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Wales, United Kingdom
Documenting one couple's attempts to live a more self-sufficient life.

Wednesday 29 June 2011

Why don't I get things done?

This isn't a whiny, Oh I'm so useless post intended to make you say, Oh no you're not. I know I get things done, but there are other things that don't get done. This post is about those other things.

Susie's try something new challenge has been very interesting because it's made me look closely at something that I wasn't getting done. I chose what I thought was a relatively small project, learning to knit socks, but even that turned out to be more complicated than it first appeared.

It wasn't just the knitting of socks, there was the problem of yarn being expensive so I thought I'd unravel a jumper, and then I had to make a thinner knooking hook as well. Looking more closely at the task I'd been putting off, it turned out to be several different tasks, all challenging. It was made managable by firstly finding cheap yarn (solving the first problem) and then finding that one of my existing hooks was suitable to use with that yarn (solving the second problem). Then the main challenge wasn't nearly so bad.

Potting on the tomatoes was another task that wasn't getting done. Subsidiary tasks were clearing the conservatory, sourcing containers, and sourcing compost (more expense problems). These were tackled all at once, and it was a big job. The only reason I made myself do this was that the tomatoes would fail if I didn't, and I'd already invested a lot of time and effort in them. I also want to eat the tomatoes!

Other potential something new challenges were making liquid soap, making a solar panel, converting my sewing machine to treadle power and learning to spin. By chance, I've made a start on the last of those, but further progress still involves arranging to fetch a spinning wheel*, finding a source of suitable fleece, learning to wash and card the fleece ready for spinning, and finding space for all this activity.

Similar lists emerge when I examine any of the other projects. They all expand into several different challenges, all difficult. So it seems that the reason I don't get things done is that I bundle things up into big, complicated problems with many difficulties. Alternatively, maybe some of the things I want to do just come as big complicated bundles, and I need to recognise that and learn to unwrap them into smaller, more managable challenges. If I can think of, for example, fetching the spinning wheel as a challenge in itself, rather than part of something bigger, maybe it will be easier for me to focus on getting it done.


* A friend has promised me long-term loan of her wheel, but she lives in Yorkshire and is extremely busy.


  1. I think we all have a tendency to underestimate the work, skill and knowledge involved in tackling new projects. It seems like it should be "no big deal" but when you get down to the nitty gritty you end up with a pile of decisions, steps etc, any one of which is a project in its own right. We see other people doing it who make it look easy, but we forget that we are seeing the result of many failed attempts and false starts. After all, an expert is really just someone who has made all of the mistakes already and now knows better.

    When I had a "real job" I was the director of a music school. One of our specialties was teaching adult beginners. There is a very common fallacy that music is something which must be learned in childhood... that it's somehow easier for kids than it is for adults.

    After many years of studying the problem I came to the conclusion that the reason adults have a harder time isn't because they lack the ability to learn, it's because they often lack the ability to tolerate not knowing what they're doing, and all of the emotions that come up in that process. We look to the finished product and think it shouldn't be so hard, and we often feel inadequate when we can't do something... we think we should be "capable adults". Kids, on the other hand don't have those expectations.

    Kids are thrilled when they can play out a horrendously out of tune version of "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star" and they see it as a sign of success. But an adult beginner playing at the same level sees only that it's out of tune and therefore regards it as a sign of failure.

    I have to keep reminding myself of these truths every day. I'm sure it will sink in someday!

  2. Why do I identify with everything you write?! :)

    I have this problem too - I get a lot of stuff done but have a long list of stuff in my brain that I'm not getting done because ... meh.

    I find that "dividing it into subtasks" stuff useful, and writing them down as a proper to-do list because ticking them off is almost as rewarding as actually doing the thing in question ;)

    I also take shortcuts where possible when doing something new for the first time: I bought a cross-stitch kit when I was learning that, a charm pack for my first (small) quilt and already carded & dyed wool tops when I wanted to try spinning. Similarly, we also rented our tent and all the equipment, bar sleeping bags, when we went on our first camping trip last month. The latter definitely saved us money as I can't see us camping again any time soon; the former are more expensive than buying/finding the raw materials but all let me jump straight into producing something rather than getting bogged down in the prep.

    Congrats on scoring a wheel!

  3. I'm with ECL--I think we hate being beginners. Well, at least I do. I just want to pick up a new project and know how to do it perfectly from the start. Which might be why the only thing I'm really good at is sitting on my ass, eating and watching TV.

  4. Interesting point about kids having no expectations of competence. I thought I was fairly immune to that expectation - I see it in other people and ask, "But why did you think it would be easy?" - but maybe this is the same thing, or at least related. I have no trouble accepting that a new skill will be difficult. Spinning was difficult, and still will be next time I try. That doesn't bother me.

    What I'm talking about here is underestimating the complexity of projects. Now you point it out, I see that this is related to inexperience. If I'd done something similar before, I'd have a better idea of what's involved. Still, I don't think it's quite the same thing.

    Louisa, I find to-do lists oppressive. Sometimes they're essential because I have too much stuff in my head and things fall out (at least, they did when I had a day-job). When the same list was still sitting on my desk three months later with tasks still not crossed off, that gets me down.

    I have mixed feelings about taking shortcuts, or at least, I have a strong aversion to spending money ;-) My spinning and knooking are both part of a bigger project - make clothes from scratch (scaled back slightly - it did include growing fibre crops). If I hadn't broken it down and taken shortcuts I would have started with getting a fleece (or flax seeds!) and probably wouldn't have even tried knitting by now. I'm not sure how I'd have coped with getting so far and then discovering that I don't get on well with knitting. Not sure what my point is here, except that yes, I do take some shortcuts (buying yarn to try knitting) but only fairly cheap ones.


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