Embracing Incremental Change

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You’d think, after all the years I’ve been knitting and writing, I’d be used to the idea that projects take time, that you can’t do everything at once. The opposite of instant gratification.

But it’s something I’m struggling with now, in the new world of isolation the pandemic has inflicted on me, with its new flow of time. If I’m not working (and I’m mostly not) and I have all this free time I don’t usually have, why doesn’t it feel like I’m getting anything done?

Because I want the comfort and satisfaction of instant gratification. I want to look at a finished thing, whatever that thing may be, and feel like I’ve accomplished something.

That’s why it’s so hard for me to start working on my novel again, even though this draft is nearly done, even though I’m physically healthy again. But mental health is a factor, too, and not having a schedule is not doing me any favors. I tried, early on, to impose one on myself, but my discipline isn’t that strong and it fell apart quickly. I read some articles about the stress of the new “time is meaningless” phase that so many of us are going through, and it led me to the difference between “clock time”–which most of us lived by before–and the “event time” that rules us now. I don’t read in the morning from 10 am until I have to go to work at noon (like I used to,) I read for a while after I finish breakfast, until I feel like I should do something else.

So what am I doing now instead? I’m trying a system of tasks to embrace the idea of incremental change.

  1. Every day I choose one thing to clean that doesn’t already get cleaned daily. The toilet or the bathtub or the bathroom sink, or I clean out the fridge, you get the idea. Of course there are things that need to be done every day–the dishes, more than once usually now that I’m cooking nearly everything from scratch–but those don’t count. So I don’t feel like I have to spend an entire day deep cleaning everything just because I’m home all the time.
  2. Every day I give myself one organizational task. It can be small, like decluttering the medicine cabinet, or larger, like tackling one of my craft shelves and constructing a set of cardboard cubbyholes for it. I’ve been crafting lots of DIY storage lately, covering shoe boxes with cardboard to make them pretty then filling them with stuff. So I can take control over my home environment and improve it without biting off more than I can chew and giving up halfway through.
  3. I’m playing Animal Crossing: New Horizons in small daily doses. Yeah, sure, for the first two weeks I was going crazy for hours on end with all the things to do and find and build, designing my house, making money to pay for the renovations. But now? Now I’m logging on and saying, “Let’s neaten up this garden area here” or “How about I re-do this room in my house with the new furniture I’ve been buying this past week” or “I should landscape this area by villager’s houses so I can build a market there.” Manageable projects, one at a time.
  4. I’ve been knitting a lot lately–another years-long pastime that should have been teaching me patience–but I’ve been spending a lot of time on Pinterest looking at various styles of wall art DIYs, and I’ve picked embroidery back up as well. I have one small project that should only take me another day or two to finish, but inspired by something I saw years ago on Craftster (before its sad demise) I’ve just started a daily stitch journal. I wrote myself 30 prompts (“use only French knots today,” “try a new stitch,” “add beads,” etc.) and I’m doing one a day, and only one. It’s improvisational and semi-random, and at the end I’ll have a cool abstract art piece to hang up, and I don’t have to get it done right now or feel compelled to work on it for hours to finish it quickly. In fact, some of the prompts are pretty short and definite, so even if I wanted to keep stitching, I’d be out of stuff to do–by design, of course. So then I’ve taken that energy and used it to do something else (knitting on cleaning or whatever.)
  5. In addition to Animal Crossing, I’ve also started playing Darkest Dungeon again, an indie game I toyed with a few years ago. As the name implies, it’s a deliberately stressful dungeon crawler, so a) even if I did want to play for hours at a time, I wouldn’t because it can get really nerve-wracking, and b) the game is designed to be slow-paced, with each dungeon leveling up your heroes slowly (or maybe killing them if you do badly) and getting you loot and upgrades slowly as well. It all builds over time until you feel strong enough to take on the final dungeon, but it’s scary as hell and of course you’re not ready yet go get stronger! I did not beat the game the first time I tried–it’s hard and I kept losing my best heroes late-game to bad decisions, so I got frustrated and moved on to other things–but knowing that now, I’ve been able to appreciate that the game is a marathon not a sprint, and that I’m actually supposed to be taking it slow.

Do I actually do all five of these things every day? Honestly, no. I do most of them most days (though I’ve only just started the stitch journal this week and I’ve stuck to it because I’m excited!)

Am I saying, “hey everybody take up embroidery and play Darkest Dungeon!” No. But I thought talking through my process might help others, somebody might read this and say “I could try that” but with their own personal goals to work towards, rather than new wall art and DIY storage and video games. Incremental change can apply to all sorts of things.

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