I have this friend. She’s a writer; a freelancer like me. We talk often about all those things friends talk about. But, just as often, we talk about work. We swap texts and emails and phone calls about tricky assignments, career wins, late payments, and happy editors. We cheer one another on, encourage each other to take those risks that can be so terrifying (and so essential), and celebrate our successes with jubilant phone calls and long, happy emails. It’s really pretty great.

Note: If you’re a freelancer or solopreneur, I highly recommend you find a friend (or several) who’s in the trenches with you. Having just one colleague at your side — whether literally or electronically — is a rare and valuable thing for we solo-working, self-employed folks.

Another note: This will eventually get around to gardening. Promise.

Freelancing can be overwhelming in a way that sometimes makes it hard to breathe deeply or see straight. On the good days, this career is wonderful — it’s creative and challenging and fun and always changing. I absolutely love it. But, no career is all good days. And, on the bad days, it can be really bad. More than once, I’ve found myself doing pushups in the hallway at two in the morning because the neighbors would worry if I started digging ditches in the garden by flashlight. Anything to beat back the mental demons howling about looming deadlines, late payments, conflicting demands, and any number of “what if” scenarios.

My friend and I have a phrase we pass back and forth. It’s her answer when I start gasping and wheezing at a to-do list that threatens to topple like a game of Jenga gone horrifyingly wrong. It’s my response when life throws one more challenge onto her plate that’s already overflowing with other ridiculous challenges. It has become so central to my work life that I wrote the phrase on the wall of my office. And, yes, it helps when I glance up from my desk to see it there. A reminder:

One thing at a time.

I’m fairly certain there’s nothing original about this phrase. That’s ok. This is about survival and sanity, nothing more.

One thing at a time. If the to-do list is terrifyingly long, just do one thing. If the next assignment is way more complex than you or your editor anticipated, just do one thing. If the garden needs weeding and the dog needs walking and the dishes need washing and the lawn needs mowing and three urgent assignments need writing… Just do one thing.

It’s not perfect. It’s not the solution to everything. But, it’s a damned deal better than trying to do EVERYTHING all at once. One thing. Just one thing. Slow down and concentrate on whatever is next on the list; that next-most-important thing. Then, move on to the next thing. And the next thing. Repeat until done, one thing at a time.

It’s pretty basic stuff. But, damn, it helps.

When things get particularly rough, we change things up a bit. One thing at a time morphs into it’s more literal form:

One shovelful at a time.

Because, sometimes that to-do list is really best described as a steaming pile of shit. We’ve all been there. And, when one unfortunate task is heaped high upon a pile of other unfortunate tasks, all we can do is move through that steaming pile of shit, one shovelful at a time.

Yes, this is where the gardening comes in.

shovel in compost pile

We gardeners know about shoveling shit; we know about doing things one shovelful at a time. We have the callused hands and sunburnt shoulders to prove it. But, we’re lucky. We also have the tasty harvests and cheerful flowers to show for it. When we move through those piles of shit in the garden, we reward ourselves with honest, tangible results.


cosmo and peas


Of course, to enjoy those harvests, we do have to shovel some shit.

A few weeks ago — when I decided it was time to restore the garden after a summer of neglect — I whined a bit to my mom about how very very much there was to do. There were the weeds to weed (so many!), transplants to plant, pests to combat… And, at the top of my driveway, there was a great big pile of shit. Literal shit. Well… Compost. Four cubic yards of it (approximately two to four tons of it).

In answer to my it’s just too much complaints, my mom suggested I focus on just one spot. Make one section of the garden look really and truly awesome. Just that. Then, maybe, move on to another section.

I scoffed.

The whole garden needed attention. How could I focus on just one spot — one thing — when the whole garden was weedy and overgrown? And so, like generations of children before me, I decided my mom didn’t know what she was talking about.

Then, I went home, walked into the garden, and panicked.

I was looking at the whole garden. The entire looming to-do list. The huge mound of shit. The whole elephant, to invite another metaphor into the garden.

I was making myself crazy.

It turns out  — no surprise — my mom was right.

This should not have startled me. My mom was simply giving me the same advice my freelance-writing friend and I lob back and forth: One thing at a time. When you look at the whole list the whole time, you spread your concentration out over all 4,832 tasks that need doing. Nothing gets your full attention, and everything suffers for it.

But, when you focus on just one of those 4,832 things, you often get that thing done. You now have 4,831 items on your list, and one completed task that was done well, because you focused on doing just that one thing.

This is not a screed against multitasking. Nor is it a call to live simpler lives. I’m not suggesting you or I throw out half our belongings, unplug the television, or become hermits. Nor am I arguing against the wide-angle view. We need to see the whole picture — the whole forest, so to speak. This big-picture, wide-angle, whole-forest view is how we identify our to-do tasks and see our way to our goals. But, once we’re actually in that metaphorical forest, we really need to slow down and focus on the trees.

Or, to bring that metaphor back to the garden… We need to see the whole garden — this is how we decide what to plant, where to transplant, and so much more — but when we enter the garden to start gardening, we really need to focus on just one weed at a time. This is essentially what my mom was saying when she suggested I focus on just one section of the garden. Take the whole picture — the whole weedy garden — and focus on just one section, one accomplishable task.

So, I did.

front path before

front path after

That first photo was taken July 27, right before I decided to rescue the garden from myself. The second photo is from August 26, post-rescue. And, here’s how the path looks now, September 24, just a few weeks later:

front path today

lettuce and society garlic

Not bad, right? The rest of the garden still looks a bit raggedy, but this one spot — this one thing — looks pretty darned good.

There’s a reason I focused on this one spot. Or, well, several reasons. I walk my front path at least a handful of times every day. This is guests’ first introduction to my home and garden. And, for an incognito, not allowed, front yard vegetable garden, having an attractive front path seems like a high priority — this spot sets the tone for the entire garden.

One thing at a time. It’s no guarantee that everything will get done. It’s not a cure-all technique for finding efficiency or cramming 57 hours of productivity into a 24-hour day. In many ways, it’s just the opposite. It’s a reminder to slow down, take a breath, review the big picture — the whole garden — and select just one thing to do next. That’s how we make progress: one thing, one step, one shovelful at a time. It’s not always pretty — sometimes we really are moving shit — but it gets the job done.

wheelbarrow full of compost

One thing at a time. It works for me. Well… Most of the time. I still do pushups in the hallway at 2 a.m. But, less often than before.

What about you? Any tips to share for when the garden or life to-do list is too long to manage?

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