The Bigger Plate Phenomenon

I’m struggling with this post. I wanted to start it by being funny. I’ve built a business on funny. You’re expecting funny.

Knock, Knock?

The truth is I haven’t felt like writing much of anything lately. It’s been this way for almost a month. For a good three week span at the end of May – I could barely pull myself off the couch.

The particulars of why aren’t important – but the vagaries are: I felt like my life turned sideways. Nobody had died, nothing really changed, or went critically wrong. I was fed, sheltered, warm, healthy; still, I felt sideways. I still feel a little sideways, but it’s getting better.

Here’s what happened (and while I hate to mix metaphors, I won’t ever hit the publish button without doing so): think about a bucket. Actually, think about several buckets, lined up side by side. Each one contains the sum of concerns in a separate area of life – each concern a new drop. By a weird summation of seemingly unrelated events – nothing horrific or earth-shattering – every single goddamn bucket filled to the brim and started overflowing. Worse, I’d forgotten how to empty the buckets.

Seriously. I couldn’t get anything done. I couldn’t feel good about minor victories and I couldn’t even manufacture victories to get the ball rolling. Overwhelmed doesn’t do it justice. I’d forgotten how to function and all it took was a perfect storm of perfectly mundane happenings to max me out.

I had to retool and reset. Here’s what I did to start functioning and start emptying the buckets: I had to trick my brain into resetting my “to-do” list portion size.

That probably makes no sense. See what I mean about mixed metaphors? They fuckin suck. Look: it’s a fact that you eat more when your plate is bigger. Works with soda. Works with popcorn. Works with dinner plates.

Given that you, I, and everybody else act like clueless cud-chewing cows in the mere presence of larger containers, it stands to reason that a similar mental loophole could be applied to work in our favor. When you’ve got a lot to eat (or do), reach for a bigger plate.

Consider how you protect your psyche when you get overwhelmed: almost everybody seeks out smaller and more focused tasks until you can score a victory. That is, when you want to make progress, you look for a smaller plate. The problem is when every task is a buffet, a smaller plate is the last thing you need. You can’t calorie-count your way out of a rut.

In my mind, each new project is a new food group that has to be accounted for with its own dedicated space (kind of like Thanksgiving). You can’t just pile everything you have to do onto one big slop bucket, there’s no class in that and it’s not appetizing. So I reached for a bigger plate.

By visualizing everything I had to do on a bigger plate – by accounting for all of it and giving each item its own little space – I was able to clear my brain. Suddenly I wasn’t complaining about “everything on my plate” like it was one big unappetizing pile, I was able to see and taste each item and do something about it. And bite by bite, the piles (buckets, if we’re sticking to the less-appetizing metaphor) started shrinking. If something’s on your plate, you finish it. And bite by bite, task by task, project by project, things started going right-side-up again.

I don’t know why it works, it just does – and you know what? I’m off the couch.

How about you? What are your fixes for correcting catastrophic unproductivity? Let me know in the comments.

This post is part of the June Word Carnival. Each month, a group of dedicated experts get together, pick a topic, and write a ton of good content. This month’s topic? Healthy Body, Healthy Business. Read on!

(Header Photo: Shelley’s Trip To Japan)