Tuesday, December 17, 2013

The Green Blocks approach to life

Coming home Sunday night from the final performance of Honk! (featuring Little Guy in his first lead, and Snuggler in a main character role) I had a mental image of the departure board at Penn Station, with the top listing flicking its way off and all the other train listings moving up a notch. It's not a bad analogy for my life at the moment. Dancer finished her first weekend of Nutcracker performances, and now has only four more to go (I work backstage for most of that). Eldest arrives home on Wednesday. Our annual cookie project is concluding, in which folks from the neighborhood bake cookies which then get delivered to the local food pantry. My mom arrived Sunday morning so she could see the musical; she leaves today, weather permitting.

Ten days (or departing trains?) ago, during my intense busy period of editing six masters' thesis proposals (which coincided with a quarterly project and a monthly project), Eldest hit a crunch: she had three huge school projects due and a trip to California for a job interview. It was an overwhelming to-do list even by my standards.

The situation looked impossible from every angle. Which, however, did not mean it was impossible. We tend to think things are impossible long before they are. And once we start to fear something is impossible, anxiety can easily take over space in our brains that could and should be allocated to actually solving the problem.

Sometimes fear is a bigger obstacle than the actual problem, because fear can paralyze. As soon as you are paralyzed, you can almost guarantee you won't get through whatever it is you have to do. Which is why I live by Winston Churchill's saying, "If you're going through hell... keep going."

I have a method for dealing with impossible situations: I call the Green Blocks approach to life. When my kids were little and made a mess, saying, "Clean up this room!" was less than useless, because the directive was too overwhelming. So instead I'd say, "I need you to pick up all the green blocks." That narrowed the project down to one thing to focus on, and made it do-able.

After the green blocks were put away, we switched focus to the yellow blocks. Then the red blocks. The idea was to do one thing at a time. Whatever was next wasn't even on the to-do list until the first task was done.

In a way this is the antithesis of multi-tasking. Do one thing, and do it with 100% focus and effort. You will have more brainpower to put into it, and you will make progress. Then the problem becomes smaller.

*         *         *          *

Worries will creep in anyway, of course. I manage that by setting a specific time when I will allow myself to worry about the next thing. Maybe it's two hours away, or maybe at 8 p.m.  As I told Eldest, it's okay to set aside a worry for a while -- it's not as if it's going to go away if you put it down. When your allotted time for the task at hand is up, you can pick up the worry again... if you want to.

*          *           *          *

When you were a kid, hyperventilating at a page packed with 50 math problems, hopefully your teacher showed you how to put a sheet of blank paper over all but the first line, so the task wasn't so overwhelming.

As adults, we sometimes forget that we can still take this approach to big problems. The more successful we are at developing techniques that keep us from becoming overwhelmed, the more likely we are to succeed in getting through the big things. 

You can only do what you can do. Then again, you can do far less when you're feeling overwhelmed. You can do far less when you're worried. You can do far less when you're floundering or running in circles. 

Even if all you can do is put away the green blocks at the moment, do it. If you can't pick them all up, pick up five. Then pick up five more. Or map the number that you pick up to the digits in your phone number (e.g., first pick up 2, then 1, then 2...)  It's not nearly as hard as trying to pick it all up at once.  


  1. Thank you, Julia. Something I need to hear. JJ

  2. Julia, thank you so much for your sharing! It's very insightful - as always! Wish you and your family a very Blessed Christmas and New Year!! AC

  3. You are so inspiring to me. Just like when I read my Guidepost devotionals, it seems your blog speaks to me at just the right time. Now, if I could just recall the inspiration in the heat of the moment! :-)

  4. My daughter is ten and I am just now learning she works best with a green block approach. ... As I do as well. Multi tasking is not my friend and I havea hard time letting go of the idea that it is. Thanks for always sharing such great life tools