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Little by Little or Big Push?

Strategies and goals

Over the past few weeks I’ve been through a major effort to go through all of my earthly possessions and get rid of everything I really don’t want or need. I used the “In what kind of realistic situation would I actually want to pull this out and do something with it?” test to decide what needed to go, as mentioned in my recent article “Some Tips for Getting Rid of Things.”

The things I set aside to get rid of went to a variety of places, some like the ones I mention in my article  “Clearing Your Mind by Cashing In.” Many items went to ReSource, a terrific local non-profit that provides a household good reuse store, building materials reuse store, and other departments while creating jobs and teaching job skills. Other materials were sold through Craigslist, given away through Craigslist and Freecycle, and set aside to be sold on Amazon and eBay. Of course our trash cans and recycle bin were also given a thorough workout.

The process, which is still in progress for me (I still need to finish going through books, primarily), took much longer than I would have imagined–but it also yielded a lot more things to sell or give away and freed up a lot more space than I would have imagined. Best of all, it has been taking innumerable little pressures and worries away: things I’ve held onto to fix or reuse somehow that I finally realized were trash, projects of going through things that are now done, and so on. Physical clutter can create mental clutter.

Coming to the end of this big push, I now have to ask myself: would it have been a lot easier on me to do this little by little over time? Or did I need to do it in one big push to do it at all?

The big push approach
The big push has some significant up sides. One of the biggest is that I didn’t have to reorient and remind myself of what I was doing every time I restart, which meant I could work efficiently. Another is that I could attack one part of the house, pull out everything in it, and take over as much space as I needed until I had sorted through all of that material. I also was able to easily keep focus on the job once I had started.

Yet another thing I like about the big push is the sense of accomplishment and catharsis. The change in my house was drastic, fast, and visible.

When doing a big push, it’s generally necessary to plan in advance and carve out time during which not only do you not have your usual responsibilities to attend to, but you won’t be badly distracted by other things you could do with the time, like socializing or relaxing. Big pushes generally require clearing the schedule, locking the door, and unplugging the phone.

The little by little approach
As great as the big push is, little by little has one killer advantage, which is that big pushes have a bad habit of never happening. For instance, if I were to wait until I actually had time to go through every piece of paper I own to get my papers organized, there’s a good chance that would literally never happen. Going through my things has taken about five full days so far–and I do mean full!–and that’s not counting the time I still need to put in selling off some of the things I’ve identified to get rid of. Being able to take that amount of time for organization alone was a rare opportunity, one that I jumped at, and for me, such opportunities come along often.

Another advantage of the little by little approach–and this too is a major plus–is that doing something consistently makes it into a habit. This is very useful for things that we’ll need to keep up once we get to our goal state. For example, if I were to do a major landscaping effort on my yard, doing it little by little would get me in the habit of working on the yard, which would be important to keeping up everything I had done in the initial effort.

Deciding on which approach to use
So if you’re facing a monumental project and are trying to decide whether to crank it out all at once or to do it little by little, here are some questions to ask yourself and some ideas to guide you based on those answers.

  • Does it need to be done at all? Even though the project may be a worthy one, are you willing and able to devote the time it will require? For instance, it might be nice to send Christmas cards to 200 people this year, but is that project high enough in your priorities to be worth the time it will take?
  • Does it need to be done very soon? If so, you may have no choice other than a big push.
  • Is efficiency of the essence? Big pushes tend to be more efficient than going little by little because of not having to stop and restart.
  • Are you going to learn as you go? When doing something little by little, you have a chance to reflect on and refine your methods. This can lead to great improvements in how you handle your project.
  • Can you free up the amount of time a big push will need? If not, little by little is your only option.
  • Will this be something you’ll need to maintain once the initial work is done? If so, little by little can do a better job of helping you develop the habits you’ll need.
  • What if the project goes over? For most large projects, estimates are more guesswork than reliable prediction. If you were to set aside an amount of time for a big push and at the end find you needed twice as much time, what would you do? On the other hand, if you were going little by little and found out the project would take twice as long as you thought, would that push completion too far away into the future?
  • Will you be getting help? Some help is better suited to big pushes, as with decluttering or physical labor. Other help is better suited to a little by little approach, as with processing documents that arrive through e-mail or working with people who don’t have large chunks of time available.

Whatever your approach, connecting with why you want to do the project will help you remain motivated.

Photo by druid labs

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