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  • Kayte Thomas

Do just one thing

Having one of those days where everything feels overwhelming? Maybe you have several tasks to accomplish and can’t decide where to start? Are you feeling exhausted and just the very thought of doing anything is unbearable? And despite being a little blue, you still need to get things done anyway? Or maybe it’s been more than a day, and several days have passed without any motivation at all.


This can be a common response to chronic stress, and 2020 has certainly been a stressful year. When your nervous system is constantly overwhelmed with pandemic stress, political strain, workplace demands, financial stress, school chaos, hurricanes, and all the other problems that people have been experiencing this year…folks have a whole lot of stressed out nervous systems. And one way that can manifest is through increased fatigue, loss of focus, and lack of motivation. A common complaint that I hear lately is “I can’t get anything done”. And with that comes a sense of frustration and at times self-doubt as well.


Here’s the thing though: our bodies tend to be wired to protect us. That response, the fatigue that comes with being over-stressed? It’s designed to make you slow down and rest so that you can heal. By slowing down, your activated nervous system gets a chance to reset, and this lowers your risk of stress-related diseases. If this need to rest is ignored too long, chronic stress can increase the levels of cortisol and other stress-related hormones, which can cause a cascade of issues ranging from weight fluctuations to problems sleeping to blood pressure issues to heart attacks. So by trying to force you to slow down, that fatigued feeling is actually trying to keep you safe overall. And you should listen to it.


There is genuine value in slowing down, in taking a day (or a week!) off whenever you can, and in having a day to do nothing. Ideally, those things should happen frequently enough that you are able to manage stress levels overall, but few people are able to do this (often because of unjust societal pressures and expectations...but that's another post I think). The point is, rest when your body tells you that it needs to however you are able to, because your health and wellbeing are top priority.


But…what happens if you become “stuck” there? What if you find yourself in a cycle of not feeling able to do much of anything, and suddenly there’s too much to do to know where to begin? What if you get into a pattern of avoidance where you tell yourself you’ll just do it tomorrow – but you’ve been telling yourself that for several weeks now? Sometimes, this can create a downward spiral of feelings of guilt, shame, low mood, and even anxiety…all of which may cause more immobilization and inaction. The less you do, the less you seem to want to do. So what can you do about it?


This may seem really simple, especially in a culture which prioritizes accomplishment and encourages everyone to push themselves to work harder at all costs. Do just one thing. And it can be a small thing, but it will be a start. It doesn't matter where you start, just that you do start. Ask yourself a few basics: have you drank enough water today? Did you remember to eat breakfast? Have you taken a shower recently? Do you need to stretch for a moment? When is the last time you were outside in the sunshine? If you haven’t done those things, it might be wise to start with those. Making sure that your basic needs are taken care of is really important, and so many people are ignoring these while trying to push through their days right now.


Beyond that, take a look at the tasks that need to be done. Are there piles of laundry everywhere? Do just one load. Do you have to respond to a dozen emails? Start by answering one. Is there an assignment deadline coming up for school? Write one paragraph. The whole house needs to be cleaned? Pick only one task for today. And so on and so forth. Set a timer for 10 minutes if you have to, and spend that time working towards your goal for the day. That's it.


Then after that just one thing has been done, give yourself permission to rest again. Often, we take an all or nothing approach which can be a set up to fail because of a belief that everything has to be done in its entirety immediately. But that mindset can feel overwhelming, and a small step towards a goal is certainly still progress. It's okay if some days you can "only do one thing", because it's one more step in the direction you are wanting to go. Be proud of yourself on those days!


I keep this picture up in my kitchen, taped to a cupboard as a reminder to do one thing. Even on the days that doing anything seems challenging, being able to take care of one task, no matter how small, is an accomplishment. And you might be surprised how much can be accomplished by taking one step at a time, and the positive impact this can have on your outlook and self-esteem overall.



Listen to your body, know when to slow down and rest, but don’t let yourself get stuck either. What one small thing will you do today?

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© 2020 by Kayte Thomas, MSW, LCSW.