amount of anti-aging cream can remedy.

worried nervous emojiBut I know I’m not alone. There are plenty of us who wish we could tell our own mind to just shut up already and stop imagining every bad thing that could happen. Thankfully, there’s a wide variety of helpful treatments and calming techniques that make minds like ours more manageable – ranging from medication, to meditation, to a brisk walk.

But when naturally nervous people get stuck in a global pandemic, things get more intense. And the emergence of the coronavirus crisis has made it easier to spot those of us who are a bit more anxious than your average mama bear.

We’re the ones using kitchen tongs to pick up a delivered Amazon box. We’re the ones who make our husbands strip down to underwear in the garage because he just returned from the grocery store and is likely contaminated with who-knows-what. We’re the ones spraying a cloud of Lysol around anything that makes us nervous. Have you seen one of us lately (or perhaps you are one of us)?

But I digress. Let’s get back to the three little words I mentioned at the top. Here they are: “Small, controllable tasks.”

In a world where we control so little, focusing on small, controllable tasks makes sense to me. These controllable tasks can give some much-needed weight and structure to a long string of stay-at-home days that otherwise blend and blur into each other, making time itself feel disorienting.

diploma-1390785_640 (2)Here’s an example: I don’t know if or when my 18-year-old son will be able to walk across a stage and receive his high school diploma. Why? Because the end of his senior year has disappeared into an online haze of electronic learning and uncertainty. Will there be a graduation ceremony? Will he get to see his classmates again?

We don’t know. But I know I can order his cap and gown – a small, controllable task – and hope for the best. One way or the other, I’ll get a picture of our firstborn in that cap and gown, even if it means he walks across our front lawn so my husband can hand him a rolled-up symbolic diploma.

The good news is that these small, controllable tasks can be almost anything. Loading the dishwasher, taking a walk, sending a thank you note to a health care worker – all of these projects are doable and remind us we can still get things done, even when normal life is on an indefinite pause.

Having said that, I’m not one of those (annoying) people who believe we should fill all this time at home with an endless quest to be super productive. In times of stress, sleep is important. (It boosts our immune system.) Fun is important. (It makes us bearable to our families.) And down time to just be ourselves is important. (It reminds us that we’re fortunate enough to be healthy, and it gives us time to pray for those who aren’t.)

So, the next time you’re feeling uptight and wondering if and when life will ever get back to normal, remember the three words – small, controllable tasks – and take comfort in a small job well done.

Gwen Rockwood is a mom to three great kids, wife to one cool guy, a newspaper columnist and co-owner of Her book is available on Amazon. 

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