Find something useful and do it

For SK, who is probably overwhelmed today.

When I was a teenager, Saturdays were for cleaning and housework. Each week it surprised me. I would stumble bleary-eyed into the kitchen, fumble around for coffee. I would ask my mother (who would be fully alert, having woken at some sick, masochistic time like nine) the same question… What can I do? Each week, she gave the same answer:

Find something useful and do it.

To my mind – with raging, undiagnosed ADHD and enough hormones to take out a herd of bison – this was insane. Surely we required a strategy. There was laundry and dishes and vacuuming. Groceries, dusting, extracting 14 towels from my brother’s room.

We were in a holy war with chaos, and THIS was the strategy?

Find something useful and do it?

When my mother has a plan, it’s really not worth arguing. Each week I rebelled against her logic, sometimes out loud and sometimes in my head. Each week, eventually, I stopped fighting, found something useful, and did it.

And each week, it worked. I couldn’t always see it at the time, but it was true.

At the end of the day, it was always better than when we started. And it was better than it would have been if we’d spent an hour paralyzing ourselves with strategy.

Most things do not require a strategy.

I’m a strategist at heart. (Who am I kidding? I’m a strategist everywhere.) I hate tactical thinking. I want a nice, neat plan that extends from now until forever. Ideally, I want to do nothing but strategize until I am certain I have a method that eliminates every bad thing and maximizes every good one.

As tragic as I find it, though, most things do not require a strategy.

Sure, a very few things need one. (Your book launch, for example.)

A number of things could benefit from one. (Your editorial calendar might be easier with a strategy, but it’s not necessary.)

But most things? Most things are actually worse with a strategy, especially if you’re a worrier or an over-thinker.

What order should you clean the rooms of your house? It doesn’t really matter. Sure, if you do your bedroom first, you’ll thank yourself tonight. But honestly? Life is long – you’ll get over it.

What order should you make your phone calls? Well, unless one involves getting your gas turned back on, it really makes no odds.

What order should you tackle your inbox emails? I guess you might want to answer the money ones on the sooner end, but if you plan to get to them all anyway, an hour here or there ain’t the end of the world.

But doesn’t planning save time in execution?

It has been said that every minute of planning saves 10 minutes of execution. (Or something like that.) The quote is attributed to everyone from Brian Tracy to Napoleon. And it has a lot of merit. I have lived a lot of my life by that quote.

But it only works if you don’t get mired in it.

If you actually spend 10 minutes planning, and you actually save yourself 100 minutes doing? That’s fantastic. If that’s you, close this window with my hearty congratulations. You’re awesome.

But for a lot of us, that’s not what happens. We spend 100 minutes planning and by the end are so overwhelmed, exhausted, and probably late for something that we figure we’ll do the doing tomorrow.

Repeat for three decades. This is no way to live.

So if you find yourself in a boat like this today, I want to make a friendly recommendation. If it’s helpful, take it. If it’s not, ignore it.

Consider making a small sign that says Find something useful and do it.

Put it where you stress out the most. (If you’re like me, this means you’ll have to make more than one.)

And see if you can’t get just a little more done because of it.

Just try it, just today.